Whilst Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho are busy arguing about big horses and small horses at the top of the table, the battle at the bottom is quietly descending into one of the tightest in Premier League history, with eight points separating 20th and 10th, and a mere three points between 18th and 13th. In this article, I will look to assess each of the teams in the relegation scrap and evaluate their chances of survival.
Swansea City - Current Position: 10th
The decision to sack Michael Laudrup was a strange one. The Swans have been disappointing this season, and have failed to live up to the high expectations they set last time round, however their campaign has not been entirely disastrous. European football has clearly taken its toll on a small squad, and the various injuries to key players throughout the season - most notably to Michu, who bagged 20 goals last season - have had a calamitous effect on the Welsh side. They’ve struggled to recapture the flowing football that blew away the nation last season, and opposing teams have begun to find leaks in their previously solid defense.
Yet despite all these problems, the club are still competing in Europe and find a large number of teams below them in the relegation scrap. The dismissal of Laudrup was certainly one I, nor many others, saw coming, especially with the decision to replace him with the inexperienced Garry Monk. With no Premier League experience, Monk has been thrown in at the deep end and will have to hit the ground running if they want to stay in the division. It’s an old cliché, but their squad really is too good to go down. A top half finish isn’t quite out of their sights, especially if Wilfried Bony can keep the goals rolling in.
West Ham United - Current Position: 11th
It’s not hard to see where the problem lies for West Ham. In the absence of Andy Carroll, the Hammers resorted to signing a player they released the previous summer in Carlton Cole, adopting a ‘false nine’ formation that clearly never worked. It’s no surprise, really, that they were flirting with relegation for the majority of the first half of the season, especially with various other injuries to the likes of Stuart Downing.
This means Andy Carroll is a crucial player after all. In his first start since joining West Ham in the summer, he helped his team battle to a 0-0 draw against Mourinho’s Chelsea before grabbing two assists in a 2-0 victory over Swansea. His controversial red card may temporarily halt his impact on this West Ham side, but should the Hammers keep him fit for the rest of the season, they should be relatively comfortable. Carroll is pivotal to the build up play at West Ham, and Kevin Nolan looks a different player when the big striker is around, so as long as Carroll doesn’t suffer a serious injury, West Ham’s squad should have enough quality to keep them up.
Aston Villa - Current Position: 12th
After being involved in a relegation struggle for the majority of last season, the one-time European chasers are looking like they might be involved in another one yet again. Villa’s home form has been a particular concern, with eight losses in thirteen, and an improvement in fortune at Villa Park may be vital if they are to be playing Premier League football next season.
The crucial factor of their survival last season, Christian Benteke, seems to be suffering from the infamous ‘second season syndrome,’ and it’s taken its toll on the club. However, the Belgian seems to be picking up form again, with three goals in his last four games. If he, alongside Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor, start firing in the goals again, it’s hard to see Villa being seriously troubled by relegation. Defensive stability will be an area Paul Lambert will want to improve, however, with just six clean sheets all season.
Hull City - Current Position: 13th
After struggling to hit the back of the net all season, with just 22 goals scored in 23 games prior to the start of February, Steve Bruce parted with a reported fee of £12m to bring in Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic. Since then, Long has grabbed two goals, Jelavic has bagged one, ensuring two excellent results: a point against Tottenham and all three points away at relegation rivals Sunderland.
Prior to the 1-1 draw with Tottenham, in which Long secured his debut goal, the club had failed to score a league goal in 2014. Now, with the acquisition of two Premier League-proven strikers to build on the foundation set by their solid defense - the 7th best in the league - the Tigers may just begin to pull away from the relegation zone. With the exception of Manchester City in the middle of March, the next two months are filled with matches that Hull have a real chance of winning, and if they could go into April with a clear gap between them and the relegation zone, they will have a great chance of survival. Their home form will be pivotal, with just three defeats at the KC Stadium all season, two coming at the hands of Chelsea and Manchester United.
