The main focus of the Premier League this weekend has primarily been the fight between all the teams in the top four, in the race for the Premier League title. Whilst the openness at the top makes for an interesting run-in to the end of the campaign, the competition at the other end of the table is just as intense, where the battle to avoid relegation really is hotting up.
The attention will inevitably fall on Louis Van Gaal, following Manchester United’s loss away at Sunderland, but for the Black Cats it was a huge victory that could be pivotal to the remainder of their season. Last weekend they were dominated for Liverpool for 80 minutes, but were able to snatch a goal and then force an equaliser to get an important point. They built on that momentum by beating Manchester United to put themselves back into contention to survive. Sam Allardyce’s men will need to replicate this performance on a regular basis if they are to maintain their Premier League status as they have some difficult games in the coming weeks.
The three points against United do keep them in contention though because it wasn’t such a good weekend for the sides just above them. Norwich let a 2 goal lead slip at home to West Ham, which leaves Sunderland just one point behind them. Alex Neil’s side are in a patchy run of form and with upcoming games against title chasing Leicester and Manchester City, a rejuvenated Chelsea and crucially, against fellow strugglers Swansea, they need to start putting some points on the board again. They have gone from being a team difficult to play against to a team that is conceding regularly and the recent defeat to bottom club Aston Villa was particularly damaging.
Swansea sit just three points above the drop zone and despite a recent improvement in form that saw them win two and draw of their previous four Premier League games, their defeat at home to Southampton this weekend has left them in an ominous position. A poor season for the Swans saw manager Garry Monk dismissed and Francesco Guidolin brought in to replace him. The Italian coach’s appointment saw the upturn of form, but maintaining it will be a challenge as their next two games are against Spurs and Arsenal. Defeats in those games could have a damaging impact on confidence, ahead of key games against Norwich, Bournemouth and then Aston Villa. In theory, those are three winnable games that would go a long way to Premier League survival, but how they perform against Spurs and Arsenal could have a big influence on the form they take into those three huge games against relegation rivals.
Right behind Swansea sit Newcastle, possibly the most unpredictable club in the Premier League. St James Park regularly housing over 50,000 passionate fans in a city obsessed with football, Newcastle should be a big club. Instead, they’ve been a club that has flirted with the big time, but failed to maintain the status. Over the past few years, a lack of investment saw the Magpies squad deteriorate and despite backing manager Steve McClaren in the summer and again in January, they still sit in the dreaded drop zone. Gio Wijnaldum has been a good signing, but it is the January additions of Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend that potentially will tip the balance in the Geordies favour come the end of the season. Costly defensive injuries and a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Chelsea was damaging for McClaren’s side and it doesn’t get much easier with Stoke up next. A key game with Bournemouth follows that and then, after Leicester away, is a huge Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland.
Although Bournemouth currently sit four points above the bottom three, consecutive defeats are a reminder that their future is far from certain. December and January were fruitful months for the Cherries and put them in a position where they were in control of their own destiny. Upcoming games against Watford and Southampton will be difficult, but the next two games against Newcastle and Swansea will likely be more defining.
Aston Villa look well and truly beaten, the decision to appoint Tim Sherwood and then allow him to spend fortunes on poor players has left the club in a mess they don’t look capable of recovering from. The fact Remi Garde wasn’t backed in the January transfer window suggests the board are preparing for relegation; a move that infuriated Villa fans and clearly frustrated Garde too, with the Frenchman rumoured to be considering his position at the club. Their catastrophic 6-0 home defeat to Liverpool was probably one of the final nails in their Premier League coffin; they need to win two of their next three or four games just to stand a chance of survival and that looks as likely as Tim Sherwood accepting his role in Villa’s predicament.
The Premier League relegation scrap is notorious for its ability to swap and change and see a club seemingly come from nowhere to be relegated. Presently, it’s difficult to see one of the mid table sides dropping like a stone through the proverbial trap door and it’s equally hard to envisage one of the current bottom six clubs suddenly surging up the table. What is for sure is that the battle for Premier League survival is likely to be as fascinating and unpredictable as the race for the title.