Premier League Relegation Scramble Too Tight to Call
As we enter the final few days of the last international break of the season, thoughts once again return to domestic matters, particularly in the Premier League.
With the final run-in approaching, the twenty English top-flight outfits face eight or nine games, which are in essence cup finals themselves, to determine their fate in the 2014/15 campaign.
Whilst champions elect Chelsea look odds-on for the Premier League crown, events at the foot of the table will, perhaps, be more keenly felt.
As far as the relegation battle is concerned, there realistically remain six teams who can drop through the trapdoor into the Championship. With the new Premier League television deal coming into effect at the culmination of this season, retention of elite status in England is more critical than ever. Determining who will slide down into the second tier of English football however, remains a murky picture.
Currently, Leicester City prop up the table in a rather undesirable position. The Foxes do have a game in hand at home on those above them, albeit versus Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.
Nigel Pearson's men sit seven points from safety, seemingly at a point of no return, but their plight belies a true tale and gives Leicester hope. Leicester have hit the woodwork more times than any other Premier League side. Indeed a neutral watching a Foxes game could not refute that Leicester have been hitting the target on a regular basis, with just luck eluding them to this point.
Yes, they are without a win since January, but with nine games to play of which six are at the King Power Stadium, Leicester have enough firepower with Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, David Nugent and Andrei Kramaric. If Nigel Pearson can get his troops firing, then their task may not be a forlorn one. Particularly with real six-pointers on the horizon.
That brings us nicely onto Hull City. After Hull went through a monumental dip in form between mid-October and late Janaury, The Tigers were sucked into the drop-zone after winning just twice in sixteen games, losing on ten occasions.
After stabilizing somewhat with a point at the Etihad versus and out-of-sorts Manchester City, Hull then won the next two, only for uncertainty to creep in again taking a mere two points from a possible twelve, drawing with both relegation rivals Sunderland and the aforementioned Leicester.
Hull sit three points above the bottom three. With West Brom five points their superiors. A position precarious enough. That is before even glancing at the most daunting of fixture lists, having still to play six of the current top eight in the Premier League. Steve Bruce's men showed fight and character to push Chelsea all the way at the KC Stadium before the domestic break but again failed to pick up any spoils, which would be of huge concern. Hull remain entrenched in a relegation dogfight.
Like Hull, Queens Park Ranger suffered a defeat - what could yet be a terminal blow - versus Everton at Loftus Road, Sunday before last.
Chris Ramsey's Hoops are winless since a surprise victory versus Sunderland and their outgoing manager Gus Poyet. Unfortunately for the West-Londoners their lack of form has reared it ugly head and have now lost the last five since, despite scoring each time. Charlie Austin's one-man escape act has hit the buffers and QPR stare down the barrel.
Whilst not as thankless a fixture list as Hull, QPR still have to face Liverpool, Man. City and Chelsea. Only a London derby versus West Ham and a home fixture versus fellow interim manager John Carver and his Newcastle side look real opportunities for three crucial points.
Aston Villa and Burnley are both well documented in the scrap. After Villa's three game winning streak in all competitions, they fell late to Bafetimbi Gomis and Swansea and doubt lingers for the Villans. Add belaguered Sunderland to the mix and the plot thickens.
Having dismissed Poyet after dismal defeat at home versus foes Villa, Dick Advocaat is tasked with saving the Black Cats from from an ignominious relegation which would be a feat to return from, for the Teesiders. Like their rivals also, defeat last time out saw the Dutchman's first game in charge end in frustration.
Rather aptly, the scenario is looking more and more like a straight showdown between rivals, with destiny in each club's hands. In the final weeks (beginning with Aston Villa entertaining QPR next Tuesday) we are presented with five relegation six-pointers.
Burnley are involved in three; Leicester, Villa and QPR two; Sunderland and Hull in just one.
Does that favour Burnley? Does Leicester's sheer greater number of games become a help or hindrance? Do Aston Villa and Tim Sherwood have enough to pull clear of the mire?
The battle to avoid the drop this term comes with a near £90m reward. With such incentives come hard fought battles of which all six threatened sides will be a huge part of. Some more than others. One thing is patently clear. The fight to survive will almost certainly go to the wire.