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: Boxing Day Recap and Quick Facts! Read On!

Chelsea 4, Aston Villa 4

The Battle of Stamford Bridge yielded three red cards and eight goals. The end result sees Chelsea still clawing to stay near the leaders, Man Utd and Arsenal. It started pretty for Martin O’Neill and the Villans as Shaun Maloney – seen to be shipped off to Scotland soon – secured his place in O’Neill’s attack with a brace before halftime. Zatyiah Knight was sent off shortly thereafter, however, and Aston Villa had to fight from then on out. Shevchenko tied it up with two goals right after half-time, one coming off a questionable dive from Michael Ballack and an ensuing PK conversion. Two defenders then traded off goals – Martin Laursen and Alex – before Chelsea was handed the blow of two defenders being sent off within ten minutes of each other. Just before Ashley Cole’s handball though, Michael Ballack in his first appearance back scored an opportunistic free-kick 2 minutes from time. Cole’s handball on the line (he almost had to try and get away with it as it was going in regardless) ensured him walking orders and gave Gareth Barry the chance to tie it all up with minimal time left. Barry converted and showed the rest of the EPL that Chelsea certainly is NOT a title contender this year.

Manchester United 4, Sunderland 0

Wouldn’t even say that Sunderland was that lowly. It was more that Manchester United was borderline flawless in their execution. By halftime it was 3-0, with Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha, and Cristiano Ronaldo all bagging goals. Saha would later add a second on a PK before time’s end. Park Ji-Sung made his first appearance since a knee injury sidelined him. For Roy Keane, 17-year old striker Martyn Waghorn got his chance to shine – doing rather well in his first appearance in the senior side. The verdict? Manchester United will win this title.

Tottenham 5, Fulham 1

Ew. Former Tottenham coach Martin Jol turned down the Fulham position due to the lack of weapons and resources that would have been at his disposal. Interim coach Ray Lewington would probably agree right now. Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey went all 90 minutes for the Cottagers and Dempsey scored his sixth of the season, but Fulham fell hard. Roy Keane scored two, Tom Huddlestone scored two, and Jermain Defore added one for good measure. Even worse, Ledley King – back from injury – played solidly for a Tottenham squad that is reacting favorably to Juande Ramos’ reign. Young Jamie O’Hara enjoyed his time in the midfield, looking decent for only his 2nd EPL appearance. Fulham could – and it pains me to say this – go down this year. Rumors swirling peg Chris Coleman as returning now (if he steps down from Real Sociedad).

Everton 2, Bolton 0

Everton is the real deal. If they had a little more financial meddle, I am confident the Toffees would be a Big Four club. All of the weapons were out in full force yesterday. Tim Cahill scored in the 70th minute, making it 7 goals in all 13 appearances this season. Yakubu caused massive problems as usual. Timmy Howard is my nod for keeper of the year and – yes I am biased – but he consistently keeps the team afloat when their defensive lapses get the better of them. Joseph Yobo and Joleon Lescott quarterback an improving backline, while Mikel Arteta (who hopefully doesn’t go to Atletico Madrid) is the artist. Add that to the hard-nosed, bald-headed enforcers Thomas Gravesen and Lee Carsley and you have yourself a rather complete squad. Let’s not forget bringing Andrew Johnson off the bench, with two younger strikers Victor Anichebe and James Vaughan in tow as well. Assembled somewhat cheaply, Everton has put in a solid last 4 years. Either way, Everton put the smackdown on a schizo Bolton squad.

West Ham United 1, Reading 1

Jonathan Spector hit the crossbar barely missing a chance to put the Hammers up on Bobby Convey and Marcus Hahnemann’s Reading. It was Nolberto Solano who struck first right before halftime, but Dave Kitson equalized early in the second half. Kitson’s goal was a bit of a relief to the Royals after having to go on playing two-thirds of the game a man down thanks to Brynjar Gunnarsson’s two-footed tackle on Hayden Mullins and subsequent sending off.  

Birmingham 3, Middlesbrough 0

Gareth Southgate was infuriated after this one, as we was let down by his whole squad – the defense, who let up 3 goals and the offensive, who put 12 shots on frame but couldn’t squeak it by Birmingham’s Maik Taylor. City had their heads on straight, however, but it took a M’boro mishap (own goal from Stewart Downing) to put things into order for the Blues. Mikael Forssell and Gary McSheffrey were the scorers.

Wigan 1, Newcastle 0

Big Sam’s woes continue, but Steve Bruce’s Wigan will be elated to grab these three points. Bruce has effectively turned this team around grabbing 8 points out of the last 5 matches – great for a relegation battle. The man of the hour was Ryan Taylor who put the gamewinner home in the 65th minute, allowing former Toon man Titus Bramble to breath a sigh of relief against his old squad. Allardyce tried a new look squad and a more physical approach – failing (but not totally) on both accounts. Could be the end for Big Sam.

Liverpool 2, Derby 1

Eddie Lewis assisted on James McEveley’s equalizer in the 67th minute and Benny “Holy” Feilhaber played the whole second half as the Rams fought hard to stay level for 90 minutes. Steven Gerrard’s heroics ensured victory, ruining young goalkeeper Lewis Price’s first day in goal. Liverpool looked comfortable throughout, however, even though Paul Jewell’s new club looked a bit more relentless. You can expect to see Benny Feilhaber more now as two players were injured of the same position – Stephen Pearson and Darren Moore. It was Lewis’ second assist of the season. Another question: where the hell has Robert Earnshaw been ALL season? Yes, Derby is bad but Steve Howard and Kenny Miller are managing goals!! Earnshaw is the guy who has scored hat-tricks in all four levels of English soccer and yet, here we are, 13 games, NO goals. Hmmm.

Portsmouth 0, Arsenal 0

A deadlock of the somewhat boring breed. Pompey can’t score recently, but at least they have a solid Sol Campbell-led backfield. Benjani almost put Portsmouth ahead, missing narrowly, but defense was the name of the game – and Arsenal was a bit taken aback by it. The tie allowed Manchester United to move a point ahead on the top of the table, but Wenger is certainly not worried.  

QUICK FACTS:

1. Man Utd left Ryan Giggs and Anderson back in Manchester and Carlos Tevez and Patrice Evra on the bench in their 4-0 win over Sunderland.

2. Everton’s +16 goal difference is better than third place Chelsea’s, a testament to their play

3. Tottenham has won four out of their last five games, their only loss coming to Arsenal

4. Completely unrelated to the EPL, Leeds United – troubled club galore – is on its’ way back to glory. Even with a 15 point docking early for administrative issues, Leeds sits in third place in League One with a 16-2-4 record. Much of this is due to the young Jermaine Beckford and Tresor Kandol who have combined for 22 of their 41 goals.