Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Eleven teams are still in it, but who will face the drop at the business end of the season?

Whether the Premier League is the best league in the footballing world remains a much debated argument in pubs across Europe, and I guess it depends on how you define being the ' best ' . In terms of standard among the top teams, I would concur that Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid are superior to the Premier League's top teams at the moment, and the likes of PSG and Atletico Madrid are probably on par. In terms of entertainment value however, the Premier League really does take some beating. Whilst the title race and places for European qualification remain wide open, the relegation battle currently taking place is possibly the most intriguing the league has ever known, eleven games remain and eleven teams, in my opinion, are still very much in it.

Based on the last five seasons, only once has the familiar benchmark of 40 points actually been required to stay in the Premier League. Here are the points that have been required in the last five seasons:

2008-09 - Hull City survived on 35 points
2009-10 - West Ham could've survived on 31 points
2010-11 - Wolves survived on 40 points
2011-12 - QPR survived on 37 points
2012-13 - Sunderland could've survived on 37 points

It averages out at a required total of 36 points based on the last five seasons, and in my opinion I think that will be enough points to beat the drop again.

THE TEAMS STILL IN THE RELEGATION MIX:West Ham United - Current position 10th - 31 pointsAt tenth in the Premier League it may seem daft to still include West Ham in this, but Big Sam will know as well as anyone that they can't relax just yet, and let's not forget, this West Ham side went on a run of one win in eleven games with seven defeats between the start of December and the end of January. Their run of four wins on the bounce and only one goal conceded in five games has given them a tremendous boost though, and as well as being the current form team in the Premier League, they still boast the most clean sheets in the division as well. West Ham's goalkeeping understudy Adrian has thrived on the responsibility of filling in for the injured Jussi Jaaskelainen, with some crucial saves he now has the best saves to shots ratio of any goalkeeper in the Premier League this season, 80 percent. Kevin Nolan's up turn in form after a mixed start has aided their improved form as well, he has now provided 6 goals and 3 assists in his last 7 games.

They don't have a particularly easy run in, six of their last eleven games are against top 7 teams, 3 of those games away, but home games against the likes of Crystal Palace and Hull and away games at the likes of Sunderland and West Brom should see them acquire enough points to comfortably survive this season.

Hull City - Current position 11th - 30 points
Many people had Steve Bruce's Hull down as one of their firm tips for relegation this season, but Bruce's experience at this level has proven invaluable and they find themselves in a very healthy position only a point short of the Premier League's top half. At home they have made themselves notoriously hard to break down, only the Premier League's current top 3 have conceded less goals at home this season. Hull were the eighth biggest spenders in Europe in the January transfer window with the double signing of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic for close to £15 million pounds and those signings, Jelavic especially, have been justified so far. Jelavic has hit five goals in seven games in all competitions and is already the clubs top scorer for this campaign. For all the controversy owner Assem Allam has caused off the field this season, his financial backing can not be questioned.

Their run in of fixtures isn't too bad at all, they face only one more team in the current top 9 away from home this season, and home games against West Brom and Swansea and away games at Aston Villa and Fulham should see them gain the points to beat the drop with games to spare this season. A very solid season for the Tigers.

Swansea City - Current position 12th - 28 points

It's been a very mixed season for the Swans in their third season in the top flight. Surpassing the success of the 2012/13 campaign where they achieved comfortable survival and a Capital One Cup final victory was always going to be difficult, and I think it's fair to say their Europa League commitments have affected their league form somewhat. Their trip to Napoli this coming Thursday will be their 43rd fixture of the season so far and managing those amount of fixtures without huge squad depth is always going to take it's toll. Michael Laudrup's departure was seen as a surprise amongst supporters, the exact reasons for his dismissal remain unclear. One thing is for sure, Huw Jenkins doesn't make a habit of removing managers, in his 12 year spell as Swansea City Chairman, Brian Flynn was the only manager he had sacked prior to Michael Laudrup's departure. Garry Monk has stepped in and done a fine job so far and Wilfried Bony's ever improving form has been of great benefit to Swansea, the Dutchman has now hit 19 goals in 28 starts in all competitions this season justifying the £12 million which was paid for his services.

