Premier League Relegation Battle: Bottom Three Predictions
Crunch time is fast approaching in the Premier League, with less than a month to go before the final round of fixtures commence.
At the top of the table, Chelsea appear very secure as the the future champions, and the battle for the Champions League places looks fairly settled. Whilst there is still some cajoling to be done in the upper echelons of the league table, it is at the bottom where the true interest and uncertainty is to be found. With only six points separating the bottom six teams, it is likely going to go down to the final day as to who vacates their coveted spot in the top tier to accommodate for the promotion of Watford and Bournemouth.
In all, I would assess that it will be three of these six teams that will be relegated, although one would be foolish to ignore the terrible run of form currently being endured by Newcastle United.
They are only five points clear of the relegation zone, and have lost seven games in a row. Since Alan Pardew departed, caretaker manager John Carver has only won two games of his sixteen in charge, and has been thrown into the mire of a club already in turmoil. Fans have boycotted matches and held demonstrations in protest of the regime of Mike Ashley, and their determination to force the departure of their loathed chairman has potentially gotten in the heads of the team itself.
They have gone from what looked to be a safe mid-table position into being definite contenders to be dropped back into the Championship, much like what took place in 2009. Their form makes it questionable as to where their next victory is going to come from. Fortunately, based on where they are in the league, their future is very much in their own hands. One more victory would likely be enough to secure their safety, and their four matches are all potentially winnable. They face fellow strugglers Leicester, West Brom and QPR, before a final home game against another team in extremely poor form, West Ham, on the final day of the season. If they defeat either Leicester or QPR especially, I feel they will be safe for another year, but will be in serious danger if they cannot overcome the turmoil between the fans and the boardroom next season.
Another team that have endured a tough season but I feel will likely live to compete in the Premier League in 2016 is Aston Villa. Under Paul Lambert, their young team was in serious trouble, having only scored 12 goals in 25 games. Their awful statistics in front of goal seemed very likely to send their club down, and star players such as Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor did not seem up to the challenge of battling at the foot of the table. However, a tough decision was made to relieve Lambert of his duties, and his replacement has gotten the players to lace up their shooting boots once again.
One thing that seems certain when you hire Tim Sherwood is that your club is about to adopt an attacking mentality. It might not always pay off, but it certainly has pushed Aston Villa further out of danger. The arrival of the former Tottenham man has brought out the best of Benteke, the Belgian scoring 9 goals in his last 8 games in all competitions. When he is in this sort of form, he can prove unstoppable no matter the defence that he is up against, and if he keeps this late run going, the Villains will have little to worry about. Sherwood has brought an attacking edge that was sorely lacking from his players, and now they look far more up for the fight against relegation, rather than bemused by the sorry state they found themselves in.
With their date against Arsenal in the FA Cup Final not until after the conclusion of the Premier League season, they can fully concentrate on getting the most points possible out of their four remaining games, three of which take place at Villa Park. Matches against a resurgent Everton and away to Southampton will be the trickiest to contend with, but a home match against a West Ham team that seem already packed for their summer vacation seems a far more enticing prospect. Despite being below Hull City in the table, I am more confident that If they can take six points out of these three games, Villa will be unlikely to be relying on a result in their final match of the season against fellow relegation candidates Burnley.
Speaking of the Lancashire Clarets, they are my first pick to be heading back down to the Championship at the end of the season. This is unfortunate, because I have been a big fan of their grit, pretty football, and the management of Sean Dyche. It looked for a long time that they would be the promoted team with the best shot at staying up, in spite of their small funds and reliance on the players that brought them up to the Premier League. They proved a threat to a number of big teams, their scalp of Manchester City in particular a signal that they could shock everyone by clinging on desperately to their spot in the top table of English football.
But, those hopes seem to have been crushed under the added pressure of the relegation battle. They have some saving grace in the fact that all of their remaining fixtures are winnable, against West Ham, Hull, Stoke and Aston Villa. However, only the match against the Potters is at home, and Burnley's away form has been especially dire, with only one victory and eight points accrued on their travels. Goals from Danny Ings have dried up, and their hopes of survival took their greatest hit with a loss to Leicester at Turf Moor. It has been a fun ride that few people would have expected to witness in light of their miraculous promotion last year.
QPR look set to join Burnley by returning back to the Championship after one season in the top flight. The London club have had a difficult campaign, underlined by the decision of Harry Redknapp to depart as manager due to medical reasons. Chris Ramsey has done a sterling job in his attempts to rescue the club from their difficult position, but the squad simply does not have the desire or the quality to force them ahead of those in front of them in the league. Their hopes rest almost entirely on the goalscoring exploits of Charlie Austin, as he has been fundamental in any of their victories this campaign with his 17 goals. Outside of him though, the rest of the teams simply has not been up to standard.
