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In Barclays Premier League chat, one often hears the assertion that a team is ‘too good to go down’.
The harsh reality is that every season, 3 teams do indeed get relegated, and while they may well maintain that over the course of the season they didn’t get the rub of the green or that key decisions went against them, 38 games is generally considered to be a sufficient expanse of time and action within which to judge a club’s top-flight worthiness.
This campaign, somewhat uncharacteristically, has seen a smaller group of teams than usual becoming detached at the bottom, and looking set to scrap it out for survival.
Blackburn Rovers in 16th, and Wigan Athletic, rock bottom, are separated by only 4 points with 10 games remaining, and there are 3 clubs sandwiched in between them. With Aston Villa now a relatively comfortable 11 points clear of the dreaded drop zone, it’s fair to suggest that 3 of the current 5 bottom clubs will be playing Championship football next season.
But who will it be?
It would be easy to suggest that all 5 of them are too good to go down, based on individual performances, or even a short series thereof, over the course of the season.
Who can forget, for example, Blackburn Rovers’ victory at Old Trafford, or Bolton’s stunning 4-0 away win on the opening day of the season?
One would also have to bring up QPR’s home win over Chelsea back in October, and Wolves’ fabulous start to the season when they won their first 3 games in all competitions, and were, albeit briefly, top of the table.
Wigan highlights are rather more difficult to come by, although we could point to home draws against Liverpool and Chelsea and the fact that in January, they ran Manchester City very close indeed before eventually losing 1-0.
All 5 teams have produced performances over the course of the season that would suggest that they are too good to suffer the ignominious fate of relegation, but that’s the point; individual performances don’t matter in the long run, and Blackburn will take scant consolation from, perhaps, being the only team to win at Old Trafford this season, if they finish in the bottom 3 come May the 13th.
What’s interesting about this season is the fact that even the bottom sides, on their day, are capable of playing good football, and have tried to do so in easing themselves out of the mire.
We have seen in previous campaigns, the way in which some less glamorous clubs, have adopted what we shall, euphemistically, refer to as the ‘direct approach’ in getting out of trouble.
Wimbledon, for example, were a testament to the efficacy of the ‘lump it forward and hope’ school of football philosophy, and they were successful in the 90s, finishing in the top half of the table in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
They were ‘difficult’ to play against (for ‘difficult’ read ‘horrible’) and always gave other teams a severe test of their resolve, in much the same way as Bolton did under Sam Allardyce.
That approach though appears to have fallen out of favour, and the fashion has become to try to play attractive football and hope for the rewards it may bring.
The problem is, for the bottom 5 clubs at this point in time, it simply isn’t working, and as we near the business end of the season (you know, the point at which no manager can turn around at a post-match interview and say that there are still plenty of points up for grabs) there may be a valid case for sacrificing principles.
This, of course, is easier said than done, since it would be difficult to change tactical horses in mid-race, but there has to be an argument for getting the ball forward as quickly as possible, if for no other reason than to take pressure of 5 sets of defences that so far this season have leaked a total of 276 goals (trust me, I counted them…all).
To state the obvious though, what may prove to be the difference between survival and relegation is a goalscorer, since it’s pretty difficult to win games without scoring.
This is why I fear for Wolves and Wigan in particular, as they simply don’t have anyone sufficiently capable.
Stephen Fletcher doesn’t seem to get a start, while Hugo Rodallega appears to be a shadow of his former self – not surprising then that Wigan have managed only 24 goals all season despite…yes, you guessed it…playing some really attractive football.
Bolton should have both Ivan Klasnic and Kevin Davies, although they both appear to be out of favour at the moment, while QPR definitely have Bobby Zamora (and/or Djibril Cisse) and Blackburn have The Yak. “Feed him, and you will score” as the Blackburn fan(s) are wont to chant. Unfortunately the diet at Ewood Park this season has been somewhat meagre.
Inadvertently, I may have given away who I expect to survive this season, and who will take the plunge and can look forward, in only one sense, to entertaining say, Huddersfield (no disrespect intended) next season.
The next few weeks will prove which club has the best survival instincts, and which will be plying their trade in the second tier of English football, from which a return to the top flight has never been more difficult.
Catch Andrew Leci and his analysis of the beautiful game on ESPN’s presentation of the Barclay’s Premier League Highlights and visit www.facebook.com/espnstarsports ‘If I Were’ page for a chance to win exclusive prizes.