While the title race in the Premier League is down to just three teams with Arsenal’s complete collapse in February and March, it is less clear what is occurring at the bottom of the league. Until three games ago, all the teams in the bottom half of the table were within range of the relegation zone. But now there is a middle emerging as Newcastle and Southampton slide down into safety and teams like Stoke have risen out of mediocrity away from the relegation battle. At the bottom of the table are a number of teams that all stand a chance at going down to the Championship. What happens in the next few weeks will probably be more exciting than what happens at the top because of the desperate situations the teams will find themselves in.
Sunderland was tipped halfway through the season to stay up. Under Gus Poyet they made magnificent strides, and a solid 3-1 victory over Fulham seemed to drag them out of the relegation zone, but only for a brief period. Sunderland is now solidly bottom of the table and there appears to be little hope. The exciting, attacking style of Poyet seemed to give Sunderland fans something to cheer for. Adam Johnson came back to life with some great goals for the club, and there was a fantastic run to the final of the League Cup. Some of the peripheral figures who had struggled under Paolo DiCanio came back to feature heavily. But a lack of production from specific players such as Jozy Altidore (with a total of one goal in 27 games) and injuries to important figures such as Steven Fletcher have left Sunderland bereft of goal scoring talent. All of this has led to plenty of attacking football in the final third but with nobody to put the ball in the net.
Norwich is almost certain to go down after last weekend’s results. I really like Norwich and have been there several times because it is one of the few places where Fulham ever wins away from home. Norwich has the worst run-in of any team with the last four games held against top six clubs. They sacked their manager with five games to go in favour of their youth team coach, Neil Adams. Sacking Chris Hughton may end up being a massive mistake, but their fate was sealed in their defeat by Fulham last weekend. If you consider their final four games and their proximity to the relegation zone it would appear as if they have little chance of staying up. They seem to be suffering from the same problems that Sunderland is: a lack of goal scorers and a bad series of matches against top opposition to come.
It seems that the two positions below Sunderland have equal opportunity to stay up. Cardiff and Fulham are separated by one point and both have decent schedules. Cardiff has the harder of the two, but not by much. Cardiff has not done well since sacking Malky Mackay just before the January transfer window and internal politics may be the reason for its relegation. Constant struggles between the owner, Vincent Tan, and his coaching staff over transfer fees, player salaries, the direction of the club, the role of the manager at the club, and what the club even stands for have disrupted the growth of Cardiff City and may lead to them facing Championship opposition next season, despite the numerous talented players in their squad. Cardiff bought Steven Caulker, a magnificent central defender, and Gary Medel, the tenacious central midfielder, as a signal to the other Premier League teams of its intentions to stay up and possibly move to the next level. But Tan’s reaction to these necessary signings was to fire Mackay and to let his chief scout go. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer came in to replace Mackay and has done a decent job, but he hasn’t been able to turn the team around. His success with Molde and his experience in England made him the logical choice to succeed Mackay. I don’t really know whether to say that Cardiff’s continued struggles were due to Tan’s continued interference or due to an issue with squad quality, but either way it will have to fight hard to stay in the division.
Fulham is the interesting case here. I am completely biased since I am a Fulham fan and have watched them climb from the bottom division to the top. But there is a good chance that out of the teams labouring in the relegation zone, Fulham will be the one to get out. Three weeks ago, Fulham was written off and it seemed likely that they would be playing in the Championship next season. Fulham fans were already planning for next season and encouraging the use of academy products to get them ready for next year. But after a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa and a 1-0 win over Norwich, survival seems much closer. Fulham is in a dangerous position due to their atrocious goal difference: it currently stands at -41, the worst in the league. That means that they are in trouble if any team gets on equal points with them because they will always be lower than that team. Fulham need the points to stay up because goal difference will always work against them. But there are a number of positives: they have a decent run in, they are in form at the moment and playing well, the new manager, Felix Magath (also known as ‘the last dictator’, ‘Saddam’ and ‘the torturer’), is actually having an effect on the playing style and mentality of the squad, and players that were considered to be on the periphery only a few weeks ago have begun to flourish when given an opportunity to play. Fulham has been odd all season because its position doesn’t really reflect how it has actually played. A number of massive deflections, own goals and goalkeeping errors have contributed to ten lost points this season. In other words, bad luck has cost the team ten points and possible safety. But out of all the teams in the bottom three and those just above, it would seem that Fulham is in the best position to remain in the Premier League and to carry on its efforts to rebuild. However, it is worth noting that it has taken three managers and 38 different players before they started playing well, so this can be described as nothing but a turbulent season for a mid-table perennial.