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Nov 19, 2008

Relegation rivals facing see-saw battle

It was a rather stupid question. How concerned, Tony Mowbray was asked, was he at being one point adrift at the foot of the Premier League? Mowbray's eminently sensible answer - ''not very'' - also served to deflect from the issue that West Bromwich Albion's defending should be a graver cause for concern.

Irrelevant as it was, the initial question was inadvertently revealing. No one has been cast adrift and with four points separating the lower half of the division, a congestion charge could profitably be applied.

But while the price of demotion to the Championship is huge, only the boldest would stake much money on identifying the three teams to suffer. It could be West Brom, Tottenham and Blackburn, the current occupants of the relegation zone, but there is just as much chance that it will end up being Stoke, Wigan and Newcastle, the three clubs immediately above them. West Ham, Bolton and Sunderland form an equally plausible trio and, while Hull's reward for a stellar start is sixth place, they are not safe yet.

Different conclusions can be drawn every week. Bolton advanced from the foot of the table to ninth place within seven days; Sunderland leapfrogged eight sides in one afternoon. West Brom are the division's basement club after procuring a solitary point from their last six fixtures, but their next four games are against Stoke, Wigan, Portsmouth and Sunderland. The game of musical chairs at the foot of the table seems set to continue.

And while there are four clubs at the top exempt from relegation fights and sufficient evidence to suggest Aston Villa and Everton can remain in the division's upper reaches, that still leaves 14 clubs with reasons to worry. It could prove the most competitive battle at the bottom in the Premier League's history.

Part of the reason is the absence of an equivalent of last season's sad freak show. Derby County served as a soothing balm for their rivals last season, booking themselves an early return ticket to the Championship and reducing the requirement for other teams seeking to avert the drop. Fulham survived with 36 points, three seasons after 34 proved enough for West Brom. It already looks as though 40 may be necessary now, and it is feasible that even the lowliest will muster 35.

The concept of the peloton is more familiar in cycling than football but, while the leaders have long disappeared into the distance, the bunch could be jostling for position until a tough sprint finish.

Yet their presence side by side is an achievement for some and an indictment of others. Hull have punched above their weight and Stoke above their considerable height; Tottenham, Newcastle and Manchester City rank as teams whose potential has gone unrealised. If the message is that a well-run club, aided by deliberate planning and clear thinking, can overcome a mismanaged unit that is hampered by competing factions and strange signings, that is no bad thing. Certain clubs seem to have operated under the illusion that they are immune to relegation, though it is only six seasons since West Ham were deemed 'too good to go down' and duly dropped.

Still, theories are being challenged. Received wisdom is that home form is essential to a promoted team's chances. Stoke, a fearsome proposition at the Britannia Stadium, appear to justify that, but Hull have prospered on their travels. Elsewhere, Fulham have excelled at Craven Cottage, and Manchester City can be devastating on home turf. Yet when Wigan and Sunderland are more proficient on the road, which is the greater advantage?

Another encouraging omen in a normal season is the presence of a goalscorer. Yet Robinho, Darren Bent and Amr Zaki have been unable, thus far, to guide their respective employers into a position of safety, despite their own prolific form. In a development only the psychic can have foreseen, possessing a player with an improbably long throw - Stoke's Rory Delap - could prove as significant as one with a cool head in front of goal.

A change of manager can galvanise a team - and in Tottenham's case, it certainly has - but West Ham's experience is of downward momentum after Gianfranco Zola's first couple of games. Newcastle are a law unto themselves and the definitive verdict on Joe Kinnear's reign could as easily encompass disaster as success.

The continuing confusion at St James' Park is proof, however, that transitional times can be dangerous. With newcomers to Premier League management like Tony Adams, Paul Ince and Zola at the helm of Portsmouth, Blackburn and West Ham respectively, inexperience is an issue.

So, in an unpredictable division, is predictability. Sunderland are a byword for inconsistency, as are Middlesbrough in most seasons. Tottenham's recent run of 10 points from four games is an example of the greater capabilities of the more talented teams whereas Bolton's performance levels are similar, if not particularly high.

It has long been said that the Championship is the division where any side is capable of defeating any other. Now the same applies to the vast majority of the Premier League - indeed, with Fulham, Stoke and Hull all defeating Arsenal - perhaps to all bar three of its members.

Excitement may come at a cost of quality, in some cases, and as a result of a lack of progress at some clubs, but it is to be savoured nonetheless. And as for the trio, of a possible 14, who could be cast a point adrift in May, this observer will nominate West Brom, West Ham and Stoke, safe in the knowledge such suggestions may appear utterly ill-advised in a week's time.

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