Premier League Relegation Race: Who Is Going Down?
With Manchester United making their way out of the door carrying a large bulging sack with the words "Premier League Title" written on it, the rest of the season's excitement and interest now concerns the other end of the table.
It's that time of year when managers are edgy, players fretful and supporters permanently wired to blood pressure monitors as the the countdown to see who gets relegated hots up.
This season, relegation will be the costliest yet to the three teams who go down.
From 2013/14 the new television deal worth £5 billion kicks in, meaning a whopping £60 million slice per club. That's some cake.
So with the stakes at their highest, the scramble to stay in the Premier League is set to be the most intense ever.
With eight games to go for most sides involved and six points separating the five teams closest to the relegation zone, none of the teams can really rest easy.
It's squeaky-bum time with a capital squeak.
So who is going to drop and who's got the mettle to survive?
West Ham United Prediction: 14th SAFE
Of the three sides promoted to the Premier League for 2012/13, West Ham have had the best time.
They made an excellent start to the season following their dramatic win over Blackpool in the championship playoff final last May.
They won three of their first six games and lost only once.
Their biggest win over Chelsea in more than 20 years was celebrated in December before an inevitable sticky patch.
Only one game was won in the next two months as the Hammers slipped back towards the bottom half of the table.
A desperate away record and a lack of goals has been largely to blame, but a surprise win at Stoke took them nine points clear of the bottom three.
That has since halved, but Sam Allardyce's side should pick up enough points at home with games against Wigan, Newcastle and Reading, on the last day, to stay clear of the drop zone.
PREDICTION: 14th SAFE
Sunderland Prediction: 15th SAFE
Back in mid-January, Sunderland looked set for a comfortable cruise towards the end of the season, free from relegation hassle.
They had just drawn with Swansea after back-to-back wins over West Ham and Wigan and were mid-table.
However, results have deserted the Black Cats since then, and they are now only four points clear of the bottom three.
They have gone seven games without a win and picked up three points from a possible 21. Not good.
They have only won four games at home and three away. Not good either.
Their next set of fixtures does not inspire confidence, with Manchester United, Chelsea, a derby with Newcastle and a home game with Everton all on the way.
But with Steven Fletcher justifying his price tag with 11 goals so far, and the ever-reliable Craig Gardner in midfield, Sunderland will come good and earn enough wins off Stoke and Southampton to stay up.
There is no better motivator than Martin O'Neill, and his expertise will really be needed.
If it can rub off onto Danny Graham, even better.
PREDICTION: 15th SAFE
Southampton Prediction: 16th SAFE
Nigel Adkins's sacking in January, when the club were on a run of two defeats in 12 games, was a bit of a shock to say the least.
It begged the question: Had the Saints just thrown away their best chance of staying in the Premier League?
The chairman Nicola Cortese came in for some fearful stick, with the club legend Matt Le Tissier describing the Italian's decision to sack Adkins as "cowardly" (via The DailyTelegraph).
With Rickie Lambert taking to life in the Premier League like a duck to the Solent, the Saints have the gumption to pull off a result against anyone.
You would not rule out them taking something off Chelsea in their next match against one of the big boys.
At the moment, the gap to trouble is only four points but with home games against West Ham, West Brom and Stoke, they will have enough to ensure they get another crack at the Premier League next season.
PREDICTION: 16th SAFE
Aston Villa Prediction: 17th SAFE
Aston Villa have had a season to forget.
They have had a few seasons to forget, to be honest.
Now Paul Lambert, their fourth manager in the last two-and-a-half years has eight games to steer his young and callow team to safety.
He has seen his side picked apart at times and fall apart at others.
Villa were annihilated 8-0 by Chelsea and shipped 15 goals in three games—all while failing to score.
Three times they have been in the relegation zone and staring at their first demotion since 1987.
But out of the adversity, Lambert has found some spirit.
Villa's win at Liverpool in December 2012 showed their potential and, just at the right time, they have found it again.
Villa's back-to-back wins over Reading and Queens Park Rangers (both after being behind) have been worth their weight in gold and, by beating their rivals for the drop, they have given themselves a great chance to now stay up.
