Anyone for the Endsleigh League?

The battle to avoid relegation has never been so bloody, writes Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
Such is the plethora of key matches at this stage of the season that Radio Five Live is running a 17-day football marathon. For the teams they are talking about this weekend, days 12-14 represent "the wall" - the period when winners and losers emerge.

By Monday, Blackburn Rovers could be the biggest winners of all. However, that would require Manchester United to lose at Leicester today, and at home to Chelsea on Monday.

Thus Blackburn will happily settle for a successful conclusion to what has been a demanding away treble. Having won at Everton and Queen's Park Rangers, they now face a resurgent Leeds at Elland Road. If they win there, and at home to Manchester City on Monday, they will need five points from four games to claim their first championship since 1914, regardless of how United fare.

The bottom is less clear-cut. Leicester and Ipswich were relegated by Everton's win last night, but as for who goes with them, perm any two from 11. There has not been such a scramble to escape the drop in years - if ever - and never has the price of failure been so great. Doug Ellis, the chairman of Aston Villa, has calculated the cost of dropping out of the Premiership to be £2m, with no guarantee of a quick return. No wonder seven clubs have changed managers mid-season.

There is little between the remaining sides. Everton and Crystal Palace went into yesterday's matches from a position in the relegation zone, yet a week ago, both were preparing for FA Cup semi- finals. Arsenal and Chelsea have reached the semi-finals of the European Cup-Winners' Cup. They meet on the last day of the season; by then, it could be a meaningless mid-table fixture, but then again. . . .

The key to survival at this stage is form. Games in hand are no use if you lose them, and once a club is locked into a spiral of defeat, it is time to start checking the route maps to Grimsby and Port Vale. On that basis, Norwich City and Arsenal are in real trouble. They have both lost five of their last six matches. Arsenal's win was a 5-1 success over Norwich which, at the time, was thought to herald a Gunners' revival. Now it seems to have been indicative of the inadequacies of Norwich, not Arsenal's qualities.

The run-in for Norwich is formidable. Seventh at the turn of the year, they have won once since, and it is hard to see them winning again this season. Arsenal, one feels, are good enough to recover. But if they do not win at Highbury today, against an Ipswich side who have not managed a goal or point in seven games, who knows? Looking for omens? The last time Arsenal were outside the top division, Blackburn won the title.

Chelsea are in the worst form of all, two points from the last six games, without a home League win for 12 matches and nearly six months. They are managing to pick up points without playing well, but given how rarely Chelsea play well, they are not doing it often enough. Today they host Aston Villa, who are stuttering after a good couple of months, then visit Old Trafford on Monday.

Southampton, with three wins in four games, and West Ham, unbeaten in five, are finding form at the right time. Everton and Palace have plenty of team spirit, but Palace are short on quality. Manchester City, another facing a difficult run-in, also have spirit, but only show it in bursts.

Sheffield Wednesday are not out of it; Coventry, the perennial escapologists, have begun losing. The last day of the season, with Chelsea hosting Arsenal, Everton travelling to Coventry, and Villa at Norwich, promises to be a very tense one.

Predictions? A dodgy business; given confidence and luck most of these teams could win three on the trot; they could certainly lose them. The East Anglian derby looks like being an Endsleigh League affair next season. Maybe Palace, too, will go. But Stamford Bridge, where Sheffield United went down in the final minute last year, could again be an interesting place to spend the afternoon.

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