With every round of fixtures, the league is set into its desultory motion once again. Everything shifts, the bottom half of the league hails its customary shuffle and then the cards are dealt out again. Every week it seems that they are dealt out differently. The cards are flipped over and a different combination is on display with a different set of names occupying the bottom three spaces in the English Premier League.
This week the rotten hand has been dealt to the illustrious Newcastle United. Middlesbrough sit right beneath them, trailed only by West Brom who seem to be sidling into the abyss. Those clubs, as well as other, hovering above can’t help but look down.
Bookies’ rates are slashed, teams are chopped and changed. This season has seen the most closely contested relegation scrap since the Premier League began. Only now, with just 8 games to go, is the odd team finally clambering over that 40 point landmark.
When the clock finally stops, which club will make that heart (and wallet) wrenching descent into the depths of the Championship? As its occupants are well aware, once you are plunged into the second tier of English football, getting out of there is like trying to punch underwater.
They had to come first, and it is likely they will be going first as well. Sitting right at the bottom of the pack, even the most ardent of West Brom supporters hold little hope. Only that ‘great escape’ a few seasons ago gives the odd fan a glint of optimism. Goals have been hard to come by this campaign, a common problem throughout a league of strong, physical, and dominant defenders.
Many have condoned Tony Mowbary for a naivety in his playing style. The rest have praised him for being ‘firm’ in his belief in how football should be played. Both have small elements of truth, though the simple fact of the matter is that his side that won the Championship did so in a certain way, with a certain kind of player.
The likes of Morrison and Koren are going to fall into the backdrop of a long ball approach and physical intimidation. Failure to sign players that suit the league’s demands has not helped. Ryan Donk looks nervous at the best of times, while Greening seems ineffective amongst an advanced level of opponent. Luke Moore could have made a difference and has showed glimpses of his ability, but it doesn’t look like enough. Jay Simpson has added some late flair and speed but not enough goals and not an ounce of league experience.
A one way road to the Championship for the Midlands side, but they look a good bet to bounce back next year.
Many neutrals will hope that the owner Steve Gibson’s faith and patience with Gareth Southgate will pay off with survival. It looks a tricky task to put it mildly. Some very bad luck has been a major factor in Boro’s plight, though a lack of that cutting edge from the front men has been the major issue. Downing has failed to contribute with the goals that came so last last season and the £12m signing Alfonso Alves has stuttered at best. Tuncay looks a shade of his former self, no mazy dashes, none of that effervescence, or fighting spirit, while Aliadiere continues to confirm beliefs that he was a rare Wenger gaffe.
Southgate started the campaign with the signing of Didier Degard and the sale of Lee Cattermole. Neither has paid off, Degard lacking the former England U21’s passion and fight, and Cattermole has been one of the players of the season for a Wigan side currently residing in a European position. Southgate also failed to capture Ben Watson from Palace, who is also plying his trade in Wigan. He has impressed in his opening games, netting goals which have been so absent from the Riverside. George Boateng was released to Hull, leaving three midfielders who are enjoying integral roles in teams higher in the league.
As with most sides, strong home form will be vital as the season looms. Boro will also need to inject some life into their striking options to fire the club up the league.
The hot topic this week after slipping into the bottom three. Proof that there is no truth to the cliché, “too good to go down.” The club is in a crisis even by Newcastle United standards. A main contributor to their failures is a library of sick notes. Owen, Martins, Viduka, Duff, Smith, Barton. Just a few of the names that often find themselves cramming into a packed physio room. The manager is in hospital after a heart attack. His replacement who through no fault of his own is facing an impossible task that is well beyond him. Did I mention, Mike Ashley has been moonlighting as a swift salesman and an inveterate fan? Even crisis appears somewhat of a euphemism.
50,000 screaming fans should help the side to progress up the league, but the expectation is proving a heavy a burden to many at the club. Every misplaced pass is greeted with a new tumult, and now so are the substitutions. Shola Ameobi, one of the only players who has often managed to steer clear of the injury list, was booed recently by the Geordie faithful who clearly feel his avoidance should stretch to the pitch. With Owen and Martins coming back into action, maybe it will begin to pick up for the Toon Army. The irascible, though talented, Joey Barton, is also tipped to return after a combination of suspension and injury restricting his impact to date. Winger, Damien Duff, is also is building on his fitness, providing hope that some much needed creativity can be instilled in a midfield that rarely threatens.
So much depends on the injuries within the club. If the top earners can regain fitness and pick up some form, there may be time yet to make a real impact and save the club — and the league — from a colossal shock.
The team that ended the 2007/08 season in 7th place and with one of the top managers in the game, now finds itself stranded well in the midst of the relegation scrap. Mark Hughes left the club for money happy Man City after last season, and the club opted for another legend of the game, Paul Ince, to take over. Ince struggled however, and took the team on a road where a victory seemed a long lost possibility. Right at the foot of the table, and after being mauled in a derby match at Wigan Athletic, Ince was sent on his way.
In came Big Sam, and things there has been an equally big improvement. In his trademark back to basics manner, the team transformed into a much more solid outfit. They have plugged the holes in the roof that leaked so many goals, and this has set the foundations for a revival.
Jason Roberts has characteristically muscled his way into the first team, and has responded with some key goals. Roque Santa Cruz has failed to reach last year’s high standards, and may be preoccupied with transfer speculation. McCarthy too has not yet reached his Porto standards, but he has improved from when he played under Ince. Diouf came in after a slow spell at Sunderland, rejoining his former manager from Bolton. He has impressed so far, wasting no time in getting amongst the goals and letting the likes of Almunia know he is back to his best.
