London (AFP) – While the race for the Premier League title has become a contest solely between leaders Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, the battle to beat the drop is a more complicated affair.
With a maximum of five rounds left, the identities of the bottom three who will be relegated into the second-tier Championship come the end of the season have still to be confirmed.
Sunderland have excelled at staying up in recent seasons, but even their reputation as the Harry Houdini of the Premier League may not be enough to save them this time.
Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat by northeast rivals and fellow strugglers Middlesbrough left bottom of the table Sunderland 12 points adrift of safety with a maximum of 15 still available to them this season.
Defeat completed a wretched day for Sunderland manager David Moyes, who has been charged by England’s Football Association for telling a female reporter she might “get a slap”.
But the defiant Scot, whose side are at home to Bournemouth on Saturday, insisted he had no intention of walking out on the Black Cats.
“No, I’m here, I’m the manager, you take it on the chin. I am used to winning, I’m not used to losing and I don’t want to get used to it either.”
Marten de Roon’s ninth-minute strike gave Steve Agnew his first win since replacing Aitor Karanka as Middlesbrough boss and the club’s first in the league since December 17, although they remain six points shy of safety.
“We hadn’t won a game since December, so we needed to win the game,” said Agnew, whose side now face a daunting trip to Manchester City on Sunday.
– Clement confidence –
Swansea too had the morale boost of a win, a 2-0 victory over Stoke, last time out but they remain in the bottom three, two points from safety, ahead of their Sunday match at Manchester United.
“I am very confident that we will stay up,” said bullish Swansea coach Paul Clement.
“Maybe I would not have been if we had not got that good result and good performance against Stoke.”
Hull, just above the relegation zone, have earned 19 points out of 21 at home since manager Marco Silva was hired but they now face a potentially awkward trip to Southampton.
Reigning champions Leicester City have stumbled lately under Craig Shakespeare but a win at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday would all but guarantee their Premier League future following a 1-0 loss to Arsenal in midweek.
Chelsea, four points clear of Spurs, who’ve also got five league games remaining, are away to Everton on Sunday when Tottenham face Arsenal in the north London derby.
City and United remained a point apart in fourth and fifth respectively after Thursday’s goalless draw at the Etihad — a match where United’s Marouane Fellaini was sent off six minutes from time for a reckless headbutt on Sergio Aguero.
“I can guess it’s a bit of a red card and a bit of a very smart, very experienced Argentinian player (Aguero)”, said United manager Jose Mourinho.
Meanwhile City manager Pep Guardiola — due to finish a season trophyless for the first time in his managerial career — told the BBC: “Every game until the last game now will be a final.”
Liverpool, currently third, could find the table much changed by the time they kick off at Watford on Monday.
Fixtures (1400 GMT unless stated):
Saturday: Crystal Palace v Burnley (1630 GMT), Southampton v Hull, Stoke v West Ham, Sunderland v Bournemouth, West Brom v Leicester
Sunday: Everton v Chelsea (1205 GMT), Manchester United v Swansea (1100 GMT), Middlesbrough v Manchester City (1205 GMT), Tottenham v Arsenal (1530 GMT)
Monday: Watford v Liverpool (1900 GMT)
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