Their run in of fixtures is potentially tricky, they still have to travel to Everton, Arsenal and Newcastle and face Chelsea at home, but home games against West Brom, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Southampton should help them on their way to getting over the line. Crashing out of the Europa League on Thursday could be a blessing in disguise, they still need three more league wins from somewhere to relax in my opinion.

Aston Villa - Current position 13th - 28 points

February hasn't been a kind month to Villa so far, 3 defeats from 4 games and 1 goal scored has seen them slip back into the mix of potential relegation contenders sitting only 4 points above the bottom 3. It's been their home ground of Villa Park where points have been hard to come by this season, they have mustered up only 11 points on home turf from 13 matches, and have netted 12 goals in those games, the joint least home goals in the division. Away from home they have actually been more successful, 17 points recorded and only 5 defeats from the 14 fixtures on their travels. Key striker Christian Benteke has also found goals hard to come by, he has only found the net 8 times this season and finds himself on another goalless run of four games again after improved form in January. Summer signing Leandro Bacuna has proved a shrewd addition at £1 million pounds with some solid defensive displays and impressive accuracy from dead ball situations. The four goals he has contributed this season makes him Villa's joint second highest goalscorer so far this campaign. Lambert is clearly building for the future and putting his trust in a relatively young squad, you've got to admire that and in a couple of seasons time I think he'll have a very decent team at his disposal.

Villa's run in is potentially very tricky. From their remaining 11 games they still have to travel to the Etihad Stadium, White Hart Lane and Old Trafford, and also face Chelsea at home. Winnable homes games against Norwich, Stoke, Fulham and Hull and an away game at Palace will see them accumulate enough points to stay in the league for another season though I believe.

Norwich City - Current position 14th - 28 pointsNorwich's weekend triumph of Tottenham Hotspur could prove to be absolutely crucial, it was only their second win in 13 league games and a hugely important three points in a game they really couldn't afford to lose. It has to be said, Carrow Road hasn't been the place to be for goals this season. Whilst Norwich have only conceded 11 goals at home all season, the second best record of anyone outside the top 3, they have only managed to put the ball in the net 12 times at home as well, the joint least in the division. Summer signing Ricky Van Wolfswinkel arrived with much expectation from the Norwich faithful following an impressive strike rate in Portugal and Holland, in England however it has been a different story so far. In his 17 appearances for Norwich in the league so far, he has recorded only FOUR attempts on target. Questions must be asked about Chris Hughton's substitutions as well, however, Norwich have made 62 substitutions this season and are the only Premier League side yet to see one of those subs assist or score a goal. Away from home it's been a familiar story to previous campaigns for the Canaries, nine defeats from 13 games and only 8 points recorded.

Looking at Norwich's run in, March really is a season defining month for them. They face only one side inside the current top 10 in that month, and I really do think they are going to need to take 6 of 7 points from those games. Their last four games read Liverpool and Arsenal at home and Chelsea and Man Utd away, if they go into late April still needing several points then it's hard to see them pulling themselves out of it.

Stoke City - Current position 15th - 27 pointsFor the first time since their debut season in the Premier League, Stoke City find themselves on less than 30 points after 27 games. Their previous worst points tally at this stage in the last five seasons has been 33 points, so Stoke really are a pretty dangerous position right now. The arrival of Mark Hughes has seen a season of much transition, and whilst their possession statistics and number of goals from open play have notably improved, their defensive solidity has often come into question. Last season Stoke City conceded 45 goals, a record bettered only by the top 4 and Everton and Liverpool, this season they have shipped 42 goals from 27 games, and have conceded the second most goals away from home, 28. At home they have remained notoriously hard to beat however, only two defeats from 13 games, a recorded bettered only by the current top four and Everton. Goals ultimately remain the problem for the Potters, 27 all season and with Peter Odemwingie being deployed out wide and John Guidetti seemingly short of fitness, Peter Crouch remains Stoke's main striker. Charlie Adam has enjoyed an upturn in form since he has been given the license to get forward and contribute to attacking play and Stoke will be relying on him to maintain that form for the remainder of the season. A recent change in formation to 4-4-1-1 with Jon Walters in a more familiar second striker position has seen Stoke lose only one of their last four league games including a win against Manchester United. Most Stoke fans concur that this season was all about staying in the division and laying the foundations for a more successful 2014/15 campaign where Hughes will have had time to implement his strategies and ideas, hopefully the Potters can achieve that objective.

