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Oct 14, 2010

Guide to the relegation battle

The Premier League has been burdened by accusations of predictability.

Last season, the three clubs widely tipped for relegation - Portsmouth, Hull City and Burnley - duly descended to the Championship.

This year, many were similarly certain they would be followed by Blackpool, West Brom and Wigan. Instead, none is in the bottom six at the moment.

So, who will go down? At least a dozen teams may have grounds to be fearful, but each should believe they can survive.

West Ham (currently 20th)

Reasons to be positive: An improved run of form that has brought five points from three games; the burgeoning partnership in attack of Victor Obinna and Frederic Piquionne, which has reduced the reliance on Carlton Cole; the continually excellent Scott Parker's presence in midfield; a back four that has only let in two goals in three games after a right back - Lars Jacobsen - was finally signed; the signs Rob Green is emerging from his World Cup malaise.

Reasons to be negative: They were fortunate to survive last season and few teams get lucky year after year; questions about Avram Grant's suitability for the job; strange selections, particularly Luis Boa Morte in the centre of midfield; a self-destructive streak; what happens when Parker gets suspended or injured?

Wolves (19th)

Reasons to be positive: A feeling that they have played better than results suggest; the three goals that constitute an encouraging start for record signing Steven Fletcher and the fact it eases the considerable burden on Kevin Doyle's shoulders; the return of Stephen Hunt from a broken foot, possibly on Saturday; the fine form of Matt Jarvis.

Reasons to be negative: If they are in the relegation zone when they are playing well, where will they be when they play badly?; the fact that they are 19th when they have only faced one of the current top five; a dreadful disciplinary record that is starting to produce suspensions; a habit of conceding late and costly goals; a struggle to score, with only 39 goals in 45 Premier League games since promotion.

Liverpool (18th)

Reasons to be positive: Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Jose Reina, Joe Cole, Jamie Carragher... it isn't exactly a squad with "relegation" written all over it; the potential that optimism will return and money will be available in January when New England Sports Ventures complete their takeover and Tom Hicks and George Gillett go; an easier fixture list after a demanding first few matches; the likelihood that, even with their current problems, a top-half finish should still be expected; Roy Hodgson's miraculous escape from relegation at Fulham.

Reasons to be negative: The current mood of fatalism amid in-fighting at the club; the difficulties Hodgson is encountering, some odd tactics and team selections from him and the opposition of the fans who would prefer Kenny Dalglish; the inability of some players to perform under pressure so far; Torres' injury problems and apparent unhappiness; the limited impact of the new signings.

Everton (17th)

Reasons to be positive: The outstanding win at Birmingham last time out; David Moyes' record of rallying the team after slow starts; the quality in the squad that led many to tip them for a top-four finish; the irrepressible Tim Cahill; a decent defensive record, despite their league position; a group of strong characters who rarely look for excuses when they endure a difficult run.

Reasons to be negative: Mediocre home form - they are yet to win at Goodison Park; a lack of goals from the strikers, none of whom have scored in the league so far; Jermaine Beckford's problems in reproducing his League One form in the Premier League; the below-par performances of talented players like Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Birmingham (16th)

Reasons to be positive: They are hard to beat, with only two defeats so far; an outstanding home record, with only one setback at St Andrew's in a year; a unity and sense of purpose among a dedicated group of players; the astute management of Alex McLeish; the indications that Craig Gardner is developing into a goal-scoring midfielder; the central defensive axis of Scott Dann and Roger Johnson.

Reasons to be negative: They have only scored once in their last four league games and have struggled to break opponents down, especially at St Andrew's; the slow start of new signing Nikola Zigic, and McLeish's reluctance to pick the Serb other than as a substitute; the question of whether Alexander Hleb, for all his ability, suits Birmingham's style of play; the concern that too many of their players overachieved last year and may regress to a lower level.

Newcastle (15th)

Reasons to be positive: The ability of Andy Carroll to intimidate defenders and score; the signs that Cheik Tiote and Joey Barton are a central-midfield partnership of real promise; the common-sense management of Chris Hughton, which should prevent a reversion to melodrama on Tyneside; a resilience on the road that wasn't apparent last time they were in the Premier League.

Reasons to be negative: They have suffered two home defeats already and, in Blackpool and Stoke, they came to potential relegation rivals; the loss of Hatem Ben Arfa, their most skilful player, for the season; the loss of Steve Harper, their only experienced goalkeeper, for three months; a shortage of pace in most sections of the team; the signs James Perch is out of his depth in the top flight; a need for goalscorers apart from Carroll.

