The Relegation Battle No One Wants To Escape?In a football season that threatens a pretty unprecedented and wide open title race by modern day standards, there is also drama unfolding at the bottom of the table.
From what appears to be the supernova of a dying giant in the shape of Aston Villa to an ongoing game of leapfrog between Newcastle United, Norwich City and Sunderland to keep their head above the waterline and onwards to Swansea City and Bournemouth treading water in their attempts to distance themselves from the end of season bunfight, it promises to be a wild ride.
With 12 games to go, the mythical 40 point mark has been reached by just seven clubs so far. While Leicester City’s overachievement and Chelsea’s underachievement has brought an air of ‘anything is possible’ to the 2015/16 Premier League season, some clubs are contriving to make the simplest targets appear impossible to reach. Every club has at times been guilty of taking one step forward, one to the side and one back in their attempts to progress.
While the financial ramifications to Premier League relegation have been devastating for a great number of years now, the desperation to maintain top-flight football has never been felt as starkly as it has this season. With the new increases to television pay-outs set to begin from 2016/17, now is not the time to have your invite to the party revoked.
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Next season, it is estimated that the club that finishes bottom of the Premier League will ‘earn’ somewhere between £85-95m in television revenue alone. Last season, Burnley, in befalling relegation from the Premier League, made more from television deals than the Dutch giants and four times champions of Europe; Ajax did.
There should be a lot of worried club chairman moving uncomfortably in their boardroom chairs right now. Life outside the Premier League can be very harsh. See Bolton Wanderers for the evidence of that.
Of course while anything is still possible at both the top and tail of the Premier League, Aston Villa seems to be the biggest certainty for relegation at this stage. Having beaten Norwich City in their previous league outing, they went into last Sunday’s encounter with Liverpool with the knowledge that a victory against Jürgen Klopp’s inconsistent side would bring them to within 5 points of safety.
The 0-6 reversal that instead unfolded will be a hard blow to recover from. 8 points adrift of 17th position and with an inferior goal difference hindering them, it effectively puts them 9 points adrift. Given the general ‘shoulders slumped’ motions the club appears to be going through it is hard to see them pulling off the great escape. Away trips still to be undertaken to Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal still to come, plus a ‘6 pointer’ at Swansea City, combined to the arrivals of Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea for their next three home games, it is hard to see where Aston Villa can find the vast number of wins they require.
Beyond the doomed Aston Villa, just 5 points separate 19th placed Sunderland and 15th placed Bournemouth. Sunderland’s recent spirited comeback for a draw at Anfield, followed by last Saturday’s win at home to Manchester United has energised the club, but for how long can the Black Cats continue with their revolving door policy of hiring and firing managers? In recent seasons a saviour has been found to guide the club to safety in relegation battles, only for them to become part of the problem the following season. Paulo Di Canio, Gustavo Poyet and Dick Advocaat have all followed this pattern and now Sam Allardyce tries to pull off the same escapology act. Despite a spike in good fortune, Sunderland could still relapse.
On paper, Sunderland has a kind run-in, but they will still face a massive trip to St James Park and a visit to fellow strugglers Norwich City in mid-April. Everton, Arsenal, Leicester City and Chelsea are all still to face at The Stadium of Light. There will be some huge days to come on Wearside.
Sunderland’s bitter rivals, Newcastle United, will have to do it the hard way if they are to beat the drop. They face a large number of potentially high-octane battles against relegation rivals. Beyond that upcoming Tyne-Wear derby, they will play Bournemouth and Swansea City at home and travel to Norwich City and Aston Villa. They also still have Manchester City to arrive at St James Park and trips to Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur to go through. For a club that hasn’t won away since December, one of only two wins on their travels, if they do slip out of the Premier League then failures away will be one of the biggest reasons.
Norwich City arguably has the toughest run-in. Trips to Leicester City, Swansea City, Arsenal and Everton are to come, with Chelsea, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Sunderland and Manchester United still to travel to Carrow Road. If the canaries beat the drop, then they will do it the hard way and it will be well-earned. Their propensity to throw leads away will need to be brought under control however, if they are to achieve survival.
While Norwich City has their work cut out, Bournemouth can also point to a fraught fixture list between now and May 15th. Their next visitors in the Premier League will be Southampton for the south-coast derby, but the arrivals only get harder from there onwards with Swansea City, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea still to come. On their travels, Bournemouth will visit Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, Everton and Manchester United. Bournemouth are best not looking what is ahead of them too much.
Somewhere along the way, just as was the case last season, a new Leicester City will rise to survive from what looks to be an unsalvageable position, and possibly a pebble from higher up will drop into the equation.
While Chelsea and Everton still struggle to find consistency in mid-table, there is no realistic danger of them falling backwards into the scrap at the bottom. Yet, both Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion could probably do with casting an eye over their shoulder. Crystal Palace in particular, after such a bright start to the season, are on an alarming slide and haven’t won a Premier League game since before Christmas. They have an unenviable run-in too.
12 games and three months in Premier League football is a long time, but for those clubs staring relegation in the face it will skim past in the blink of an eye. We’re into the final third of the campaign and while there is so much to gain at the top, there is so much to be both lost and gained at the bottom. You can’t take your eyes off this season for a moment.