The weekend’s Premier League results left eight teams hovering above the relegation trapdoor, with seven sides losing to pour more misery on themselves as the season heads for its final stretch. Only West Ham were victorious of the clubs in the bottom eight, but the Hammers remain just four points off the dreaded bottom three.
There may have been defeats for Portsmouth, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland, but the biggest losers were surely Hull City, Bolton Wanderers and Burnley. Portsmouth are more concerned with having a club at all next season than what division they are in while the others all lost games they would never have expected to win. Burnley may not have expected to beat Aston Villa either but it is the manner of their implosion that is most worrying, while the defeats for Hull and Bolton came against fellow relegation contenders – West Ham and Blackburn Rovers respectively.
While the Tigers were well and truly tamed by West Ham, it was a fairly even contest until Craig Fagan’s 52nd minute red card. Gianfranco Zola’s side were the better team but the dominance was far from total before Phil Brown’s side were reduced to ten men, with the Londoners doubling their advantage just seven minutes later. The third goal only came in injury time, after Hull had lost another player, this time to injury. So while the Yorkshire side will be left reeling, at least part of their defeat was down to bad luck and an individual player’s indiscipline, which is certainly not the case for either Burnley or Bolton who only have themselves to blame.
The optimism that greeted Owen Coyle’s appointment at the Reebok Stadium is disappearing fast, especially after the capitulation in yesterday’s Derby scrap with Rovers. Wanderers have not won since January 26, a 1-0 defeat of Coyle’s old side Burnley, and never looked like getting the better of a Blackburn side coached by Bolton hero Sam Allardyce. Coyle may provide a more likeable character than Gary Megson, and the football on offer at the Reebok may have improved, but the results have not. Coyle’s legendary status in Bolton can only take him so far and while his desire to play a more attractive game may be laudable, if at the end of the season Wanderers find themselves in the Championship a prettier style of play will not make up for relegation. Coyle does not need to take Wanderers back to the days of Allardyce but a little more pragmatism would be welcome, as some defenders are capable of bringing the ball calmly out of defence but Zat Knight is not one of them. The former Fulham centre-back has performed well lately but is prone to error and without Gary Cahill, Bolton are weak in a key area.
If matters are bad for Wanderers in defence, they are not much better going forward. Johan Elmander is a willing runner but lacks either the skill or confidence, or perhaps both, to show any more than that, and together with Kevin Davies, leaves the Wanderers’ attack far too one-dimensional. Little support comes from midfield, with Fabrice Muamba not suited to support the forwards and Matthew Taylor pedestrian, Ricardo Gardner anonymous and Lee Chung-Yong inconsistent. Loanees Jack Wilshere and Vladimir Weiss could provide the spark that separates the Trotters from the rest of the pack but that is asking a lot of too young, inexperienced and slight midfielders. Respite may come in the shape of Ivan Klasnic’s return to fitness but the Croatian needs somebody to supply him and inspiration appears in short supply in this part of Greater Manchester.
Coyle’s former employers arguably fared even worse, despite going a goal up at Villa Park inside 10 minutes. Their good start did not last and once Martin O’Neill’s side drew level, there was only going to be one winner. Perhaps the Clarets are missing the experience of Graham Alexander, shielding the defence so expertly, but the back line was hopeless yesterday and totally embarrassed by Villa’s pace. Andre Bikey, not short on Premier League experience himself, too often allowed opposing midfielders to run past him unchecked and his lack of ball-playing ability left too much responsibility on the young shoulders of Jack Cork, although the on loan Chelsea midfielder was comfortably Burnley’s best player. Bikey can do better and has done at times this season, but Burnley are entering a vital stage in the campaign and the Cameroon international must improve, as well as those around him.
Victories over Manchester United and Everton feel a long time ago for the Clarets and just relying on their home form may not be enough with five away games and trips to Arsenal, Hull, Sunderland, Wigan and Birmingham City still to come, with the visits to fellow strugglers rating as must-not-lose ties. The seven remaining home games are not bankers either, with Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in their last three Turf Moor fixtures, but Blackburn, Wolves and Portsmouth all have to face the Lancashire side on their own patch too, leaving three winnable games and another, Stoke City, that could go either way. If Burnley are to get anything from any of their remaining games, they must plug the leaks at the back. Brian Jensen is a fine shot-stopper but is unreliable on crosses and fails to command the defence as a Premier League goalkeeper must, while Bikey’s absentmindedness exposed the back line to a wave of Villa attackers, something the former Reading player has been guilty of on a number of occasions this season.
The race to avoid relegation is as tight as the battle to make the Champions League, with more teams involved and always the possibility of one side shrinking in the forthcoming spring sunshine and joining the dogfight. It will take a miracle to save Portsmouth both on and off-the-field but the others have their destiny in their own hands. Heroes are made in the dying days of the Premier League season and somebody from Bolton or Burnley could add their name to pantheon of greats who saved their team, but time is running out.