Stoke City - Current Position: 14th
It’s been a quiet season for the Potters as they attempt to make the transition from seven stable years under Tony Pulis. Mark Hughes has come in and tried to change the style of football to varying levels of success. Everything about their season spells mid-table mediocrity, quietly going about their business without really falling into a real battle for relegation or pushing for the top half of the table.
Stoke’s home form remains solid, with just two losses at the Britannia all season. However, their defensive problems remain a worry, with only Cardiff and Fulham conceding more than them this season. Failure to sort out such problems could see them slipping into trouble if they’re not careful, and their almost guaranteed spot as the last match on Match of the Day may not be there next season. They lack a clinical striker, clearly shown by the fact that their top scorer is Charlie Adam, and it might prove costly as the season goes on.
Crystal Palace - Current Position: 15th
The club dubbed to be ‘already relegated’ at the start of the season are now sitting comfortably in 15th, having picked up 16 points out of 21 at home under Tony Pulis. Selhurst Park has been a fortress for Palace so far and it will have to be for the rest of the season, with visits from Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool all to come. Their away form remains a significant worry, with two wins and ten losses on the road, but it is their travels that will be decisive to their survival.
The seven remaining away games for Palace are Everton, Swansea, Sunderland, Newcastle, Cardiff, West Ham and Fulham on the last day. Lose a large majority of those, and it’s hard to see where they’re going to pick up points at home. The five new arrivals on deadline day will do the Eagles the world of good, adding much needed depth to their squad, and they will need to quickly repay Palace the money they paid for their services if they want to be playing Premier League football next season.
As the side with the worst scoring record in the league this season - netting a mere 18 goals - it was surprising that the club decided not to buy a striker in January, and it could be a decision that comes back to haunt them. Defensively, however, they are much more solid under Pulis, especially against the teams around them, with just three goals conceded in their last nine games against teams in the bottom half of the table.
Norwich City - Current Position: 16th
Being totally honest, I had Norwich down for the top half at the start of the season. With the arrivals of Leroy Fer and Ricky van Wolfswinkel, I thought the club would be able to build on their 11th placed finish last year and maybe even be outsiders for Europe. How wrong I was. Fer has been quietly disappointing, albeit with flashes of brilliance, whilst £7.5m striker van Wolfswinkel has failed to score since the opening day of the season. Gary Hooper and Nathan Redmond have added some vigour to their attack, but with only 19 goals scored all season, it’s not hard to see where the problem lies.
The Canaries decided not to purchase a new forward in the transfer window, and will be relying on Gary Hooper or van Wolfswinkel to pick up form. Their defensive record is hardly something to be proud of either, with 37 goals conceded, giving them the 5th worst tally in the league. If you can’t score and you can’t defend, you normally look to make your home ground a tough place to visit, with an intimidating atmosphere that makes the blood of even the most professional of players turn white. However, that hasn’t happened either. Carrow Road was an incredibly tough place to visit last year, and their home form was a key factor of their 11th placed finish, but it just hasn’t been the same this year, and the signs are not looking good for Norwich City.
West Bromwich Albion - Current Position: 17th
At this stage last season, Albion were seven places better off than they are now and would go on to finish a record 8th place at the end of season. Fast forward a year, and they’re right in the midst of a relegation battle. A few weeks ago, they were a long 7/1 for relegation when I decided to have a punt on them, but now they are just 5/2. With only one win in their last 15, that is truly relegation form and drastic changes will have to be made by new manager Pepe Mel.
The Spaniard is still looking for his first win in charge and the language barrier due to his incapability to speak English will certainly not help him in getting his message across. Early indications suggest that Mel is trying to bring a more fluid, passing system to West Brom, but the lack of a striker of real quality up front might just halt their advances. Their top scorer, Saido Berahino, is a 20-year-old who has just broken into the team this season, making their decision to sell Shane Long without buying a replacement even stranger. It is no surprise that Albion have had the most draws in the league this season, largely down to their lack of efficiency up top. If they are to stay up, they will have to score goals, and to be perfectly honest, I cannot see where that is going to come from.
