Will 40 points be enough to stay in the Premier League this season? Are the three promoted clubs going straight back down? Will their caretaker managers be good enough to keep Newcastle and Pompey alive?
This season is different enough from the “normal” pattern to make the League look very interesting for the neutrals and extremely nerve-wracking for the supporters of all but the top six clubs.
Bolton Wanderers look to have done enough to stay in the top flight for a ninth successive season, but talk of a top 10 finish is surely premature. The traditional measure of survival is reaching 40 points but, once in a while, this is not enough.
The 40 point model relies on the top four winning the majority of their games and drawing the rest. It also expects that one team will drop away so badly that everyone takes points off them. This year, however, the top four are not winning as many as usual and West Brom are hanging in there with a reasonable points total.
Bolton’s season has been sadly predictable in that they have failed to gain a single point from the top six clubs, but have done well against the rest.
With relatively easy games against Fulham, West Brom, and Middlesbrough coming up this month, Bolton should be able to reach 40 points by mid April and push on towards a top 10 finish with home games against Sunderland and Hull in the final stretch.
But who is going down?
For all but the most optimistic Baggies fans, West Brom must be favourites to finish at the bottom. Their 22 points from 28 games has rarely been enough to keep a team up.
Middlesbrough must still be optimistic on 26 points, but they will need at least four points from their next three games (Portsmouth, Stoke and Bolton) to stay in the hunt.
Above them, Blackburn remain stubbornly in the bottom three despite the boost they got from Sam Allardyce tightening up their defence. Portsmouth and Newcastle are struggling for points and confidence under their caretaker managers. Stoke are edging clear after four points from the last two games, and Spurs and Sunderland are slowly clawing their way out of danger.
Hull is the interesting one. After racing away at the start of the season—with some brave attacking gambles from their inspirational manager Phil Brown—their bubble burst and they have been drifting on something like half a point a game for several months. A week ago they looked odds on to drop into the bottom three, but a win at Fulham last week gave them renewed hope.
One useful indicator is goal difference. Teams with goal differences of much more than minus 25 don’t normally stay up and, on this basis, Stoke, Hull, or Portsmouth look the most likely to be joining Middlesbrough and West Brom in the drop.
But it’s all about confidence in the last two months of the season and any of the bottom 10 clubs could embark on a serious losing streak that would see them relegated.
Bolton’s destiny in their own hands and seven points from the next three games will probably see them coasting into a top 10 finish. But, should they lose one or more of the next three, they will be searching for winnable games and could easily spiral into the financial disaster that awaits the bottom three in next year’s Championship.
There is still everything to play for which, sadly, means that results will continue to count more than playing attractive football. The supporters of a majority of Premier League teams will continue to suffer boring, drab games, littered with errors and taught with tension, whilst newspapers columnists and neutrals will marvel at “the most exciting relegation fight for years.”
That’s not how it feels on the terraces.