The fight for survival looks set to go to the wire, with five clubs in the mix, who are the most likely to join Wolves in the Championship?

Gabriel's QPR hat

Wolverhampton Wanderers became the first club to be officially relegated from the Barclays Premier League this season. Sunday afternoon’s home defeat at the hands of title challengers Manchester City confirmed Wolves’ fate but, with five teams currently battling it out to avoid filling the last two relegation places, this year’s struggle to survive looks like going right down to the wire. Blackburn, Bolton, Wigan, Q.P.R. and Aston Villa all face the prospect of playing Championship football next season, so which of these teams are most likely to be doing just that.

 Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn Rovers currently occupy 19th position in the Premier League table. With 31 points from 35 games and just eight victories all season, Rovers’ year has hardly been one to shout about. The takeover of the club by Venkys last season and their immediate decision to replace, then boss, Sam Allardyce with Steve Kean, brought consternation to the Ewood Park faithful and, as results have  declined, the anger level has steadily risen. Rarely out of the bottom three all season and bottom of the table at Christmas, Rovers put together a decent run of results garnering 18 points from the next 36 on offer, including a 2-3 victory at Old Trafford, to give themselves hope of survival and give, manager, Steve Kean respite from the very loud and almost ubiquitous, dissenting voices . However, a sequence of just one win in their last eight games has left them three points from safety with just three games remaining.

 Rovers face a trip to Tottenham, a home match with Wigan and then a visit to Stamford Bridge on the final day; all tough fixtures. Looking at the table and the fixtures left for the teams involved I would say that 38 or 39 points will be the minimum required to stay up, if not the magic 40, and with their away form having been so poor this term, just two away wins all season, I can’t see Rovers picking up enough points.  Undoubtedly this Blackburn team has some very talented players, Pederson, Hoilett, N’Zonzi and Yakubu, amongst others, but I would be very surprised if, even with these players, they manage to avoid the drop. If they don’t, Rovers face losing all of the above for a fraction of their true values in the summer.

 Bolton Wanderers

Bolton Wanderers season never really got going in 2011/12. After an excellent campaign last season for the most part, Wanderers finished the year on the slide, seemingly unable to recover from the disappointment of being taken apart by Stoke City in the F.A. Cup semi-final. The departures of Daniel Sturridge; back to Chelsea, and Johan Elmander; to Galatasaray, at the end of last season, left Owen Coyle’s team short on goal-scorers and the signing of David N’Gog from Liverpool has done little, so far, to change things. A long term injury to midfielder Stuart Holden has also affected Wanderers this season, although the loan signing of Ryo Miyaichi has provided added impetus in the attacking third.

 Having been in the bottom three for a large chunk of the season and with the worst home record in the Premier League, excepting Wolves, Wanderers at one point looked a sure fire bet to go down. However, the tragic collapse of Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba, during their F.A. Cup quarter-final with Tottenham, and his miraculous survival and recovery, seems to have had a galvanising effect on the players and, in recent weeks, results have improved.

 Three wins and a draw in the seven games since Muamba collapsed, including vital victories over Blackburn and Aston Villa, have left Bolton just a point from safety as things stand and, with games in hand over the teams above them, they now stand a good chance of survival. Away trips to Sunderland and Stoke sandwich home fixtures against West Brom. and Spurs, for Bolton and, whilst no games are easy, three of those four teams have nothing left to play for this season, with Tottenham’s recent form very poor. I fancy Bolton to take at least five points, if not six or seven, from their remaining four games and I reckon that that will be enough to keep them up.

 Wigan Athletic

Having watched a lot of Wigan this season, I am fully aware that their main problem in 2011/12 has been scoring goals. On many occasions they have torn teams apart, creating chances a plenty but failing to convert those opportunities into the hard, Premier League currency of goals. When Charles N’Zogbia left the DW at the end of the last campaign, many thought that the writing would be on the wall for the Latics this time around, given the energy and dynamism that he brought to their attacking play.

