As yet another Premier League campaign approaches the fantastically accurate ‘squeaky bum time’, there is quite possibly more on the line this year than ever before. Relegation to the Championship from the world’s most popular division is never anything but a disaster, but with the recently agreed television sponsorship deal equating to the astounding figure of over £5 billion, the drop is something that could become fatal for the clubs concerned. Parachute payments are of course still in place but it does little to change the fact that sides still rarely bounce straight back up into the big time, often requiring time to reassess and recover. Which teams are involved in the relegation dog-fight this time around and who are best placed to avoid dropping out of the Premier League?
Both Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion have been deep in the mire earlier in the season, struggling to pick up draw at times let alone victories. However, a change at the helm has turned their fortunes around and you would have to say at this stage that neither look in real danger of missing out on Premier League football next season. A change in management before it was too late could well prove to be the crucial factor here and interestingly, the teams discussed in this article either waited a lot longer to make the call or have in fact stuck with the man in charge. Will they live to regret the decision, or will that loyalty drive their side on to rescue the situation at the final hurdle?
With only a solitary point to show for their efforts at home to Hull City at the weekend, Leicester currently find themselves rooted to the bottom of the Premier League and 7 points adrift of 17th placed Sunderland; albeit with a game in hand over their relegation rivals. A victory against The Tigers would have been just the result they required to kick-start a late push for survival and realistically, there are not too many opportunities as golden as this one still to come. Having to face Tottenham, Chelsea, and Southampton before the end of the season is hardly the easiest of run-ins, but their one saving grace is the multitude of remaining fixtures against fellow strugglers and those in mid-table. Picking up crucial victories here is there only plausible hope of avoiding dropping straight back into the Championship after only one season in the Premier League.
Burnley vs Leicester City: As the first of Leicester City’s two matches remaining against a team who were also promoted from the second tier last time around, it could well be their biggest game of the season to date. The Foxes will have to hope that they are not cut adrift from the rest of the pack by this point and travel to Turf Moor with aspirations of sending the local following home miserable.
Sunderland vs Leicester City: Gus Poyet and his side pulled off one of the great Premier League escapes last season, seeming to everyone to be down and out before achieving survival with a terrific run of form in the final act. However, there has been no sign of such a momentous recovery this time around and the 4-0 home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa on Saturday was one of their lowest points in recent history. If Leicester can capitalise on this ill feeling of the home support and turn the crowd against The Black Cats, it could well prove to be one of their more winnable fixtures.
Leicester City vs Queen’s Park Rangers: If this Premier League season plays out like the previous few seem to have done, then the fixture with the highest drama may well be found at The King Power Stadium. Even if results go their way from now until then, neither side are likely to be safe for another year and; with their fate quite possibly resting on a combination of scores from around the country, the tension would be palpable. A positive aspect for Leicester City is QPR’s horrific form away from Loftus Road, with only one win on their travels to date. If three points prove to be enough for the Midland side here, expect them to be the favourites to secure them.
Esteban Cambiasso: The Argentine veteran has become used to success at every level throughout his wonderful career, and a relegation dog-fight demands an entirely new set of requirements. His experience of high pressure situations will be key.
Riyad Mahrez: Leicester City need goals and creativity in order to pick up the necessary points and in Riyad Mahrez, they have a man with genuine ability. Ulloa; Leicester’s early season hero, has gone off the boil somewhat and it is time for the Algerian to pick up the baton.
Wes Morgan: Club captain and central defender, Morgan has not enjoyed the finest of seasons after an exemplary one during their promotion campaign. With goals at the other hand proving hard to come by despite the addition of record signing Andrej Kramaric, clean sheets are a must If Leicester are to keep picking up points.
Final Standing prediction:
Despite the 2-1 victory over Leicester City only a day after Tim Sherwood took the reins at Villa Park, the immediate start to his stewardship would have to be considered as lack-lustre. The proximity of the game against Leicester and his appointment make it unfair to claim responsibility and consecutive losses by a single goal to Stoke and Newcastle were hardly the start that was craved.
However, Villa and Sherwood’s season sparked into life as 2 victories within a week were claimed over their Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion. There was a notable change in attitude and commitment levels from the players and the behaviour of the fans; while shameful, did at least display a significant improvement over the drab acceptance under Paul Lambert. Against West Brom, the ex-Spurs boss was pitted directly against Tony Pulis; a man who has been on the receiving end of a great deal of praise in recent times. Arresting the slump at Crystal Palace last season before being handed a similar task at The Hawthorns and succeeding yet again. Despite this, it was Sherwood who came out triumphant and the importance of this should not be overlooked.
Their 4-0 victory at the Stadium of Light over a struggling Sunderland side compounded the terrific run of form being demonstrated by The Villans. With confidence well and truly on an upward curve, Sherwood looks set to lead Aston Villa out of trouble, for another year at least.
