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Apr 8, 2011

The battle against the drop

The truncated nature of the Premier League table means predicting who will finish in the bottom three is a complicated affair. We somehow try to give a club-by-club rundown of their prospects.

Newcastle United (Ninth, 39 points)

Newcastle sit in ninth place and have yet to hit the 40-point barrier, but it would now take an almighty collapse to fall back into the Championship. There were rumblings of unrest on Tyneside prior to last weekend's home game with Wolves, with fans knowing that a defeat would drag Magpies fully into the mire.

Alan Pardew found the positive side of Newcastle's inconsistent home form to hammer Wolves 4-1 and pull seven points clear. Had Wolves won at St James's Park, the difference to the relegation zone would have been just three points. With potential six-pointers at Aston Villa and Blackpool plus daunting trips to Liverpool and Chelsea, there would have been cause for concern. But the home games against Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion, if not Manchester United, should glean enough points with something to spare.

The win over Wolves is the difference between a relegation battle and comfort, especially with top scorer Kevin Nolan now suspended for accumulated yellow cards.

Fulham (Tenth, 38 points)

After a slow start, Fulham have turned the corner under Mark Hughes this year. With only two defeats in their last eight matches and six wins in their last seven home games - the other being a 0-0 draw with Chelsea - there has been a marked improvement.

Only Everton have lost fewer games this season of those who sit outside the top five, which indicates a high ratio of draws. In fact just Everton have drawn as many games (14).

Fulham have three games remaining at home, with two of those being against Liverpool and Arsenal. Just three teams have lost more away games than Liverpool which suggests fears over Kenny Dalglish's side are based more on reputation that facts. Bolton are the other team to visit Craven Cottage - and only Fulham themselves have won fewer games on the road than the Trotters.

The Cottagers visit Manchester United this weekend before going to Wolves, Sunderland and Birmingham. It's not a straightforward finish by any means, and the back-to-back games against Wolves, Bolton and Sunderland will decide if the Cottagers are unexpectedly dragged back into serious trouble.

Stoke City (11th, 38 points)

Stoke have been hovering above trouble for most of the season, never in any serious danger but also unable to put themselves into a position of security. Only five sides have won more home games than Tony Pulis' side, but just Wolves have lost more on the road. Their FA Cup semi-final, masquerading as a Europa League play-off, could act as a distraction, but the home games against Wolves and Wigan should provide the few points they need.

Away games at Tottenham and Manchester City are offset by trips to Aston Villa and Blackpool.

Sunderland (12th, 38 points)

Wearsiders must be glad they have already got to 38 points because Sunderland look like a side in freefall. The 5-0 defeat at Manchester City did serious damage to their goal difference and now means that, if they are pulled into trouble, they would lose that advantage.

Sunderland are rock bottom of the form table, having won just one of their last eight matches scoring seven goals. And, with 19 goals conceded, only Blackpool have let in more in the same period.

Perhaps Sunderland should be relieved that four of their remaining games are at the Stadium of Light, and they play only one side (Bolton) currently in the top ten. Some would suggest that a raft of six-pointers for a team bereft of confidence is more troublesome, but Sunderland, who surprisingly are the second-lowest home scorers in the division, should find the necessary points from the visits of WBA, Wigan, Fulham and Wolves. If they rediscover a modicum of form they could still finish in the top half.

West Brom (13th, 36 points)

Undefeated under Roy Hodgson, the Baggies have still found it difficult to pull away from the wrong end of the table and have a four-point cushion. But they do have a new-found belief which should see them capable of remaining in the Premier League for next season.

Another side with four away games - at Sunderland, Tottenham, Wolves and Newcastle - they will look to pick up a couple of points on the road and add a victory from the games against Aston Villa and Everton at the Hawthorns with Chelsea also to play.

If Hodgson had not restored some of the confidence to the side, and put a halt to the flood of goals they were conceding, it would have been a very different picture. They have not kept a clean sheet since the second game of the season against Sunderland, their only one of the campaign, but under Hodgson they have let in six goals in five games compared to 24 in the 10 games prior to his arrival.

Blackburn Rovers (14th, 34 points)

Blackburn are a side which have been in freefall and are many pundits' tips to slip into the relegation zone at the end of May. Despite looking short on ideas under Steve Kean, they did manage to claim a point at the Emirates last weekend which at least suggests some mettle. But Blackburn have not won since January 23, their only win in nine during which time they have lost five times and taken six points from 27.

The point at Arsenal and the last-ditch comeback draw against relegation rivals Blackpool recently could both prove crucial. As could Rovers having four games at home, though they are nowhere near the sold unit at Ewood Park they were under Sam Allardyce. Birmingham, Man City, Bolton and Man United travel to Rovers, which means they play three North West derbies. But the key fixtures come on May 7 and 22 when they will be away to West Ham and Wolves. It is now highly unlikely they will be able to pull clear by the time they travel to Upton Park - and defeat there could set up a titanic showdown at Molineux on the final day with the game against Man United in between.

Birmingham (15th, 34 points)

The home win over Bolton Wanderers last Saturday allayed some of the fans' fears, given that it was Birmingham's first win since they lifted the Carling Cup. Though Blues have a game in hand on their rivals it means little, given it is a trip to Chelsea, but it is one of five away games with just three at St Andrew's. The away games are at Blackburn, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle United and Tottenham.

