With the season’s end approaching, the dreaded ‘R’ word is starting to rear its ugly head, but who it will face the drop from the Premier League remains a mystery. This year’s relegation battle is amongst the closest and most unpredictable in recent memory. A mere 12 points cover sixth-placed Liverpool and rock-bottom Wigan Athletic and with Wigan only a win away from 13th, alarm bills will be ringing at everyone in between.
Form-wise, West Ham and Wolverhampton Wanderers look the best of the stragglers and the Hammers have previous experience in great escapes. Aston Villa seemed to be in recovery before suffering a setback, and West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool have been in freefall for some time. Birmingham City are suffering from a hangover after their Carling Cup triumph, while Wigan have perhaps not had the results their performances have deserved of late.
As the season’s run-in approaches Wolves are the only team that do not have to face a title or Champion’s League chasing team, while Blackburn and West Ham have to face three each. Blackpool’s fate may hinge on the battle at the top of the table. On the final day they visit Old Trafford praying that Manchester United’s fate is already sealed, rendering the game meaningless for them.
Crucially however, there are 10 fixtures between the bottom eight teams still to play, and it is clear that survival will lie in who best handles the pressure and is able to steal a march on their rivals.
If one was to make a mini league comprising of the bottom eight, surprise strugglers Aston Villa and Blackburn comfortably lead the pack on 21 and 20 points respectively, with 3 games out of 14 left, suggesting that they could pull themselves to safety. Conversely Wolves, (11 points, 3 games to play), Blackpool (12, 1) and West Brom (13, 2) seem to be in danger. West Ham (15, 3) have drawn too many, while Wigan (17, 3) and Birmingham (16, 2) have been relatively solid.
Wolves’ poor form in these fixtures may be offset by what appears a relatively kind run-in. With so many impressive scalps this season, to find themselves in their position must raise questions about whether they exerted too much energy against the top teams. Roy Hodgson has lifted West Brom, adding resilience, but they need to convert draws into wins, and cannot afford to throw away two goal leads like they did against Arsenal on Saturday.
Similarly, Blackpool have beaten Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool twice, but struggled against others. Their inability to hold onto leads has also cost them, most notably against Manchester United and Blackburn on Saturday, and could leave Ian Holloway wondering whether having got themselves in such good positions they may have adopted a safer approach. The same could be said of Roberto Martinez at Wigan, who defended his team’s commitment to playing attractive football: “People
With so many important matches still to come, and everyone capable of beating one another, all is still very much to play for.