With Chelsea’s victorious visit to Anfield and City’s win at Crystal Palace, headlines in world football are rightly dominated by the final league games and their implications on the title fight. This is a thrilling conclusion to an admittedly insane season of English Premier League football; however, I wanted to focus on the implication of the weekend’s games on the bottom of the table, focusing on the form, fixtures, and fortunes of teams currently fighting for their lives. While 40 points seems to perennially be the magic number to ensure survival, West Brom was once able to survive with as few as 34 points in the 2004-05 season. This year doesn’t seem so different; since the difference in position for the table’s underachievers is only five points. It appears that their current tally of 36 points will still at least put them at the foot of safety. Let’s take a look at the the relegation trapdoor in detail.
Starting with clubs at 35 points or fewer, I wanted to look at the points total for the bottom five, and closely examine the upcoming run-in for each club using the following metrics: In addition to points needed and goal difference, we want to take a look at the current average odds to survive, the form table, and key player match-ups for each forthcoming fixture.
For the fourth straight year in a row, Aston Villa find themselves desperately clinging to safety at the bottom of the Premier League. History buffs might recall that this is hardly a flattering position for a club credited with founding the Football League, lifting the European Cup, and playing every season in the Premier League since its inception. However, this season would be no stranger to upsetting the status quo.
Unravelled by injuries and with only Grant Holt arriving in January, who has yet to repay the faith shown in him with his loan move from Wigan, Villa are doing little else aside from treading water year after year. With rumors mounting over a club takeover that is contingent on the retention of Premier League status, the next few matches look to be crucial. Villa face Hull at home, followed by Spurs at White Hart Lane, with the rescheduled trip to the Etihad to face title-chasing Manchester City sandwiched in between.
The odds for Villa to be relegated still remain relatively slim, averaging out at around 9/1, but they are well and truly in the mire. Villa are dead last in the Premier League form table, with only one point from their last six fixtures, a dour 0-0 draw against Southampton at home.
Villa v Hull City: Without Benteke, Villa have struggled to break teams down all season, relying on long-ball kick and rush football to try to manifest anything resembling a scoring opportunity. Albrighton, who didn’t play in the corresponding fixture, will be a breath of fresh air, bringing some width against a team whose strengths are admittedly through the center of the park. Earlier this season, Villa and Hull ground out a drab 0-0 result not dissimilar from Villa’s last point. Against Hull City, Villa will struggle to keep an eye on Tom Huddlestone, who seems relatively reinvigorated playing for Steve Bruce’s side since his move from Tottenham. Similarly, Villa alumnus Curtis Davies has been excellent as a center back throughout the bulk of the season, and shouldn’t have to work too hard to keep Holt quiet. With a porous defense, it’s hard to imagine Villa keeping another clean sheet this season. Having said that, I can just see the respective width and engine of Albrighton and Delph helping to combine to create at least one chance that’s bound for the back of the net. These teams seem to have just enough to cancel each other out, and while Hull should start the match as favorites, a point will be just about enough to help Villa breathe a sigh of relief in their most winnable fixture of their forthcoming matches. Prediction: Aston Villa 1-1 Hull City
Manchester City v Aston Villa: Manchester City’s shocking defeat at the hands of Aston Villa at Villa Park had optimism ringing out from the Holte End earlier this season, though much has changed. Manchester City now sit with the title in their hands if they can see out their remaining games with victories, and the Etihad has resembled a fortress for much of the season. While the onus will be on Manchester City to break Villa down, playing into their ability to counterattack, it does seem as if City will have all too much to lose to throw away any possible points. With Yaya Toure back for the Citizens and a bench that could walk right into the Villa first team, it’s easier to see this game resembling the corresponding visit last season when Villa got trounced in the city of Manchester 5-0. Villa will be looking for a commanding performance from captain Ron Vlaar, and hope that Leandro Bacuna can curl in free-kicks the same way that he did earlier this season. Prediction: Manchester City 4-0 Aston Villa
Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa: Spurs are another side that have been a bit of an anomaly all season, but with the departure of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid in the summer, reinvested heavily to mount a claim for a Champions League berth. However, with the departure of AVB and the tumultuous relationship of Tim Sherwood with the club and the fans, Spurs have struggled to make a mark resembling any sort of consistency. Signings like Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli haven’t quite lived up to their potential, while Sherwood can take heart in the performances of Christian Eriksen and Emmanuel Adebayor, who will undoubtedly get the best of the shaky Villa defense. Villa and Spurs used to punch at the same weight, but looking at the Spurs squad, I suspect that Villa will be lucky to escape the game without conceding too many. Prediction: Tottenham Hotspur 2 – 1 Aston Villa
In summary, I think Villa will survive–just. I expect to see them retain their Premier League status by the skin of their teeth, and hopefully the rumors of a takeover can get some fresh new life in a club that should soon be challenging to achieve at the other side of the table.