They have only picked up nine points since the start of 2015, as they just seem to have lost the spirit of the fight and succumb to their position in the table. They would need players such as Joey Barton, Matt Phillips and Eduardo Vargas to perform out of their skins to drag themselves to safety, especially considering their final run of fixtures. Away matches against Liverpool and Manchester City will be remarkably difficult to navigate, and thus it would be likely that they find themselves already cut adrift of safety before their final match opposite Leicester City. So, in my mind, two of the bottom three slots will be filled by Burnley and QPR.
The final unfortunate place is much trickier to determine, and will likely come down to a three-way shootout between Hull, Leicester City and Sunderland. These three teams are separated by only point, and have traded places in the relegation zone throughout the season. It will be a heated confrontation that will likely extend towards the very last day of the season. But, the question of which one will be stuck below that dreaded line on May 24th whilst the others live to fight another day is one that is not easily going to be answered. Thus, let's examine each of the combatants individually.
The most likely of these teams to survive is Hull, a team enduring a definite case of Second Season Syndrome after a remarkable campaign last year. The Tigers have had an extremely inconsistent season, switching between a safe mid-table slot and slipping into the relegation zone. Their team occasionally looks like a strong unit with Ahmed Elmohamady bursting down the wings, Tom Huddlestone pinging the ball around the pitch and Nikica Jelavic finishing off chances. But these performances have been sporadic, and their inability to string together results has been their downfall. Back-to-back wins over Crystal Palace and Liverpool have helped their situation, but it could be a calm before the storm.
Yet, I believe that their quality and the experience of manager Steve Bruce in these situations is going to prove the difference in this scenario. The signing of Dame N'Doye has proved a stroke of transfer magic, as his goals have been crucial in securing points since January. For a club that finds scoring more difficult than most, this is a significant factor that will pay dividends when the points are tallied up at the end of the season. They have solid performers throughout their first team that can be relied upon to battle constantly for every point possible. Matches against Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United are very daunting prospects, but their win over Liverpool and a home match against Burnley will likely be enough to see them squeak their way out of danger.
So that leaves a straight choice between Leicester City and Sunderland.
First is the in-form Foxes. Even at the start of April their position looked bleak, as they sat at the foot of the table and were the odds-on favourites to slip through the trap door. But what a difference a month can make, as four consecutive victories has pushed them out of the relegation zone for the first time since November, and now they are the team in the battle against relegation on the best run. They also arguably have the simplest run of fixtures in order to get the necessary results to survive, with four of their remaining five games held at the King Power Stadium.
It doesn't begin very easily, as they face the champions-elect Chelsea who will be desperate to secure their title win as quickly as possible. After that, they battle the woefully out of sorts Newcastle and a Southampton team still pushing for Europe, and then two games that will be undoubtedly crucial to the final relegation standings. First, an away match against Sunderland in an immense six-pointer that might determine both of their future destinations for the following campaign. And then a final performance at QPR, which could also be extremely important depending on whether either of them is still clawing for survival.
Then there is Sunderland, and the Black Cats have wasted a large number of lives over the past few years in their battles against relegation. Their squad is arguably the strongest and most experienced of every team in their vicinity on paper, but they really have not performed up to their reputations. They have persistently had problems scoring goals in the Premier League in the last couple of campaigns, but this year it has been coupled with some extremely amateur defending. Their recent loss to Aston Villa 0-4 was a masterclass in how not to defend, and forced the club's hand to bring in Dick Advocaat to replace Gus Poyet and steer them towards safety for another year.
This has been a common theme for Sunderland, who have shipped out many managers since the departure of Martin O'Neill to dig them out of trouble in the closing stages of the season, and it has worked out for the most part. But Advocaat has arguably the biggest task of any of them, and does not possess the extremely attacking mentality of either of his predecessors that breathed life into their fight against the drop. They have experienced heads to call upon, such as John O'Shea, Wes Brown, and Jermain Defoe. If they can be called upon to recapture the class that they were producing in their prime, then they have the quality to help their club survive for yet another year.
Personally, Leicester City look poised for a place in the Premier League next year in my eyes. Their players might be lacking the quality on paper of their rivals, but they have a great deal of heart, intensity, and most importantly their players have hit form at just the right time. At a time where clubs in the middle of the pack begin to lose focus and other teams at the bottom suffer under the pressure of a relegation dogfight, Leicester have taken everything in their stride. If Esteban Cambiasso continues to pull the strings from midfield and feeding chances to Leonardo Ulloa and Jamie Vardy, they should pull off what would have been viewed as a miracle at the start of 2015.
So, that would leave Sunderland to join Burnley and QPR in going down on the final day.
They are lapse going forward and hopeless defensively, and I cannot picture them securing another win between now and the end of the season. Their last two matches are away to Arsenal and Chelsea, so if they are not out of the relegation zone by the time they arrive at the Emirates, the chances of them escaping with points from those encounters are slim to say the least. Their best hopes lie in home fixtures against Southampton and Leicester City, but I struggle to envision the Black Cats' next goal, let alone a victory.
Therefore, I fully expect that their lives will finally run out and they descend back into the Championship for the first time since 2007 by the time the final whistle of the campaign blows at Stamford Bridge.