Premier League relegation battle - Who will go down?
Much has been made of the quest for qualification for next season's Champions League with the top of the Premier League looking an increasingly open affair, but the ongoing battle at the other end of the table is equally fascinating.
While the coveted top-four spots will undoubtedly be fought for by the current top seven, the drop could yet threaten more than a dozen clubs and promises to be an enthralling battle that goes right to the wire.
Despite faltering campaigns thus far, Everton, Fulham and Sunderland should all possess enough quality to avoid being dragged into the scrap and will more likely occupy the mid-table positions.
Birmingham meanwhile, have experienced an excellent start to their season and appear a good bet to stay up, but then Hull were similarly positioned last year and yet still flirted with the drop up until the very last day. With Carson Yeung's financial backing and a good manager in Alex McLeish though, the Blue's season is unlikely to curtail in such dramatic fashion and they should be fine.
In stark contrast, the financially crippled Tigers face a second successive year battling against relegation and may yet be forced to part company with some of their bigger names in a bid to ease their monetary woes.
Quite how Hull ended up with one of the larger Premier League wage bills remains a mystery, but the fact remains that if survival is to be achieved they must make themselves more difficult to beat. An impressive goalless draw with Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on Saturday was certainly an admirable start.
Fellow cash-strapped outfit Portsmouth appear set to face an even more testing battle and boss Avram Grant must attempt to let problems off the field affect his players as little as possible if they are to retain their Premier League status.
The former Chelsea manager may also have to make do with the depleted squad already at his disposal as the South Coast club remain banned from registering new players due to a transfer embargo first imposed in October.
Having supposedly paid off the majority of debts owed to other clubs Pompey remain confident that the embargo will be lifted in the coming days, but the January transfer window is fast passing by and it is unlikely Grant will be able to sign anything other than loan players even if the ban is in fact lifted.
East London outfit West Ham already appear rejuvenated under their new ownership and manager Gianfranco Zola has been promised funds to spend in the January transfer window. With the likes of Matthew Upson, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole already in the ranks at Upton Park and with the option to bolster his squad further, Zola should certainly steer the Hammers well clear of the bottom three and achieve mid-table security.
Bolton Wanderers face a much more difficult task. A poor start to the season has not only left them in the relegation zone, but Gary Megson without a job. Former Burley boss Owen Coyle has subsequently taken charge, but will have to stamp his mark on the squad quickly if he is to turn the fortunes around at the Reebok.
The North West club do have experienced campaigners Kevin Davies and Jussi Jaaskelainen in their ranks which bodes well, but they could also do with big money signing Johan Elmander making an improved contribution too.
Coyle's old club Burnley have also stuttered of late and even prior to his departure had lost some impetus despite an impressive start in the top-flight.
The Clarets haven't in fact won in the league since October and new manager Brian Laws must make an immediate impact if they are going to stay up. Laws is operating with one of the smallest budgets in the division and results at Turf Moor will undoubtedly be pivotal to their survival aspirations.
Wolverhampton Wanderers are another side seemingly set for a vicarious grapple with relegation and despite the astute signings of the likes of Kevin Doyle and Marcus Hahnemann will be there or there abouts at the wrong end of the table come May.
Last time Wolves were in the Premier League they finished bottom and without an away win all season, one of those unwanted feats has already been avoided and given the problems at the likes of Hull and Portsmouth the other is also seemingly unlikely, but eclipsing experienced rivals such Bolton and avoiding relegation altogether may prove much more difficult.
The final three sides that could be drawn into the battle take the form of Stoke, Blackburn and Wigan. All have the resources to survive and all we suspect will, but having experienced indifferent form thus far they could easily be sucked in with a string of poor results. Wigan in particular must tighten defensively.
Who will actually finish the season in the bottom three though is ultimately anyone's guess, as for that matter is who will finish in the top-four and for that we should be thankful. Long live the unpredictability of the Premier League!
18th - Burnley
19th - Portsmouth
20th - Hull City
- Gareth Burton
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