Only eight games remain. As many as 10 teams could conceivably still be threatened with the dreaded drop. Has time run out already for QPR and Reading? A lot of questions remain at the bottom end of the table as we enter the final phase of the season.
Barring a miracle, you would have to feel that managerless Reading and QPR are now powerless to beat the drop. A lack of quality has been evident at Reading throughout the season, in all areas. Home form is often key to a clubs chances of survival during the course of a long season, and that is something that hasn’t been consistent enough. Despite rousing performances such as the comebacks against West Brom (to win) and Chelsea (to draw), home performances have been far too inconsistent, with only four home wins in fifteen played.
Along with that, Reading possess the worst defensive record in the league with 57 conceded, and the worst away record with only five points from a possible forty-five. Worse still, they have no manager at the helm. The timing of Brian McDermott’s sacking seemed unfair and unwarranted given the lack of time that a new boss will have. The real issue this season has stemmed however, from a lack of investment in the playing staff. The money spent by the club on transfer fees has been modest and well within their means, and predominantly on Championship/League One players with no top-flight know how and experience. Ultimately it looks increasingly like a strategy that won’t pay off, and with McDermott’s sacking, it seems like panic may have set in – either way, expect them to be relegated as a result.
QPR would appear to be well on their way to joining Reading in the Championship. Despite adopting the complete opposite approach to their transfer dealings, a title winning run of form is necessary for Harry Redknapp to save them for relegation. Their run of fixtures in the close season run-in are relatively kind, but of similar difficulty to Reading, with fifth-placed Arsenal at home providing the sternest opposition on paper. But Redknapp has admitted that he feels 37 points to be the bare minimum needed to survive this season – a figure that would require QPR to take at least 14 points from their final eight fixtures. Broken down, that equates to victory in at least half of those matches, and two draws and two defeats to come. It seems unlikely for a team who have only won four games all season (thirty played.) The most worrying aspect of QPR’s plight must surely be the financial implications relegation will have, and the extroadinary amount of money they have blown on wages and transfer fees.
As a result, they do possess more quality in their squad then Reading, and the January signings of Remy, Townsend, and Jenas have vastly improved them going forward, along with the solid Samba in defence. The trouble is that its come too little, too late – and the repercussions with relegation are sure to be severe.
So who will join them? With the league table as it stands, teams as high as Stoke in 11th place will still be looking over their shoulders despite enjoying a seven-point cushion to the drop zone. But while their home form may have dipped over the last couple of months, Stoke have more than enough in reserve to make sure they don’t slip into trouble. Likewise, Norwich and the French-led renaissance at Newcastle have enough quality and determination in their squads to fend off any possible threat to their status. West Ham too should have nothing to worry about, though a victory sooner rather than later will ease the nerves of Sam Allardyce and an Upton Park faithful struggling for consistent results and confidence of late.
That leaves the final relegation spot to be realistically contested between Sunderland, Southampton, Aston Villa and Wigan.
Sunderland may be in the most comfortable position of the four teams in question, but they are on a shocker of a run. Ever since back-to-back wins against West Ham and Wigan, they haven’t won in seven games, and only picked up three points in the process. A problem all season has been the ability to find the net, with only Steven Fletcher and the penalty taking abilities of Craig Gardner proving reliable sources for goals. To make matters worse, the fixture list is not kind either. Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton are among three of the next four opponents – each of those sides in the top six. Their other fixture in that period will be a fiercely contested local derby away at Newcastle. The potential is there for their dreadful run of form to continue, and Martin O’Neill will not want to need a result on the final day of the season, as a trip to high-flying Tottenham awaits..
Southampton shocked everybody when they dismissed Nigel Adkins in mid-January. The immediate appointment of a non-English speaking manager in Mauricio Pochettino seemed risky at the time, and results have in reality fared no better since his arrival. Despite that, the style and spirit that Adkins built at Southampton has continued to shine under the new manager, and despite results not necessarily reflecting their performances, many pundits and fans alike continue to admire the way they have performed. In Rickie Lambert, they have the leading English goalscorer in the Premier League, and a reliable source of goal getting. His linkup play with the likes of Lallana, Puncheon and Rodriguez have provided the Saints with valuable firepower, and led them to significant wins against Manchester City and Liverpool. Their defensive worries remain however, as at times they leak goals far too easily. Having said that, they have one of the better run-ins of the teams near the bottom, and will feel they have as good a chance as any of the four to beat the drop..
On paper, the two in most danger remain Aston Villa and Wigan, who both continue to be anamolies. Villa are occasionally awful, and at times look bright and full of talent – whilst Wigan seem to start their season from the beginning of March onwards, having played themselves into all sorts of trouble in the previous six months. It’s tough to call which team you fear for most.
Paul Lambert’s team have had problems all season with their lack of leadership, defensive discipline and experience throughout the team. The absence of Stiliyan Petrov has left a gaping hole in their midfield, and defensively they have been all over the place for the majority of the campaign. Despite the tough times, Lambert must be admired for his courage and belief in this extremely youthful and raw squad. He has stuck with his philosophy of evolving his players on the pitch, and not shying them away from the intense media scrutiny some of their performances have come under.
At times, they have been wonderful to watch, particularly in the striking department. Christian Benteke has been a real find with his pace, strength and ability to finish, whilst Andreas Weimann has shown occasional flashes of brilliance and individual ability. The what-if question will linger on though as to whether Villa would be in this predicament had Lambert not had a well documented fallout with England’s £24m striker, Darren Bent. Could he have formed a lethal partnership with Benteke? We’ll never know this season. As far as fixtures go, you’d say Villa have their work cut out. A fairly dismal home record is unlikely to be improved upon against Liverpool and Chelsea, which leaves huge pressure on the home fixtures against Fulham and relegation rivals Sunderland. A daunting trip to Manchester United also awaits, and a showdown final day fixture is very much in the pipeline..
Currently, they hold a three-point initiative over Wigan. A side who continue to baffle fans and pundits alike with their performances from week to week. It’s no secret that Roberto Martinez likes his team to play attractive football that allows his creative players to express themselves. The weakness with such a philosophy is that they are all too often exposed at the back, and have an equally poor defensive fragility as Aston Villa do, with 56 goals conceded. But this time of season is fast becoming known as Wigan time, as they suddenly come to life and realise the gravity of the situation. With an FA Cup semi-final place under their belt, and history on their side, Wigan may just be building the momentum they need to perform another heroic great escape.
And wouldn’t you just know the fixture list has thrown up another potentially thrilling finale to the season. Winnable home-games against Swansea and Norwich remain, with Champions League hopefuls Tottenham still to visit the DW. Follow that with crunch matches away at fellow strugglers QPR, West Ham, a resurgent Arsenal and title chasing Manchester City, and you find yourself thinking it could come down to the last day again. Wigan have proven themselves to be great escape artists in the last two seasons, and this season, things couldn’t get any bigger than a potential winner take all home game – against Aston Villa.
By then of course, it could be academic. But just incase it isn’t, be sure to not just keep your eyes on this one, but on the game at White Hart Lane as Sunderland are potentially in big, big trouble….