For all the excitement at the top of the league in the race for the title and European places, the relegation battle is gearing up to be the tightest in a long time. While the idea of relegation battles going down to the final day are not uncommon, this is the first season in a while that has featured no clearly doomed teams a la Portsmouth and so we cast our eye over the fight for top flight football as the season enters the run-in period:
In theory Holloway’s side should have enough of a buffer to prevent getting to sucked into the mix. But seven defeats in their last eight games and a gap of only four points from West Ham suggests that fatigue and euphoria at being promoted might not be enough to carry the Tangerines through. It should be said that on a number of occasions this season they have been desperately unlucky not to come away with at least a share of the spoils, in particular the game against Manchester United where they lead 2-0 with twenty minutes to go. However that game also showcased naivety at the highest level which United punished. With such little time left and a two goal cushion Holloway’s men should have been sitting back and retaining their shape in order to frustrate United. Instead we saw Evett and Eardley bombing forward and opening up the game. For all that Blackpool have never played anything other than attacking and enjoyable football and it would be a real shame if they were to go down.
Earlier in the season, Paul Doyle wrote an article arguing that Birmingham would go down and furthermore that they would in no way be missed. Certainly watching them this season it’s hard to remember that Big Eck guided them to 9th last season. They were dominant at St. Andrews and defensively very sound. This time round they have managed to lose fewer games than any of their other rivals but a nasty habit of drawing far too many games which has seen them slump into 16th. The positive is that their run-in is significantly easier than the teams around them. Not only should City fans feel confident of notching up a few more victories but they don’t have to face three of the current top four again. It remains to be seen how much investment is required over the summer. This season might just be a blip with some key players underperforming or whether McLeish needs to enact a more drastic overhaul.
Another side that has been on a wretched run of form since beating Newcastle, West Brom have just installed Hodgson as the successor to Di Matteo, a sacking which stunned quite a few fans. Di Matteo brought them into the Premier League and initially had them flying as high as 5th place after the first few weeks. Most memorably they went and dominated Arsenal at the Emirates walking away 3-2 victors. However after the promising start the slide began and players like Peter Odemwingie have not managed to maintain their form. The curse of the amateur hack strikes again since I confidently predicted that Di Matteo would end the constant promotion/relegation cycle West Brom always endure. New manager Roy Hodgson has already pulled off one great escape with Fulham in the 2007/8 season and will be expected to do so again. While it is sad to see a genuinely likeable as well as talented manager like Di Matteo sacked the potential fillip from bringing in someone who has been there and bought the T-Shirt might just be enough to save the Baggies from going boing boing again.
Under Roberto Martinez Wigan have been the most frustrating side in the top flight. On their day they seem to channel the spirits of the Ajax side of the early 70’s. However more often than not they look like they’ve been drinking spirits instead. Of all the teams in the struggle, none are harder to call than Wigan. Offensively they can be superb but they are most definitely defensively frail. In fact Wigan remind watchers of nothing so much as Arsenal without the budget. Both sides share a philosophy of attractive football which stems from the men in charge, both are notoriously Jekyll and Hyde and both Wenger and Martinez would seriously benefit from having an assistant manager who can coach decent defensive play. Martinez is another likeable manager in the league and it will be a shame but last season the Latics rode their luck. Twice in a row might be too big an ask.
Wolves have a curious problem under McCarthy this season. They have been excellent against the bigger sides claiming the scalps of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City at Molineux. But against the sides around them, they have just not been able to cut the mustard. Kevin Doyle has again been a key player but has not had the same impact, scoring only three this season compared with his haul of nine last year. However, like West Ham, they have begun to pick up victories at the crucial stage in the campaign. Five victories in their last eleven games reads much better than two in fourteen prior to that. The morale boost of being the team to end Manchester United’s unbeaten run might just be what keeps Wolves up despite a very poor first few months.
West Ham United:
Still rock bottom after 26 games, there is nevertheless some minor bright spots for West Ham. They have collected more points in their last seven games than in the nineteen games before that including three victories. Despite an utterly miserable start to the season which saw only one victory in fourteen they might yet survive if they can parley this upswing in form into some momentum. However they have only two games against fellow strugglers left (West Brom this weekend and Wigan on May 15th) and will need to rely on picking up points against the likes of Liverpool, Bolton and Spurs if they are to avoid relegation. Furthermore it must be acknowledged that even if they avoid the drop it will merely be masking the deep inadequacies of the squad and a serious rethink in strategy is required regardless of where the Hammers finish.
One vital factor in which teams stay in the top flight will be the morale and self-belief in the squad. Despite the very best efforts of Ian Holloway, I would predict Blackpool to join West Ham and Wigan in the Championship next season.