Their run in of fixtures reads fairly well, Stoke have only one game left against top 10 opposition away from home, and home games against West Ham, Fulham and Hull and away games at Norwich, Aston Villa, Cardiff and West Brom should see the club accumulate enough points to look forward to another season in the Premier League in August.

Crystal Palace - Current position 16th - 26 points

The notorious escapologist that is Tony Pulis is working his magic again, following the departure of Ian Holloway in November Palace found themselves rooted to the relegation zone with only one victory from their first eleven league games. In stepped Tony Pulis, a man with no relegations on his managerial CV to try and keep Palace in the Premier League. On 26 points sitting in 16th position they remain very much in this relegation battle, but the fact they even have a chance of survival is testament to the work Tony Pulis and his backroom staff have done so far. Since taking over Pulis's Palace have recorded five more wins in the league, and have kept six clean sheets in all competitions. He has gone back to basics and made Palace hard to beat and their home form especially has notably improved. Goals do remain a problem for Palace though, the eighteen they have recorded is the least in the division and that goal ratio will have to improve if they are to beat the drop this season. Palace's club captain Mile Jedinak has been among the key figures in their improved form this season, the Australian has made the most interceptions in the Premier League this season. Up front Marouane Chamakh's goal contribution and work rate has also improved, but he does currently find himself on a run of only one goal in his last seven games now, whether he can rediscover the form he was producing in December could be the difference between Palace staying up or going down this season.

Palace's run in is going to be difficult. Away from home they have no more top 7 sides to face, but at home 3 out of their last 5 home matches include Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea. They're going to have to gain some vital points away from home at the likes of Cardiff, Fulham and Sunderland if they are going to pull off the great escape this season, relying on home form from their last eleven fixtures wont be enough.

West Brom - Current position 17th - 25 points

Having finished eighth in the Premier League last season, the highest of any of the Midlands club, West Brom's decline this season has surprised many. Whether the sacking of Steve Clarke remains the right decision time will tell, but personally I feel he would've got them back on track and guided them to safety this season given the time. Pepe Mel is the man who is tasked with keeping the Baggies in the Premier League though, and so far he has enjoyed a mix start to his managerial position. He has yet to record a victory in six attempts, but he has gained hard fought points against the likes of Everton, Liverpool and Chelsea at the Hawthorns. West Brom's season overall has been a great disappointment, as it stands their four league victories remains the least in the division. They've been drawing far too many games, 13 to be precise, and unless they start converting some of these draws into wins sooner rather than later they could find themselves back in the Championship. Unsurprisingly clean sheets also remain a problem for Albion, only two in their last eleven games now. There has been some encouraging performances from their players though, Saido Berahino's surprising development in a short space of time has made him almost like a new signing, the youngster has hit 8 goals this season making him their top goalscorer. Claudio Yacob has also enjoyed a notably decent campaign, he has made more tackles than any player in the league this season, an average of 4.3, and remains a key figure for West Brom in their bid to survive the drop.

West Brom have a very difficult run of fixtures left. They still have to travel to the Etihad Stadium and the Emirates Stadium, and they still have to face Manchester United and Tottenham at home. Home fixtures against Cardiff, West Ham and Stoke are absolutely crucial and they're going to need to take nine points from those games to have a chance of survival in my opinion.

Sunderland  - Current position 18th - 24 points

With 14 new players arriving at Sunderland in the summer of 2013 under then manager Paolo Di Canio, it was always going to take time for their new signings to gel. One point from their first seven fixtures left them in a perilous position and the Sunderland board acted dismissing Di Canio and bringing in Gustavo Poyet. It was clear not only that Di Canio had lost the dressing room and respect of the supporters, but had also tried to change too much too soon as well. Sunderland continued to struggle under Poyet for the first two months with two wins from eight games, but a run of 1 defeat in 9 games with 4 victories between December and early February kick started Sunderland's season and has given them a fighting chance of staying up this season. As well as improved results, Sunderland have also enjoyed great success in domestic cup matches. They await the Capital One Cup final this Sunday and are currently in the Quarter final of the FA Cup, whether Sunderland are able to continue their cup success without league form suffering as a result remains to be seen. Adam Johnson's noticeable improvement in form has proven vital for the Black Cats, he has hit 7 goals in his last 9 games in all competitions and Sunderland will desperately need him to maintain that form if they are to stay in the division this season. Another player who has perhaps gone unnoticed as well is Ki Sung-Yueng, the South Korean boasts the pass rate of anyone outside the Premier League's top four this season, 91.2%. Surprisingly Sunderland have actually taken more points on the road than they have at the Stadium of Light this season, 13, but their defence remains a continued concern for Poyet. They have shipped the joint third most goals in the division this season, 42, and have conceded more goals from corners than any other side in the division. One thing is for sure though, Poyet's appointment has proven a wise appointment by Sunderland so far despite still sitting in the bottom three.

