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Thursday, April 7, 2011
Battles for survival


Manchester United has opened a season-high seven-point lead atop the Premier League, and the gap between Chelsea and Tottenham for the final Champions League spot has widened to five points. But there is still plenty to be decided at the bottom of the table. Seven teams are within three points of last place, and seven points separate 10th place from the bottom of the table, so nearly every week will feature a match pivotal for one or both teams' survival hopes. Using ESPN's Soccer Power Index (SPI), we can look at the most important matches and determine how the outcomes will affect each team's chance of being relegated at the end of the season.

SPI is only confident that Wigan will be relegated, putting its chances of dropping out of the Premier League at 92.3 percent. Of the other six teams within three points of the bottom, five of them sit between a 29 and 48 percent chance of being relegated, while Aston Villa's chances are just over 10 percent.

Key Clash: Wolverhampton vs. Everton

This week, Everton visits Wolverhampton on Saturday (watch on ESPN3 and ESPN2 at 7:30 a.m. ET) in a match that could play a large part in Wolves' fate if either side gets a result. The past three Premier League matches between these two sides have ended in a draw. If that happens again, it would leave Wolves' survival hopes nearly unchanged.

SPI predicts Wolves will take an average of 1.22 points from this fixture, so securing all three points would dramatically increase its chance of survival. SPI calculates that Wolves' relegation percentage would drop nearly 20 percentage points, to 20.2 percent, with a win, jumping them ahead of Blackburn and Birmingham. But if Everton secures the away win, Wolves' chances of relegation would increase to 52.9 percent, dropping them below West Ham and Blackpool. SPI predicts that Everton is all but safe regardless of the outcome, as its relegation percentage is less than one half of one percent in all three scenarios.

Key Clash: Blackburn vs. Birmingham City

The other relegation battle taking center stage this weekend features Blackburn Rovers hosting Birmingham City on Saturday. These two sides sit level on both points and goal differential, so a win by either side would clearly be a huge boost for one and a damaging blow to the other.

The last three matches between these sides have ended 2-1, all in favor of the home side (Birmingham twice, Blackburn once). Since Rovers are at home on Saturday, SPI favors them to win the match, and expects them to take 1.71 points on average. As a result, even a draw in this fixture would be damaging for Blackburn, as it would also decrease the relegation chances of each the other six teams at the bottom by one or two percent.