The title race between Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea may be what everyone is talking about but the pressure at the top doesn’t compare with what those at the bottom of the table are going through.
I can’t remember the Premier League ever being as close as it is this season in terms of the bottom three. The sides currently occupying the most unwanted of places are West Brom, Stoke and Middlesbrough – but all three could still be safe at the end of the season. Usually at this point there is at least one team well adrift of the pack but this season if any of the clubs in the bottom three record a win in their next game they could be catapulted to mid-table.
It leads me to an intriguing question – who is going to go down? A couple of weeks ago I’d have been inclined to say West Brom for sure, then maybe Blackburn and one other. Now I’m not so sure. West Brom have enjoyed a resurgence of late and have caught up after being five points off the pace, while Blackburn have picked up under new-boss Sam Allardyce.
Looking at the teams in and around the bottom three I can’t see Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester City going down. City especially have the resources and players to get out of it and I think both these clubs will comfortably avoid the drop by the time the end of the season is upon us. Newcastle United may well also fall into this bracket, but details of their funding is sketchy and if they lose Michael Owen to injury they could be in real trouble.
Sunderland, Portsmouth, Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers fall into the ‘they shouldn’t but they could’ category when it comes to relegation. Sunderland have a handful of really good players who should be good enough to keep them up but we’ve all seen teams go down with real quality in them (West Ham anyone?). Portsmouth, like Sunderland, really do have a side too good to go down. However, despite having the likes of Peter Crouch and Niko Kranjcar in their ranks they haven’t been performing well at all and need to get out of this slump. Bolton and Blackburn have some decent players and are both capable of grinding out results against anyone, for them it is all a case of beating the teams around them and maintaining their home form. Bolton have the added bonus of the fact they’ve met all of the top four twice already apart from Chelsea so, on paper at least, they have a fairly easy run in.
Middlesbrough have been playing abysmally of late and they need to improve quickly to keep up with the pack. Manager Gareth Southgate is obviously feeling the pressure and a lot of people expect him to get the chop soon. I used to like Southgate until he did that advert for a well-known Pizza company after his penalty miss in the Euro 96 competition (fair play that was 12 years ago – yes I am a football elephant) and I wouldn’t like to see him get the boot but results talk. A change of manager at the Riverside may ignite them the way it shook up Blackburn.
I actually fancied Stoke City to be the strongest of the promoted sides at the start of the season and they may yet well be. They’ve looked well organised and have picked up some good results. They’ve got a fairly tight defence and I can see them staying in the league.
I still feel the task might be too great for West Brom. For all their talk of playing ‘attractive football’ I haven’t really seen any evidence of this and I think they will end the season in the bottom spot.
Some usual suspects – West Ham, Wigan and Fulham – all look safe at the moment but they’re still only five – ten points away and could be dragged in. However, I think they may have all done enough already.
Hull City are starting to get dragged into the danger area and they’re only six points away from the bottom three now. They haven’t won in six and have lost their last five – very worrying signs at the KC Stadium for boss Phil Brown. I have a lot of admiration for Brown but I think they might be the ones dragged into it and ultimately lose their Premier League place.
It’s still a long way off but I’m going to say I think the three teams to go down will be Middlesbrough, Hull City and West Bromwich Albion. It isn’t what I want to happen (City, Spurs and Newcastle in case you were wondering!) but with the way things are going at the moment I think this is the most likely scenario.