IT’S squeaky bum time at the bottom of the Premier League, with Sunderland now lying just a solitary point above the relegation zone.
Heading into the home straight, CHRIS YOUNG looks at the runners and riders in the battle to remain in the Premier League.
Fixtures: Swansea (h), Leicester (a), WBA (h), QPR (a), West Ham (h)
Form: Arguably the worst side in the division at present after six successive defeats – their joint longest-running losing streak in the Premier League. Suddenly, what appeared to be mid-table solidity doesn’t look quite so comfortable.
Key player for the run-in: Papiss Cisse. Has been a big miss during the first five games of his seven-match suspension, with fellow frontman Ayoze Perez suffering from burn-out. If Newcastle remain precariously perched above the drop zone heading into the final three games – two of which are at home – Cisse’s return may prove to be timely.
Prospects: Fans organising a boycott, a supply teacher as a manager and a team who appear to have bought flip-flops in the January sales. It’s an ugly, fractured situation up the road at present, with the crescendo against Mike Ashley growing, as it seems to do a couple of times every season. However, while John Carver may be getting nervy, Newcastle surely have two or three points too many to seriously worry about the drop.
Fixtures: Man City (a), Everton (h), West Ham (h), Southampton (a), Burnley (h)
Form: There are shades of Sunderland under Gus Poyet last season, with new manager Tim Sherwood guiding Villa to the verge of Premier League safety, after their position had looked perilous, plus securing a Wembley cup final. Villa suffered a blip after last month’s 4-0 rout on Wearside, but their win at Sherwood’s former employers Spurs 10 days ago, was a big one.
Key player for the run-in: Christian Benteke. Has enjoyed a stunning return to form under Sherwood, with nine goals in his last seven games. Goalscorers are habitually the difference between success and failure in the Premier League, as Sunderland have proved this season.
Prospects: Look the most secure side in the bottom seven, despite Newcastle boasting an extra three points, after a fresh injection of confidence under Sherwood. That victory at Spurs should prove to be a huge one, with three ‘winnable’ games at Villa Park still to come.
Fixtures: Stoke (a), Southampton (h), Everton (a), Leicester (h), Arsenal (a), Chelsea (a)
Form: If it hadn’t been for Newcastle, Sunderland could already be dead and buried by now, with two of the Black Cats’ three wins since December coming against the Magpies. The latest derby success against the Magpies has kept Sunderland’s heads above the water, but the subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace has immediately shattered any restored confidence.
Key player for the run-in: Lee Cattermole. Has to drive Sunderland over the line and instil some fight in a side who have repeatedly shown themselves to be mentally brittle.
Prospects: With Sunderland heading to Arsenal and Chelsea over the final week of the season, the Black Cats realistically have four games to secure their Premier League survival. Their fate hangs in the balance, particularly after Leicester’s recent resurgence, but if Dick Advocaat can average a point per game, Sunderland will be fine. That last home game against Leicester will be enormous though.
Fixtures: Crystal Palace (a), Liverpool (h), Arsenal (h), Burnley (h), Spurs (a), Man United (h).
Form: A return of just two points from the last six games has plunged Hull back towards the drop zone after they had edged to safety with back-to-back wins over Aston Villa and QPR. Steve Bruce’s men have missed big opportunities to strengthen their hand after only managing draws against Leicester and Sunderland.
Key player for the run-in: Tom Huddlestone. Has not hit the heights from his maiden campaign at the KC Stadium, when he arguably merited an England recall. Needs to rediscover some form and control proceedings in those nervy, scrappy relegation encounters.
Prospects: Face the toughest run-in of anybody down there, even though four of their six remaining games are at the KC Stadium. Like Sunderland, there doesn’t appear to be sufficient attacking threat in Hull’s ranks - not helped by striker Nikica Jelavic remaining sidelined with a knee injury.
Fixtures: Burnley (a), Chelsea (h), Newcastle (h), Southampton (h), Sunderland (a), QPR (h).
Form: It’s not quite matched Sunderland’s Great Escape, but it’s been a stunning reversal for the Foxes after they had appeared to be dead and buried. Three successive wins have seen Nigel Pearson’s catch-up fourth bottom Hull, with the pair just a point behind Sunderland.
Key player for the run-in: Jamie Vardy. Not flashy, not blessed with an abundance of skill. But boy, does he work. That constant pressing can prompt mistakes, while he didn’t net a bad goal at West Brom 10 days ago.
Prospects: Now have a huge chance to become only the third side in the Premier League era to be bottom of the table at Christmas and manage to survive. Leicester don’t need miracles either. With Newcastle and QPR to come at home, and Burnley and Sunderland away, their run-in is favourable and boasts plenty of chances to get a couple of wins.
Fixtures: West Ham (h), Liverpool (a), Man City (a), Newcastle (h), Leicester (a).
Form: QPR’s win at the Stadium of Light in February proved to be the beginning of the end for Gus Poyet, but it didn’t provide the foundation for a recovery under new boss Chris Ramsey. Five successive defeats followed before the win at West Brom earlier this month. A last-gasp defeat to Chelsea in their last outing will only have increased the glum mood.
Key player for the run-in: Charlie Austin. Without his goals, QPR would have been done for this season and he will be on the shopping list of many clubs if they indeed do go down.
Prospects: History looks like repeating itself for QPR, with big money buys, coupled with big wages, again failing to see the club avoid the drop. This weekend’s game against West Ham is a big, big one and if they can still be in contention come the final day at Leicester, they will fancy their chances of pulling off a stunning escape. However, they have played a game more than the three teams above them.
Fixtures: Leicester (h), West Ham (a), Hull (a), Stoke (h), Aston Villa (a).
Form: Take away last month’s stunning Turf Moor win over reigning champions Manchester City, and it has been a rotten last three months for Burnley. For all their never-ceasing endeavour, that victory over City was their only success in the Premier League since January.
Key player for the run-in: Danny Ings. The striker will be off in the summer, with a host of suitors chasing his signature when his contract expires, but he’ll need to finish on a bang for Burnley if the Clarets are to have any hope.
Prospects: There has been an admirable never-say-die spirit among Sean Dyche’s unfancied side this season, but perhaps a lack of quality has eventually told. However, the gap to safety is only two points and just one win would change the entire complexion of the dogfight. This weekend’s visit of Leicester is pivotal.