x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Premier League: Relegation zone teams gear up for mini-season

Staying in the Premier League has never been more important and as many as 10 teams are fighting to avoid the dreaded drop.

Aston Villa tripped up 3-0 last time they played Wigan Athletic, in black, at home and may play the potential deciding game in the fight to avoid relegation. Neville Williams via Getty Images
Aston Villa tripped up 3-0 last time they played Wigan Athletic, in black, at home and may play the potential deciding game in the fight to avoid relegation. Neville Williams via Getty Images

It is all about the situation and the significance. It is about an opportunity to shape the future of a club, if not two.

It is the chance to make a mark in a way that few players outside the top clubs can.

It is about the relegation battle, perhaps the most competitive of all. Certainly the consequences have never been more costly. Next season, the Premier League's £5.5 billion (Dh31bn), three-year television deal kicks in.

A place in it equates to a golden ticket. The fear of missing out on a fortune may have been illustrated most clearly when Sunderland terminated Martin O'Neill.

Or perhaps it was most evident when Queens Park Rangers, already deep in trouble, spent good money after bad in the January transfer window in the hope they could buy their way to safety.

The chances are that they cannot. Like Reading, they are 10 points from safety with five games to go.

That still leaves one spot. The Stoke City manager Tony Pulis thinks six or seven other clubs remain in danger.

He also believes 40 points will secure survival, meaning only the Premier League's top 10 have guaranteed their status for next season.

Stoke are also in the worst form of the imperilled teams, with one win in 2013 and a solitary point from seven games after having started off strongly.

Sunderland were in the most alarming slump until, revived by the manic Paolo Di Canio, they won 3-0 at Newcastle United last week. It was a massive result, but the Italian cautioned: "In terms of the table, it is a small step."

The giant leap will come for whomever reaches the 40-point barrier. In the meantime, games that, earlier in the season, would not stand out on a fixture list, assume a huge importance.

Today sees three clashes of teams in the bottom half, all involving one residing in the drop zone: Norwich City against Reading, Stoke's trip to QPR and Wigan Athletic's visit to West Ham.

In every ensuing week, matches are scheduled that could condemn one team and save another: Stoke versus Norwich, Villa's home game with (and their visit to) Norwich, Sunderland's clash with Stoke until, on the final day, Wigan host Villa.

Together with May's Championship play-off final, this could be the most lucrative game of all, a £100 million match.

"We always talk about six pointers, but it doesn't get any bigger than that," said the Wigan manager Roberto Martinez. "To be able to play for everything at home is something we will embrace."

The Spaniard's characteristic optimism is underpinned by form - Wigan have seven points from their past four games - and experience. At this stage of last season, when others deemed their descent to the Championship a formality, they embarked on a remarkable run of seven wins in nine games.

Now, once again, they play a superior brand of football to many of their rivals. "They don't deserve to be relegated," Manchester City's Roberto Mancini said.

But who does?

Stoke can cite a fine first half of the season, Norwich a 10-game spell in autumn that produced 22 points, Sunderland a momentous and historic derby win. Villa, who hold the fates of others in their hands because they spend the run-in playing most of their rivals, believe their attacking brio and recent results count in their favour.

"We're the form team at the moment and the good thing is we're going into games playing well," said Paul Lambert, the manager.

The alternative theory is that history is bunk and whatever has happened before is irrelevant.

Because, apart from Wigan, who have six matches remaining, it is, as Pulis said: "A five-game season now."

And, in this curtailed campaign, the stakes have never been higher.


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