Wigan (14th)

Reasons to be positive: After losing their first two games by an aggregate score of 10-0, it has been a fine response; an ability to beat the top teams, with Tottenham joining an impressive list of scalps from last season; the improved performances of Antolin Alcaraz after a traumatic start; the ability of the mercurial Charles N'Zogbia; chairman Dave Whelan's refusal to panic after a heavy defeat or two.

Reasons to be negative: An appalling defensive record in the last 12 months; the goalscoring records of Mauro Boselli - who was admittedly prolific in Argentina - and Franco di Santo, who have one goal in England between them; the probability N'Zogbia will be on his way in January; a mediocre home record (seven wins in 24 league games) under Roberto Martinez; a habit of getting hammered; a lack of obvious leaders.

Blackburn (13th)

Reasons to be positive: Fortress Ewood Park - they have only lost four Premier League games there in 22 months under Sam Allardyce; a style of play that produces more results than compliments; a set-piece expertise; a generally resilient defence; the emergence of the talented Phil Jones; Allardyce's excellent track record in avoiding relegation.

Reasons to be negative: Real Madrid or Barcelona might poach Allardyce; more seriously, the chance his egotism and long-ball methods could alienate the supporters; a difficulty in scoring in open play; there are few alternatives to Nikola Kalinic in attack; the likelihood that David Dunn, the one creative player, will miss key games due to injuries.

Bolton (12th)

Reasons to be positive: They have only lost once so far, and that was to Arsenal; two spirited comebacks at home, suggesting the Reebok Stadium could be a harder place to go; the evidence Owen Coyle is adding more flair to the side, especially with Martin Petrov's signing; the belated confirmation that Johan Elmander can be very effective and does know the way to goal; the solid spine of Jussi Jaaskelainen, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba and Kevin Davies.

Reasons to be negative: They are yet to win at home; even when playing well, they are still only 12th; a small squad is yet to be tested by injuries; with Matt Taylor on the bench, they could be a lesser threat than usual from set-pieces; Coyle's footballing philosophy may give opponents more chances.

Blackpool (9th)

Reasons to be positive: They have just beaten Liverpool at Anfield; with three wins, they have the best away record in the Premier League; they still have the confidence and momentum gained from winning promotion; Ian Holloway's signings have settled in remarkably quickly and well; opponents seem to struggle with their bold tactics; the terrific displays of Charlie Adam; with 17 home games remaining, no one has as many matches left on their own turf.

Reasons to be negative: The bubble will burst sooner or later; in the whole squad, only Marlon Harewood and Brett Ormerod have achieved anything in the Premier League; a cripplingly slow defence, something opponents other than Arsenal and Chelsea must notice soon; open tactics that lend the back four little protection; the reluctance of the board to give Holloway money to spend; the fact that Burnley started last season similarly well and still went down.

Stoke (7th)

Reasons to be positive: They have taken ten points from four games, a brilliant response to losing their first three games; an impressive home record since promotion to the Premier League; the indications that Kenwyne Jones will be an astute signing and finally give them a regular goalscorer; the possibility of a fine supply line from Jermaine Pennant; the guarantee of a threat from Rory Delap; Tony Pulis' successful pragmatism; Peter Coates' millions.

Reasons to be negative: Jones has flattered to deceive before; Pulis' reluctance to trust the talented Tuncay; the loss of their powers of intimidation when the 34-year-old Delap isn't on the pitch; they are slow starters who have an unfortunate habit of conceding the first goal in a game.

West Brom (6th)

Reasons to be positive: Peter Odemwingie, who may prove the best forward Albion have had in their Premier League years; the power and balance offered by Youssuf Mulumbu; the quick integration of most of the summer signings; an unbeaten home record; the astounding win at Arsenal and the implications that Albion's passing style can prosper even against the top teams; the possibility that Roberto Di Matteo can do what Tony Mowbray failed and ally passing football with winning in the top flight.

Reasons to be negative: What comes up, in Albion's case, has a sorry knack of going down; the way the forwards, Odemwingie apart, may not possess the class and goals required; the issue of whether the current defenders, so porous last time they were in the Premier League, are superior to Mowbray's back four; the question of how well and how quickly they can respond if and when they suffer a poor run of results.

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