English Premier League Stock Watch: Relegation Race Edition
With the title race on life support and the FA Cup reaching its latter stages, this was a Premier League weekend that might have seemed less than vital upon first glance.
But that's only if you're looking in the wrong place. At the bottom of the league table, the storylines abound and the action continues to be compelling.
Besides the three teams currently in the relegation zone, four more are within six points of the drop. And conveniently enough, some of those clubs kindly squared off for us this weekend.
So which teams saw their stock go up? Whose stock fell? Find out in this relegation-race edition of the B/R English Premier League Stock Watch.
Stock Up: Queens Park Rangers' Escape Act
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It was, according to manager Harry Redknapp, a "good day" for Queens Park Rangers (per BBC Sport). As the good days keep coming, it's bad news for QPR's relegation rivals.
QPR on Saturday came from behind to win 3-1 at home to Sunderland at Loftus Road. As heartfelt celebrations unfolded after the final whistle, one hardly needed any help in working out how important the victory was for QPR's springtime renewal efforts.
Steven Fletcher put Sunderland ahead in the 20th minute, and for 10 minutes the nerves began building once again. So often this season, QPR have hinted at progress only to fall behind the pack once again.
This time, though, new signing Loic Remy equalized in the 30th minute and Andros Townsend scored the 70th-minute winner before Jermaine Jenas sealed victory with QPR's third in the closing stages. And this time, QPR were fully worth the points.
It was a second consecutive victory for Redknapp and Rangers, who before the last two weeks had won just twice all season. Crucially, both of the recent wins have come against teams near the relegation zone.
QPR still prop up the table, but this latest victory brings with it the sense that the club's fortunes are finally turning.
"It's on now. We've given ourselves a chance," said Redknapp (via The Guardian). "Even teams on 30 points could get sucked in. You can easily go nine or 10 games without a win so anyone can go on a bad run."
From the season's first kickoff, QPR have always had too much talent to be in such trouble. Maybe now Redknapp will be able to guide them—finally—away from the drop zone.
Then again, the safety is still four points away.
Stock Up: Aston Villa
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At times it wasn't always pretty (more on that momentarily, though), and in the end it was less than convincing. But that might not matter come May.
Aston Villa turned around a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 at fellow strugglers Reading on Saturday and in collecting three points moved three points clear of the relegation zone.
Christian Benteke erased Reading's brief advantage only one minute after Nathan Baker had sliced a clearance into his own goal to put Villa behind. Gabriel Agbonlahor wrapped up the points just before halftime, finishing off a flowing team move with a screaming top-corner shot.
Reading threatened for much of the second half, and Noel Hunt's would-be equalizer was ruled out in a tight offside decision. The hosts also saw two penalty appeals turned down.
But whether or not the win came in dominant fashion is immaterial to Villa. A week after losing to Manchester City on a comical defensive mistake, another error had threatened to derail Paul Lambert's team again, only this time in a relegation six-pointer.
Instead, Villa are clear of the drop zone and heading toward a crucial showdown with QPR next week. And aside from Reading's late push, Villa at times played impressive football, especially near the end of the first half.
"This was a massive game and the players knew that," said Lambert (via The Independent). "They knew that the pressure was on them, they didn't need to be told. But some of our football was excellent and we didn't look like a team in a corner, that's for sure."
Stock Up: Breathtaking Team Goals
Aston Villa's winner against Reading was so unexpectedly excellent that it could have come straight from the other end of the table.
Holding possession for what seemed an interminable amount of time, Villa patiently passed the ball around the midfield and probed Reading's defense for openings. One finally came after more than 20 passes and a cross from the right, which Reading failed to clear properly.
Matthew Lowton won the high ball in the box. His header found Barry Bannan, whose quick shot rebounded off the upright.
Gabby Agbonlahor then rifled a volley into the top corner with a finish deserving of the title of match-winner.
Villa manager Paul Lambert described the finish as "absolutely world-class" (via The Guardian).
Stock Up: Brad Guzan
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Earlier this season, Brad Guzan displaced Shay Given as Aston Villa's No. 1 keeper (via Birmingham Mail). Against Reading on Saturday, he was beaten only by one of his own defenders. Now it's looking like Aston Villa's American keeper will have a chance to show his skills at the international level.
Everton announced over the weekend that No. 1 goalkeeper Tim Howard—also the top stopper for the U.S. national team—had broken two bones in his back last month against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup (via BBC Sport).
Howard, 34, could miss another four weeks according to Everton manager David Moyes. That means Howard will not play in the Americans' World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica (home, March 22) or Mexico (away, March 26).
With Howard out, Guzan is expected to step in.
Guzan, 28, has made 20 senior appearances for the U.S. He has compiled a 3-1-1 record in qualifying, with his last qualifying appearance coming in 2009 (via USA Today).
Stock Up: Artur Boruc
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Southampton held Norwich to a 0-0 draw Saturday at Carrow Road. After producing the better football and chances to win, the Saints had Artur Boruc to thank in avoiding a late defeat.
For much of the match, Southampton looked the more likely of the clubs to score, but in second-half stoppage time referee Mark Clattenburg awarded Norwich a penalty.
Grant Holt hit his shot well, but Boruc saved to his right to secure the draw. With the point, Southampton (28 points) remain four clear of the relegation zone.
"Boruc made a massive save for us and saved us a point," said Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino (via The Guardian). "Before the penalty was given we deserved to be leading, so my anger was double-fold."
Stock Up and Down: Wigan
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While QPR and Aston Villa recorded vital victories in the league, Wigan took the weekend off from league play and fell into the relegation zone. That's not an entirely accurate assessment, though.
Instead of playing in the league, Wigan competed in the FA Cup on Saturday. And although their rivals made statements in the relegation race, Wigan might have impressed even more in stunning Everton 3-0 at Goodison Park.
Three goals in three first-half minutes were enough to see the Latics into the FA Cup semifinals for the first time. Roberto Martinez and Co. will now appear at Wembley, fulfilling part of chairman Dave Whelan's prophetic foresight.
"I had a dream this week that we would beat Everton and meet Blackburn in the semi-final at Wembley," said Whelan, who broke his leg playing for Blackburn Rovers in the 1960 final (via The Independent). "That would fulfil my dreams and if we can win the Cup, it is something that Wigan cannot even contemplate."
For Martinez, who called Wigan's 10 remaining league games "10 cup finals," it was a "historic moment."
"It was a complete performance and a special day for the fans of Wigan Athletic," he said.
Stock Up: Big Games at One End of the Table
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Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini, after watching his side blast Barnsley 5-0 on Saturday in the FA Cup quarterinals, said he's hoping to meet rivals Manchester United in May's final (via Sky Sports). If that happens, it could compensate somewhat for a lack of intrigue at the top of the league table.
Regardless, though, it's looking like the most interesting action this spring will be at the other end of the table. And next weekend, yet another crucial matchup is on tap.
On Saturday, Aston Villa will host Queens Park Rangers in a match that could prove pivotal to both in the relegation race. Already out of the relegation zone, Villa could move further clear—and start truly thinking of safety—with a win.
On the other hand, QPR have won two in a row and enter with momentum. Another win could take Rangers out of the bottom two for the first time since the second fixture of the season.
The teams drew 1-1 at Loftus Road in December, and though another draw would help both teams, both will really want to win.
With Manchester United having all but sewn up the title already, the action at other end of the table is becoming must-see stuff.