Relegation. The "R" word. Some managers ban its use. Others would rather speak its name so that their players are fully aware of the enormity of dropping a division. For a club sliding out of the Premier League, it can mean a loss of up to £40m in TV revenue, not to mention players defecting and attendances falling. For the fans it brings emotional turmoil: what if we never come back up?
With more than two-thirds of this season's Premier League completed, at least half the 20 clubs are involved in the battle for survival. For three of them it may well end like it did for Crystal Palace in the first season after the reorganisation of the divisions, 1992-93. They left the pitch at Arsenal believing they were safe only to find that Oldham had beaten Southampton 4-3 to squeeze above them.
Others will look to the precedent of West Bromwich Albion's "great escape" of 2004-05, the only year in the history of the Premier League when no team went into the final day knowing they were already down. Albion clung on with 34 points to spark wild celebrations. A year earlier Leeds went down with 33 amid bitter recriminations. The margins, then, are fine, the penalty for failure severe.
If not quite a full-on flirtation with oblivion like the one in 1993-94 which ended with a life-saving, last-day win over Wimbledon, Everton's season has been anticlimactic. Mikel Arteta's below-par form and Phil Jagielka's fitness problems have contributed to their problems, as did Jermaine Beckford's initial struggle to bridge a two-division gap. Now there are signs, as David Moyes approaches the ninth anniversary of his appointment, of consistency emerging. The FA Cup win at Chelsea, and the confidence it appears to have instilled, could be the catalyst for a strong finish. They are unbeaten at home in 2011, and Beckford looks ready to shoulder some of the scoring responsibility that fell on Louis Saha, helping to sustain upward momentum.
Verdict Too much quality to be involved in the final shake-up and more likely to finish in the top half than the bottom six.
Aston Villa 12th
Gérard Houllier's 23 matches as Villa manager may have produced an unimpressive 26 points, yet crucially for the Frenchman and for their prospects of avoiding a first relegation since 1987, half that tally has come in the past nine games. The early auguries were not promising for Houllier as a defence that had been solid during Martin O'Neill's tenure shipped goals and relationships with certain players got off to a fractious start. Richard Dunne's rehabilitation alongside James Collins has given them stronger platform on which to build. The £24m capture of Darren Bent was a key moment, enhancing Villa's striking options at a stroke while generating a mood of optimism that should see them comfortably to safety.
Verdict Beginning to move in the right direction and unlikely to be drawn into the dogfight.
Mark Hughes had a tough act to follow when he succeeded Roy Hodgson at Craven Cottage, and in November, when Fulham crashed 4-1 at home to Manchester City and failed to win any of their five matches, they looked in serious danger of relegation. But as the players have become accustomed to Hughes' methods, so results have improved. A draw in Sunday's re-match with his former club at Eastlands extended their unbeaten run to four games. Significantly, they have conceded only six goals since New Year's Day, the Premier League's best record, highlighting the value of goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. On the debit side they have won just once away, a record that will have to improve if they are to stay clear of the bottom three.
Verdict A zero goal difference points to an unremarkable but organised side that should have enough to avoid last-day dramas.
Blackburn Rovers 14th
If, by sacking Sam Allardyce in mid-December, Blackburn's new Indian owners hoped to restore upward mobility to a club that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season, the move must so far be regarded as a failure: the team are now one place lower and have collected only 11 points from the 11 games with former coach Steve Kean at the helm. The "wider plans and ambitions" the new regime raised after the managerial change must be put on hold while they try to avoid relegation. The lack of a regular scorer could cost them dear, with on-loan Roque Santa Cruz not offering an obvious solution to their shortfall.
Verdict The mid-season convulsions have not had the desired effect, leaving them vulnerable to any surge by West Bromwich or Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Whatever the final table has in store for Blackpool, they have already surpassed all expectations. This, after all, was a promoted club, with a team largely cobbled together on the cheap as the new campaign loomed. Tantalisingly, just eight more points would take them to the putative safety mark of 40. However, their current run of eight points from 11 games suggests that getting them will prove a monumental task. D J Campbell has been their only consistent scorer, so his three-match suspension for the red card at Wolves looks like a damaging blow. Without him and Charlie Adam, Ian Holloway's team were worse than mediocre at Molineux. Adam's return will provide a touch of class, but it may not be enough.
