It takes a leap of the imagination to see anyone catching Manchester City in pursuit of the Premier League title. It’s the battle at the bottom that looks set to be the most exciting permutation as the season approaches the final run-in. Normally at this stage of a season you have a good chance to predict who might go down but this time around the battle for survival is one so tight that it’s anyone guess. You could throw a blanket over the bottom half teams.
This is shaping up to be one of the most thrilling denouements in the league history’s with a repeat of 2011-12’s “Survival Sunday” scenario a strong possibility. In that campaign, the most dramatic of all Premier League seasons, both the destination of the title and the relegation picture went down to the dying moments. The latter looks set to go the same way this time.
On that occasion, there were six sides facing the threat of the drop on the final day as Wigan, Villa and Sunderland eventually stayed up at the expense of Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves. This season, half the league are scrapping for their lives with anyone from Watford down still not safe. Even the Hornets themselves, who sit eleventh, are a mere six points off the bottom three after a poor run of two wins in 13, although they’ll be boosted by a surprise 4-1 win over champions Chelsea on Monday. Swansea, rooted to the foot of the Premier League for so long, looked doomed to the Championship at Christmas but since the surprise appointment of Carlos Carvalhal, the “new manager bounce” has taken hold. Buoyed by successive home wins over Liverpool and Arsenal, the Swans have soared out of the relegation places, and they have the kindest looking run-in of all the sides around them. Fixtures against Brighton, Huddersfield, Southampton and Stoke in the closing weeks will go a long way to deciding their fate. Having got out of trouble with a similar run last season, the rejuvenated Swans have that precious commodity of momentum and are in a strong position for another dramatic late act of escapology.
It’s Huddersfield who I really fear for. The tenacious Terriers started as a breath of fresh air in their debut Premier League season, and as recently as New Year’s Day they were tenth. But they’ve lost their bite since and slipped into the drop zone for the first time on Saturday. Struggling for form, goals and confidence, they’ve suffered five successive defeats and have it all to do to turn things around. In contrast to the superb start of David Wagner’s side, Crystal Palace looked odds on for the drop when they lost their first seven games without scoring to set an unwanted record. But they’ve been another team to benefit from a change in manager and have enjoyed a vast upward trajectory since the appointment of Roy Hodgson. They may still be looking nervously over their shoulders, but two wins could see them rise to the heady heights of ninth
Brighton’s timely win over West Ham was a massive fillip for Chris Hughton’s Seagulls but a lack of goals remain their primary concern, despite the signings of Jurgen Locadia and Leonardo Ulloa. February is a month that looks massive for their prospects as – after four points from their last two games – they face relegation rivals Stoke away and Swansea at home. Paul Lambert’s Potters replaced Southampton in 18th place after the weekend’s results, with Saints 3-2 win at the Hawthorns their first in the league since November as Stoke went down 2-1 at Bournemouth.
It’s a picture that changes with every passing week, but the relegation battle is a fight to the finish that will go the distance. There will be many more twists and turns to come during the run-in but for the record I’m bravely picking West Brom, Huddersfield and Stoke to drop.