It didn't look possible a month ago.
At the front of it all, literally, has been Christian Benteke.
The striker cost £7 million pounds—a lot of cash for Villa's now prudent owner Randy Lerner—and has been magnificent.
His 17 goals so far this season have single-handedly kept Villa alive. Crucially both Gabby Agbonlahor and Andy Weimann have hit form too and Villa will now believe they survive.
They should take enough from home games against Fulham and Sunderland and they will even fancy their chances of a double of Liverpool.
I have Villa staying up by the skin of their teeth.
PREDICTION: 17th SAFE
Wigan Prediction: 18th RELEGATED
Once again Wigan find themselves in relegation trouble.
Once again Wigan are doing their best to save themselves.
The Latics record of escaping is remarkable.
Since they were promoted to the Premier League in 2005, they have never gone down.
Sometimes they have managed it quite comfortably; other times have been much more fraught.
Two seasons ago, they took 11 points from their last six games to stay up. Last campaign they won seven of their last nine matches—beating Arsenal and Manchester United—on the way to another great escape.
They are the footballing equivalent of an episode of Batman. No matter how dire the situation seems to appear for them, they always manage to get out of it. As long as they don't start wearing tights though.
The manager Roberto Martinez is viewing the current plight as the toughest yet, but their two-one win over Newcastle cut a six-point gap to just three.
Victory over the Magpies owed much to the referee missing Callum McManaman's infamous tackle on Massadio Haidara and a clear handball in the build up to their winner, so he must hope they have not exhausted their luck.
Their home form is the worst in the division and has to improve if they are to do it again.
The win against Newcastle was their first in nearly four months.
They still have games in hand over their rivals—against Manchester City and West Brom—so gaining ground there will be very hard.
Although they have players with flair and skill, serious issues still remain at the back.
In 2007 they won their last game of the season against Sheffield United to stay up. They may do so again when Villa come to town in May but even that might not be enough.
After a brilliant run of defiance, Wigan's stay in the Premier League will be over.
PREDICTION: 18th RELEGATED
Queens Park Rangers Prediction: 19th RELEGATED
If money could guarantee success, then Queens Park Rangers would have no worries at all.
Their hefty wages on top of substantial pay cheques for other deadline-recruits Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas have stretched the London club's resources to the limit and has attracted widespread criticism for chairman Tony Fernandes.
Harry Redknapp has won five games of the 20 he has been in charge of since replacing Mark Hughes in November 2012. It's hardly Houdini form.
Their defeat at Aston Villa was a huge body blow. It saw the Rs stay bottom of the table, seven points from dry land.
Redknapp thinks at least five of the remaining eight games have to be won.
With Everton, Arsenal, Newcastle and Liverpool among those matches, QPR will have to throw the form book off the roof...never mind—out the window.
Their form against teams in the top half of the table is the worst in the league.
Their form against teams in the bottom half of the table is the worst in the league. (Both via stats.football365.co.uk.)
All Harry's experience and all Fernandes' money is not going to be enough.
PREDICTION: 19th RELEGATED
Reading Prediction: 20th RELEGATED
Like Southampton, Reading have changed their manager.
Unlike Southampton, Reading did it too late.
Despite their heroic run to the Championship title last season, Brian McDermott was never quite able to get enough results at the highest level and lost his job just over a week ago.
You can argue with some justification that not enough money was spent on the team, but you could also argue those who came in—like striker Pavel Pogrebniak—have not done enough to live up to the hype.
McDermott definitely bred a great spirit at the Madjeski Stadium, but spirit often only gets you so far.
A run of four wins in six games at the turn of the year gave them hope, but a corrosive five-game losing streak has dumped them firmly back in the mire.
The 23 points they have thrown away from winning positions this season has cost them.
Had they had a bit more fortitude or luck, they may not be where they are.
Reading will have to win most of their remaining eight games. With fixtures to come with Arsenal, Liverpool, Fulham and Manchester City, that is not going to happen.
An immediate return to the Championship beckons.
PREDICTION: 20th RELEGATED
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