The side in Claret and Blue hardly have an easy run of Premier League fixtures until the end of the season, facing Champions League chasers Manchester United, Spurs, and Southampton in addition to a trip to The Etihad. Furthermore, they are one of the few teams in relegation trouble who have any additional competitions to contend with, having progressed into the semi-finals of The FA Cup where they will face either Liverpool or Blackburn at Wembley.
There are certainly match-ups in the remaining 9 games where; following their recent resurgence, the Villa faithful will be expecting rather than hoping to pick up maximum points. Home matches against Swansea, QPR, Everton, and Burnley are those which will decide Aston Villa’s future and after arresting an incredibly poor run of form at home, 9 points or more from these games are not inconceivable.
Aston Villa vs Queen’s Park Rangers: Villa will hope to compound the Londoner’s misery on the road in this upcoming fixture and in order to continue their recent progression away from the relegation zone, they really should not be looking at anything other than three points. QPR are an entirely different proposition on their own ground and the 2-0 defeat suffered at Loftus Road earlier in the campaign was played under completely different circumstances.
Aston Villa vs Everton: While Everton under Roberto Martinez have been proving a tough opposition for all-comers in the Europa League, this has not been the case at all in the Premier League. Whatever you say about David Moyes, his Everton teams never rolled over without a fight and you get the impression that some of the Merseysider’s performances in the Premier League have been a little lightweight. With this considered, and the additional strains placed on them by Thursday night European football, Aston Villa can see this as a real opportunity to secure all three points.
Aston Villa vs Burnley: Aston Villa fans will be hoping to be secure in their Premier League status by this point of the season, with it being their final game for another campaign. If results continue to follow the current trend, then I too expect this to be the case but even if not, Villa may be handed another life-line by the utterly winnable home game against Burnley. The Lancashire side could well be down at this point with nothing but pride to play for, leaving Villa to pick up the spoils.
Christian Benteke: Long-term injury side, the Christian Benteke on display prior to Tim Sherwood’s arrival at Villa Park was perhaps even less than a shadow of his former self. In the last few weeks however, he has returned to the bustling beast of a man that terrorised defences while maintaining the delicate touch that allows penalties to be scored in the manner of the late winner against rivals West Brom.
Fabian Delph: One of the very few consistent performers throughout the dark times this season for Villa has been Fabian Delph. Now, there is not even the constant contract cloud hanging over him after committing his future to the club. Being able to concentrate solely on his performances on the pitch should lead to continual showings of energy and quality that are sorely lacking by players at other struggling sides.
Gabriel Agbonlahor: A man with pace to burn but whose quality in the final third is rarely far from being questioned, Gabby Agbonlahor seems to have found a new lease of life under Sherwood. Snapping up some goals in recent times will do wonders for his confidence and if he can secure a few more before the end of the season, expect him to fire Villa to safety.
Final Standing prediction:
Saturday was an abysmal showing for all concerned at Sunderland as they suffered an embarrassing 4-0 home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa. The disgust of the fans was all too clear to see even in the first half of proceedings, let alone at full time. Regardless of the poor reception, Sunderland players must attempt to block out the environment and draw on the inspiration of their survival against all odds last season.
Gus Poyet was a relatively new man at the helm last year but does not have that to draw on this time around. In my opinion, it will be even more of a surprise should The Black Cats achieve safety in 2015. The general feeling seems to be deep in a trough rather than riding the crest of a wave, and they have to negotiate some of the strongest sides in the Premier League. Away trips to Arsenal and Chelsea loom on the horizon as well as welcoming Southampton to The Stadium of Light, none of which will likely be fruitful for Sunderland.
Sunderland vs Newcastle: The Tyne-Wear derby is always a feisty affair and it has heralded a fantastic recent record for The Black Cats in the Premier League. It is scheduled for the first week in April and comes early enough to possibly spark a revival. Sunderland have won the last four meetings and have not been defeated in any of the last six. Should they continue this record, the confidence may just return.
Everton vs Sunderland: By the time that this fixture rolls around, Everton are likely to be out of relegation trouble and could even be coming off the back of a taxing trip to a far-flung corner of Eastern Europe. When a side is struggling to win over their fans; as is certainly the case with Sunderland, you sometimes observe the phenomenon of improved form away from home. With both of these factors considered, this game could prove to be a good chance for Sunderland to pick up some points.
Sunderland vs Leicester City: As the penultimate game of the season, pressure on both sides in this contest will be unthinkably high and whoever rises to the occasion with greater vigour will be favourite to go on and take three points. In a game of this importance, a draw is unlikely to do either side many favours which could make for an archetypal ‘six pointer’.
