It's Tough at the Bottom for the Premiership Strugglers

Tom CleggContributor IIIJanuary 21, 2009

The Premier League relegation battle is hotting up, and with more than half the season gone there are still 14 teams who could realistically go down.

Of course, Chelsea, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Villa are safe, and it would be a huge shock if Everton were to go down, but anyone else could still fall into the abyss—with just 10 points separating West Brom in 20th and Wigan in 7th.

This time last season, the gap between 7th and 20th was 32 points.

Down at the very bottom, five teams lie on 21 points, with goal difference the only thing separating them. This puts West Brom at the bottom of the pile, but the Baggies are bouncing, with three successive home wins saving them from being cut short from the rest of the pack.

A squad bereft of star players, they are now playing the way boss Tony Mowbray wants them to play, passing the ball along the ground, and with exciting youngster Jay Simpson arriving on loan from Arsenal for the rest of the season, there is still hope at the Hawthorns of another escape after being bottom at Christmas—just as they did in 2004.

One goal separates them from Stoke City. Contrary to Mowbray, Tony Pulis does not encourage his team to play attractive football, but it seems to work for them, with victories over Aston Villa and Arsenal, and draws home and away to Liverpool justifying his tactics. 

Their greatest weapon is the long throw of Rory Delap, with Stoke crowding the penalty area with their strong, big players. But teams seem to have figured them out now, with no wins in eight league games rather worrying form. 

Stoke may not have made many friends this season, but if they stay up, their fans won't care.

The final team in the relegation zone is Middlesbrough. They are now in their 11th consecutive season in the top flight, but this may be the end of that run, with Boro in trouble under former captain Gareth Southgate.

Without a win in 10 Premier League games, they are in worse form that any other side in the league, with the summit a 3-0 embarrassment against bottom club West Brom.

£12 million flop Afonso Alves is going to have to find some form, or Steve Gibson, famed for his patience with his managers, may have to force Southgate out the door—before it's too late.

Blackburn were quicker to axe their inexperienced manager, with Paul Ince sacked in December. He was replaced by Sam Allardyce, who has turned Blackburn's fortunes around, and dragged them out of the relegation zone.

Blackburn have picked up eight points since his arrival, and it could have been even more—Jason Roberts missed an open goal against Sunderland, and Manchester City scored two late goals to pen Rovers back when the two sides met at Ewood Park.

At Tottenham, the Redknapp renaissance seems to have hit a wall, despite the return of star striker Jermain Defoe. After a flying start under the former Pompey boss, Spurs have now failed to win in seven league games—and this time it is not entirely down to hapless keeper Heurelio Gomes.

It cannot help that Ledley King is fit one game, and then rested for the next, meaning there is constant rotation at centre half, one of the most important areas of the pitch.  It may be better for both parties if King were to simply retire and be replaced by backup defender Michael Dawson.

However, with players such as Woodgate, Defoe, Lennon, and Modric, surely Spurs are too good to go down.

Just edging ahead of those five clubs are Sunderland, two points ahead of Spurs. The Stadium of Light was rocked earlier in the season after Roy Keane parted company with the struggling club.

They have only lost three games since Keane left at the start of December—and bear in mind the teams they lost against were Manchester United, Aston Villa, and Everton.

Caretaker boss Ricky Sbragia has taken the reins permanently after showing promise during his few games in charge, but star striker Kenwyne Jones is going to have to be firing on all cylinders if this expensively assembled squad is to avoid a real scrap for survival.

As usual, Newcastle United are in crisis. Unpopular owner, and head of the "Cockney Mafia", Mike Ashley cannot find a buyer for the club, and so he has declared he wants to stay—for now.

Joe Kinnear seemed to have stabilised the club, and was rewarded with a permanent contract, but with six games without a win—a run which includes a 5-1 humbling at home to Liverpool—the fans once again seem unhappy with their temperamental manager. 

Long serving goalkeeper Shay Given has declared he wants to leave, and £17 million striker Michael Owen continues to reject contract offers from the club. Just another year at St. James Park, really.

Gary Megson saved Bolton from relegation last season, and was nicknamed "The Ginger Mourinho" by the fans. Bolton started brightly this season, but a few weeks ago, it started to go wrong, and they have now lost their last five matches.

Record buy Johan Elmander can not replace their former striker Nicolas Anelka, and for all his power and determination, Kevin Davies is not going to fire Wanderers out of trouble.

With Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal and the stomach for a fight, Bolton are hard to beat, but their team doesn't seem to have enough creativity.

Portsmouth have been in free fall since the departure of Harry Redknapp. His assistant, Tony Adams, replaced him and since then the FA Cup holders have slipped from a relatively comfortable position straight into the relegation fight.

