The dreaded Premier League trap door is wide open and as the season draws to a close, we get that bit nearer to discovering who will join Aston Villa in falling through it to the Football League Championship. It’s been a season of twists and turns and, as is often the case, the battle for survival could still hold a surprise or two in store.
Just a few weeks ago, Newcastle looked favourites to follow relegated Villa, but new manager Rafa Benitez has got them more organised, confident and given them some heart. Their draw at Liverpool after being 2-0 down at half-time is testament to that; a result they would never have achieved prior to his appointment. Their up-turn in belief, performances and results have coincided with Norwich and Sunderland seeing their fortunes begin to head in the opposite direction.
The Premier League battle for survival has been unpredictable in recent years and perhaps Newcastle could be the unexpected beneficiaries of that this year. Their victory over Crystal Palace this past weekend was a huge result for the Geordies and the fact that they beat former manager Alan Pardew will have only made the 3 points all the sweeter for many fans. Although a fantastic goal from Andros Townsend was the difference maker, but young goalkeeper Karl Darlow’s save from Yohan Cabaye’s controversial penalty was just as important and helped ensure a rare clean sheet for the Magpies.
Near neighbours Sunderland snatched a last-gasp equaliser to gain what could yet prove to be a vital point against a Stoke side that have been relaxing on the beach of late. Marko Arnautovic scored early in the second half and it looked to have condemned the Black Cats to a devastating defeat and though they complained Peter Crouch climbed on top of Younes Kaboul, the defender simply leaned forward, expecting a free-kick to be awarded instead of actually challenging for the ball. If Sunderland felt aggrieved by that decision, they had to be thankful for the soft penalty they were awarded deep into injury time that Jermain Defoe calmly put away. To get a result so late in the game could well give them a lift and Defoe’s goals are key to their survival hopes.
Norwich put in an underwhelming performance away to an Arsenal side under increasing pressure from home fans growing disgruntled at Arsene Wenger’s failure to provide a Premier League title in 12 years. Despite having a few dangerous counter attacks, Norwich didn’t provide enough competition for Arsenal and the Gunners looked comfortable stroking the ball around. Once substitute Danny Welbeck gave Arsenal the lead, they looked under little threat from a side supposedly fighting for survival. The Canaries will need to show a lot more fight if they are to stand a chance of staying up.
For all three teams, this weekend is vital and Newcastle have a prime opportunity to register a win as they face bottom side Aston Villa, who have lost their last eleven Premier League matches. Newcastle have an awful away record this season, winning on only two occasions, but there can be no better chance to finish the season with a third than facing the worst team in the league. For Norwich, it’s a tough lunch time fixture against a resurgent Manchester United, who still harbour faint hopes of a top four finish. Louis Van Gaal’s men have secured an FA Cup Final spot and are looking more confident which is in contrast to Alex Neil’s side, who are struggling to score goals and coming up against opponents as tight and compact as Manchester United means they will have a task on their hands if they are to give themselves a chance heading into the final week of the season. Sunderland face an equally difficult proposition, at home to now former Champions, Chelsea. Although the Blues have very little to play for and have started to give few younger players opportunities, they still have some outstanding players who could punish Sunderland in a moment.
However, both Norwich and Sunderland play their game in hand on Wednesday, with Norwich hosting Watford and Sunderland at home to Everton. On paper, both matches should be tight, but are equally winnable and makes it all the more essential for Newcastle that they win away at Villa, whilst their relegation rivals face more tricky ties. The pressure is most certainly on this weekend for all three clubs as the trap door awaits.