Despite sitting right above the drop zone, safety looks possible providing they can maintain their recovery. A relapse however seems unlikely under the experienced watch of their new manager.
Tipped before the season began as relegation certainties, Stoke City have definitely won more games than they have admirers. Their style has been described as ‘ugly’ and the purists will hope to see them go down. ‘Total Football’ aspirations aside, Tony Pullis has done a fantastic job at giving his club more than a slim survival hope with 8 games left. The team play direct, and have a physical team with hardly anyone standing below six foot. The side are also aided with powerful weapons in their arsenal such as that notorious long throw, and some excellent home form.
One of the signings of the January window was that of James Beattie. The former Southampton hitman is tailor-made for the way they play. He is strong and will finish the few chances they create. He has netted 5 so far in 8 games since his arrival, adding the rare fire power that could clinch survival for another year.
However, if the Potters do survive, don’t expect a boost in their flair and style next season. Expect a few more giants rather than Brazilians to walk onto the Britannia pitch.
Another side tipped to avoid the drop down to having so many quality players. But many underestimate the damage that has been inflicted on the side since the club’s zenith when they won FA Cup. Jermaine Defoe, the key man, is gone; his attacking influence was more than just his handsome goal scoring record. It is no coincidence that Peter Crouch was more of a threat when alongside him. Now, his threat comes mainly from the air, rather than in his link up play and movement in the box.
Diarra was another major player for the side; his move to Real and his early performances prove his class. His midfield partner, Mendes, left earlier in the summer. He completed a rather surprising move to the blue side of Glasgow. Niko Kranjcar is still there to assist in midfield, though his abilities are largely going forward, and his form appears abstract and he has captured the imagination too rarely. At the back, Johnson remains a solid fullback and a menace coming forward.
The South coast side beat Everton at the weekend and have pushed themselves away from the bottom three for the time being. Crouch must use his brace as the foundations of a goal scoring run, and the famous home crowd should give them the support needed to avoid the drop.
One of the teams who seemed to be pulling away from the melee, before a series of dire displays hooked them firmly back in. Form peaked briefly when new manager, Ricky Sbragia, took charge, but the brief honeymoon is now over, leaving the Mackems as the third of the North East clubs in the relegation mire.
Like many of their rivals, Sunderland have some top quality forward men. Also like their rivals, these front men are not hitting the target anywhere near as much as expected. Kenwyn Jones seems to come out of his shell every now and then, offering a flash of class before disappearing once more. Cisse also showed clinical attributes and blistering speed on occasion, but he’s now slowed down considerably. These two will need to start hitting the back of the net if the Mackems are to avoid joining their neighbours at the foot of the table. Kieran Richardson and Andy Reid have the creative talent to test defenders, but have done this too little over past months.
A few wins should push Sunderland clear of the drop for good, but it does look an onerous task considering current form.
Hull’s decline from their early season high is unremitting. Flair mixed with fantastic spirit got the side off to a stunning start, picking up most of the points needed for safety within the opening months. Then it all went wrong. Many point to the infamous on-pitch team talk at Eastlands but there is a more rational reason for the decline. Teams no longer underestimate Hull, or their key players like Geovanni and Fagan. They no longer go out to win games and exude the enthused confidence of their prior displays. The team has now fully absorbed the harsh realities of the world’s toughest league, and Hull’s Premier League future is still well and truly in the balance.
It will be difficult to put the breaks on their decline without a quality to striker to chip in with the crucial goals. Their rivals, bar West Brom, all have a centre forward who is capable of hitting a rich vein of form and firing their team up the league. Stoke have Craig Beattie, the North East clubs all have potentially top class forward lines, and Bolton have a £10m signing and the third highest scorer in the league. Hull however has loanee Manucho and Fagan, neither of whom has ever displayed the necessary class at this level. Geovanni has regained his first team place, but despite having plenty of time on the ball, has failed to revive his early vivacity and inspiration.
Hull’s head start is dwindling fast, and they will be hoping they can crawl over the finishing line despite an early sprint to their Premier League debut.
The North West club have flirted with relegation ever since Big Sam departed, but always manage to steer clear of a real crisis. Gary Megson continues to fight an unachievable battle to win over the Trotter fans. Whilst he will be under no illusions that avoiding relegation will win the fans over, failure to do so will no doubt pile on huge pressure to bring in a new head.
The side has fallen victim to the goal scoring problems that ravage the bottom teams. The big money £10m signing of Johan Elmander from Toulouse has done little to contribute to the goal sheet. Kevin Davies has been a success story, as has Matthew Taylor and Cahill, all somewhat harshly excluded from the England setup despite good form. Davies is the top English goal scorer, and Taylor has also contributed his fair share.
Bolton look as though they should be safe for another year. As long as their haphazard form doesn’t disintegrate into bad form as the latter stages of the campaign arrive.
The Great Abyss
The tussle at the foot of the league will continue well into the last few seconds of the final Premier League game. With so many teams fighting it out, even that 40 point milestone may be insufficient for safety. Many will find themselves climbing out of the doomed relegation zone before being sent sprawling back in again with an evening or Sunday fixture. There will be plenty of twists, plenty of turns, plenty of melodrama. Then, as the whistles are blown right across the country, there will be widespread relief, widespread grief, and three teams will be sent kicking and screaming into the Championship.