Who’s Staying Up?: Relegation Battle down to the Wire

Three in the Red: Bolton, Fulham, Derby

Derby County 

It’s clear. We don’t need to discuss Derby, but it’s safe to say Paul Jewell’s January acquisitions have done little to help the prospects of a club that should have paid more attention to trying to get the most of Robert Earnshaw – who has all but vanished – and the highly coveted Giles Barnes. All that’s left with the Rams is to see whether or not they can escape the shame of holding the record for fewest points ever by an EPL squad. Sunderland sits with that record at 15 points. Derby needs 6 points out of their last 7 and a game vs. Fulham at home this Saturday could be the first three points towards their homestretch.

On we go…Fulham.

The Cottagers sit in a position they undoubtedly put themselves in. Many times this year they carried a lead into the final 15 minutes of a match only to be overtaken. Roy Hodgson has done little to turn around a team and many have said, Hodgson needs the full year to do so. The schedule is working against him though…nevermind the opponents. The Cottagers might have games against Derby and Reading coming up, but one troubling fact remains. They are away. And this is a Fulham team that hasn’t won away all year. If it was based on the personnel alone, Fulham certainly have the tools as long as they can service Brian McBride, EJ, and Dempsey properly, but when 4 of your last 7 are away that’s big. Remaining fixtures: @ Derby County, vs. Sunderland, @ Reading, vs. Liverpool, @ Manchester City, vs. Birmingham City, @ Portsmouth

Bolton

I don’t care what Gary Megson has said or wants to say. Not having Nicolas Anelka in the homestretch destroys them. Not having Jussi Jaskaleinen in the midst of a relegation battle destroys them. The Wanderers’ only saving grace is Kevin Nolan, who continues to organize Bolton’s midfield well enough to grab points here and there. Truth is, though, that Bolton’s recent tie with Manchester City at home was their first point in almost two months. Their final games see Arsenal coming to Reebok Stadium and a visit to Chelsea, Tottenham, and Aston Villa. That doesn’t paint a pretty picture, and – in all honesty – it’s about time sparkplug El-Hadji Diouf is brought down to Earth. Bolton is on their way down. Remaining Fixtures: vs. Arsenal, @ Aston Villa, vs. West Ham United, @ Middlesbrough, @ Tottenham, vs. Sunderland, @ Chelsea.

Who will stay up…

Newcastle

Kevin Keegan is still cleaning up Big Sam Allardyce’s mess and, understandably, it’s hard to believe one has to do so when you have players like Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins, and Mark Viduka at your forefront. And that’s precisely why the Magpies will stay up…Keegan has decided to put all three of these boys on the field. With Barton and Butt in the midfield and these three on the forward line – even working at subpar rates – Keegan’s troupe can climb their way out of the darkness. Newcastle’s 2-0 win over Fulham this past Saturday was a testament to that. Owen had countless chances, Martins created chances, and Viduka dutifully took the ones he was  given. Keegan has opted to play himself out of relegation through offense and it will work. Plus, who doesn’t love a manager that wears his heart on his sleeve game in and game out. Newcastle sits 6 points clear of Bolton – the third relegation spot. Their remaining schedule includes – @ Tottenham, vs. Reading, @ Portsmouth, vs. Sunderland, @ West Ham, vs. Chelsea, @ Everton.

Reading

Anytime that bounces back from 9 consecutive defeats to start the new year gets my nod to resist relegation. The Royals weren’t just losing games, they were losing close games. The ones where you fight until the bitter end. Reading’s talent level and tenacity on the playing field set them up for that kind of disappointment in defeat, but sheer joy when the result goes in their favor. Their nine losses – 5 came in dramatic fashion, one goal thrillers, while others came at the hands Villa [twice], Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham. The Royals have been found out…they’re not being underestimated like last season. All clubs are firmly aware this year of the rapid development of Dave Kitson, Shane Long, and Stephen Hunt. No one has questioned the form of Marcus Hahnemann, who along with Tim Howard and Brad Friedel, looks poised to grab at least a top-three in GK of the Year tallies. Reading has won two out of three as of late, losing out only to Liverpool, but I wouldn’t peg them to slide any further into the abyss. Fixtures remaining: vs. Blackburn,  @ Newcastle, vs. Fulham, @ Arsenal, @ Wigan, vs. Tottenham, @ Derby County.