However, a point away to Redknapp's new club, Tottenham, was a decent result, and Pompey will be hoping to build on that and push on for the rest of the season. Defoe and Lassana Diarra have both departed in big money moves, and how Adams spends the money generated by those transfers will be crucial in Pompey's bid to avoid the drop.

Jermaine Pennant has already signed on, but can Adams really tame a player that Wenger and Benitez couldn't?

For all their money, Manchester City are still deep in the mire, and it's no surprise that Kaka turned down a relegation fight in Manchester, preferring to stay and challenge for the Serie A title with Milan.

Under pressure boss Mark Hughes is now concentrating on more realistic targets, with Wayne Bridge and Craig Bellamy already on board, and more sure to follow. It has been a mixed first half of the season for City, with a 3-0 thumping of Arsenal the highlight.

Were it not for the goals of record signing Robinho, and the form of mischievous midfielder Stephen Ireland, City would be in a much worse position than they are right now.

But with Micah Richards looking a shadow of the player who broke into the England team last season, City need defensive reinforcements, and they need them fast.

Roy Hodgson has turned Fulham around since taking over. Seemingly doomed to relegation when he arrived, he somehow saved them, and they've been on the up ever since.

With players like Andy Johnson, Bobby Zamora, and Mark Schwarzer bolstering a squad already containing defensive rock Brede Hangeland, energetic midfielder Jimmy Bullard and play maker Danny Murphy, it is a good time to be a Fulham fan.

Their away form is worrying—they are without a win on their travels all season—but their home form makes up for that, with only Manchester United and Arsenal having won more games on their own turf.

Hull surprised everyone with their blistering start to the season when, inspired by Brazillian midfielder Geovanni, they beat Arsenal, Newcastle, and Tottenham on their own grounds.

Phil Brown's team have cooled down since then, but they are still overachieving for a team which only won promotion through the play-offs last season. Young boss Phil Brown picks players on merit rather than reputation, which is why the clubs legendary striker, Dean Windass, was allowed to leave in January because he wasn't getting enough playing time.

But despite all of this, Hull are only six points off the relegation zone, and the fight to survive is far from over.

Looking somewhat safer are Gianfranco Zola's West Ham side. He replaced Alan Curbishley, criticised by the fans for being too boring, but Zola was hardly a universally popular appointment either, given his links with the Hammers' London rivals Chelsea, and his lack of managerial experience.

The fans concerns seemed justified as they struggled through the opening months of his tenure, but recently they have found form, picking up 13 points from their last five games, and powerful striker Carlton Cole has hit seven goals so far this season, and his role spearheading the attack will be even more important in the second half of the season after fellow striker Craig Bellamy departed to City.

Up in the dizzy heights of 7th are Steve Bruce's Wigan. Bruce is surely one of, if not the, manager of the season so far, as his cheaply constructed side put big spenders such as Tottenham and Manchester City to shame.

A team comprising of unknowns such as Amr Zaki, Wilson Palacios, Maynor Figueroa, and Paul Scharner—combined with rejects from bigger clubs, like Emile Heskey, Chris Kirkland, Titus Bramble and Antonio Valencia.

Palacios seems set to depart to Tottenham, but bar a collapse of the highest order, or the departure of Bruce, Wigan seem certain to be playing Premiership football next season.

The main reason this season is so close is because there is no team that has been cut adrift, like Derby and Watford in the last couple of years, and that is because every team seems to have something about them.

West Brom have their passing game, Stoke have their throw-ins, and all the other teams have "star" players—Boro have Downing, Blackburn have Santa Cruz, Spurs have Modric, Sunderland have Jones, and so on—all players who could probably play for bigger clubs, and would not look out of place at Everton or Villa.

The financial incentive to stay up is also greater than ever, as shown by the fact that, of the teams in the bottom half of the table, five have changed their managers already, as have 8th placed West Ham, whilst Mark Hughes and Gareth Southgate are both under pressure to start delivering the results.

So, who will go down?

My choices are Stoke, as I believe Delap's throw-ins will not be as effective in the second half of the season after teams figure out how to defend against them.

Boro, as boss Southgate is by far the most inexperienced manager in the bottom five, and strikers Alves and Mido seem very poor.

And finally, Sunderland. Ricky Sbragia has been thrown in at the deep end, and with no experience as a manager, he will need to learn fast.

I also believe West Brom and Bolton will just beat the drop, whilst Tottenham and Newcastle will (eventually) get out of the relegation battle and finish mid table, Sam Allardyce will get Blackburn out of trouble, and City will end up in the top half, in 8th or 9th position, most likely, after their January overhaul.

One things for sure though—whoever goes down, it's going to be one hell of a fight.


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