Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said, “it’s getting late early.”
That’s certainly true of this year race to avoid relegation at the bottom of the Premiership table.
Newcastle and Middlesbrough are in 18th and 19th place, respectively, and both are three points adrift of safety, where Hull City is currently holding on for dear life in 17th.
West Brom is in deeper trouble. Even with last week’s 3-0 over Sunderland, the Baggies are six points back of the slumping Tigers in 17th and, barring a Fulham-like escape, seemed destined to play in the Championship next season.
This week doesn’t bring much relief to the bottom dwellers, as all are underdogs in their respective matches:
Middlesbrough vs. Manchester United – The Red Devils visit the Riverside Stadium for the early game on Saturday, and if the intrigue of Boro trying to stay off the trap door wasn’t enough, the fixture congestion for United with a Champions League match on Tuesday at the Emirates looming adds another element.
Sir Alex Ferguson may have to trot out a few reserves for the match, and he’s not exactly thrilled about the early kickoff.
“I do not think it is right that we have a lunchtime kick-off at Middlesbrough,” Ferguson told The Guardian. “Obviously I will bring some freshness into the team. The defence will be the same, apart from Rio but the midfield and forwards could change completely.”
Boro, obviously, will be playing for its life.
“We have got to try to defy the odds and defy the expectations,” manager Gareth Southgate told The Guardian. “The players are fighting to do that. It is very much everything to play for, but a tall order, we understand that. But we have got to keep fighting.”
Portsmouth vs. Arsenal – Pompey welcome the Gunners to Fratton Park hoping that the London outfit might also be resting some players for Tuesday’s Champions League tilt.
Of course, Russian international Andrei Arshavin, cup tied and ineligible for Tuesday’s match, could feature for Arsene Wegner’s side.
Robin Van Persie, Gael Clichy and Eduardo are all doubtful for Saturday.
“I want to give some players a breather who need one but it is very important for us to get closer to Chelsea and I don’t want to give any hope to Villa either,” Wegner told Goal.com.
Portsmouth is on 38 points and in 14th place as it tries to pull away from the relegation scrum. Monday’s draw at Newcastle was key, according to England’s No. 1, David James.
“There is no such thing as safe, not at the moment, but if Newcastle had won we would have only been four points from safety,” the keeper told The Portsmouth News. “‘That point keeps us out of harm’s way – and our goal difference is better than theirs.”
Tottenham Hotspur vs. West Bromwich Albion - The Baggies will visit White Hart Lane in search of points Saturday.
What they might find instead is a stingy defense, one that’s only given up nine goals at home this season.
Spurs will need to bounce back after last week’s disappointing second half at Old Trafford in a 5-2 loss to Manchester United.
Stoke City vs. West Ham United - Last week’s 1-0 loss at home to Chelsea has West ham two points back of Fulham for seventh place. Stoke City also fell, 1-0, last week, dropping three points against Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Forward James Beattie is a question mark for the Potters, who are eight points clear of danger in 12th place.
West Ham won the earlier meeting, 2-1, on Dec. 28.
Wigan Athletic vs. Bolton Wanderers – This match could feature the return of Zaki to the Wigan front line, as manager Steve Bruce is running short on attacking options.
“If he had kept his head down, kept working away and been the player he was at the start of the year, rather than being what he was at the moment, then everything would be hunky-dory,” Bruce told The Guardian. “I can’t leave him out of the squad because we haven’t got enough players.”
Meanwhile, Bolton is sitting on 38 points in 13th place and would surely like to pick up some points to inch closer to safer ground.
Manager Gary Megson is staying positive, telling Sky Sports that, “We are getting there, but we would prefer to be getting there in a different mode. We’d like to be winning games and pushing on up the table.”
Chelsea vs. Fulham – You have to wonder what’s Guus Hiddink’s team sheet might look like when the Blues host Fulham with Barcelona visiting Stamford Bridge next week.
Of course, when players like Deco, Salomon Kalou and Nicolas Anelka didn’t play against Barcelona in mid-week, you’d have to think Cheslea’s second choice players might be better than most.
Fulham will hope to build on the 2-2 draw it had with Chelsea earlier in the campaign as it tries to stay in the seventh spot – Europa Cup territory.
Manchester City vs. Blackburn Rovers – Mark Hughes and Man City are still chasing a spot in Europe, but will do so this week at home against Rovers without Shaun Wright-Phillips and Pablo Zabaleta, who are injury worries.
Still, Hughes is pressing forward.
“We are really pleased with our recent results and we are still looking at Europe,” he told The Telegraph. “Seventh position is still up for grabs and we have spoken about it as a group. That has been our focus for some time now.”
Meanwhile, Hughes’ former club is sitting on 37 points and far from safe from the drop zone.
Liverpool vs. Newcastle United – The Toon Army keeps waiting for Newcastle to start its escape from danger at the bottom of the table, but Sunday’s trip to Anfield seems an unlikely place to start such magic.
Steven Gerrard could return for the Reds, who still have flickering hopes of catching United for the title.
Newcastle skipper Alan Shearer told the team’s Web site: “We can’t get our heads down. There’s still a lot of work to be done and we’re still in there fighting. There’ll certainly be no despondency and no-one will be giving up the fight. We will go to Anfield in good spirits and see what we get. Obviously we go there as underdogs but we must believe we can get something.”
Sunderland vs. Everton – Last week’s uninspiring 3-0 loss to West Brom left the Black Cats on 35 points and in some danger of being chased down in the standings.
Niall Quinn, for one, is expecting better on Sunday.
He told the Shields Gazette, “Sunderland fans want one thing – genuine passion. They will forgive just about anything – I saw them clap their manager at Maine Road many years ago when they got relegated because he had a team that gave everything. They just want to see their team give genuine effort, genuine passion, and run till they drop. That’s what we have to do for the next two games.”
The Toffees, on the other hand, made some off-field news this week, agreeing to serve as the opposition for the Major League Soccer All-Star Game this summer.
There are also rumors of Everton making a move for Newcastle striker Michael Owen.
Aston Villa vs. Hull City - The Monday game features two teams in dreadful form as the Tigers visit Villa Park.
Villa, once threatening to bounce Arsenal from the top four, is winless in its last nine Premier League matches.
Hull City isn’t faring much better, as the Tigers are winless in their last six matches.
Villa’s swoon may keep them out of Europe, but Hull faces demotion if its form doesn’t improve.