This time every season we are told that we are about to witness the greatest title race of all time. Of course, those telling us that rely on brand EPL for their wages, be it from TV stations or newspapers. This year they could very well be right, with the two pre-season favourites unable to shake off a persistent Spurs side that we have been told from day one are not good enough. However, no matter what occurs at the top of the table (including the battle for fourth!!) we can be sure that there will be a battle royal going on at the other end. A fight that has a lot more at stake than one more title, or a few trips to Europe. One that will have an impact on the future of each club for the foreseeable future.
You only have to look at the clubs that make up the Championship and even League 1, to see that dropping out of the hallowed EPL is far from a temporary situation. The days of the perennial yo-yo clubs are a thing of the past. Dropping through the dreaded trapdoor could set a club back for a decade or more. The gap between the top two tiers of English football continues to increase. Which, from a neutrals point of view, makes for a thrilling final three months of the season.
The Clubs in the Relegation Mix
With an apology to Huddersfield fans, we will assume they are already gone. That leaves us with seven other sides fighting tooth and nail to not take up the remaining two relegation spots. Those are:
At this stage of the season, momentum is almost as important as points on the board. With that in mind, you could be tempted to throw Leicester into the mix, who are dropping like a stone, but we will give them the benefit of the doubt. Burnley have rediscovered their form of previous seasons at just the right time, and Newcastle are suddenly showing they are capable of picking up 3 points in crucial games so we will give both of those a reprieve. Palace have been one of the only consistent teams in that group, and with the caveat that they need to keep Zaha fit, and on the pitch they should be ok. That leaves us with four.
Two from Four
Fulham are in the biggest trouble of those remaining. Ranieri has had an impact, but not nearly a big enough one to make a real difference. He is hamstrung with a team full of talented but woefully unsuitable players for both the EPL and the situation they are in. They have players who can score but are a team who will always concede. Though this is ideal for anyone looking for an easy weekly addition to their both teams to score accumulator, it doesn’t make for a good recipe with which to make a great escape. Despite having a relatively kind run in, I think the gap will prove too much for them.
That leaves Brighton, Cardiff and Southampton and one place left. Southampton look a new team under Ralph Hasenhüttl however they need to be careful that the uplift in results is not merely a dead cat bounce and is translated to something more tangible. They have switched to playing two up front, which Saints fans will hope will help turn some of their draws into much-needed wins. With Newcastle, Bournemouth, West Ham and Huddersfield to play in their final four games they should just have enough to go marching on to another season in the top tier.
If all the above turns out as expected, that leaves us with Cardiff and Brighton fighting it out for the one remaining spot on the life raft. Back in August, there were not many people giving Warnock and his Cardiff side much of a prayer. Performances and results over the first half of the season seemed to confirm that their tenure in the EPL would be a brief one. Suddenly, out of adversity, the players seem to have found not just belief, but crucially the ability to put the ball in the opposition’s net. Something that was so noticeably lacking earlier in the season. Out of the two sides, they are the one with the momentum going the right way. When Vincent Tan is being applauded by their fans, you know that something very unexpected could be on the cards.
Brighton have fallen from a position of what looked like almost comfortable midtable respectability to more than just flirting with the bottom three. As other teams in recent years will testify to, it is incredibly hard to turn that form around at this stage of the season. They rely far too heavily on Glenn Murray, which means opposition teams are too easily able to nullify any threat they pose. Brighton’s last two games are away to Arsenal and home to Man City. You have to think they will go into those two fixtures needing points, and with events at the top of the table looking like they will also go to the wire, the forecast is not looking favourable for the Seagulls.