Birmingham have won just two away games all season, so despite their Cup win leading to many plaudits, the stats suggest they will struggle to get out of trouble. Home games against Sunderland, Wolves and Fulham will decide if they will be a Championship team in the Europa League next season, with that first fixture against the out-of-sorts Black Cats key.

With a tough fixture list on the road, Birmingham are likely to travel to White Hart Lane on the final day needing some sort of result to be totally sure of staying up.

Aston Villa (16th, 34 points)

The pressure has been mounting on Gerard Houllier for weeks now with the French coach winning just six games all season since replacing Martin O'Neill. It seems unthinkable that a team which was a consistent top-half performer under O'Neill could drop into the second tier for the first time since 1987-88.

Sunday sees a key fixture for Villa, with Newcastle making the journey south. But only four teams have won more away games than the Magpies, and a loss in what is one of four remaining home games will crank up the pressure further.

This team provided four members of the most recent England squad and that suggests they should not be sitting just two points above the drop zone. It may come down to their own mental strength with six back-to-back six pointers against Newcastle, West Ham, Stoke, West Brom and Wigan. They will not want to go into the final two matches against Arsenal and Liverpool without a safety cushion to the bottom three. The home games will decide their fate.

Blackpool (17th, 33 points)

It's the fairy tale of the season, which could turn into the horror story. Blackpool's recent form has been increasingly poor, and the manner of the defeat at Fulham last week suggested some of the fight may have gone out of Ian Holloway's men. They lacked the spark which they had shown in every other game, perhaps throwing away a two-goal lead at Blackburn before the international break has affected them.

Five of Blackpool's remaining seven games are at home. They were due to play Wigan at Bloomfield Road in August but the fixture was reversed as they needed more time to complete work on the stadium. Some may see that as a positive, but Blackpool have not been able to make home advantage count often enough. With four home games in a row, against Arsenal, Wigan, Newcastle and Stoke, they will somehow have to find at least seven points from those matches.

While that seven-point haul is not impossible, it perhaps seems improbable with the Tangerines taking only 15 points all season at home. With away games at Tottenham and Manchester United at the end of the season, they will need to be out of the bottom three when Bolton travel to the seaside on May 14. They've confounded the critics all season, and having DJ Campbell back from suspension will make a difference, but as happened with Hull City and Burnley, it seems like the tide has turned against them.

West Ham United (18th, 32 points)

The Hammers seem to have been performing well for weeks now without ever being able to pull out of the bottom three for more than a few hours. Their troubles have been exacerbated by a two-game touchline ban for Avram Grant, which means he will be banished to the stands and armed with a telephone for the games against Bolton and Aston Villa.

The problem for West Ham is that while they have been playing well, they just cannot get out of the trapdoor like Everton have managed to do. And, with four of their games away from Upton Park, they will have to improve on a record of two away wins all season to stay up. Games at Bolton, Chelsea, Man City and a huge six-pointer against Wigan on the penultimate weekend of the season suggest their task is difficult.

West Ham must win their three remaining home games, very possible with Villa, Blackburn and Sunderland to make the trip. Then you have to factor in that only Blackpool and Wigan have won fewer games at home. It's a tough one to call.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (19th, 32 points)

Is Wolves' fixture list a positive or a negative? Seventh placed Everton are the highest positioned team they have yet to face in the run-in. But of Wolves' nine wins this season they have beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City. They have not been able to get such good results consistently against others in trouble near the foot of the table.

With 17 defeats they have lost more games than any other team and no team has drawn fewer games (five). That suggests a willingness to go for the win rather than play for a point, but turning just a few of those loses into draws would have put them in a far healthier position. Having four home games helps - no team of the bottom nine has picked up more points at their own ground - with games against Everton, Fulham, West Brom and Blackburn.

Stoke, Birmingham and Sunderland are far from write offs too, so Mick McCarthy has a very good chance of staying in the division. But the loss of Kevin Doyle, despite scoring only five goals this season, means they have lost the focal point of their attack.

Wigan Athletic (20th, 31 points)

It's been a surprise to many that Wigan have managed to stay clinging on to the coat tails of the others, but they still remain bottom. With five away games left, and just Everton and West Ham to play at home, staying up will be some achievement.

After they travel to Chelsea at the weekend, the rest of the fixture list is not daunting, with trips to Blackpool, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Stoke City. But Wigan are the division's lowest scorers on 29 goals and they have won just six games this term. They are bottom for a reason and, after six years in the top-flight, it seems improbable that they will suddenly find the goals to lift themselves above three other teams and out of the drop zone.

SUMMARY

Wigan seem destined to fill one of the three places, the other two are less clear. Fulham's fixture list is difficult though they should get over the line, Sunderland are woefully out of form but those three points picked up at Chelsea earlier in the season may become very significant in the final shake-up. West Brom may just keep their heads above water while Blackburn boss Steve Kean fights those who believe he should not be in the job.

Villa's fixture list could be trickier but do the players want to play for Gerard Houllier? Birmingham have favourable home games but games are running out while Blackpool are sinking fast. Can West Ham keep up their good form despite having tough away games, and can Wolves take advantage of very winnable games to stay in the Premier League?

It almost seems a case of who will be in the bottom three when the music stops, and it could be with Wigan, Blackburn and Birmingham.

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