Birmingham

March 1st’s 4-1 drubbing of Tottenham could have been the three points that wind up keeping Birmingham from the bottom three. Hell, before that they took points from Arsenal and Newcastle. If there’s a clear loser when it comes to remaining schedule, the Blues have got to be it. Alex McLeish has done well to instill a hard-nosed approach to every game in his squad and that approach has helped them so far, but will it withstand meetings with Manchester City, Everton, Blackburn, Villa, and Liverpool? Yep. And believe it or not, if they had Fulham’s schedule remaining – the Blues would be on their way down. Fixtures Remaining: vs. Manchester City, @ Wigan, vs. Everton, @ Aston Villa, vs. Liverpool, @ Fulham, vs. Blackburn

Two teams primed to go down, but will escape…

Wigan Athletic

Five points separate the Latics with Bolton and who is worse off? Bolton. Wigan was able to grab a 1-0 win over . If there was a team next in line behind Fulham and Bolton to go down, it’s the Latics. But Wigan hasn’t been pisspoor as of late. Yes, they were routed by Blackburn even when they had a man advantage for half the game, but they squeezed points from Arsenal and beat West Ham and Derby. More than most of these relegation battlers can claim. Their schedule doesn’t help much with 5 games against top-half club. Wigan has also made it their habit to start slow and end strong, which will not fly against the likes of Pompey, Chelsea, and ManYoo. Both Emile Heskey and Marcus Bent have returned to the line-up which could provide the jumpstart needed to slip just above the relegation zone. Verdict: Up, but barely. Remaining Schedule: @ Portsmouth, vs. Birmingham, @ Chelsea, vs. Tottenham, vs. Reading, @ Aston Villa, vs. Manchester United

Sunderland

It’s Roy Keane people. He’ll fight managers on the sideline and kids in the stands to stay up. The Black Cats started admirably and have faded in the homestretch. Kenwyne Jones has been figured out and Keane’s talent pool has all but dried up. Still Keane has shown a knack for putting in the right people at the right time and Michael Chopra’s entrance this past weekend secured a 1-0 upset win over Aston Villa, a vital three points to have. This is not the 2005/2006 Sunderland team. The difference – a battling Keane personality, a will to win in the last 15 minutes of tough matches, and a discipline that sticks against the big competition. Verdict: the Cats will remain and an infusion of talent in the offseason will make them mid-table runners next year. Remaining Fixtures: vs. West Ham United, @ Fulham, vs. Manchester City, @ Newcastle, vs. Middlesbrough, @ Bolton, vs. Arsenal

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Big Fulham supporter, but if the mentality shown against Newcastle prevails – the Cottagers are going down. Bolton and Derby are locks with seven games to go, but Fulham has the chance if they play the way they did against Everton. Hodgson also has to let Dempsey play. Jimmy Bullard was the only real threat vs. Newcastle, I agree, but it was as if Hodgson set him up that way. He might have a long shot, but Dempsey will be able to open up McBride and Eddie Johnson with outlet passes, instead of passes to their feet with a defender in tow.

Final Verdict: the same three we got now, Fulham, Bolton, and Derby.

What do you think?

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EPL Daily 1.25: Shearer says ‘no-go’; Liverpool refinancing; Chelsea signing, etc.

ALAN SHEARER: The former Newcastle and Blackburn striker was widely seen as Kevin Keegan’s best candidate for top assistant coach at Tyneside. A meeting between the two end up with Shearer stating he would not like to be considered for the assistant coach positon. Apparently, a future meeting will determine if Alan Shearer could have a role within the new Newcastle regime.

LIVERPOOL: American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks have firmly solidified their intentions at Liverpool amidst heavy scrutiny as well as a recent failed takeover bid from Dubai. A $700 million re-financing should ensure for all Liverpool supporters that a new stadium at Stanley Park will get done on time and in perfect order. In the same breath, both Hicks and Gillett have expressed that they are behind Rafa Benitez, even despite media reports otherwise.

