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May 3, 2013

Newcastle sliding into relegation mire

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Newcastle: Relegation fear returns

It bears repeating. "That's done, we won't worry about that now," Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew, talking about the possibility of relegation, told the BBC after they had won 2-1 against Stoke on March 11. Less than a month later, with just the one three-point haul managed from the six games that followed that Stoke scalp, the Magpies are close to staring into the bleak, cold eyes of relegation, having thought they'd escaped the beast.

Their 6-0 loss at home to Liverpool last time out was one of the worst performances of the season. It was a yellow-bellied affair, devoid of tactical nous. A rift within the dressing room has since been reported by the Telegraph - something the club were quick to deny, while banning that paper's reporters from attending matches as a result of the "false rumours".

Of the games ahead (West Ham away, QPR away, Arsenal home), Pardew told the Evening Chronicle: "We're in a dogfight, and we've got to fight."

Five points separate the Magpies from the relegation zone, with 18th-placed Wigan having a game in hand. Their position was made all the more perilous after their weekend hiding against the Reds, coupled with Aston Villa's emphatic Monday night victory over Sunderland, wiped out their goal difference advantage.

The now beardless Pardew at least looks set to be boosted by the return of defender and captain Fabricio Coloccini, who has not played since the 4-2 win over Southampton in February because of a back injury. The Argentine's leadership and organisational skills will be welcome against a West Ham side that looks set to include former Magpies pair Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll. Subplot ahoy!

Chelsea: Unruffled Rafa

Chelsea were last weekend's winners in the battle for a top-four finish as they did their job against Swansea City with relative ease. A 2-0 win ensured that they gained two points on rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, who were both held to draws. Indeed, by virtue of an impressive run of six straight Premier League wins at home, Rafael Benitez's side are well placed to secure Champions League football for next season. They have a three-point lead over Spurs and a one-point lead over Arsenal, on whom they also have a game in hand.

Benitez was unruffled this week after Jose Mourinho's cheeky comment, which seemed to be all about a return to Stamford Bridge: "I'm loved by some clubs, especially one." The Spaniard said it "was none of my business", with the interim boss focused on the task in hand as he takes the Blues to the home of newly-crowned champions Manchester United. That match precedes a home game against Tottenham on Wednesday - a fixture the majority feel will decide who finishes where in the battle to bathe in the milk of Europe's fattest cash cow.

Merseyside derby: Revenge

There was a heck of a lot to be positive about during Liverpool's spanking of Newcastle, in particular the brilliance of Philippe Coutinho (some of that passing!), who will have helped to ease any fears FSG might have had that every Anfield signing made during their tenure will be an almighty flop. Another January addition, Daniel Sturridge, also impressed on Tyneside, in turn cooling suggestions that the Reds are a one-man team as they go about shorn of the bitey Luis Suarez.

While Champions League football is mathematically beyond them, an (albeit small) chance to at least usurp their Merseyside rivals remains. The Toffees, who face Chelsea on the final day, are five points above their neighbours with nine left to play for.

Revenge might also be on the minds of Brendan Rodgers' players on Sunday after they were denied a late winner at Goodison Park in October. The man who put away that controversially ruled out goal? Suarez.

Southampton: Jekyll & Hyde

What's going on here, then? Mauricio Pochettino, the manager brought in to replace Nigel Adkins after the Saints had claimed a 2-2 draw at Chelsea in January, has won four of his 13 games in charge. Three of those wins have come against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Losses, meanwhile, have come against the likes of Queens Park Rangers at home.

The reasons for this unusual behaviour could be many - but one train of thought is that, quite simply, this being a young side, complacency is bound to be an issue. Another is that the team finds it easier to be more 'up for' games versus the 'big boys' - which, if it is the case, is a habit that must be broken. Over to you, Pochettino and translator, who face Spurs away next.

Swansea: On the beach

Since winning the Capital One Cup, Swansea City have won one of their seven matches. Flip-flops, much? They are ninth in the table following a limp performance at Stamford Bridge, with a home game against Manchester City coming up this weekend. Their slide puts them at risk of not finishing in the top half of the table, which would leave what has been a saccharine season for the Swans with something of a bitter aftertaste.

It is up to Michael Laudrup to stop the rot, with the Dane and his lovely hair telling Media Wales: "What is incredible is that, before the last month and a half without a win, we were ninth. And we're still ninth. You can look at it in different ways. I choose to look at it that we overachieved up until the beginning of March."

QPR: Sell, sell, sell

They are finally down, and rightly so. The shower that was Sunday's 0-0 draw with Reading confirmed that these two sides are the worst in the division. Harry Redknapp and Jose Bosingwa's smiling after the final whistle evoked bile from some - but the pair were probably just happy to hear that final whistle. In case I am not making myself clear, this was football to fall out of love with.

Anyway, Redknapp, despite his transparent attempts at diversion, deserves scrutiny for the demotion. He is not without blame. It seems, according to owner Tony Fernandes, that he will stay on, which comes as a surprise. Ahead of next season's attempt to return to the top flight, a fire sale will surely occur. This leads to the theory that Redknapp will call upon those he wants out, or those who have the highest sell-on value, in the remaining games - for he only has three matches left to show off his sellable assets in the Premier League display cabinet.

Wigan: Their year?

They play West Brom, and they really must win.


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