Sunderland have undoubtedly one of the toughest run ins of anyone in the relegation scrap. They still have to travel to Anfield, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane. They do however have home fixtures against West Brom, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Cardiff and Swansea. In my opinion they need at least 10 points from those five home matches to have a chance of staying up. They've won three matches on home turf all season, and they're going to have to double that number of home wins if they're going to pull it off in my opinion. A serious task ahead for Poyet's men.

Cardiff City - Current position 19th - 22 pointsIt's been an up and down season for Cardiff in their debut season in the Premier League on and off the field. Continued unrest between owner Vincent Tan and supporters has certainly not helped their cause, and the way in which former manager Malky Mackay was dismissed from the club was frankly appalling. Regardless though, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the owners prime choice and took over the reigns in early January. Having enjoyed great success in Norway with Molde, many felt Solskjaer was a good candidate for the position, so far however that has not proven to be the case. Despite enjoying a fine win at St James' Park in the FA Cup in his first game as Cardiff manager, league form has seen just 4 points recorded from 7 games so far. Without the goalkeeping heroics of David Marshall as well you could argue they could be further adrift, the experienced Scotsman is the only player to have made over 100 saves in the Premier League this season. At home Cardiff have enjoyed some success this season, notably a victory over Man City in August, but their away form has been poor, they have achieved the joint least away wins and have scored the second least goals away. Things have to improve for Cardiff and quickly, they have won two out of their last 18 league fixtures and it's hard to see where the next win is coming from for them.

Their run in of fixtures perhaps doesn't read as bad as some of the teams around them, but six of those eleven remaining games are against top 10 opposition, and only five of those eleven games are at home. The games they will be realistically targeting are home fixtures against Fulham, Stoke and Crystal Palace and an away fixture at Sunderland. Given their other fixtures, they'd probably need to take maximum points from those fixtures to have a chance. Things are looking very bleak for the Welsh club and you do have to question how responsible owner Vincent Tan is for that.

Fulham - Current position 20th - 21 pointsThe best way to summarize Fulham's season for me is a lack of stability on and off the field. In the managerial dug out, current manager Felix Magath is the third manager Fulham have had at their helm this season, and on the pitch Fulham have fielded 34 different players this season, more than any other team. Unusually, the notoriously poor away team have actually recorded one more point on their travels than they have at Craven Cottage this season, but 18 defeats from 27 fixtures still tells it's own story. Unsurprisingly, Fulham boast the worst goal difference in the division, minus 32, and they have allowed their opponents more shots on target than any other team in the Premier League this season, 173. Seven new faces have arrived in the January window in a desperate attempt to revitalize their season, but even with the arrivals of the likes of Clint Dempsey, Lewis Holtby and Kostas Mitroglou it does look like it's too late too late for the Cottagers. They have lost six of their last 10 matches winning only one and it's hard to imagine that run of form taking a drastic improvement in the latter stages. Felix Magath is a proven manager who has achieved great success in Germany, but surely not even the ' last dictator in Europe ' can pull this survival bid off.

Realistically they're going to have to target their homes games against Norwich, Hull and Crystal Palace and away fixtures at Cardiff and Aston Villa as must win games. To be quite honest I think they're going to need 4 wins from those 5 games to have half a chance, and given the fact that's only two less victories than they've managed all season, it's going to take a spectacular effort from them.

The three teams I predict will be relegated this season are:

West Bromwich Albion
Cardiff City

One thing is for sure, it's going to be entertaining!