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May 20, 2011

The £60 million drop

The Premier League relegation battle has always promised to go down to the wire and it could barely be closer with five teams separated by a solitary point. ESPNsoccernet looks at the permutations for those clubs battling to remain among England's elite.

Wolves v Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn go into the final day with the greatest margin for error. Their goal difference gives them added breathing space should they lose at Wolves and finish level on 40 points with any of their relegation rivals. But neither of these clubs have any reason to feel comfortable outside the drop zone.

The bare facts are that should any two clubs from Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan win on Sunday then either Wolves or Blackburn will definitely be relegated. That suggests Blackburn may feel comfortable with a draw, which would keep Wolves below them in the table and also mean Blackburn could only be relegated if all three of those sides on 39 points win; which is an outcome which seems incredibly unlikely.

Blackburn have been in woeful form since January and had the distraction of manager Steve Kean being whisked off to India this week for his monthly meeting with owners Venky's. Rovers also have the worst away defence in the Premier League, so Wolves will feel positive against a side that boasts defender Christopher Samba as having the most shots on goal for them this season.

With eight wins at home, Wolves have made Molineux a tough place to visit and have lost just one of their last six home games, scoring 13 goals in the process. Blackburn have not won away since December 28, picking up only two points from eight games since then.

Rovers beat Wolves 3-0 under Sam Allardyce earlier this season, but Rovers have not won at Molineux since October 1990.

VERDICT: Wolves to continue their improved form with a vital victory.

Tottenham Hotspur v Birmingham City

Birmingham find themselves in a horrible position after being humbled 2-0 at home by Fulham last weekend. The magnitude of the defeat means they stand above Blackpool in the table by virtue of a single goal. And if the two teams finish level on points and on goal difference it is the Tangerines who have scored more goals by some distance.

Due to the precarious nature of their position, Birmingham have to go for the victory at White Hart Lane, but in doing that they risk opening themselves up at the back. Considering the brittle nature of the team's confidence, an early goal for Tottenham could easily lead to a heavy loss.

If both Birmingham and Blackpool lose, Birmingham will definitely be relegated if they lose by a greater margin. This could have a considerable impact on how both sides approach the final stages of their matches tactically.

Tottenham's win at Liverpool last weekend further complicates matters for Blues, as Harry Redknapp's men know they must win to confirm a place in the Europa League. Added to that, Spurs' position in the Fair Play table means if they finish sixth they could enter the Europa League via the back door - and that means the new season starting on June 30. None of the Spurs players will want to be back in action 38 days after this match, another incentive for the home team.

Birmingham's form since the Carling Cup final has been dire, and that threatens to defenestrate all the hard work in picking up their first major trophy since 1963. They've beaten just West Ham and Blackpool away all season, while only Bolton have fewer points on the road. Spurs' home form has seen them lose just one all term (against Wigan in August) - only Manchester United can boast better.

Blues have also lost all but one of their league meetings at the Lane since 1984.

VERDICT: A home banker despite the importance of the fixture to Birmingham

Manchester United v Blackpool

How ironic that a team fined for fielding a weakened side earlier in the season could come up against side playing a second string on the final day. It completes for Blackpool the symmetry with Hull's first season in the top flight. Both sides came up through the play-offs, began the season superbly, picked up outstanding wins away from home, suffered a complete loss of form and faced Manchester United's likely reserve players on the final day needing a win to stay up. But will Blackpool repeat Hull's feat and avoid an instant return to the Championship?

Much of the talk this week has been about Sir Alex Ferguson's team selection with the Champions League final a mere six days away. Comparisons with the United team that beat Schalke 4-1 in the semi-finals could be some way wide of the mark if you compare it to the side put out against Hull.

Versus Schalke: Van der Sar, Rafael Da Silva, Smalling, Evans, O'Shea, Gibson, Scholes, Anderson, Valencia, Berbatov, Nani. Subs: Kuszczak, Evra, Owen, Giggs, Hernandez, Vidic, Fletcher.

Versus Hull: Kuszczak, Rafael Da Silva, Neville, Brown, De Laet, Nani, Fletcher, Gibson, Welbeck, Martin, Macheda. Subs: Amos, Eckersley, Corry Evans, Drinkwater, Possebon, Tosic, James.

