With the fat lady clearing her throat in the battle for the Premier League and the trophy seemingly destined to return to Old Trafford, the scramble at the bottom of the league is now the most fascinating battle.
At the moment it looks like there are six teams heavily involved in the race to avoid the bottom three places, with another three or four teams needing a final couple of wins in the run in to hit the magical forty points mark.
Bottom club Queens Park Rangers were stranded adrift of the pack only a few weeks ago like a wounded deer with a tiger pack in pursuit but back-to-back wins for the first time in this campaign see them breathing down the necks of the fellow strugglers above. This bubble of optimism was burst at Villa Park last weekend in a disappointing 3-2 defeat to Aston Villa.
However, Harry Redknapp (the use of ‘Houdini’ in his name is quite boring now) will be hoping recent improved performances and more togetherness in his squad will have put them on a firm footing for the run ahead. This newly found togetherness in his squad seems to coincide with press reports of off the field misdemeanours during a ‘warm weather’ training break to Dubai. It sounds like an ideal lads holiday to you and I but Redknapp angrily denied the newspaper reports of beer and frolics.
QPR’s run in see’s visits to Loftus Road for struggling StokeCity, Arsenal and Newcastle and in a couple of weeks time a crucial proverbial six pointer against Wigan. Away fixtures include two difficult trips to Merseyside and another must win game at Reading. They’ve only lost three of their previous ten league games but in that run they’ve only picked up three wins. They need to convert those draws into three points to stand any chance of survival.
Next to bottom club Reading are a club in a bit of crisis both on and off the pitch. To pretty much universal anger and head shaking they recently sacked the likeable Brian McDermott in a seemingly last throw of the dice for survival. These are the same tactics employed by Wolves last season and they themselves find they are in a new struggle to stay in the Championship, so no lessons learned there then.
The Royals are currently on a losing streak that has even spanned two Popes in a fruitless run of five games. Divine intervention will now be required at the Madejski in a tricky run in that takes in trips away to Arsenal, Norwich and Fulham. Amongst the visitors to Reading are fellow strugglers Southampton and QPR, along with Liverpool and soon to be dethroned Champions Manchester City.
Out of the bottom six Reading unfortunately have the weakest squad and this lack of quality will be their ultimate undoing. This poor run of results needs to end quickly or they could find themselves cast adrift quite quickly. A trip to The Emirates is next up and any kind of positive result would be welcome back in Berkshire.
You can always tell it’s mid-March when Spurs results take a turn for the worse, Liverpool fans start talking about next season and Wigan start picking up wins. The weekend’s victory over Newcastle gave the Latics hope that they can yet again achieve a great escape.
They are certainly the most experienced in fighting against relegation of the teams around them and Roberto Martinez may well pull off another survival battle for yet another season in the top flight. Two wins in their last three games has raised expectations at the DW Stadium and this run must continue if their dreams are to be fulfilled.
A run in that includes ‘winnable’ home games against Norwich, Swansea and a possible shoot out on the last day versus Aston Villa, is coupled with difficult visits to Manchester City (their game in hand), West Brom and Arsenal alongside a potentially huge game at QPR.
Martinez has stuck to his game plan and has drilled Wigan into a well oiled machine. Football purists are scratching their heads and asking why they can’t maintain their form over a longer period of the campaign. If this was the case they would be sat clear in mid-table and could look forward to a potential two trips to Wembley in the FA Cup. This diversion could ultimately be their undoing but I wouldn’t back against Dave Whelan’s side escaping the drop yet again.
Aston Villa are another enigma and are seemingly a club that has lost their way over the last few seasons. The sacking of Alex McLeish, much to the delight of the home faithful, was supposed to start a new era under Paul Lambert which hasn’t took off. Villa are in a the dog fight of all dog fights but the home victory over QPR last weekend, coupled with their win at Reading the week before has given them renewed belief.
Prior to this they had only won one out of the previous eight games. Hopefully for Villa’s sake the rot has been stopped. Similar to QPR, home goals have been hard to come by. A mixed run in see’s Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, Chelsea and struggling Sunderland come to Villa Park. Away games include a trip to Old Trafford and a huge last day game at Wigan.
Villa, former European Champions, will be hoping a slide similar to Nottingham Forest is not on the cards. Things are not that bad at the moment but avoiding the dreaded drop is a must for the Villains. With a chairman seemingly now reluctant to put his hands in his pockets, they would have to mainly rely on their promising youngsters to bounce straight back. If they can pick up four point from their next three games I believe Villa could stay in the top flight.
Southampton are another club who have gambled by sacking their manager towards the back end of the season. Nigel Adkins was sacked and replaced by the relatively unknown Argentinian coach Mauricio Pochettino, formerly of Espanyol.
Pochettino has earned wide praise for the style of football he has got the Saints playing since taking charge at St. Marys. Sir Alex Ferguson even went has far as saying they were the best team he had seen at Old Trafford but that was after a home win for the Red Devils. However, this nice brand of football has only brought three wins in the last ten but only three defeats. Like QPR, the draws need converting into wins but the recent superb home display to Liverpool will have given them hope that light is at the end of the relegation tunnel.
It’s a tricky run in for the Saints. An inconsistent Chelsea are up next at St. Mary’s, with West Ham, West Brom and out of form Stoke yet to come. A huge away game at Reading is on the horizon, with trips to Spurs, Swansea and Sunderland completing their away campaign. That Reading game could be key to the Hampshire side’s survival. That said, if they can maintain the form and spirit shown in the Liverpool game I can see them clear of the drop before the nervy last day.
Sunderland worry me even though they are currently on top of the bottom six mini-division. No wins in their last seven games have seen them get sucked into the relegation battle, with no easy way out of trouble. Their last Premier League victory came two months ago when they beat Wigan 3-2. Since then Martin O’Neill has hardly endeared himself to the Mackem’s with a brand of football that has been dreary at best.
It doesn’t get any easier for O’Neill’s men with a fearsome run of away games that includes Chelsea, Newcastle and Spurs on the final day away, coupled with home games against Manchester United, Everton and yet another massive game versus Southampton. If Sunderland are to survive they’ve certainly got to do it the hard way and O’Neill could be hoping the Irish really are lucky.
The other teams above the bottom six probably need to pick a couple of wins up between now and the end of the season to avoid getting pulled into the scrap for survival. With the television money shooting up next season when the new deal kicks in, nobody, even with the parachute payments, wants to succumb to relegation. For a number of teams it would be a disaster financially and there is no guarantee that any of those battling the drop would come straight back up again at the first time of asking.
To put my neck on the block I predict the following three side to go down: QPR, Reading and an outside bet of Sunderland. What’s your prediction?