MARLON KING: The Jamaican striker was angry to see a transfer to Fulham fail due to fee negotiations, but Wigan has come in to rescue King and offer him Premiership football. The fee was undisclosed but expected to be in the range of $ 6-8 million. Watford was quick to try and bring a replacement, securing 22-year old Dutch misfit Collins John from Fulham on a season’s-end loan.

FRANCO DI SANTO: One of the stars of the U-2o World Cup in Canada for champions Argentina, Di Santo has been snapped up by Chelsea, who continue to nurture their young stars rather effectively. Look at Jon Obi Mikel, Solomon Kalou, and Scott Sinclair – all have continued to progress and provide decent appearances for the Blues. Di Santo should be no different. Chelsea came out on top of the battle for Di Santo’s signature which has been wrestled for over the past 6 months. At 19 years old, nothing crazy is expected of the 6’4″ Audax Italiano (CHI) forward, but with comparisons to Diego Maradona abundant (but which Argentinan youth star isn’t compared with Diego), many Blues fans aren’t looking for him to wait in the reserves for long.

THEO WALCOTT: Signed at 16 and now only 18, some Arsenal supporters are already calling Walcott a dud. I’d give him until at least 22 before you decide that, especially considering you paid around $15 million for the kid. Regardless, there was speculation that Wenger might loan him out to see if he gain some much-needed experience (how’s a cap for England for experience?). Wenger has declared those claims untrue. The rumors put him going to Stoke City (the Championship squad whose owner recently secured a USL-Division 1 expansion squad in Austin, Texas – the Aztex).

FA Cup Replays: Havant and Waterwho?-ville

Two big upsets and an EPL squad gone.

Havant and Waterlooville – a Non-League squad of part-timers – stormed out to a 3-0 lead over League One and heavy-favorites Swansea. Jason Scotland was part of the mini-comeback for Swansea as they replied with two, but it was Leon Britton’s 42nd minute penalty-miss that set the tone for the game and had Havant and Waterlooville thinking victory. The game was sealed in the 65th minute and a date with one of the biggest clubs in English football was confirmed. Havant and W. vs. Liverpool – January 26th.

Hereford – League Two – turned in a convincing upset of the League One Tranmere Rovers. A late 72nd minute goal from Simon Johnson helped Hereford grab its first spot in the FA Cup’s Fourth Round in 16 years.

Newcastle had everything set up for either dramatic failure or resurgence. A replay against a stiffly-defensive Stoke. A new boss in Kevin Keegan – one who had some success at the Toon in the 1990’s. A rough crowd not ready to be plunged deeper into the underperformance curse. And lastly, a 29th minute red card for Turkish international Emre. Didn’t matter though – Michael Owen scored himself a goal in the 8th minute and Cacapa calmed the worried crowd after Emre’s ejection with a quick goal as well. It’s Keegan’s third time at Newcastle, but you could tell his philosophy for the Stoke game was simply, “go out and play”. James Milner and Damien Duff added the two clinchers to make it 4-1. With St. James Park ecstatic at the refreshed (too soon?) Magpies, the only thing that could make this resurgence much better is the return of Alan Shearer to be Keegan’s (his former manager) right-hand man. Newcastle is going to need all the help it can get as Arsenal is next up in the FA Cup 4th Round.

Manchester City owes Elano quite a bit this year. Regardless of whether or not he’s at full tilt, the Brazilian playmaker seems to influence games by sheer presence. A goal with 20 minutes to go was the decider and even crazier yet – the former Shakhtar man found the net with his head. Another former Shakhtar player had a less agreeable day, however. Loan-signee Nery Castillo dislocated his shoulder about 30 minutes in and will miss up to a month or so before he steps back on the field. No Jonathan Spector, dressed but didn’t play.

Fourth Round Draw (Jan 26/27)

Arsenal v Newcastle
Coventry v Millwall
Oldham v Huddersfield Town
Swindon/Barnet v Fulham/Bristol Rovers
Wigan v Chelsea
Liverpool v Havant & Waterlooville
Southend v Barnsley
Southampton v Bury
Man Utd v Tottenham
Portsmouth v Plymouth
Derby/Sheff Wed v Preston
Watford v Wolves
Peterborough v West Brom
Sheff Utd v Man City
Mansfield v Middlesbrough
Hereford v Cardiff