Premier League Relegation Battle: Who Will Survive & Who Will Go Down
We may only be a month into the new Premier League season, but there are several clubs who already have their eyes on next May.
While the majority of clubs are targeting a top-half finish, a place in the Europa League or the Champions League and perhaps even the title, a select group of clubs will see finishing 17th as a success.
That is almost always the aim of a club that wins promotion up to the top flight, and in the case of this year's new entrants—Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and play-off winners Swansea City—that is no different.
To survive a debut year in the Premier League is a highly lucrative achievement for a club which has made its way up from the Championship, and the windfall earned for doing so can fund the improvements necessary to consolidate their top-flight status. Upwardly mobile sides can look to the examples set by the likes of Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers as to what can be achieved.
But for the handful of clubs who only just scrapped their way to avoiding relegation, avoiding that fate for another year is often their main motivation. Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Wolverhampton Wanderers all went into the final game of last season fighting against the drop.
Here is a look at which of the aforementioned clubs are likely to escape the drop, and which sides are odds on to slip back down to the second tier of English football.
Swansea City: Relegated
When Brendan Rodgers led Swansea to a 4-2 victory over former club Reading in the Championship play-off final, it was the culmination of a remarkable decade of progress at the club.
Following relegation to the Third Division (now named League Two, the lowest tier of the Football League), the club was in danger of going out of existence before fans set up the Swansea City Supporters' Trust to stop that from happening. After avoiding relegation down to the Conference, the Swans eventually won promotion in 2004-05, their last season at the old Vetch Field ground, and they moved into the brand new Swansea City Stadium that summer.
They gradually moved up the divisions, and when Roberto Martinez took over in February 2007, the Spaniard laid down the template of attractive, passing football that won the club many admirers. Martinez left to take charge of Wigan, but subsequent managers Paulo Sousa and Rodgers continued with Martinez's style, ultimately resulting in their promotion.
For Rodgers, however, history does not augur well. Other clubs that have come up and remained dedicated to attacking football, such as Ian Holloway's Blackpool and Tony Mowbray's West Bromwich Albion, have always gone straight back down. Sadly, the approval of neutral viewers cannot be redeemed in exchange for points.
Striker Fabio Borini scored six goals for the club during his loan spell from Chelsea for the final two months of last season, but the Italian has since moved on to Roma. The loss of goalkeeper Dorus de Vries on a free transfer was shrewdly offset by the addition of Dutch international Michel Vorm, but there have not been nearly enough quality additions to bolster Rodgers's squad. Striker Leroy Lita's last Premier League experience was relegation with Middlesbrough, while Wayne Routledge was deemed surplus to requirements by fellow promoted side QPR.
Last season's top scorer in the Championship, Danny Graham, has been brought in from Watford for a club record £3.5 million to take some of the goal-scoring pressure off Scott Sinclair's shoulders, but it is difficult to see how the first Welsh team in the Premier League will make their top-flight appearance any more than a one-season cameo.
Their first fixture could hardly have been a more chastening experience, losing 4-0 away to Manchester City. They could well be relegated before their final two matches of the season, away to Manchester United and at home to Liverpool.
Wigan Athletic: Relegated
When Wigan clawed their way to survival on the final day of last season, their feat was greeted with widespread apathy in most quarters outside of the DW Stadium.
While the Latics have thrown up the odd surprise result, most notably wins over Chelsea and Liverpool, by and large they fail to raise the pulses of too many people. Even in their own town, the footballers very much play second fiddle to the Rugby League team with which they share their stadium. The average attendance of fewer than 17,000 spectators for home games last season in a ground that holds 25,000 is evidence enough of that.
Club owner Dave Whelan was delighted to keep hold of manager Roberto Martinez after the coach was courted by Aston Villa, but the Spaniard will have a job on his hands in keeping the club up again this year.
Martinez has got his team playing a passing game which can be enjoyable to watch, but all too often they lack the killer touch in front of goal. They scored just 40 league goals last season, easily the fewest of any team that stayed up. In fact, only Birmingham City scored fewer.
Charles N'Zogbia scored nine of those goals for the Latics, almost a quarter of their total, and he set up a further eight. That led to him moving on to Aston Villa. Martinez has brought in Shaun Maloney from Celtic and Albert Crusat from Almeria in a bid to replace N'Zogbia, but neither can be reasonably expected to match the Frenchman's performances. N'Zogbia scored five goals in Wigan's last six games to ensure their safety. They will not be able to rely on that this season.
Colombian striker Hugo Rodallega remains, and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi has been signed on a permanent deal after he shone in his loan spell from Bolton last term, but there has simply not been enough added to the squad to suggest the Latics will survive another fight against relegation.
Norwich City: Relegated
Norwich's rapid rise from League One to the Premier League has been nothing short of exceptional. In 2009, fresh from relegation to the third tier, they were thrashed 7-1 at home by East Anglian rivals Colchester United, a record defeat at Carrow Road. Manager Bryan Gunn was sacked, and the Canaries responded by poaching Paul Lambert from Colchester.
The Scotsman soon turned around the Canaries' fortunes, and the 5-0 win away to his former club that season was highly symbolic of the huge turnaround engineered by him.
Norwich won promotion back up to the Championship that same season, and took the division by storm. They finished second to QPR, thereby winning promotion back up to the Premier League for the first time in six years.
However, Norwich's quick rise up two divisions in as many seasons may prove to be too much too soon. They have already found the going tough in the top flight, drawing away to Wigan and at home to Stoke before an admirable performance at Stamford Bridge eventually ended in a 3-1 defeat.
