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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Can anyone stop Adebayor? Fulham sputters…

1. Newcastle’s defense certainly couldn’t – they almost looked like they needed Oguchi Onyewu who played pretty poorly on loan with them about a year ago.

2. Not even his own teammates can stop him – and as you saw, Nicklas Bendtner tried.

What many people forget is that Adebayor was not a high-profile signing. Sure he helped Monaco reach the Champions League final in 2004, but it wasn’t scoring goals at the rate he is right now. The Gunners dispatched Kevin Keegan’s pet project Newcastle in yet another 3-0 romp. Adebayor started off the scoring – his 9th in his last 7 appearances and 19th overall. All that he’s done has prompted Cesc Fabregas to go all man-love on him with Arsene Wenger unleashing the praise as well. Mathieu Flamini and Cesc himself scored the other two goals.

In other action…

Sunderland 2, Birmingham 0

New signing Rade Prica made the difference for Roy Keane. Put in for a struggling Dwight Yorke, Prica pounced on a chance with 30 minutes to go, effectively putting a come-back out of the reaches of the Blues. Daryl Murphy started off the scoring, however, as the Black Cats move 3 points out of relegation. 20-year old Argentinian Mauro Zarate got his first minutes for the Blues, coming on for Cameron Jerome in the 66th minute.

Fulham 0, Bolton 0

The Cottagers had a prime chance to grab three much-needed points. Eddie Johnson was not eligible as paperwork is still being processed, but Clint Dempsey was there and Carlos Bocanegra came on late for new signing Leon Andreasen. It was even through the first half, but with about thirty minutes to go it became Bolton’s game. Fulham’s new defensive hires Andreasen and Brede Hangeland held their own though – helping to stave off a last second defensive lapse (which has been the Fulham trademark this season). Dempsey hasn’t hit the back of the net in over a month. Hopefully the added extra American influence can pick his game back up.

Middlesbrough 1, Wigan 0

An early goal from Jeremie Aliadiere (who doesn’t score much to begin with) proved to be the decider as Boro held off relegation battlers Wigan. I’m sure many were expecting a severely depleted back four with the loss of Jonathan Woodgate to Tottenham, but it held remarkably well (for now). That is certainly not saying that Wigan didn’t have their chances. Marlon King found himself free a couple times with Emile Heskey doing his best to resurrect his productive days. Ultimately, if Boro is going to keep surviving – Afonso Alves is needed up front with Tuncay and they need to make Stewart Downing happy (which isn’t going to happen, to Tottenham maybe?). I have lost interest in Wigan’s relegation fight; their demotion is foregone conclusion to me.

EPL: Sven and Big Sam start with 3; Man Utd falters

Another slew of games this Tuesday and Wednesday as the Premiership starts with a bang. This past weekend’s slate however was chock full of entertaining matches – most of which I didn’t get to see. Some things that did stick out however:

 Derby 2, Portsmouth 2: Not many expected this I am sure but freshly promoted teams generally fight like hell for the first several games then sputter when it comes to the long-haul of the Premiership season. The Rams took the lead in this one thanks to a Matthew Oakley strike. Pompey fought back to take the lead 2-1 and it looked as of Derby was down and out. Former Blackburn Rover Andy Todd made it 2-2 in the waning moments to secure a point. If they can tie Portsmouth with a squad  that boss Billy Davies is vocally unhappy with – what can they do once strengthened? (is it too early to regret my decision of predicting a 5th place finish for Portsmouth?)

Sunderland 1, Tottenham 0: Spurs faithful have got to be incensed with this one, but looking back on it – why did I ever bet against Roy Keane in his Premiership managerial debut; Chopra doubters were treated to a nice serving of ‘I told you so’ as the former Newcastle dud provided the only goal in the 90th minute

Chelsea 3, Birmingham 2: the Blues struck first early with Mikael Forssell staking a claim for a starting spot but new Chelsea acquisition made his argument by striking less than 2 minutes later; the rest of the game was back and forth as fellow new Chelsea signing Florent Malouda also put his name on the scoresheet; Johan Djourou – plucked from Arsenal’s talent pool – worked all 90 minutes for Birmingham in the back; Michael Essien provided the game winner in the 50th minute and extended Chelsea’s home unbeaten streak; Drogba quelled Chelsea supporter fears with a solid 30 minute run-out

Arsenal 2, Fulham 1: David Healy pounced on a particularly embarassing screw up by Jens Lehmann; search it on YouTube – not quite Paul Robinson-ish but still borderline pathetic; the Gunners fought back for him though as two late goals – a PK from Van Persie and Aleksander Hleb – put Arsenal clear; McBride started up front and Bocanegra in the back, both played all 90 minutes while Clint Dempsey came on for new signing Hamuer Bouazza in the beginning of the second half and worked a serviceable half; Gunner fans have got to be excited about the play of Bakary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboue down the right wing

Reading 0, Manchester United 0: another giant held with unfortunate consequences for Alex Ferguson and all Red Devil fans; Wayne Rooney broke his foot and will be out 2 months at least; they do have Carlos Tevez to look forward to but Rooney looked primed to have a phenomenal year and his absence will make things a bit harder for that Red Devil offense to produce consistently; Reading played the last 20 minutes a man down after Dave Kitson’s ejection and proved pesky (though never threatening); Nicky Shorey was the best man on the field for the Royals and Giggsy for the Red Devils

Other results:

Liverpool 2, Aston Villa 1 – The Reds’ new signings start slow but Gerrard’s goal of the week give them the win

Manchester City 2, West Ham 0 – Spector plays all 90 minutes but can’t stop Sven’s new signings – Geovanni and Bianchi from finding  the net, while their newly crafted back line preserves the shutout and 3 away points

Newcastle 3, Bolton 1 – Sam Allardyce beats his former team as the Magpie offense is driven by the brace of Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins

Blackburn 2, Middlesbrough 1 – Brad Friedel worked well in a goal as usual while the young Derbyshire and new signing Roque Santa Cruz provide the goal scoring power to beat the Boro

Everton 2, Wigan Athletic 1 – Tim Howard held his own in net for the Toffees as they fought their way to a win at home thanks to a Leon Osman and young’un Victor Anichebe strike

Sunderland means business…

Roy Keane undoubtedly knows the importance of having a good keeper and opted for the diva from Hearts, Craig Gordon. Along the lines of the Black Cats being a freshly promoted team, you would expect the fee to sit somewhere in the $3 million to $7 million range. Not the case at all as Sunderland have used the rest of their Premiership financial boost to sign the promising Scottish keeper for $18 million.

Craig Gordon, Hearts

In the process of the signing – a record was broken – albeit, one that we would expect to be broken by one of the Big Four. Highest paid transfer fee for a keeper – ever- in England. Not even Chelsea had to dig deep for Petr Cech (“obscurity”, at Stade Rennais) or – as we all saw – nor did Man Utd for Edwin van der Sar (‘age’). Roy Keane was around, however, when the Red Devils flopped $15.5 million on Fabien Barthez, which barely worked out for a year or so. Upside: Gordon is gooood and young, already a Scottish international. A piece you can build a team around – cause you’re certainly not going to sell him for profit. Downside: If you got the money spend it, but is $18 million too much for a keeper?

Here’s what Gordon thinks about it, from Skysports:

“Prices are going up all over the place and it’s a big story because it’s a goalkeeper but I expect the prices to keep rising.

“I don’t think I’ll be the most expensive for very long.”

Was Marton Fulop that bad?? Goalkeepers speak up.