While the battle over which side of Manchester will claim the Premier League title rages at the top of the division, the battle to avoid falling into the Championship goes on at an equally furious pace, complicated by the presence of not just two teams, but at least five – Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers and Bolton Wanderers.
All four of the threatened quintet who played on Saturday lost – some, such as Wigan, went down to an almost glorious defeat at Chelsea, where few expected the Latics to record a positive result anyway. But for Bolton, losing at home 3-0 to Fulham, the first match of the Easter weekend was little short of disastrous. The other two, Wolves and Blackburn, both lost away games that in preview could have gone either way, only for the balance to tilt towards the home side over the 90 minutes. With QPR hosting title-chasing Manchester United on Sunday, the likelihood is that all five teams will suffer defeat – although the R’s upset Arsenal in their last outing, travelling to Old Trafford is another matter altogether.
Between bottom of the table Wolves and Bolton in 16th is seven points, not a particularly large total but one that will feel bigger and bigger for both parties as the season progresses and the games run out. For Wolves the gap to safety is just a point less, six, with QPR sitting 17th a point behind Bolton. For Owen Coyle’s Wanderers the danger zone is similarly just a point away, as Blackburn are level on points with Rangers, behind the London side on goal difference alone. The thin margins around the drop zone make each round of results perilous for those defeated but for anyone able to eke a win, it could be the difference between safety and devastation. But when each side loses and the table stays largely the same, the stationary standings benefit those currently outside the bottom three a great deal more.
A defeat for one of Wolves, Wigan or Blackburn as it stands is a double blow – not only do they miss out on the chance to claw their way from danger but time is their enemy, and each game that passes with QPR and Bolton outside the bottom three brings the three a game closer to the Championship. But Wigan performed admirably against Chelsea while it appeared Blackburn had pulled away from serious trouble with a series of good results only to be dragged back, and if the pair can employ more of that spirit it may not be too late. Wolves, meanwhile, are looking increasingly resigned to their fate but Blackburn, who in mid-March went six points clear of the bottom three, can attest how quickly a six-point gap can be eroded.
There remains a chance Aston Villa could be pulled into the relegation battle’s gravitational pull – the Midlands side are six points ahead of 18th – but as the season rumbles to a close the current bottom five look set. The question to be answered is which two will escape, and which three will not.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Newcastle v Bolton