With the end of the season only weeks away, we find ourselves at that stage when the foot of the table starts to make for interesting viewing. It seems that Chelsea are going to be crowned League Champions this season, albeit without a calamitous run of form in coming weeks, but whenever we think we know who the certainties for relegation are it changes in an instance. Just two games ago I would have told you that Leicester City were resigned to immediate relegation after winning the Championship last season. However, two wins on the bounce see them with games in hand over their rivals and the points difference severely reduced between them and their rivals. As the time of writing; Leicester City, Burnley, QPR, Hull City, Sunderland and Aston Villa are all still in danger of relegation (in my opinion). Now we look to their biggest hopes for survival. The men that lead their forward lines, the men they entrust with finding the goals to earn them points. Their strikers.
At this stage of the season every point is gold dust to these sides. Fans and managers alike look to their strikers for inspiration, goals that could be the difference between another year competing with the countries elite or clawing to get yourself back in amongst the Premier League and all its benefits. David Nugent (Leicester City), Danny Ings (Burnley), Charlie Austin (QPR), Jermain Defoe (Sunderland) and Christian Benteke (Aston Villa) all have a heavy weight of expectation on them. Some because their performances this year have set a standard that means fans expect quality and others because of reputations they have as strikers who consistently find the net.
Leicester City are bottom of the Premier League. They are on 25 points after 31 games, 6 of those points were one in their last 2 games. After paying a club record £9million for Andrej Kramaric, in January, and £8million for Leonardo Ulloa before him, it has been veteran striker David Nugent that has played the biggest part in the foxes’ recent surge. With 2 goals and an assist in his last 3, he has helped his side to picking up 6 points of a possible 9 during that run. With at least a game in hand over most of their relegation rivals (in some cases 2 in hand), Nigel Pearson’s side have breathed life into their campaign late on. If you are Pearson, after picking up 2 wins in a row for the first time since September, you would be unwilling to change a winning side meaning that Nugent could hold the lone striker role for Leicester on their run in. Compared to the other strikers mentioned, he is the oldest and one with the least pedigree, yet his experience should be invaluable for Leicester as they seek to turn the table on its head and climb from the bottom to safety.
One of the most discussed players this season has been Burnley’s Danny Ings. The young Englishman has made a name for himself with his performances for Burnley this year. His 9 goals in 29 games, so far, are a testament to his quality especially considering little was expected of him and Burnley many believing this was level too high for him. He has proven those doubters wrong. With rumours of moves to teams from Liverpool to Real Socieadad rampant Burnley will need their star striker to continue to grow his stock and add more goals to his tally between now and seasons end. His goals aren’t his only contribution to his side, of all the strikers on this list Ings has created the most of any (31) registering 4 assists to go alongside his 9 goals. His shot accuracy, however, is the lowest of all on this (42%) which is a worry for Burnley because at this stage of the season and at the bottom of the table, you want to be taking whatever chances come your way. Ings having the lowest shot accuracy, while surprising, could be a worry unless he can raise that percentage during the run in.
It’s hard to know what to make of Sunderland. You don’t know whether you are going to get the side that takes an 8-0 off Southampton or the side that wins the Tyne-Wear Derby courtesy of a Jermain Defoe wonder strike. Jermain Defoe has made a career out of being ‘a good Premier League striker’ with his instinctual forward play and eye for a goal. It’s a label he thoroughly deserves. Since signing for Sunderland from Toronto FC in January Defoe has amassed 3 goals in 920 minutes of football, hitting 21 shots and creating 5 chances. Not stellar numbers that scream master stroke, but the potential is there we all know that. The goal that won the Newcastle game for Sunderland was one of the goals of the season and of such a quality that it brought the goal scorer himself to tears. Moments of magic like that are what a player like Defoe can provide for you. Any of the teams involved in the relegation battle would want to have Jermain Defoe in their squad. Defoe needs those around him to pitch in as well. As soon as there was a chance to ride a confidence wave after the Tyne-Wear derby, it was distinguished by a 4-1 defeat by Crystal Palace, criminal defending really costing them dearly. It’s all well and good talking about a striker saving a team’s season but there aren’t many that can counter act the dreadful showing that has been Sunderland’s defence this season. Defoe is good enough to save a side in relegation trouble, but Sunderland and their defence could easily undo any work he does to help them.
Charlie Austin’s 17 goals this season are a, if not the, major reason his QPR team aren’t bottom of the table facing certain relegation. The former Swindon Town striker has proven that his goal scoring prowess expands well beyond the lower leagues that many believe his career would be limited to. With 17 goals in 30 games, Austin is the top goalscorer of all the players on this list. Not only that, but he is rubbing shoulders with the League’s premier strikers; both Costa and Aguero have 19 so far for the season. He has proven that he can score against anyone as well. Not only has Austin netted against teams like Burnley and West Brom, but also Chelsea and Man City. At times this season when QPR have looked bereft of ideas and direction Austin has been a refreshing reminder of simplistic forward play and the ability to find the net. Austin has also managed 4 assists for himself this season, creating 20 chances for his side and recording a shot accuracy of 67% from his 120 shots. Impressive numbers all round for a guy who, only a few summers ago, was preparing for his season with Poole Town. Had it not been for Harry Kane’s breakout season, all the English media would be revolving around Charlie Austin and his imminent involvement in the England set up. If anything, that could’ve been a good thing as it has allowed him to go about his job, expertly as he has, while not all the spotlight and scrutiny is shown on him. If QPR don’t stay up it won’t be for Austin’s lack of effort. It would difficult to believe that he won’t break the 20 goals mark by season’s end.
If player of the year was based solely on the last 6 games, Christian Benteke would have a strong claim. With 8 goals in his last 6 appearances, the Belgian has dragged his side into 15th in the table picking up 10 points from a possible 18. A remarkable accomplishment considering prior to that, Villa were on a run of no wins in 12. Benteke had only managed to find the net twice before this, not scoring in 10 games, until he broke that drought against West Brom. All season you could say if Benteke decides to start scoring then Villa could be alright, but if he doesn’t they’ve got no chance. It seemed like the latter was going to be the case and even after Sherwood’s appointment, it seemed that Benteke was not the player that had impressed us all when he arrived at Villa Park. He has cast those doubters aside in recent weeks. His 10 goals and 2 assists in 24 games have helped Villa go 6 points clear of QPR and Burnley, albeit having played a game more than Burnley, and 7 points clear of Leicester City who they have played 2 games more than. Any manager will tell you they would rather have points on the board and that’s what Villa have at the moment. As this season has shown the dynamics at the bottom of the table can change in an instant, with 5 games left to play and Benteke on the form he is on, Villa may now be favourites to buy themselves another year in their usual spot amongst their Premier League rivals.
If you had asked two weeks ago what the bottom 3 was going to be, the answers would no doubt be different to what they would be if you asked that same question today. Give it two more weeks and surely enough it would have changed again. Each of these teams have strikers of varying quality, but quality nonetheless, to help guide them towards safety. It is truly anybody’s game as Leicester have certainly shown in recent weeks making sure that everyone is aware no one is safe. Nugent, Defoe, Ings, Austin and Benteke – who do you think is most capable of scoring their side to Premier League survival?