Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

A nail-biting final day ahead in the Premier League battle for survival

The longest of seasons goes down to the last 90 minutes for Aston Villa, Watford and Bournemouth

Watford players celebrate during their first win of the season - at Norwich on November 8. New Images
Watford players celebrate during their first win of the season - at Norwich on November 8. New Images

The longest of all Premier League seasons was almost into its middle-age when Watford won for the first time.

Ninety-one days it took them, and once they gathered just a single point from the next possible 15, it would have been a bold forecaster who predicted they could go into the last game of the season still with a fighting chance of staying up.

But no forecaster would have envisaged, in late December, that the last day would fall on the final weekend of July, or that, having spent almost the entirety of Restart - 10 matchdays - in the bottom three, Aston Villa would go into D-day looking down from 17th place, almost assured that a win at West Ham United this afternoon would keep them from plunging back into a Championship they left in 2019.

It’s the ‘almost’ that makes the bottom of the table so fiendishly gripping. Two out of Watford, Villa and Bournemouth will join already-relegated Norwich City in going down. The permutations are made so complex by the close parity of goal-differences, even after 351 days of this unique season.

Only Villa’s goal difference of -26 puts them above 18th-placed Watford (-27), which means that, provided Villa match, at West Ham, whatever result Watford achieve against Arsenal, Villa will stay up.

If both win, and Watford rack up a scoreline with a victory-margin two goals better than Villa’s they would leapfrog Villa into 17th spot.

Only if both Villa and Watford lose would Bournemouth, 19th and away at Everton, have a route to a truly remarkable escape.

They are on 31 points, three behind the pair of clubs above them. Intriguingly, they have a goal difference of -27. So if Bournemouth beat Everton and Villa and Watford both suffer defeats, Bournemouth would rise to 17th on the basis of goal-difference.

But with one win from their last 12 matches, form is no alibi for Eddie Howe, the long-serving manager who guided Bournemouth up from League One, and has kept them in the top division since 2015. Howe’s assured touch has deserted Bournemouth since January. They have one victory from their last 12.

Howe's one blessing is that, unlike Villa manager Dean Smith and Watford’s caretaker, Hayden Mullins, there will be no temptation to glance at news from elsewhere. “We just have to do our bit, which is win a game of football,” said Howe. “You have to play the moment. Controlling our emotions will be the key.”

The day Watford stunned Liverpool

Smith acknowledges his Villa cannot be entirely blinkered to what might be happening at Arsenal, who have little at stake as they host Watford.

“Our entire focus will be on trying to beat West Ham,” said Smith. “We can’t think about other matches we are not in control of, but we will be mindful in the last 10, 15 minutes because that can change our game.”

With seven points from their last three matches, Villa have the best momentum of the threatened trio. “It’s been like tournament football,” says Smith of the intense run of fixtures through June and July, “and we’re good in Cup competitions, getting to the League Cup final [in March] and winning the play-off final last season.”

To which Watford might respond that, only last season, they too were in a cup final. They were FA Cup runners-up under Javi Gracia, the manager who led them to 11th in last year’s Premier League. Since he was sacked in September, Quique Sanchez Flores, under-23 lead coach Mullins, Nigel Pearson and now Mullins again have been in charge of the first team.

Under Pearson, Watford beat both Bournemouth and Villa 3-0 either side of new year, part of a stirring revival that also featured a 2-0 victory against Manchester United and later, that collector’s item, a 3-0 win over Liverpool - before the champions-elect had confirmed their title. That result, in February, lifted Watford out of the bottom three.

They then stayed above the red line until Tuesday’s 4-0 defeat by Manchester City handed Mullins, in his fourth-ever match as boss on a senior touchline, the responsibility of a 90 minutes that will end or extend a five-year spell in the top division.

Updated: July 26, 2020 07:05 AM

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