While the race for all things glorious at the top end of the Premiership comes to a head with Chelsea breathing hard down the neck of Manchester United for the title, Manchester City looking to consolidate their first ever Champions League spot finish and Liverpool hoping to catch Tottenham for the fifth place and Europa League spot, an arguably even more intriguing battle is going on at the opposite end of the table as six teams fight for survival and look to beat the drop into the Championship for next season.
At the ‘wrong end’ of the table, the battle is on between the three W’s and the three B’s – Wigan, Wolves, West Ham and Birmingham, Blackpool and Blackburn – to garner enough points in their remaining matches to stay ahead of their rivals and secure top flight football for another year.
After today’s (Saturday’s) games, Blackburn Rovers’ 1-0 home derby win over FA Cup semi-finalists Bolton Wanderers lifts them to 15th place and 38 points, just two shy of the magical ’40 point safety marker’ usually seen as enough points to ensure survival. On the same number of points but with an inferior goal difference is Birmingham in 16th, who face Wolves at home in a crunch game tomorrow.
Sitting just outside of the relegation places in 17th is Blackpool, who in their debut Premier League season have impressed with their all-out-attack strategy but now find themselves under scrutiny for their defensive deficiencies. However a clean sheet today at home to Stoke earned them a point in a 0-0 draw, keeping them above the drop zone on goal difference with 35 points.
Wigan were close to defeating Everton at home after leading 1-0 and seeing ‘keeper Al-Habsi save an Everton penalty, but a second spot-kick denied them of a precious three points and consigned them to another weekend in the relegation zone, also on 35 points.
Wolves and West Ham, both with a game to play on Sunday (vs Birmingam (a) and Manchester City (a) respectively) prop up the rest, as they have 33 and 32 points in 19th and 20th.
Starting with tomorrow’s hugely important game between Birmingham and Wolves, the home side know that a victory will probably be enough to secure their status in the top flight and having only lost four times in the league at home this season they will start off as favourites. Wolves on the other hand have a dreadful away record, winning just two of their seventeen matches and have had to rely heavily on their home form to see them safe.
The pressure will really be on both sides but despite the Blues’ 5-0 drubbing away to Liverpool in their last game, I have to back them to take advantage of Wolves’ dire away record to take the three points. That would take them to 41 points – level with 12th place Newcastle but in 15th position on goal difference – and if they could even take a single point from their remaining three fixtures against Newcastle (a), Fulham (h) and Tottenham (a) they would surely be safe.
Blackburn, who’s win today gives them valuable breathing space, face two games against direct relegation rivals sandwiching a visit of Manchester United. Supposing that in the normal course of things they lose that game, the two fixtures away to West Ham and Wolves (on the last day of the season) will clearly be defining. Given that Rovers have picked up a paltry eleven points on the road this season, today’s win takes on even more significance as it was their last ‘winnable’ fixture as opposed to ‘must-win’ ones.
Blackpool missed a vital opportunity today to take three points with their home draw against a lacklustre Stoke; on the plus side the Tangerines kept a welcome clean sheet but they have now just one ‘winnable’ game left – at home to Bolton, which is before an away trip to Tottenham and a last-day visit of Manchester United, both of which they will more than likely be defeated in. It has to be said that Blackpool have not looked capable of winning recently, but Bolton also appear to have run out of steam and as they are safe and Blackpool will be fighting for their lives, it could be a game that Ian Holloway’s side snatch victory in.
Wigan also have just one home match to play which is against current bottom side West Ham United. Away games against Aston Villa and Stoke will be difficult under normal circumstances but with both sides comfortably safe in mid table and with Stoke having just played their FA Cup final by the time that game comes around, Roberto Martinez’s men might have every chance of snatching a crucial win in one of those games. They will certainly need to improve on their lack of clinical edge though, after wasting a host of chances to take more points in recent fixtures.
Wolves have a set of games of which any could be termed ‘winnable’ in reality – but their complete lack of cutting edge and goalscoring ability is going to make it very hard for them to beat the drop. Mick McCarthy’s men probably need two victories from games against Birmingham, West Brom, Sunderland and Blackburn – while two of those will obviously be fighting for points for the same reasons. Sunderland are on a wretched run of form and that could be a game where Wolves nick a point, though I feel a resurgent West Brom will be too strong for them.
And finally West Ham, who face Manchester City and then three matches against teams within touching distance above them; Blackburn, Wigan and Sunderland.
Presuming City take the expected three points tomorrow, those next two games will obviously go a long way to determining the teams who get another go at the country’s elite next season – and those who will be lining up against the likes of Doncaster Rovers, Watford and Brighton.
At home on the last day of the season, I would tip West Ham to beat Sunderland at home.
So on to the head-to-heads, the games which will ultimately decide which teams get enough points to leapfrog their rivals; it is worth noting that all the bottom six sides except Blackpool face at least one match against one of the other five – at least one game in which to take a precious three points while depriving the other side of any.
First up tomorrow (Sunday 1st May) as mentioned above is Birmingham vs Wolves, which the home team should win.
Next on 7th May is West Ham vs Blackburn. The Hammers’ home record is nothing to write home about, but Blackburn’s away one is torrid. It will no doubt be tense, scrappy and with a good chance of at least one red card, but I think the London side will just about scrape this one by the odd goal. West Ham victory then.
On 15th May, Wigan entertain West Ham. This is surely the biggest game of the lot; a real winner-takes-all fixture on the penultimate weekend of the season. For my money, Wigan have a better all-round side than West Ham and though they are easily the most inconsistent side on the Premier League, I think they have enough big characters like N’Zogbia, Cleverley and McCarthy who can create a chance when it matters most. I’m going for a Wigan win.
Finally, on the last day of the season Blackburn will visit Wolves. By my calculations, at this point Wolves would already be relegated and Blackburn would start the day knowing a point would see them safe. Wolves won’t go without a fight, but this could be a dreadful, scrappy affair which would suit Blackburn down to the ground – and I think they would get the point they need.
In my final table, Wolves (20th, 35 pts), Blackpool (19th, 38) and West Ham (18th, 38) would be relegated – despite a last day win for the Hammers against Sunderland. Blackburn (17th, 39), Wigan (16th, 41) and Birmingham (15th, 42) do enough to survive for another year.
Giving Wigan two victories from their final two games against West Ham (home) and Stoke (away) is clearly key to the outcome of the season, but their quality and Stoke’s possible lack of focus on that league game – especially if they win the FA Cup perhaps! – makes it entirely possible. West Ham certainly have the options in attack but their defence is shoddy and lacks great organisation, something which Wigan’s creative attackers can exploit.
Blackburn don’t need to achieve much in the final three games after today’s win over Bolton and a solitary point on the last day against already-relegated Wolves will be enough to save them.
Blackpool have given themselves too much to do against difficult opposition in these last three fixtures and surely face the task now of taking points off either Tottenham or Manchester United, away from home in both cases, to prove me wrong and beat the drop.
Relegation is not something that any fan wants to endure, perhaps least of all from the top tier in their team’s country, but for me, Wolves, Blackpool and West Ham fans are going to have to face that grim reality in the next month.
Sorry about that.