Handicapping the Premier League's relegation race

Posted by Rory Smith

Getty ImagesThe relegation battle is so tight that any of Cardiff, West Ham and Norwich could end up in the Championship.

Football, as we all know, started in 1992. It was invented, famously, by media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Lennart Johansson, the model train enthusiast.

The unlikely pair were firm friends, and it was when they were on a barge in Norfolk that they noticed several local children chasing a mango around a field. "What if," said Murdoch, idly sketching an image of Margaret Thatcher, "we put two sticks in the ground, and made them try and steer the mango through them? We could call them goals. We'd give them a set period to see how many they could get."

"How long," queried Johansson, as he spit-roasted a whole donkey, "would they get?"

"Hour and a half," responded Murdoch. "All of the best things last an hour and a half, like the film D2: The Mighty Ducks, or three back-to-back episodes of Hale and Pace."

Since then, football has gone from strength to strength. In 2006, Opta began recording crosses per game -- another notable high point -- which, in 2018, in accordance with Manchester United's wishes, will replace goals scored as the metric used to determine who has won any given match.

Anyway, not since that golden day when Murdoch and Johansson gave their gift to the world has football seen anything quite like the relegation battle currently engulfing the bottom of the Premier League. 11 teams, all as bad as each other, scrapping to save their lives/earn themselves the chance to do it all again next year. The question, though, is who will survive?

There are many ways of attempting to find an answer. Scrawling through their squads, for example, or poring over their pass completion statistics. None is fool-proof. Given quite how close it all is, though, perhaps the best one is the simplest. The teams who survive will be the ones who have the easiest games to play.

There are 13 games left to play, before this week's fixtures. Obviously this is not scientific, but it may well provide a reasonable guide to who should be quaking in their boots and who can avoid pressing the panic button just yet.

Note: there is no point pretending we can predict accurate results. A degree of common sense, though, should allow us to work out roughly who should be expecting what. Not all results will match up: these are the games teams will see as the ones they can pick up points in. In some cases, that will be true of both sides. Victories are recorded in bold.

Swansea -- 10th place, 27 points
Fixtures: Stoke (A), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H), Arsenal (A), West Brom (H), Everton (A), Norwich (H), Hull (A), Chelsea (H), Newcastle (A), Aston Villa (H), Southampton (H), Sunderland (A)

There are five games that Garry Monk, Michael Laudrup's replacement, should be targeting as the victories which should safeguard Swansea's place. There is a risk in facing teams at the very foot of the table in the final four weeks of the season, and so Swansea will be relieved to see the likes of Villa and Southampton awaiting them, two sides who would not expect to be fighting for their lives. They should also expect to get something out of their trips to Stoke, Hull and Sunderland.
Projected total: 42-45 points

Ian Horrocks/Getty ImagesShane Long's presence has helped Hull find their footing.

Hull -- 11th, 27 points
Fixtures: Southampton (H), Cardiff (A), Newcastle (H), West Ham (A), Man City (H), West Brom (H), Stoke (A), Swansea (H), Man Utd (A), Arsenal (H), Fulham (A), Aston Villa (A), Everton (H)

Hull, on the face of it, look safe. They have strikers in Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic who can score goals, and a midfield that has a fine mixture of style and substance. The problem is that the fixtures are against them: there are only three home games they will expect to win, and several trips to other sides in and around the relegation zone. Bruce's side are in a position of relative strength, but much will depend on how they fare at Cardiff, West Ham, Stoke and Fulham. The final day could provide a reasonable fillip if Hull are threatened and Everton out of the race for Europe.
Projected total: 36-42 points

Aston Villa -- 12th, 27 points
Fixtures: Cardiff (A), Newcastle (A), Norwich (H), Man City (A), Chelsea (H), Stoke (H), Man Utd (A), Fulham (H), Crystal Palace (A), Southampton (H), Swansea (A), Hull (H), Tottenham (A)

There is no stranger side in the Premier League than Aston Villa. Paul Lambert has constructed a side who toil terribly at home but seem extremely comfortable away, as their performances at Anfield and the Emirates prove. That said, they find themselves with five extremely winnable home games -- secure victory in them and they will survive -- as well as four away trips which they would hope to garner points in.
Projected total: 45-48 points

Stoke -- 13th, 26 points
Fixtures: Swansea (H), Man City (A), Arsenal (H), Norwich (A), West Ham (H), Aston Villa (A), Hull (H), Chelsea (A), Newcastle (H), Cardiff (A), Tottenham (H), Fulham (H), West Brom (A)

Mark Hughes' revolution in Stoke's playing style has not yet taken hold -- the Bolsheviks do not appear to have passed their way to the Winter Palace of Tony Pulis' memory just yet – but the fixtures have fallen in their favour. Winning the five home games against their fellow strugglers -- and a Newcastle deprived of Joe Kinnear's inspirational presence -- should be enough.
Projected total: 41-43 points

Tom Dulat/Getty ImagesTony Pulis: Could he eventually be crowned manager of the year?