Jermain Defoe: Once Jermain Defoe was brought in from Toronto in a deal which saw the misfiring Jozy Altidore go in the opposite direction, I felt sure that the ex-England forward would fire Sunderland to safety. It has not turned out that way at all so far and while he has hit the back of the net, it needs to be with much greater frequency for The Black Cats to be sure of staying up.
Lee Cattermole: For much of his career, Lee Cattermole was little more than the man who was never far from a suspension. However, under Gus Poyet he has grown into much more and taken the responsibility of captaincy in his stride. More facets of his game have been on display and he must return to those heights for Sunderland to win more points.
Costel Pantilimon: The giant Romanian cemented his place between the sticks at Sunderland following Vito Mannone’s horror show at St. Mary’s earlier in the campaign and his performances have been markedly better. Nevertheless, Sunderland’s dire circumstances now require him to become a match-winner rather than just a solid pair of hands at the back.
Final Standing prediction:
After a fabulous 2014 season for the club on the pitch which saw them reach the FA Cup final for the first time. Such a fabulous achievement was only made more pleasant by the successful retention of Premier League football at The KC Stadium for another year at least. Whilst they have been unable to provide a repeat of their cup heroics this time around, survival in England’s top tier for a second successive season certainly looks attainable and for a club the size of Hull City, this is not something that should be taken for granted just yet.
As was the case for the first few seasons that Stoke City or Wigan Athletic enjoyed in the sunshine of the Premier League, their first ambition would always have been that much sought after position of 17th after 38 games. Nothing is different at Hull and I am sure Steve Bruce is well aware of that. Their 3-game run in February against Man City, Aston Villa and Queen’s Park Rangers where they came away with seven points could well prove to be vital in their search for survival. It provided them with the required breathing room before a strenuous run-in. Furthermore, although they were not victorious against either Sunderland or Leicester, it was paramount that they did not lose and as such, no ground was gained by their rivals. There are not many games remaining for The Tigers which stand out as real opportunities to pick up points, so they must take advantage where they can.
Crystal Palace vs Hull City: Crystal Palace under Alan Pardew have ridden the crest of a wave and have shot to safety almost undetected. Their players are now playing without pressure which could give them the freedom to express themselves but also, it may leave them bereft of desire and determination. Of course, Pardew will be keen to banish these thoughts but the fact is that Steve Bruce’s side will have more to play for.
Hull City vs Burnley: As their only remaining match against a side who you would really class as being under a genuine threat of relegation, Hull must look at securing all three points against Burnley. The KC Stadium can be a powerful weapon when the fans really get behind the players and The Tigers will need their experienced heads to go to the well one last time and get a win whatever the cost.
Hull City vs Manchester United: Hull have encountered Manchester United a few times now in their Premier League lives, and their relationship has thus far not been a fruitful one for the men in black and amber. However, they have given the Red Devils a scare on more than one occasion and as everyone can see all too clearly, Van Gaal’s Manchester United are not firing on all cylinders. I would not be too surprised to see a shock here if Hull still need something from their final game of the season to stay up.
Curtis Davies: The English centre-half’s displays last season caused many to believe that he deserved a place in Roy Hodgson’s 23-man World Cup party. That never came to fruition and his form this season have not approached those incredibly high standards. It is hard to ascertain precisely why, but it has not been helped by poor defensive displays by the side in general. Interestingly, the captain was left on the bench for their recent draw against Leicester, but it is now time for him to stand up and lead from the front for the remaining matches.
Nikica Jelavic: Hull City’s leading goal-scorer this year has led the line well for them and provided a pivotal focal point for the likes of Ramirez and Hernandez to play off. He has not been as lethal in front of goal as he was in his Everton days but has rekindled something of a goal-scoring touch in recent appearances. His partnership with Dame N’Doye will be crucial to Hull’s shot at survival.
Dame N’Doye: As a January signing from Lokomotiv Moskow, the Senegalese striker has been an instant hit on Humberside. His poacher’s instinct has caused him to grab three goals already in his six appearances and it is that ability in the six yard box to finish off half chances that could serve Hull so well in the dying embers of the Premier League season.
Final Standing prediction:
Queen’s Park Rangers
The winners of last season’s Championship play-off final at Wembley came into the Premier League under the stewardship of veteran Harry Redknapp but they have since parted ways and Chris Ramsey has been appointed from within. Form has hardly picked up and while QPR have not been incapable of pulling off the odd shock result, they have been far too infrequent to guarantee survival in England’s top tier.
Their record away from Loftus Road has been nothing short of abysmal; the worst in the division by some distance in fact, only picking up 3 points in the entire campaign. They also have the worst goal difference in the division, largely down to the vast numbers that they concede. The performances of Charlie Austin in home games kept The Rs in contention in the earlier months of the season but even his goals seem to have dried up somewhat. Ramsey’s appointment has not had the desired effect; something comparable to that of Pulis or Pardew, and he finds his side facing nigh on impossible trips to Anfield and The Etihad in addition to hosting Chelsea before their fate is decided.