Total Points for Aston Villa: 36 GD -22 Final Place in the Table: 17th
Sunderland supporters had long-since driven the nail in the proverbial coffin of their Premier League survival hopes as recently as a few months ago, yet a recent improvement in form has lifted them out of the doldrums of the bottom three and into 17th place. Sunderland are a club that have struggled for stability for most of the year, from the Paolo DiCanio saga, to player unrest, it seemed like a season doomed from the start.
However, they have certainly picked a great time to have a resurgence in form. Sunderland currently sit perilously above the relegation zone, but with a surprise draw with Manchester City and a victory over Chelsea, they are now twelfth in the form table with seven points from their last six fixtures. Connor Wickham has picked an opportune moment to prove his worth, firing a number of crucial goals, while winger Adam Johnson has rediscovered some of the form that helped guide him to a spot in the England team in the past. Odds for Sunderland to go down are still surprisingly favorable, with an average of about 3 to 1. Sunderland may just pick up another three or four points and secure survival.
Manchester United v Sunderland: Sunderland have a tricky run-in with an in-form Manchester United as their next opponents. Eschewing David Moyes out of the picture for a football philosophy purist like Ryan Giggs seems to have sparked the creative minds at United once again, and Sunderland will do well to yield the 4-0 rout of Norwich City this weekend–a performance which also had the vocal support of the Old Trafford faithful once again. I think despite Sunderland’s vitality in recent weeks, this next test might take a bit of the wind from their sails, as players like Johnson and Wickham may struggle to deal with the creativity poised by an in-form Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata combining as they did this past week. Prediction: Manchester United 3-1 Sunderland
Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion: This fixture, much like Villa’s clash with Manchester City referenced above, was rescheduled due to fixture congestion with the cup runs earlier in the year. With West Brom all but securing safety with 36 points, this could be a fine time for West Brom to visit the Stadium of Light. It’s likely that the Baggies may have one eye on the end of the season with nothing really to play for, while Sunderland will still be struggling to mathematically secure their safety. While West Brom did the double over Sunderland in last year’s league, they weren’t necessarily firing on all cylinders as they have been against City, Chelsea, and Cardiff City. However, the Black Cats are playing a lot like Aston Villa, able to turn out surprising results against bigger teams, but have struggled to break down teams around them throughout the bulk of the season. Like their recent win against Cardiff, this might be a good opportunity for Sunderland to show the league what they are capable of. Adam Johnson’s pace, combined with attack-minded players like Giaccherini, Borini, and Wickham may prove to be too much for a West Brom side that has struggled this year. Prediction: Sunderland 2-0 West Bromwich Albion
Sunderland v Swansea City: Sunderland’s final match of the season again comes at the Stadium of Light, where they will have to play fluid football against a Swansea side that love to pass and fluidly move the ball. Wilfried Bony and Jonjo Shelvey have been massive for the Welsh side throughout the course of the season, but especially in recent weeks. With Shelvey’s recent Wayne Rooney impersonation, a belter from the halfway line that rocketed into the top corner, he will certainly be a player that will keep the likes of O’Shea, Bardsley, and Brown occupied. Bony is the real danger, though, and it would be unsurprising to see him find the back of the net. I think that despite Sunderland’s ability to withstand a team such as Swansea, they may find themselves with another point in hand, cementing their survival in style. Prediction: Sunderland 1 – 1 Swansea City.
Sunderland will pull off the great escape, leap-frogging Villa on goal difference.
Total Points for Sunderland: 36 GD -20 Final Place in the Table: 16th
The unsurprising departure of Chris Hughton underscored an extremely lackluster season for Norwich City. The football club have looked well and truly lost. Under Hughton, there was a consensus among many Norwich supporters that they had almost conceded before each game began. There was a real sense of hopelessness that had enveloped the squad. The purchases of players Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper, lauded as tactically astute, in-form strikers, have largely disappointed as neither player seems to have adjusted well to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.
Under Neil Adams, things don’t seem much different. It would be unfair to place the blame of Norwich City’s impending relegation on Adams, as the situation the Canaries now find themselves in should have been aptly prepared for by Chris Hughton earlier in the year. Norwich should have taken more points from teams around them in the league, because now, with forthcoming fixtures against Arsenal and Chelsea, they face teams in the leagues upper echelons that still have everything to play for. It is difficult to see where Norwich will pick up another point.