Verdict So close to a second term among the elite but over-dependent on one or two players and seemingly running out of steam.
Birmingham City 16th
The Carling Cup winners are also, intriguingly, the Premier League's lowest scorers. The redoubtable Alex McLeish steered them to ninth place last season, their highest finish in half a century, but has not been immune to second-season syndrome. Until the midway point in the campaign, his £6m gamble on 6ft 8in striker Nikola Zigic was in danger of being written off as a failure, but as the Serb has found his form, so Blues' fortunes have improved. The arrival of Obafemi Martins should enhance their goal ratio, even if he is unlikely to be gifted another like Sunday's Wembley winner, while in Ben Foster, they have arguably England's best goalkeeper. With a comparatively gentle run-in, particularly at home, they should be safe.
Verdict A point a game would ensure survival, so complacency or the distraction of the FA Cup could be their worst enemies.
West Bromwich Albion 17th
In the Champions League places in late October, Albion have been in freefall ever since. The replacement of Roberto Di Matteo by Roy Hodgson was not a panic measure, but a logical move, given his experience of saving Fulham from a similar predicament in 2007-08, designed to prevent a fourth relegation from the Premier League in nine years. He inherited a team with a reputation for attractive attacking football and defensive feebleness. In Hodgson's first two games, against Wolves and Stoke, they equalised late on, suggesting he has already added a certain resilience. The finishing of Carlos Vela, on loan from Arsenal, may prove crucial, but equally, a clean sheet, which they last kept in August, would signal genuine progress.
Verdict New head coach has stopped the rot, but porous defence and tough run-in mean it will go to the wire.
What to make of Wolves, who have taken nine points from 36 against sides in the bottom half yet beaten both Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Liverpool? Last season, their first back in the Premier League, they pulled clear during the final third of the schedule, and they are capable of repeating the feat. The last two home fixtures, a definitive derby six-pointer against West Bromwich and a final-day tussle with Blackburn, could be decisive, but Mick McCarthy's team will go into their run-in in better shape as long as Jamie O'Hara remains fit. The on-loan Tottenham midfielder has given them an extra dimension with his creativity and goals from midfield, as well as bringing the best out of the previously underachieving players around him.
Verdict It will be tight, and the second Black Country derby could be make-or-break, but have shown they can match the best.
West Ham United 19th
Avram Grant knows all about battling against relegation. Unlike his Portsmouth team a year ago, there can be no excuses about financial restrictions if West Ham go down, though the bungled attempt to replace him with Martin O'Neill was hardly conducive to stability. Should they cling on, the fightback from 3-0 down at West Brom may prove to have been pivotal. Scott Parker showed the leadership they need that day, and against Liverpool last Sunday, while injury-prone Demba Ba demonstrated his eye for goal in both games. But after Saturday's must-win home match against Stoke, their run-in pits them against the Manchester teams and Chelsea, with only two games against fellow stragglers, Rovers and Wigan, to come.
Verdict Should be good enough to survive but will have to do it the hard way, with few games against companions in distress.
Wigan Athletic 20th
The picture looks bleak for Wigan. Defensively they have never recovered from leaking 10 goals in the opening two games and have conceded 30 goals at home, the worst record in the Premier League. They are modestly supported and funded, but it must be said that the passing game which Roberto Martinez has tried to foster, like Owen Coyle at Bolton, has not been conspicuously successful. Steve Bruce had his critics at the club but took them to mid-table and instilled fighting spirit and defensive organisation before leaving them with assets such as Charles N'Zogbia, Hugo Rodallega and Maynor Figueroa. Blackpool away and West Ham at home offer a glimmer of hope in an arduous run-in, but the damage may have been done already.
Verdict The former non-Leaguers have done well to maintain top-flight football for six years but the time for miracles has past.Reuse content