Author: Ashley Munson
The Premier League season is rapidly approaching the end, the Champions will be one of runaway pair Manchester City or Liverpool and the other two sides likely to make up the top four are wide open for debate as three London clubs – Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea – battle with Manchester United for qualification to the biggest club tournament in world football. For today though, we’re going to cast our focus to the less glamorous end of the league and the scrap to avoid relegation to the second tier.
With only a handful of games remaining two spots are sewn up; Huddersfield look likely to finish bottom as they rue their lack of firepower whilst Fulham – who are on their third manager of the season in Scott Parker – are also heading down. Perhaps on reflection, their summer splurge of £100 million wasn’t the best way to maintain the team spirit that had helped them to promotion just a few short months earlier.
Mathematically speaking there are six teams who could fall through the trapdoor, but realists will tell you it’s one of two as fifth bottom Southampton sit five points clear of the relegation spaces and it seems unlikely that gap will be closed given what fixtures are left to play. Instead, step forward Brighton and Cardiff – what have you got left in the tank?
At the back end of March Cardiff looked set to grab a valuable three points in a shock victory over top-four chasing Chelsea but lady luck smiled elsewhere, and manager Neil Warnock was left lamenting an error from the ‘worst officials’ in the world. A missed offside allowed Cesar Azpilicueta to equalise with just six minutes left on the clock; it changed the momentum and Chelsea went on to snatch an injury time winner. Next up was a trip to the Etihad to take on reigning Champions Man City and, as expected, they left with zero points.
Their next fixture looked to be a winnable one though as they faced Sean Dyche’s Burnley but after falling behind on the half-hour mark they – and most neutrals – began to think staying up isn’t written in the stars as more cruel referring decisions went against them; first a Ben Mee handball saw ref Mike Dean point to the spot only to change his mind and then Cardiff had several penalty appeals, one at least that looked a certainty to be given as Aron Gunnarsson was sent tumbling. It wasn’t to be though, and a late break saw Burnley wrap the game up 2-0.
Cardiff found themselves five points off safety as they headed into a six-pointer with Brighton – the team occupying 17th spot. The Seagulls went into the game on their own run of poor form; losses to Southampton, Chelsea and Man City were bad enough but the low point was a 5-0 demolition job in front of their own fans, at the hands of Bournemouth.
Brighton were chugging along nicely at Christmas, but they’ve slowly started to slip, as the goals for leading scorer Glenn Murray became harder to come by. Manager Chris Hughton has done a very good job on the South Coast, but accusations of his overly cautious approach are starting to rear their head again – that was a large contributing factor to his demise at Norwich City in 2014.
In stark contrast, Warnock has let his players off the leash a little as they’ve been favourites to drop all year so what is there to lose? That combined with their hard graft, which is the least you get from a Warnock side, saw them inflict a fifth consecutive defeat on Brighton as they won 0-2 to close the gap to just two points – although they have played a game more.
Cardiff play host to Liverpool and Crystal Palace whilst trips to Fulham and Manchester United complete their schedule. You don’t have to be a genius to pinpoint the key games. Brighton meanwhile travel to Wolves and Tottenham in their next two before finishing the season with home games against Newcastle, Arsenal and Man City.
Given the fact the title and the top four is likely to run to the wire, neither side should expect any favours or weakened sides; for that reason, Cardiff could be the most likely to win the photo-finish race as they have shown to have the fire for the fight. If it transpires that way, then Warnock should be lauded for not only keeping his team up but doing so after leading a city through a January transfer window that reminded the footballing world that the game comes second.