Norwich City v Arsenal: When Arsenal roll into Carrow Road, they will be fondly recalling the last time they played Norwich, which resulted in a 4-1 victory for the home side. Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud will be two players in fine form that Norwich will have to be mindful of, yet I don’t see the home side being able to retain the combination play between someone like Ramsey, Ozil, Corzola or a finisher like Giroud. I imagine Arsenal will again walk out with a handy victory on their way to securing a Champions League position. Prediction: Norwich City 0-3 Arsenal
Chelsea v Norwich City: Chelsea’s dogged display at Liverpool had many calling foul play, with Jose Mourinho reportedly encouraging time-wasting tactics and a defensive display to halt Liverpool’s attack. Say what you will about a performance like this, but the Special One certainly knows how to play to his strengths. Regardless of the “weakened side” that Chelsea may field depending on their involvement in the Champions League at that juncture of the season, even their reserves should be comfortable in dealing with Norwich. Prediction: Chelsea 3-0 Norwich City
I see Norwich sinking further into trouble, and can’t imagine that the visit of Arsenal or trip to Stamford Bridge helping them sleep any easier in the coming weeks.
Total Points for Norwich City: 32 GD -38 Final Place in the Table: 19th; Relegated.
Fulham, another club who have switched managers once the going got tough, have seen a huge resurgence in form under the leadership of Felix Magath. Magath has long been derided as an incredibly difficult manager, but is somewhat a master of the great escape, helping clubs in his home country of Germany avoid the drop or grind out tough results on the short term.
With heavy investment in the January transfer window yielding only the underwhelming Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou, Fulham have been rotating an unsettled squad full of underperformers, like Darren Bent, who are simply failing to live up to their potential. Rodallega and Dejagah have helped Fulham register some important wins as of late, but with the draw at home to Hull City this weekend, the results are now well and truly out of their hands. Though they have taken seven points from their last six fixtures, and sit in fourteenth in the form table, Fulham are 1 to 4 to go down, and it’s unlikely seeing them as the heroes of the great escape considering their next two games are away to a resurgent Stoke City under Mark Hughes, and home to a rampant Crystal Palace.
Stoke City v Fulham: Stoke’s old brand of brutal, physical, direct football is starting to become a distant memory under Mark Hughes; Stoke are more fluid, dynamic, and with a solid plan to break teams down. Aside from Steve Sidwell, Fulham’s one constant performer in the middle of the park, it is hard to see another Fulham player whose name might strike fear into the hearts of Stoke City as they peer over their opponents on the team sheet. Fulham lack the tactical discipline that Stoke has displayed in recent weeks, ninth in the form table, with goals coming from Odemwingie, Crouch, N’Zonzi, Cameron, and more. Hughes has got Stoke firing, and Fulham may be another one of their victims as they climb into the comfort of mid-table. Though Stoke has been more fluid and dynamic, Fulham’s work rate and relentlessness may just see a player like Sidwell being to make a difference in the encounter. Prediction: Stoke City 2-1 Fulham
Fulham v Crystal Palace: When Palace appointed former long-ball merchant Tony Pulis to rescue them from the threat of relegation after Ian Holloway’s departure, no one expected Pulis to reinvigorate a side to challenge for their best finish ever in the Premier League era. I think this achievement will be something that Pulis will aim to continue, and struggle to see Fulham being able to keep a hold of players like Bolasie and the in-form Jason Puncheon. Palace are at the top of the form table, with the loss to Manchester City this weekend representing their only points dropped for their last six encounters. Fulham 1-3 Crystal Palace
Total Points for Fulham: 31 GD -45 Final Place in the Table: 20th; Relegated.
Former Manchester United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s return to the English league has not been the happiest. Though Cardiff have played some good football over the course of the season, Solskjaer was no stranger to the challenges that lay in keeping this team afloat in the English Premier League, describing the feat, were it to be achieved, as one of his “greatest achievements.” However, Cardiff City, dead last in the league table and hovering just above the relegation zone on the form table, are out and out favorites for the drop, and have to win both of their next matches to make the great escape. Cardiff are one in twelve for the drop, and should have better fortunes bedding into Solskjaer’s style of play in the Championship next season.
Newcastle United v Cardiff City: Newcastle United have become the league’s whipping boys a bit. After a flying start to the season where the Magpies seemed to be competing for at least a Europa League berth, Newcastle United have dramatically petered out under Alan Pardew immediately after the loss of Yohan Cabaye to PSG. Without Cabaye’s cunning and creativity, Newcastle have been firmly reliant on French striker Loic Remy to score–and while his record has certainly been admirable, this may represent Cardiff’s best chance at a lifeline. Newcastle sit third from bottom in the form table, and I just imagine the engine of Noone and Mutch getting the better of Newcastle. Prediction: Newcastle United 1-2 Cardiff City
Cardiff City v Chelsea: Again, it’s hard to see Chelsea giving up on their push for the title and the Champions League on the last day of the season; regardless of where they finish, Jose Mourinho and co. will want to ensure that their points tally is as high as possible. Their squad should have no trouble with Cardiff; at this point in the season, I would not be surprised to see starts for some of Chelsea’s more fringe players, yet expect a heavily rotated squad could still rout Cardiff and see them reach the Championship. Prediction: Cardiff City 0-3 Chelsea.
Total Points for Cardiff City: 33 GD -39 Final Place in the Table: 18th; Relegated.
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