Crystal Palace -- 14th, 26 points
Fixtures: Everton (A), Man Utd (H), Swansea (A), Southampton (H), Sunderland (A), Newcastle (A), Chelsea (H), Cardiff (A), Aston Villa (H), West Ham (A), Man City (H), Liverpool (H), Fulham (A)

If Tony Pulis manages to keep Palace in the Premier League, he will have a compelling case to be awarded the title of manager of the year. Not just because of where they were when he found them, or because of how he has altered his trademark style to enable him to play with a more adventurous approach, but because of the fixtures he has left. There are two home games he will expect to win -- and against Southampton and Villa, that will not be easy, so he will have to outfox Cardiff, West Ham and Fulham, on the final day.
Projected total: 32-37 points

West Ham -- 15th, 25 points
Fixtures: Norwich (H), Southampton (H), Everton (A), Hull (H), Stoke (A), Man Utd (H), Sunderland (A), Liverpool (H), Arsenal (A), Crystal Palace (H), West Brom (A), Tottenham (H), Man City (A)

Sam Allardyce's side's season will be defined in their next four games. If they can take nine points off Norwich, Southampton and Hull, then they should be within striking distance of safety. Certainly, they do not want to be going into their final two games of the season requiring victories, especially if Spurs are still in the chase for a Champions League spot.
Projected total: 37-42 points

Norwich -- 16th, 25 points
Fixtures: West Ham (A), Tottenham (H), Aston Villa (A), Stoke (H), Southampton (A), Sunderland (H), Swansea (A), West Brom (H), Fulham (A), Liverpool (H), Man Utd (A), Chelsea (A), Arsenal (H)

In a season in which so many managers in and around him have lost their jobs, it will be of considerable relief to Chris Hughton that he is still in work. His side showed an impressive depth of character to hold Manchester City at bay on Saturday, and it is one they will need. To all intents and purposes, Norwich need to have the points required to survive before the season enters its final four games.
Projected total: 34-38 points

Michael Regan/Getty ImagesJozy Altidore and Sunderland have several winnable home games that should help them avoid the drop.

Sunderland -- 17th, 24 points
Fixtures: Man City (A), Arsenal (A), West Brom (H), Liverpool (A), Crystal Palace (H), Norwich (A), West Ham (H), Tottenham (A), Everton (H), Chelsea (A), Cardiff (H), Man Utd (A), Swansea (H)

Defeat at the hands of Hull at the weekend seemed to draw the steam from Gus Poyet's revival of Sunderland, but they have shown enough in recent weeks to suggest they might be able to pick up the points they require at home. With City and Arsenal to come in the next two weeks, things will get worse before they get better, but win five of their remaining six home games and they will stand a chance.
Projected total: 39-41 points

West Brom -- 18th, 23 points
Fixtures: Chelsea (H), Fulham (H), Sunderland (A), Man Utd (H), Swansea (A), Hull (A), Cardiff (H), Norwich (A), Tottenham (H), Man City (A), West Ham (H), Arsenal (A), Stoke (H)

Pepe Mel is yet to win a game as a Premier League manager, but his West Brom team -- aided by an appalling, lifeless pitch -- has managed to hold both Everton and Liverpool to draws at the Hawthorns. They will hope to do the same to Manchester United and Tottenham, if not Chelsea, but their fate could be decided by how they do away at several of their relegation rivals.
Projected total: 35-41 points

Cardiff -- 19th, 21 points
Fixtures: Aston Villa (H), Hull (H), Tottenham (A), Fulham (H), Everton (A), Liverpool (H), West Brom (A), Crystal Palace (H), Southampton (A), Stoke (H), Sunderland (A), Newcastle (A), Chelsea (H)

Whether this is the tightest relegation battle in history is not necessarily true -- the slightest sliver of a gap has opened up between the bottom two and the rest -- but it is certainly the most widespread. It is that which might save Cardiff. They have five home games which they will hope to win and several trips where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will believe his team might pick up a point; not simply adding to their total, but subtracting points from their rivals.
Projected total: 36-40 points

Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty ImagesThough Fulham earned a big point vs. Man United, the remainder of their season looks far less promising.

Fulham -- 20th, 20 points
Fixtures: Liverpool (H), West Brom (A), Chelsea (H), Cardiff (A), Newcastle (H), Man City (A), Everton (H), Aston Villa (A), Norwich (H), Tottenham (A), Hull (H), Stoke (A), Crystal Palace (H)

Fulham are almost impossible to assess: they have so many new players and there remains a possibility that by the time they see the season out, there will be a new manager, too. What is certain is that to have any chance of survival, they will have to win their four most agreeable home fixtures and summon the same spirit they showed at Old Trafford against the better sides. The only problem is that not everyone will simply try and cross the ball into the box.
Projected total: 32-38 points

How will it look?
10th: Aston Villa, 45 points
11th: Swansea, 42 points
12th: Stoke, 41 points
13th: Sunderland, 39 points
14th: West Ham, 37 points
15th: Hull, 36 points
16th: Cardiff, 36 points
17th: West Brom, 35 points
18th (R): Norwich, 34 points
19th (R): Crystal Palace, 32 points
20th (R): Fulham, 32 points

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