Yesterday this column took a look at the wonderfully close and intriguing battle for the title and Champions League places currently raging at the top of the Premier League table. Equally enrapturing this season though has been the tussle for survival. Tight all season; in the past couple of weeks the fight to remain in England’s premier competition had looked to be a little clearer. Certainly relegation candidates Swansea, West Brom, Norwich and Aston Villa kept losing, but so did Sunderland, Fulham and Cardiff, the three clubs currently in the drop zone. As long as those three continued to lose, there seemed little chance of anything changing. This week though, the whole situation was blown wide open. Wins for Cardiff and Fulham have made survival anyone’s to win or lose, a couple of great escapes could well be on. With an exhilarating end to the season awaiting, let’s take a closer look at those seven strugglers:
Aston Villa: A point and ahead of the rest and with a game in hand on most of their fellow strugglers, the Villains should be able to limp across the line. Villa’s really has been a case of inconsistency. At times Paul Lambert has his young charges playing some wonderful stuff, and on paper it really is a good squad. Guzan has come on leaps and bounds the past two seasons, and if the centre backs in front of him are susceptible at times, they are by no means terrible. The full backs are great going forward, and in midfield the combination of Westwood and Delph offers a nice balance of power and guile. Most potent is the attack, when all fit and firing, Agbonlahor, Weimann and Benteke are as good as trio as any. Therein has been the issue, that trio have played together not nearly enough times. When they are on the pitch Villa become an excellent counterattacking side able to take points off of the very best in the league, without that trio on form though Villa struggle to score and their weaknesses in defence are left exposed. With Benteke set to miss the rest of the season, it could be tight for Villa. The next three matches versus Southampton, Hull and fellow strugglers Swansea will be crucial, Lambert will not want to head into their final two games needing results against either Manchester City or Tottenham.
Swansea: Despite a good start, the Swans have continued to struggle under young manager Gary Monk, their earlier adventures in Europe seeming to have left a hangover. Three points above the drop, the Swans will be confident that they have the quality to avoid the drop. Prior to consecutive losses to Chelsea and Hull, Swansea beat fellow candidates Norwich and will take heart from the current poor form of Newcastle and Aston Villa whom they play next. Two wins would almost certainly see them safe. Lose however, and Swansea are faced with a difficult home tie versus the Saints and then a final day relegation showdown. Survival is the Swans’ to throw away.
West Brom: What was an alarming and seemingly relentless slide down the table by West Brom has slowly but surely been slowed in recent weeks, with Pep Mel finally getting some performances from his side. Eight points from an available fifteen leaves West Brom sat three points clear of the drop with a game in hand. Two tough fixtures versus Manchester City and Arsenal make it vital that West Brom make the most of the games they have left against clubs in the bottom half. Stoke and West Ham are both tough sides, but with little to play for, win those games and West Brom should just be fine.
Norwich City: Sacking Houghton with so few matches was a bold, bold move, whether it pays off will soon become clear. Momentum is not on Norwich’s side, consecutive losses to fellow survival strugglers is not what a club needs heading into a final run in of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. The Canaries really are relying on the clubs beneath them to stutter and fail, because it is perfectly feasible that Norwich will not add to their 32 points. Goals have been the issue all season and Norwich really need their strikers to wake up. Manchester United looks the easiest match, but that is hardly saying much. It may well come down to where Arsenal are sat come the final day. If the Gunners are assured of fourth, or have certainly missed out on fourth, Norwich may be able to overcome a side focused on the FA Cup final. If fourth is still up for grabs though, what little hope Norwich have could be gone.
Fulham: Two consecutive wins and the great escape is on! Fulham looked down and out. Felix Magath’s side looked relegated, done for, without a hope in hell, but with four games to go they are in with a shout. With a very winnable final three matches, Fulham fans are even heading into their hardest remaining match against Tottenham at the right time, with Spurs really struggling. If they do stay up then the loan of Lewis Holtby must go down as a masterstroke. The German international has been wonderful in recent weeks, and if Magath can get striker Mitroglou also fit and firing, that pair could well keep Fulham’s momentum going all the way to Premier League safety.
Cardiff: The drama seems to never end at Cardiff. First the new ownership, then the rebranding, then internal row bout transfer overspend, and now an apparent leak within the fractured club. It is remarkable then that the comically inconsistent club are still in with a shout of staying up. Their defending is farcical, but Solskjaer has got his lads playing some decent stuff going forward with a little help from a few former and current Manchester United boys. Six goals in two games have garnered just the one point, but Cardiff’s next three games are eminently winnable if they can just stop haemorrhaging goals. If they are going to stay up, the Bluebirds will need to be safe be before the final day of the season though, unless they want to rely on a result against a title chasing Chelsea.
Sunderland: On a five game losing streak and bottom of the table, the prognosis is not good for Sunderland’s survival chances. That said, the Black Cats do have two games in hand on the other two clubs currently in the drop zone, and prior to their current slump, Poyet actually had Sunderland playing some good stuff. There are goals in the side but Sunderland’s final run in really is a mixed bag. Three hard to win matches against Manchester City, United and Chelsea are balanced out by matches against fellow survival contenders Cardiff, West Brom and Swansea. Poyet needs to have his players ready for those latter three matches, as they are all must win, and even that may not be enough to maintain Premier League status.