Toughest fight to stay up will go down to wire
Twelve teams are still in danger going into a crucial weekend, reports Glenn Moore
Saturday 16 April 2011
The spotlight may be on Wembley this weekend but the pressure will be more intense at St Andrew's, Bloomfield Road and Upton Park as a sextet of endangered clubs go head-to-head.
The most tightly-contested relegation battle in the Premier League era has six rounds to go and the only predictable element is that it will run to the last knockings.
Only eight points separate Wigan Athletic, on the bottom, and Newcastle United, in ninth. A glance at the Championship, where last season's relegated trio sit 10th (Hull City), 12th (Burnley) and 14th (Portsmouth), adds to the pressure. Even with the enhanced parachute payments relegated clubs are about to receive, bouncing back is no longer a probability. Only three of the last 12 teams to be relegated have returned to date while two of the dozen, Charlton and Sheffield United, look like being in League One next season.
As the season hurtles towards a conclusion, several key factors will determine who escapes and who will be visiting Brighton next season.
Points on the board are the most desirable quality in a relegation battle but form is almost as significant. Find it, or lose it, and things can change quickly. Seven weeks and four rounds of matches ago, West Bromwich Albion were a point off the relegation zone, Everton were five points away, Sunderland looked secure. Now Albion and Everton are seven and 12 points clear, and already thinking of next season, but Sunderland have been dragged into the whirlpool. One point from eight games, in which they have conceded 21 goals, has sent them plummeting down the table.
In the wake of last week's home defeat to West Brom, a game in which Sunderland twice led, their manager Steve Bruce admitted: "We're on a disastrous run. We're in a relegation battle and it's up to ourselves to get out of it." Today Bruce takes Sunderland to his old club, Birmingham, who will draw level with Sunderland should they win.
Blackpool, with one point from five games, also need to urgently halt their slide. Wigan's visit today appears to provide the perfect opportunity, but if the visitors win Blackpool will be in the bottom three for the first time this season.
Sunderland's poor form is partly due to a difficult run of fixtures, so their closing schedule is kinder – but as it features many of their immediate rivals, losing will be twice as damaging. Newcastle look to have the most demanding run-in, playing three of the top six, plus in-form Albion and two relegation rivals. Wolves face several derbies, while to judge from Birmingham's away games safety will have to be secured at home. Wigan at least have their fate in their own hands, as they play five of the eight clubs immediately above them. West Ham face four of the bottom eight, beginning with Aston Villa today.
One reason West Brom appointed Hodgson was his rescue act at Fulham three years ago and he has already brought that experience to bear. Albion remain unbeaten under him and can face Chelsea today with confidence. Mick McCarthy, Alex McLeish, Avram Grant, Steve Bruce, Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew have also been here before. Not all have positive memories, but they should have learned from them. At Blackburn, rookie Steve Kean has to hope he gets his decisions right first time.
Injuries and suspensions
The most significant event in the relegation battle may have happened in Dublin late last month when Kevin Doyle injured knee ligaments playing for the Republic of Ireland against Macedonia. Doyle was a key player for Wolves, his selfless front-running made their 4-5-1 system work. They have lost the matches since Doyle's injury 4-1 and 3-0. Just as tellingly, Fulham have been rising up the table since Bobby Zamora returned.
Centre-halves are almost as key and Blackburn and Birmingham will miss Ryan Nelsen and Scott Dann respectively while Bruce has to plug his porous defence without John Mensah or Titus Bramble. This is when strength in depth can be the line between survival and the drop.
Form Guide: How the relegation dogfight is shaping up
Newcastle (9th, 39 pts)
Fixtures: Manchester Utd (h), Blackpool (a), Liverpool (a), Birmingham (h), Chelsea (a), W Brom (h)
Injured: Ben Arfa, Best, Gosling, Smith
West Brom (10th, 39 pts)
Fixtures: Chelsea (h), Tottenham (a), Aston Villa (h), Wolves (a), Everton (h), Newcastle (a)
Fulham (11th, 38 pts)
Fixtures: Wolves (a), Bolton (h), Sunderland (a), Liverpool (h), Birmingham (a), Arsenal (h)
Stoke City (12th, 38 pts)
Fixtures: Aston Villa (a), Wolves (h), Blackpool (a), Arsenal (h), Man City (a), Wigan (h)
Injured: Higginbotham, Sidibe, Faye
Sunderland (13th, 38 pts)
Fixtures: Birmingham (a), Wigan (h), Fulham (h), Bolton (a), Wolves (h), West Ham (a)
Injured: Bramble, Campbell, Mensah
Aston Villa (14th, 37 pts)
Fixtures: West Ham (a), Stoke (h), West Brom (a), Wigan (h), Arsenal (a), Liverpool (h)
Blackburn (15th, 35 pts)
Fixtures: Everton (a), Man City (h), Bolton (h), West Ham (a), Man United (h), Wolves (a)
Injured: Nelsen, Grella, Andrews
Birmingham (16th, 35pts)
Fixtures: S'land (h), Chelsea (a), Liverpool (a), Wolves (h), Newcastle (a), Fulham (h), Tottenham (a)
Injured: Dann, Taylor
Blackpool (17th, 33 pts)
Fixtures: Wigan (h), Newcastle (h), Stoke (h), Spurs (a), Bolton (h), Manchester Utd (a)
Injured: Vaughan, Carney, Basham
West Ham (18th, 32 pts)
Fixtures: Aston Villa (h), Chelsea (a), Man City (a), Blackburn (h), Wigan (a), Sunderland (h)
Injured: Kurucz, Collison, Stanislas
Wolves (19th, 32 pts)
Fixtures: Fulham (h), Stoke (a), Birmingham (a), West Brom (h), Sunderland (a), Blackburn (h)
Injured: Doyle, Edwards, Hunt, Zubar
Wigan (20th, 31 pts)
Fixtures: Blackpool (a), Sunderland (a), Everton (h), Aston Villa (a), West Ham (h), Stoke (a)
Injured: None, but Figueroa suspended
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