Handicapping the relegation race
With the Prem's worst clubs all squaring off this past weekend, a first look at the relegation battle
For all the energy expended on covering Luis Suarez's every motion, word, and gesture, astute EPL observers would have noticed a curious scheduling quirk this past weekend in which the bottom six teams were pitted against one another in a trio of "six pointers."
Normally, such fixture fun is reserved for prime-time TV and the top end of the table -- just last week, Chelsea-Manchester United was presented to us as "the biggest fixture in English soccer history" -- and yet, the basement-dwellers put on three shows of their own that went some way to illustrating what pressure in the Prem is really like. It's one thing to feel the crippling crush of a title chase, but the angst of relegation -- the potential decreases in attendance, TV time, and, most importantly, TV revenue -- is far more despair than Andre Villas-Boas (don't worry, Blues fans, he'll be just fine at his next job) will ever understand.
Though it's easy for most pub-goers to dismiss the triumvirate -- Bolton vs. Wigan, Wolves vs. West Brom, and Blackburn vs. QPR -- as eye-bleeding attrition unworthy of their precious time, the reality was far different. For that, you can thank the magic number.
Optimists note that it's only mid-February and there are 13 games remaining, but you can bet that every manager in or around the relegation zone has broken out the calculator to try and figure out the points total required for another season of Prem salvation. The magic number. A win here, a handful of draws, and the champagne will taste just as sweet at Ewood Park or Loftus Road as it does at Old Trafford or the Etihad Stadium.
Looking back as far as 2004-05, and it's clear that every team stuck in the mire has substantial work to do: last season, Wolves required 40 points for 17th place and safety, but the line on average is 36.
With that in mind, let's look at the Relegatables and their chances of reaching salvation.
Safety with Games to Spare
West Bromwich Albion (currently 14th, 29 points, -6 Goal Differential)
Thumping Wolves pushed the Baggies eight points above the drop and, with a goal difference at least 10 goals better than the rest of the teams on this list, it'd take a lot to see the obdurate Roy Hodgson fritter away his side's increasingly comfortable mid-table status.
The schedule's just as kind; games to come against Wigan, Blackburn, QPR, and Bolton mean that even if the likes of United and Chelsea thump three or four apiece past Ben Foster, they'll still have complete control over their fate.
Blackburn Rovers (17th, 21 pts, minus-19 GD)
Three words: Feed the Yak. Though their defense is porous and Steve Kean will be harassed by fans no matter what he does, they have Aiyegbeni Yakubu's incomparable hunger for goals to get them clear before the final month.
Witness his effort on Saturday against QPR. Despite missing three games through suspension, the Yak showed no such game rust in spinning off a pedestrian Anton Ferdinand to rifle a right-footed shot past Paddy Kenny inside 15 minutes, and his off-the-ball positioning drew in two defenders allowing Stephen N'Zonzi to double the lead less than eight minutes later. Though he played no role in Junior Hoilett's deflected third before halftime, it's evident that the Yak's presence is enough to boost a ramshackle, entertaining Rovers side.[+] EnlargeClive Brunskill/Getty ImagesYakubu marked his return to the Blackburn lineup with a well-taken goal, and his power should propel Rovers to another season of EPL action.
Kean believes in Yakubu, and weirdly, I agree. Looking at the last few seasons, charismatic players getting hot down the stretch has saved plenty of teams from the axe -- Tevez with West Ham, N'Zogbia with Wigan to name just two -- and in Yakubu, I'd pick them to get enough points from March and April -- Wolves away, Sunderland home, Bolton away, WBA away -- to outlast some far less enjoyable teams around them.
On the Bubble
Queens Park Rangers (16th, 21 pts, minus-17 GD)
Every year, there's always one team that yo-yos right back from whence it came. Last year, the swashbuckling Tangerines of Blackpool couldn't stay afloat despite winning 10 games, while Burnley in 2009-10 suffered the same fate. Yet if any of this season's crop were to drop, seeing last season's runaway Championship winners and the most well-financed of the three tumble would be a surprise. Despite firing Neil Warnock and bringing in the nomadic boredom of Mark Hughes, QPR have spent handsomely to maintain their Prem roost, not that their results show any return on investment.
Loftus Road has served as an EPL Ellis Island for the itinerant and underperforming, spending big on Nedum Onuoha, Djibril Cisse, Bobby Zamora, Anton Ferdinand, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Armand Traore and Luke Young (over $30m combined, still a bargain compared to Fernando Torres) while also loaning in Taye Taiwo from AC Milan, Federico "Four Prem goals in 22 appearances" Macheda from Manchester United, and midfielder Samba Diakite from AS Nancy to stop the rot.
Then again, perhaps that is the problem. In assuming a Prem spot, the endless tinkering and reinvention of the winning formula that got them there has overcome their efforts to play a coherent 90 minutes. Sulking star Adel Taarabt has rediscovered the frustrating ego that cost him a job at White Hart Lane and likely derailed a big-money move to PSG last summer, and no amount of Joey Barton Twitter philosophizing is overshadowing the fact that the Island of Prem Rejects has mustered just one Prem win since Thanksgiving -- and over Wigan, no less. If they're destined for Championship domination in 2012-13, it'll be because they'll face three of the current top five -- Spurs home, Chelsea away, City away -- in the final month of the season.
