As we enter the final few games of the 2013/14 Premier League season, there is no room for error for those teams who still find themselves at the bottom end of the table.
Sunderland, Cardiff and Fulham currently occupy the bottom three, but with a huge number of ‘six-pointers’ still to play, the picture could change significantly before the end of the season.
West Ham are currently in the best position out of the 10 teams arguably still in danger. They sit 10th, and are 7 points clear of Sunderland in 18th.
Sam Allardyce’s team have strung an incredible run of form together, winning four games in a row, scoring nine goals and conceding only one in that time. They will feel capable of pulling away without too much difficulty now, and that is the feeling every manager in the bottom half will hope his players will be experiencing after the next couple of games.
Hull’s 4-0 win at Cardiff demonstrated how much experience counts for in the Premier League. Steve Bruce set his team up in the familiar 3-5-2 system they have favoured this season, and looked to hit Cardiff on the break with pace and quality.
Ahmed Elmohamady and Liam Rosenior worked tirelessly in the wide areas to counter the threat of Craig Noone and Wilfried Zaha, while their central midfield trio of Livermore, Huddlestone and Meyler narrowed the middle of the pitch to stifle any threat for the Welsh side.
It was a textbook away performance, and it will give Hull a massive boost going into the crunch meetings that are coming up.
Swansea played well at Anfield but lost 4-3. The performance will have pleased them, though, and with their pace and quality you would expect The Swans to avoid the drop. However, Garry Monk will be wary that there are still a number of games against teams around them to come. As with all the other teams, it will be those games that decide their fate.
Paul Lambert looked to have turned a corner at Villa, but 3 defeats in 4 sees them still bogged down in the midst of the dogfight. That they lost to West Ham and dropped points to Cardiff will only serve to make the Villa faithful nervous, and it will be interesting to see how their young side cope with the pressure of the six-pointers.
Villa have quality in places, but rely too heavily on counter-attacking pace and that will mean it will be difficult for them to pick up points regularly, as they can only play one way whether they are at home or away. They should really have enough, but their style is holding them back.
Norwich beat Tottenham 1-0 at Carrow Road but no one should get too carried away about The Canaries’ safety push. Norwich have only scored 20 goals this season, and in spite of the turgid, negative style employed by Chris Hughton, they have conceded 39.
This means their defence is under tremendous pressure to keep clean sheets, meaning in turn that Norwich have to play more defensively, which then makes scoring goals more difficult. Only once this season have they conceded and won the match.
The Norfolk side are in a rut, but the win over Spurs will lift them ahead of their clashes with their rivals in the coming weeks.
Stoke have not done too well against teams around them, a habit they will have to get out of sharply if they are to avoid becoming the surprise team to go down this season.
The Potters have demonstrated in games against the top teams that they are a decent side, but sloppy performances and bad results against teams like Norwich, Palace and Sunderland mean they are still struggling.
However, Mark Hughes’ side have winnable fixtures in the final run-in, most of which are at the Britannia Stadium, and Stoke will fancy their chances of staying up this season.
Palace have been rejuvenated by the street-wise management of Tony Pulis, and will continue what they have been doing. Under Pulis, The Eagles have beaten West Ham, Cardiff, Villa, Stoke, Hull and West Brom. If they can start taking points from better teams, even draws, their defensive solidity can keep them up.
West Brom have yet to win under Pepe Mel, and have slid to 17th in the table. Had they lost to Fulham last week, there would have been talks of a crisis, that late equaliser from Matej Vydra got them out of jail. Albion haven’t been playing well, though, and will need to find a cynical edge if they are to stay up.
Sunderland’s form under Gus Poyet has been impressive in the main, although back-to-back defeats have left them in the bottom three. The loss to Hull was particularly damaging, and with the distraction of the League Cup final to come, Poyet has a tough job on his hands to keep The Black Cats in the top flight.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has lost 5 of his 7 Premier League games in charge of Cardiff and the decision to sack Malky Mackay is looking ever more pointless as the games tick by. The appointment has shown the dangers of appointing a name rather than a CV, and Cardiff’s freefall mean they are probably going to go down. They will need to improve astronomically and very quickly if they are to avoid that fate.
Felix Magath’s arrival at Fulham was met with speculation about his methods, but his hard-working philosophy paid instant dividends by netting Fulham a valuable point at The Hawthorns. It could have been three, and that would have given Fulham the belief they can stay up, poor as they’ve been this season.
Magath is a clever, experienced operator, and may well spring a surprise in West London. He will have to do a hell of a job, but this season, it seems anything is possible.