EighteenAndFive

In-depth and Intelligent Views on Liverpool FC & Football in General

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Premier League Relegation Fight: Which 3 Will Fail to Beat the Drop?


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.

West Ham Defeat Shows How Much Work Remains To Do For Liverpool


Liverpool suffered their first defeat in nine matches at Upton Park yesterday as the Reds’ faint hopes of snatching a top-four spot were surely extinguished.

Having seen Spurs lose to Blackpool midweek, and with Chelsea not in league action until Tuesday evening, Liverpool had a chance to put pressure on the two sides immediately above them against a bottom-of-the-league West Ham outfit, who had won just once in their past six league fixtures.

However, Liverpool were second best for the majority of the game and the home side deservedly took the three points; goals from Scott Parker, Demba Ba and Carlton Cole proving enough despite a Glen Johnson tap-in with five minutes left on the clock which brought the possibility of snatching a point.

In truth, Liverpool looked sluggish and devoid of ideas for too much of this game. The passing and movement at the club has improved considerably over the past month or so, paving the way for many of the victories during this period which Liverpool have amassed, but yesterday it was in scant evidence. Too many players, especially in midfield, wanted to take too many touches on the ball and did not look to move it on quickly. With little or no movement up front for large portions of the game, the midfield battle was all too easily won by the Hammers, with Hitzelsberger and Parker overrunning Lucas Leiva at times, not helped by the obvious lack of match practice from Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard was beyond poor; his passing and set pieces were well below the high standard expected of him. His shot from twenty yards in the second half, which was tipped over by ‘keeper Rob Green, was one of the few positive contributions the skipper managed during this match as he struggled to find the rhythm of his play and resorted to trying to do too much himself. It has been remarked in many places that Gerrard’s most effective position is not in the centre of midfield but in a more advanced role behind the forward; not only is it his most effective area but it is, it must be said, also the area where he affects Liverpool’s defensive wall the least.

Liverpool’s captain is a great player, but his awareness at times when his team is without the ball is poor. For the first goal, he could certainly have done more to protect a large area behind him, which an opponent utilised to set up the goal for Parker. It’s not the first time Gerrard’s lack of tracking back has come at the expense of a goal, and playing in a central midfield “2” he cannot afford to do this.

Dirk Kuyt and Martin Skrtel are two first team players for Liverpool, but both had poor games against the Hammers, which follows a pattern set over much of the past season and even before.

While Kuyt’s ability to pop up with an important goal at times, as well as his often-cited work-rate, tactical responsibility and professionalism, makes him a likely figure to remain at the club beyond the end of the season, his technique and decision making can leave a lot to be desired at times.

Martin Skrtel has no such redeeming qualities in the goalscoring department, which you might expect from a defender. However, his constant and unerring ability to give away pointless free-kicks by jumping in front of attackers to win ‘nothing’ balls, his sub-standard aerial ability and his surprising lack of strength at times – showcased by Carlton Cole, of all people – mean that while he is a ‘good’ defender, he will never be a great one. And to become a great team again, Liverpool need to re-build a great defence.

Further forward, Luis Suarez was a bright spot in an otherwise murky Liverpool display yesterday. This is not coincidence. On Thursday evening, Liverpool fielded nine players from the start who played a large part in the game against West Ham. Of the others, Gerrard was returning from injury, Suarez was ineligible for the Europa League game, while Agger missed out versus West Ham through injury sustained in the Sparta match. With Martin Kelly and Raul Meireles picking up injuries at Upton Park as well, fatigue and tiredness will be taking its toll on the team around this time of year. Another factor towards that was the lack of rotation of the first team under the previous manager Roy Hodgson, who fielded a “full strength” eleven almost every league game.

While this defeat in no way should undo all the hard work put in by the team over the past month or so, it is important Liverpool get back to winning ways as quickly as possible. Of course this will not be easy, given the next match is at home against league leaders Manchester United – but then again, what better game to do it in?

For all the negatives to take out of yesterday’s game, and there were unfortunately quite a few, it is worth acknowledging that the understandings being built up all over the pitch between Meireles and Suarez, or Kuyt and Kelly, were still in evidence at times and are still very much in their infancy. Suarez played only his third game for the Reds and already he has scored once, set up one goal and struck the woodwork twice; his footwork and swift changes of direction make him a real handful for defenders and he has shown enough in this short time to suggest that once his team-mates get to know his runs, Luis will be a great supply of goals for the Reds.

In addition, record signing Andy Carroll is yet to figure for his new club and will be another option for the team which is still trying to find its way in attack.

I suppose overall this has been rather a negative article – though not exactly my intention, it does certainly show that while Liverpool are improving – and they still are, regardless of one defeat – there is still a lot of work to do. From the moments that Rafa was replaced by Roy, Aquilani and Insua were loaned out and replaced by the likes of Konchesky and Poulsen, this was always going to be a season of recovery and patching up. The important thing is to build as many positive relationships on the pitch throughout the club as possible, and carry these over into next season.

If Liverpool finish the season in sixth place in the league – where they currently sit – it will have been an improvement on last season’s placing and a huge improvement on when Dalglish took over in January. Though the Europa League is not the target for the Anfield club, qualifying for it again next season (which is not, by the way, guaranteed with a sixth place finish) will provide the chance of competing for a trophy, one which we must lay a claim to winning this year too, the chance of blooding further the promising youngsters at the club in the atmosphere and environment of Continental football, and will still lure quality players to the club in the summer transfer window.

The decline of the club over the past twenty months has been halted. One defeat does not alter that. It will take some time, a lot of hard work and dedication and some very smart and brave decisions to reverse it entirely.

But the club is back on the rise now, everyone is pulling in the same direction, and good times are surely still ahead.