Only Gary Neville, Wes Brown and Darren Fletcher could, at the time, could be considered to have notable Premier League experience and Fletcher only played as he was suspended for the Champions League final. While Sir Alex played the reserves against Schalke, he played the kids against Hull. While the United boss has promised some first-teamers, the make-up of the rest of the XI to face Blackpool remains to be seen.

Sir Alex stated in his pre-match press briefing on Friday that Edwin Van der Sar, Patrice Evra, Dimitar Berbatov, Anderson and Paul Scholes will all line-up, which suggests a much stronger squad than the one that went to the KC, but if the rest of the players on show include Gabriel Obertan and Bebe there will still be hope for the visitors.

While United won that game at Hull 1-0 with a Darron Gibson goal, they have previously lost at home on the final day to a relegation-threatened side, when a Carlos Tevez goal saved West Ham United from the drop in 2007. But only two away players have ever scored at Old Trafford on the final day of the season in the Premier League: Tevez 2007 and Les Ferdinand (Spurs, 1999).

That said, predicting Blackpool to win on Sunday is a brave choice, as they will have to do what no other team has done this season. Just a month ago it looked as though their heads had dropped completely, but last weekend's thrilling 4-3 win over Bolton gives them hope. However, United have not lost at home, with their only dropped points coming in a 2-2 draw with West Brom. If United beat Blackpool they will set a new Premier League record for consecutive home wins.

Searching for positives, Blackpool led United 2-0 at Bloomfield Road before succumbing to the classic sucker punch in losing 3-2 and no side outside the top five has won more games or scored as many goals away from home as Ian Holloway's men. In fact, Blackpool have won as many away games as the champions (five).

VERDICT: Much will depend if the United side resembles the one which played Hull or Schalke, but a point still seems the most optimistic outcome for a side which has entertained against the odds in the top flight.

Stoke City v Wigan Athletic

Wigan's superb comeback against West Ham has given them hope of staying in the division. Like Birmingham and Blackpool, Wigan know that victory would, bar the unlikely outcome of all three clubs winning, secure their safety. And in some respects they could be seen as having the most favourable fixture.

Roberto Martinez takes his side to Stoke City, a team whose season effectively finished a week ago with the FA Cup defeat to Manchester City. Stoke were very much the walking wounded by the end of that game at Wembley and it seems unlikely any of those players carrying knocks will be risked for this end-of-season encounter.

For Tuesday night's 3-0 defeat in the Premier League rematch against Man City, boss Tony Pulis left out Robert Huth, Matthew Etherington, Jermaine Pennant, Kenwyne Jones and Rory Delap - although the latter two were named on the substitutes' bench. That takes 23 of Stoke's 46 goals and 16 assists (Pennant and Etherington have 14 between them) out of the team. First choice Premier League goalkeeper Asmir Begovic was also unavailable. Martinez will be hoping Stoke's key players sit this one out again.

Wigan have struggled for goals all season, with only Birmingham City scoring fewer. With just 17 goals in 18 away games so far, they will not be expected to put a Stoke side to the sword who have made the Britannia Stadium into a fortress. The Potters have won 10 home games this season but they are not impregnable, having lost to Spurs, Man United, Blackpool and Fulham - the last two very much being shock results.

Wigan are ninth in the current form table - higher than any other club in the relegation fight (Blackpool are the most out of form) - and with the creativity of Charles N'Zogbia they have every chance of claiming the three points.

VERDICT: Stoke don't lose too many at home, but with their season over and the players on the beach Wigan can claim the victory. They delivered the goods at Sheffield United on the final day in 2007, with David Unsworth scoring against his former side to secure safety.


With the above results, Birmingham will be relegated along with West Ham United, while Blackpool will also go down to their vastly inferior goal difference compared to Blackburn.

• If Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan all win then one of Wolves and Blackburn will definitely go down. In that scenario if Wolves and Blackburn draw they would both go down. If Wolves or Blackburn win, the loser would be relegated with the last relegation place going to the team with the worst goal difference - or even goals scored - out of Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan.

If Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan all lose then the two with the worst goal difference - or goals scored - will go down. As they are currently separated by just two goals a heavy defeat would essential mean relegation for any side.

Final table:
15 - Wolves - 43 points
16 - Wigan - 42 points
17 - Blackburn - 40 points
18 - Blackpool - 40 points
19 - Birmingham - 39 points

• Follow me on Twitter: @dalejohnsonESPN

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