Call it the Year of the Keystone Kops… a season where clubs have been stumbling over each other to fail. So forget about Manchester United’s mediocre march to the title (and don’t tell me they’re up for the double by winning Big Ears. If Schalke doesn’t surprise them, Real or Barca will certainly dispatch them with maximum efficiency). Forget about Arsenal finding new and novel ways to self-destruct, sending Arsene Wenger further along the road to Nutterville. Chelsea are old. Man Citeh’s millions couldn’t buy a team. ‘Arry’s mighty offence petered out. Liverpool were already falling down the hill. And as usual, David Moyes’ Everton started too late to matter.
So with the exception of the FA Cup final — whose implications for Europe require an engineering degree to calculate — I’m watching the relegation battle that potentially involves half the league.
Two points separate seven teams: Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham, Stoke City, Sunderland and Birmingham. All sit relatively safe. Next are Blackburn and Wigan in the two spots above the relegation zone that currently contains Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves. Newcastle and Villa (at 10th and 11th, respectively) have reached the so-called magic number of 40 points. For the others, the next 5-6 games are critical.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say West Bromwich Albion are safe. Saturday’s loss to Chelsea was their first under Roy Hodgson, and no club has scored more since his reign began.
Hodgson’s legacy of going for the draw seems to be lingering at Fulham under Mark Hughes. The Cottagers’ next two games are at bottom Wolves before they host Bolton, who are woeful on the road. They should hit the 40-point mark no problem.
Stoke City and Birmingham are the Premier League’s little European embarrassments. Birmingham is already in the Europa League, via their Carling Cup win… but whether Stoke qualifies is still up in the air. If they win the FA Cup final, they are in. If they lose but Citeh qualifies for the Champions League, they are in. Otherwise the spot goes to the sixth-placed team… I think… carry the one…
Either way, both have not been playing well as of late, with each team only winning two games in their last eight. The bad news for Stoke is that they must face three other relegation battlers — Blackpool, Wolves and Wigan — plus Arsenal and the aforementioned Citeh. Birmingham must also face teams fighting for a spot in Europe. I think they will both stay up… only because there are teams playing worse. But if they drop, it means two of England’s three Europa clubs won’t be playing in the top-flight at home.
That leaves six teams fighting it out for three spots above the drop. Wolverhampton Wanderers are 20th, but they will leapfrog Wigan into 17th if they win that game in hand against Stoke. Many pundits say Wolves are too good to go down… and they took some serious scalps this season. But despite their recent form, every single one of their remaining games is against a struggling club. It could be tough going for Mick McCarthy’s men.
At the beginning of the season, I picked Wigan Athletic to drop, partly because they barely missed it last year… but mostly because I was irritated that such a small, unsupported club was taking up a Premier League spot. They also have to play several games against strugglers… as well as a surging Everton.
West Ham United sit 19th. I thought with the addition of Demba Ba, they might have a fighting shot at making it out alive. But they remain ensconced in the drop zone due to their inability to go for the jugular.
It’s the three remaining clubs that have the most to worry about. Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Sunderland have been dropping like stones. Blackburn have performed poorly since the departure of Big Sam Allardyce. Blackpool and Sunderland seem to be on opposite sides of a mirror. The Black Cats haven’t been the same since they lost their best player in Darren Bent; the Tangerines have suffered without cashing in on Charlie Adam. Out of the three clubs, only Blackpool has won a game since the end of January.
In such a topsy-turvy season, I still think we are in for some surprises on the final day of the season… on both ends of the table. It’s either the best season in years… or English football is at it’s most mediocre.
By the way, here are my picks for the drop: Wigan, Blackpool, West Ham.