They say that there are two unavoidable guarantees in life – death and taxes. But for the followers of certain football clubs towards the bottom half of the Barclays Premier League there is another inevitability that turns the stomach – relegation. Season on season it happens as regularly as league champions are crowned but the feeling generated by it could not be more at the opposite end of the scale. There is no euphoria or joy felt when it happens. Only gut-wrenching pain.
Come May, three clubs will slip through the trapdoor into the Championship and the fight to avoid such a fate is fiercer than ever before.
Swansea gave their hopes of staying up a shot in the arm on Monday evening as they ran out comfortable 1-0 winners over Watford at the Liberty Stadium. Skipper Ashley Williams ensured the three points stayed in South Wales after planting a header beyond Heurelho Gomes as new boss Francesco Guidolin watched on from the stands. It has been a somewhat strange few days for the Swans after they gave first team coach Alan Curtis the job until the end of the season, only to name the 60 year-old Italian as the new manager later in the week. The club has turned to a foreign manager like so many others before them, adding to the further plight of British bosses in England’s top flight.
The win over Quique Sanchez Flores’ Watford enabled Swansea to leapfrog Newcastle into 17th place and out of the bottom three. As for the Hornets, their season is in danger of derailing after four defeats in a row. They haven’t won in the league since beating Liverpool on 20th December at Vicarage Road and currently sit in 12th place, just eight points above the drop zone. They face a crunch encounter with fellow strugglers Newcastle this weekend at home, where they have already beaten the Magpies once this season in the FA Cup.
Thanks to an outstanding first half of the campaign the assumption is Watford will survive, and they have a lethal front two in Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo to ensure that at least they have the firepower for the fight to come.
Everton are level on points with Watford in 11th and seem to fall into the category of “too good to go down”, but the form of Roberto Martinez’s men has been so inconsistent you’d be crazy to bet what will happen next. Twice they have thrown away a 3-2 lead in stoppage time to draw 3-3 against Bournemouth and Chelsea respectively. Martinez encourages his side to play nice, attractive football even when the situation requires you to hoof it into row Z. Their squad is arguably the best Everton have assembled in the Premier League era so they are punching hugely below their weight, but the remainder of the season represents a chance for the Toffees to spring up the league and into the hunt for European places.
Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion have also faced a sticky inconsistent patch, having racked up two welcome wins in a row against Newcastle and Stoke, followed by a draw against Chelsea and a 3-0 defeat at Southampton, although the battling draw at Stamford Bridge shows they have the stomach for the fight. You’d be a fool to discount an organised Pulis side that’s full of Premier League nous. Expect them to be clear of danger barring a huge collapse.
It’s hard to fathom but the current champions of England are indeed in this mix as they find themselves languishing in 14th, only four points above the relegation zone. It’s remarkable considering what they achieved in winning the league title last season, but Chelsea’s season has lurched from one damaging occurrence to the next. The immediate instinct of every football fan is to say that there is no way that they’ll go down; but there they are after 22 games so you have to include them in the scrap. Guus Hiddink has at least steadied the ship and they remain unbeaten since he took over from Jose Mourinho in December.
Then come Bournemouth and Norwich; two newly promoted clubs under the stewardship of young, hungry British managers. Both Eddie Howe and Alex Neil have made considerable moves in the January Transfer window to stave off relegation. Bournemouth in particular have splashed the cash, bringing in Benik Afobe and Lewis Grabban for a combined fee of around £17m, along with Juan Iturbe on-loan from Roma. Steven Naismith has arrived from Everton to help bolster the Canaries’ survival bid.
The two north-east sleeping giants currently sit in the bottom three. Newcastle and Sunderland have both been swirling around the plughole for a few seasons but have managed to stay afloat.
Could this be one season too far?
Newcastle have been showing significant signs of improvement in recent weeks and grabbed a vital three points against West Ham at St.James’ Park at the weekend. The influence of new signing Jonjo Shelvey could be the difference for them; the former Swansea man showing touches of class and an outstanding range of passing on his debut against the Hammers.
If there’s one man you’d want at the helm it’s someone who has never felt the bitter sting of relegation and that is what Sunderland have in Sam Allardyce. Time will tell if this will be the one blotch on his CV but with a red-hot frontman like Jermain Defoe they will always be in with a chance in any game they play.
It seems as if one relegation place is booked already as Aston Villa prop up the rest having won only two league games all season. Despite taking four points from the last two outings against Crystal Palace and Leicester, Remi Garde’s men still have it all to do as they sit 10 points from safety. Unless they can pull off something truly monumental, Villa are as good as down.
Who the other two teams will be remains to be seen in the closest fight for survival in years. It’s something that we won’t be able to take our eyes off over the coming months as teams battle to flee the sinking ship that will settle inthe bottom three.