Queen’s Park Rangers vs Everton: With their home form being QPR’s saving grace for much of this season, this trend simply has to continue right until the last. Although Everton have just achieved a resounding 3-0 victory at home to Newcastle, it is not as though this has been commonplace throughout the season. A long trip to Ukraine only a couple of days prior will not help Everton’s cause and to apply pressure on their rivals, the Londoners should look to pick up all three points.
Aston Villa vs Queen’s Park Rangers: The newly revived Aston Villa under Tim Sherwood will undoubtedly provide a stiffer test for QPR than would have been the case earlier last month. This should be one of the matches between relegation rivals where QPR may well be happy to leave Villa Park with a point.
Leicester City vs Queen’s Park Rangers: What a tense clash scheduled for the final day of the season. Of course, it could be the case that one or even both of these sides have been relegated by the time this game comes around, however if their Premier League lives are on the line, expect a dogged fight with proceedings most likely dominated by desire rather than quality.
Charlie Austin: Widely touted for a call-up to the national team, Charlie Austin is the primary reason why QPR have amassed most of their Premier League points. His finishing prowess and ability to take chances are attributes that would not go amiss in sides much further up the league table. In the 9 games remaining for QPR, he should target 5 goals that; if the defence do their bit, may just be enough to keep them out of trouble.
Robert Green: The former England keeper has had one of his better campaigns in recent times and it has not been rare to see him standing alone against a barrage of shots from the opposition. In a not too dissimilar situation to David Marshall last season for Cardiff, Green has put himself in the shop window with a string of good saves that QPR’s leaky defence have ‘allowed’ him to show off.
Leroy Fer: The mercurial Dutchman brings a glint of flair and guile to an otherwise rather bland midfield line-up on some occasions. He initially struggled to pick up the pace of the Premier League but has come into his own recently with some good quality from dead-ball situations and picking up possession between the lines of defence.
Final Standing prediction:
After being promoted from England’s second tier last season, Burnley did not take the route of either Leicester or QPR and decided to take on the might of the Premier League on a shoe-string budget. Sean Dyche; dubbed by some as the ‘ginger Mourinho’, has a wonderful ability to galvanise his squad into a fantastically together unit and make players perform above their level.
Throughout this campaign, their desire has not once been called into question and this has led to some outstanding results for a side will the lack of financial muscle that Burnley have at their disposal. Most recently of course, they beat a title-chasing Manchester City side into submission by one goal to nil and by an overwhelming majority of opinion, these were a well deserved three points.
Performances like this and in fact the determination to come back from 2 goals down in the reverse fixture against The Etihad giants are what is required in every encounter between now and the end of the season. They are currently embedded in a horrendous sequence of fixtures which has seen them pitted against Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United in quick succession but from the end of April onwards, there are several winnable games lined up. It is quite possibly here where Burnley’s Premier League future will be decided.
Burnley vs Leicester City: Two of the promoted sides from last season face each other in this match-up with both likely to be lying in the relegation zone when kick-off comes around. It will be interesting to see which board room philosophy comes out on top here; spending your way to success or living within your means.
Hull City vs Burnley: The Lancashire club have only managed one win away from Turf Moor all season and you would imagine that their trip to the KC Stadium presents them with the best chance to repeat this feat in the games available to them. Hull themselves will be fired up for sure though, so expect this to be a blood and thunder occasion with the victor standing themselves in much better stead for their final 2 games.
Aston Villa vs Burnley: By the time that this fixture comes around, Aston Villa may well be sitting pretty above the famous 40 point mark in Tim Sherwood’s success continues at its current rate. For Burnley, they are almost certain to still be fighting tooth and nail to hold onto Premier League football and that extra hunger could just bridge the gap in quality.
Danny Ings: One member of Burnley’s squad who you would have to say is perfectly suited to a much longer stay in the Premier League, Danny Ings is almost certain to move on from Turf Moor at the end of the season regardless of where Burnley end up. His knack of knowing where the goal is and being able to pull off unnatural finishes are traits that are valued by much wealthier clubs and The Clarets will have to hope that he can show off these talents at least a few more times in their colours.
Scott Arfield: Scott Arfield is the creative force in Burnley’s midfield and must be the supply line for chances to Danny Ings. He is not averse to putting in a challenge but unlike most around him, he possesses the extra quality required to hurt defences and must deploy this skill to the maximum if Burnley are to stand a chance.
Ashley Barnes: His greater physical presence in an attacking third of the field compliments Ings well for Sean Dyche’s side and has impressed with an eye for goal following a return to consistent first team action. He now needs to step up that contribution and bag as many strikes as he can to give Burnley’s defensive players some breathing room.
Final Standing prediction:
Comment below or on twitter @TBRFootball with your predictions of which three teams are living on borrowed time in the Premier League.