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Bolton Wanderers (19th, 20 pts, minus-22 GD)
The regression of Owen Coyle's side has been one of the more alarming trends in 2011-12. They were hardly dynamic last season -- 12 wins, 10 draws, good for 14th place -- but they're barely on pace to do half that by the time May rolls around. Based on their record after 19 games, they'll be lucky to hit 26 points, which is why their complete inertia on Saturday against the one team arguably worse than them was so surprising.
Coyle's side managed more shots but ceded all other areas of the game (except fouls) to Roberto Martinez and the Latics, their subservience compounded by poor defending on both Wigan goals: first, allowing Gary Caldwell an unimpeded run to meet Jean Beausejour's corner and power it past Adam Bogdan, and after pulling level on a sublime/surprising long-range volley from Mark Davies, letting James MacArthur tap home a Victor Moses rebound with no defender close enough to even attempt a challenge.
Long-term injuries to the kinetic Stuart Holden and aggressive Chung-yong Lee may have forced Coyle to improvise a midfield, but he could have planned more astutely for the loss of Johan Elmander (10 EPL goals in 2010-11) and loanee Daniel Sturridge (eight goals), neither of whom have been surpassed by the inept David Ngog (two league goals in 20 games) or a fossilized Kevin Davies (two in 22). Oh, and they have the second-worst defense in the entire league.
Phil Gartside's commitment to Coyle is impressive in a footballing era where managers are blamed and fired in the time it takes for Mario Balotelli to get in trouble, but it won't ease the ignominy of relegation. Should it happen, the drop would break an impressive 11-year run in the Premier League that saw them reach the UEFA Cup Round of 32 in 2005-06. A gentler, kinder run-in -- after trips to Chelsea and Man City at the end of the month, only a mid-April duo of Newcastle away and Spurs home seem unwinnable -- puts their destiny firmly in their hands.
Start Planning Your Trips to Burnley
Wigan Athletic (20th, 19 pts, minus-27 GD)
Roberto Martinez has some unmistakable mojo at the DW Stadium. No matter how gloomy the Latics' outlook, it's clear his players still believe in his vision and style, one that he's largely stuck to even as his club went winless in their last nine EPL games (picking up just four points out of a possible 27). Saturday's dominant 2-1 win at Bolton showed many of the qualities that enabled them to beat the odds: aggression, persistence, and speed on the wings, but it's Martinez who holds the answers. Maybe it's the surprising pocket of young talent in his XI -- the electric Victor Moses on the flank, James McArthur in the heart of midfield -- or maybe it's that Wigan have been here so many times that they know how to claw their way out.[+] EnlargeLaurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesWolves' emphatic defeat at home to West Brom in the Black Country derby was the end for Mick McCarthy. Will it also be the end for Wolves?
Last season, five goals from Charles N'Zogbia in their last six Prem games lifted the hapless Lancastrians to three wins and two draws over that span, finishing three points clear of the muck. In 2009-10, Portmouth's points deduction and the travails of Burnley and Phil "Gardening Leave" Brown's Hull City meant they were safe for months, and the year before that, they were actually decent enough to finish 11th.
But this time around, there is no N'Zogbia, and a brutal run of games beyond April 1 (Chelsea away, Man United home, Arsenal away, Fulham away, Newcastle home) that might make their back-to-back, season-ending doubleheader against Blackburn and Wolves seem too little, too late.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (18th, 21 pts, minus-21 GD)
Mick McCarthy's out. And surely now, so are Wolves. After one win in their last 13 games in all competitions, the abject humiliation of a home defeat to Black Country rivals West Brom by a 5-1 scoreline was an act of sacrilege akin to using the Shroud of Turin as a dish rag, and their precarious Prem status takes another damaging hit. As poorly as McCarthy had handled the pressure, it's difficult to see quite who could salvage things with 13 games remaining. New manager effects tend to inspire a handful of points, but what will account for the remainder needed to stay afloat?
Though his pink slip was only in hand this morning, all signs pointed to his doom after being thrashed 3-0 at home by Liverpool two weeks earlier. There, as on Sunday, his players seemed helpless and devoid of ideas as Peter Odemwingie completed a simple hat-trick and the rampant Baggies found room around goal to notch four times over 24 second-half minutes. (Did you ever think a Roy Hodgson-led side could look so stylish?)
Defenders colliding with one another, strikers left unmarked inside the box, and all-around ineptitude confirmed McCarthy's fate, while the emphatic West Brom defeat ceded the one beacon of hope in their stat line: goal difference. The four extra Baggies goals mean that Wolves are behind QPR and Blackburn in the GD stakes at minus-21, oftentimes a relegation tie-breaker with so many teams huddled at the bottom. Though Mick's largely respectable 20-year managerial career will survive and he'll find work elsewhere -- imagine him at Aston Villa some day! -- his side won't be so fortunate.
James Tyler is an editor for ESPN Soccer. He can be found on Twitter at @UFJamesT.
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