Captain Grant Holt, a classic centre-forward, has scored 45 league goals over the past two seasons, but the 30-year-old will find most Premier League defences much tougher nuts to crack. Summer signings Steve Morison and Anthony Pilkington are two strikers untested at the top level, while fellow new forward James Vaughan was never able to build upon becoming the Premier League's youngest-ever goalscorer while at Everton.
Midfielder Wes Hoolahan looks to be a player capable of shining at this level, but the Irishman is unlikely to have as much affect as Blackpool's Charlie Adam did last season.
As long as they can hold on to Lambert, Norwich should remain a club that is going places, but Premier League survival after two successive promotions may be a bridge too far for them at this stage. They may have to take one step back in order to take two forward.
Blackburn Rovers: Staying Up
When Indian chicken producers Venky's came out of nowhere and took over at Ewood Park early last season, they talked of signing superstars like Ronaldinho and pushing for a place in the Champions League. Instead, they sacked manager Sam Allardyce and replaced him with coach Steve Kean, and their most significant addition in the January transfer window was midfielder Mauricio Formica from Newell's Old Boys. The Argentinian did not make a single first-team appearance last season as Rovers scrapped to survival on the final day.
Formica eventually made his debut on the opening day this season and scored in a 2-1 home defeat to Wolves. Rovers are yet to pick up a point so far this term, but the end of the transfer window saw Scotland striker David Goodwillie and Nigeria forward Yakubu come in to add some desperately needed fire power to the side.
But perhaps the most important addition for Blackburn was the purchase of highly-rated defender Scott Dann from Birmingham City. Dann missed the second half of last season through injury, meaning he was powerless to stop the Blues from going back down to the championship despite beating Arsenal in the Carling Cup final. A host of big clubs, including Liverpool, were thought to have been interested in signing Dann, but the centre-back chose to move to Blackburn to be reunited with his former coach at Coventry.
The signings of Montenegro winger Simon Vukcevic from Sporting Lisbon and defensive midfielder Radosav Petrovic from Partizan Belgrade are two more canny additions made by Kean that could make Rovers a far greater attacking threat than they were last term.
Rovers may have lost the solid Brett Emerton to Sydney FC, but the fact that they managed to keep hold of defensive man mountain Chris Samba was key.
Ronaldinho may have chosen to return to Brazil over a move to Lancashire, and the Champions League may remain a pipe dream, but overall Blackburn look an improved prospect from that which scrapped to survival last season. On paper, at least.
Queens Park Rangers: Staying Up
A founding member of the Premier League in 1992, QPR ended that inaugural season in fifth place, the highest-placed London club.
However, their fortunes soon changed when manager Gerry Francis left to take charge of Tottenham Hotspur, and the club were relegated in 1996. They slipped down to the third tier before returning to the Championship in 2004.
The face of the club looked set to change forever when, in August 2007, they were bought by Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and Renault F1 team boss Flavio Briatore. When billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal bought a 20% stake in QPR at the end of the same year, the club's fans proudly boasted that they were the richest team in the world.
Despite this, the new owners did not throw silly money at the team, instead concentrating their efforts on hiring and firing a succession of managers over the next three years. In all, they went through nine different bosses before hiring Neil Warnock in 2010.
Warnock set to work on the transfer market, bringing in 10 players in his first transfer window, although the majority of them were signed on cut-price deals. One of those signings, Adel Taarabt, took the Championship by storm, scoring 19 goals and setting up plenty more as QPR took up residence at the top of the table.
Warnock, whose last spell in the Premier League ended in relegation with Sheffield United under the shadow of the Carlos Tevez affair, has been just as busy this summer. Joey Barton, Shaun Wright-Phillips, D.J. Campbell, Jay Bothroyd and Luke Young are just some of the dozen players to arrive at Loftus Road during the last transfer window as new owner Tony Fernandes let Warnock loose with the chequebook.
That fresh influx of players dwarfs the transfer activity of the other two promoted clubs, and adds a great deal of Premier League experience to a squad which looks equipped to take on most other clubs in the top flight, while they also still have highly-rated forward Jamie Mackie to return from long-term injury.
The Rs have already recorded their first win of the season, claiming three points from a tough away trip to Goodison Park, and they look set to be the promoted side with the best chance of beating the drop.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Staying Up
They may never look like bothering the top half of the table, but every side in the Premier League knows they have got a game on their hands whenever they play Wolves. Mick McCarthy's side may not be the most abundant with talent, but they more than compensate for that by being well-organised and hard-working. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it was enough to see them beat eventual champions Manchester United last season.
In spite of that win, Wolves found themselves dragged into the relegation by virtue of their leaky defence. Of all the teams that stayed up last season, only West Brom conceded more than the 66 goals Wolves did. Although they lost to Wigan on the final day, other results saved them from the drop, and McCarthy has since remedied the defensive situation by signing Roger Johnson. The centre-back may have been relegated with Birmingham last term, but a big factor in that was the loss of defensive partner Scott Dann, with whom he had formed such an effective pairing.
The addition of midfielder Jamie O'Hara from Tottenham on a permanent deal is also a big plus. O'Hara shone at Molineux during his loan spell from Spurs last season, and his set-piece deliveries will complement Wolves' aerial power perfectly.
With the shrewd signing of goalkeeper Dorus de Vries on a free transfer, Wolves now have quality backup for first-choice keeper Wayne Hennessey, and with attacking options such as Matt Jarvis, Stephen Hunt, Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher, Wolves will once again be a handful for any side they face.