Sunderland - Current Position: 18th
It’s amazing what being allowed to eat ketchup can do to your footballing abilities, isn’t it? Since Paolo Di Canio left the club in September, taking with him his totalitarianism regime that the squad despised, the Black Cats have gone from relegation certainties at the foot of the table to 14th briefly, although they fell back down to 17th following the defeat to Hull.
The credit has to go to Gus Poyet, who has transformed this side and has instilled a new-found belief across the club. Whether that’s down to the removal of the ban of ketchup is yet to be seen. On the pitch, Sunderland are looking much more potent in attack - especially with the recent form of Adam Johnson - and the club have a trip to Wembley to look forward to in the Capital One Cup final against Manchester City. The defense still remains a problem for Sunderland, however, with the 4th worst defensive record in the league, and their headache at the back might just drag them into a relegation battle.
Cardiff City - Current Position: 19th
After the controversial sacking of Malky Mackay in December, Cardiff City and Vincent Tan haven’t really showed many signs of justifying that decision. Despite the poor run of form that led to the dismissal of Mackay, the club were still in a relatively comfortable position and I doubt that many had them down for relegation. That’s probably not the case now. The club lie two points adrift of safety in 19th place, and with the second worst defensive record and third worst attacking record in the league, it’s not looking good for the Bluebirds.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s arrival has done little to eradicate their problems, but his January signings, including Wilfried Zaha from Manchester United, might just boost their chances of survival. They showed incredible character and then resolve to come from behind to beat Norwich City last week, and it is that determination that they will need to show week in week out until the end of the season. Defensively, they look vulnerable every time they lose the ball, with the back four very exposed, and it is something that Solskjaer will have to address if he wants to keep Cardiff up.
Fulham - Current Position: 20th
Sheffield United are a team struggling in League One, sitting precariously in the relegation zone, battling to avoid dropping into the fourth tier of English football. Fulham failed to score a goal against them for over 210 minutes. And in the words of manager Rene Meulensteen, they “could have played until next month and not scored a goal.” That’s not the sort of words you want to hear from your manager if you’re a Fulham fan, especially when talking about Sheffield United, with all due respect to the Blades.
In the league, Fulham have conceded a monumental 53 goals this season, whilst only scoring 22. Their defense is all over the place, and it could be argued that none of their defenders are of Premier League standard, especially with the decline in form of Brede Hangeland. The midfield and attack hardly screams quality either, with very little creativity from an ageing squad. The acquisition of Konstantinos Mitroglou and Lewis Holtby, among others, will add to their attacking prowess, but the former will have to settle in quickly if he is to keep the Cottagers up, as he looks to be the only capable goalscorer Fulham seem to have in their squad.
When looking at the players Fulham have, I struggle to find any real Premier League quality that I believe will give them a real shot at staying up, especially with the London side already four points adrift of safety. The team lacks energy and variety in attack, whilst their defensive shape looks unbalanced and unprotected every time they’re asked to defend. After already sacking Martin Jol earlier this season, questions over Meulensteen’s were beginning to be asked, with the club answering with their second sacking of the season, replacing him with Felix Magath. Usually, when such a situation arises, it’s normally because the players are not good enough, and if the players aren’t good enough, the chances are that they will be playing Championship football next season.
Fulham, unfortunately, look certainties for the drop, and I cannot see them extending their 12-year stay in the Premier League. I’ve also got Norwich down to get relegated; their lack of firepower up top and leaky defense spells trouble, especially considering their run-in which includes Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal as their last four games.
West Brom is my third team for the drop, and I think their struggle to score goals will cost them in the end. Their defense isn’t strong enough to rely on scrappy 1-0 wins, and with a manager that is new to English football, I see Albion going down. Palace will just stay up for me, with Pulis’ experience and tenacity a vital advantage to have, whilst Cardiff’s new signings in January might just about keep them afloat.