Due to an absence of excitement and intrigue in this year’s Premier League title race, much of the attention at the top of the table has been focused on the race for the two treasured Champions League qualification berths immediately behind Manchester United and Manchester City.
This relatively new phenomenon of third and fourth place being such coveted spots undoubtedly stimulates additional interest over the course of a season, and ensures greater significance is attached to end of term fixtures which would otherwise be contested by poorly motivated combatants.
Nevertheless, it is a curious and unsatisfactory situation that has many clubs prioritising qualification for a competition ahead of ultimate glory, and in some cases – notably Arsenal – even placing enhanced importance on their following year’s participation ahead of performances in the current edition.
For the more voyeuristic football follower – a group that is assuredly in the majority – there is greater fascination attached to watching the annual battle to survive at the bottom end of the table. The tension attached to this campaign’s fight has been exacerbated even further by the latest Premier League television rights sale which will see England’s top-flight clubs share an astonishing £5bn across the next three years.
With only ten games remaining and thirty points to play for, those teams in the gravest danger of slipping into the second-tier will be tentatively considering the repercussions of being cut adrift from the elite at the most damaging of times. The opportunity for a last throw of the dice during January’s transfer window has passed, and the bottom five clubs have managers in-situ, who barring any extraordinary turn of circumstances, will not be displaced before May’s denouement.
It is from QPR, Reading, Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic, and Southampton that the three fall-guys appear destined to emerge. Others have flirted with the lower reaches. Norwich City, Fulham, Newcastle United, Stoke City, and West Ham United have all at various stages hovered uncomfortably above the trap-door but each now look to have enough, both in the bank and in reserve, to be confident of being pitted against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool et al when the next set of Premier League fixtures are announced.
Sunderland remain a left-field candidate to become embroiled in an unseemly scrap. On this forthcoming weekend which sees a vastly reduced top-flight programme there are three encounters on the bill to galvanise the senses – each key to the relegation struggle – and the Wearsiders figure prominently.
Defeat against QPR at Loftus Road would set nerves on edge at the Stadium of Light, but it would require a momentous late season collapse to condemn Martin O’Neill’s team to their first demotion since 2006. With an exacting run-in ahead which includes clashes against four of the top-six and a trip to their bitter rivals in Newcastle that eventuality is not impossible to envisage.
What the Black Cats do possess however is the most precious commodity in football – a man who can score. Steven Fletcher’s strikes may not have been enough to save previous sides Burnley and Wolves from slipping out of the elite, but surrounded by better players and with 10 goals already since his £12m arrival, the Scot’s presence may be the telling factor in keeping his club’s head above water.
O’Neill has unquestionably performed below expectations since Sunderland’s original revival upon his appointment late in 2011 but having been given free rein to invest considerable sums on Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Alfred N’Diaye, and Danny Graham, the Northern Irishman surely has the tools at his disposal to negotiate a tricky period. The fans who continue to flood into the Black Cats’ 16 year old ground – over 39,000 were in attendance for last weekend’s less than glamorous tussle against Fulham – are sure to be incredulous if anything other than Premier League football is on offer for next term’s season ticket money.
For QPR’s part, their huge January gamble in committing startling amounts on transfer fees and wages to purchase Loic Remy and Christopher Samba has been subject to forensic scrutiny. Debate regarding the wisdom of the R’s daredevil strategy will intensify with today’s release of last season’s financial results. These revealed a wage bill that had more than doubled and subsequently eats up in excess of 90% of the club’s revenue.
Since the accumulation of those troubling figures a further two costly transfer windows have passed. Now is the time for Harry Redknapp to make good his assertion that the Loftus Road club can survive. Despite the former Tottenham boss’ public protestations that saving QPR would be his finest achievement in the game to date, the 63 year-old arrived with his new team 6 points adrift of safety.
He has led his new charges to only 3 victories in 15 league outings to date, but a current total of 20 points is enough to place Redknapp’s side within striking distance of the precious 17th position. With the addition of the colossal Samba – a replacement for the equally solid Ryan Nelsen (if there’s any doubting what a stellar central defensive pair these two were at Blackburn Rovers consider that they were the cornerstone of a team at Ewood Park which achieved 7th and 10th place finishes in the top-tier) – and the front running menace of Remy, QPR’ survival chances are comfortably above desperate.
The two new men made their first tangible contribution in a mammoth triumph at Southampton last week. With a favourable set of impending fixtures that includes facing up against 6 outfits from the league’s bottom half, and a hitherto disparate but talented unit evidencing a desire to summon a late charge in that win on the South Coast the last-gasp frantic trading might pay the biggest dividend imaginable.
Having spurned the opportunity to open a 13 point gap between themselves and the league’s bottom club, the Saints are again vulnerable to losing their precious and hard-won status back at the top table. Only three weeks on from comprehensively outplaying Manchester City, a defeat on their own turf against a side led by Redknapp – one of the more unpopular figures in Saints’ recent history – has dented the feel-good factor that had been growing under new Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino.
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