 Granted, Wigan have missed N’Zogbia’s goal-scoring touch, something which Victor Moses, whilst excellent at creating things and running at defences, hasn’t quite incorporated into his game. If you add Rodallega’s injuries and lack of form up-front, to the loss of N’Zogbia and throw in some individual mistakes at the back, which have cost them dearly at times , then you have the recipe for Wigan’s lowly league position.

 Mainstays of the bottom three for the lion’s share of the season, the Latics looked nailed-on to go down this term, however, Wigan are no strangers to being in this position, having been involved in the relegation scrap on many occasions. A haul of eight points from their final four games at the end of the last campaign was enough to retain their Premier League status and they’re in the midst of trying the Houdini act again now. Just two defeats in their last seven games, including victories at Anfield and the Emirates, as well as a home triumph over Manchester United, has enable Roberto Martinez’s side to pull three points clear of the drop-zone with three games left. Home games against Newcastle United and Wolves envelop a six pointer against Blackburn and, in their current vein of form, I can see Wigan claiming at least five points, which should be enough to keep them safe.

 Queens Park Rangers

Queens Park Rangers are, in a sense, a bit of an unknown quantity in the equation for Premier League survival. In this, their first season in the top flight since their relegation at the end of the 1995/96 season, they  have had a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Having dazzled in their Championship winning season and with the cash injection provided by Tony Fernandes’s takeover at Loftus Road, many predicted that Rangers would fare the best out of the newly promoted team and they started the season relatively well. This didn’t last though and by the time Christmas was upon us, with Norwich and Swansea sitting relatively comfortably in mid-table, Rangers were sliding towards the bottom three.

 Fernandes acted swiftly and ruthlessly, sacking then boss Neil Warnock, replacing him with Mark “Sparky” Hughes and, handing the new boss the keys to the cash register, new signings arrived by the bucketful. That done, most observers believed that with the spending power and the change of management, Q.P.R. would push on in the second-half of the campaign and that Premier League survival would be a formality. However, as so often in football, new managers and new players take time to settle. It is very difficult to bring in five or six new faces to the first team squad, be they from England or abroad, and expect them to hit the ground running.

 A period of disappointing results and disciplinary problems followed for the team and its new boss and, for a time, their Premier League status was in jeopardy. However a miraculous turnaround in the last 15 minutes of a home match against Liverpool, in which they were trailing 0-2, signalled the beginning of fight towards the light and, since then, Rangers’ form has given them a great chance of beating the drop.

 Since and including that remarkable turnaround, Hughes’s team have won all four of their home matches, including that win over Liverpool and victories against Arsenal and Tottenham, however, the flip side is that they have lost all of their away games during that time. With trips to Stamford Bridge and the Etihad still to come, Rangers only have one more home fixture this season, against Stoke. Even if they beat Stoke, which I think they will, they’re going to have to pick up at least a point from these other two fixtures if they want to survive, unfortunately for Hughes, Fernandes and co. that might just be a bridge too far.

 Aston Villa

Aston Villa is not a team that you would associate being involved in the relegation dogfight. Since being founder members of the English football league in 1888, the club has spent one hundred of its years in the top flight of English football and has not been relegated since 1987; the only club to have spent longer amongst the elite is Everton (108). A founding member of the Premier League, Villa is one of a group of only seven clubs that have competed in it for all twenty seasons, and one of only four English Clubs to have ever lifted the European Cup/Champions’ League.

 When Doug Ellis sold his controlling interest in the club to American Randy Lerner in 2006, owner of the Cleveland Browns, having just appointed Martin O’Neill as manager, things looked rosy for the Holte End faithful. There followed a period of consistent success for Aston Villa, with O’Neill guiding them first to 11th and then to three sixth place finishes in a row. However things turned sour with O’Neill left frustrated at Villa’s selling policy and things came to a head when he walked out of the club on the eve of the 2010/11 season. Gerrard Houllier replaced O’Neill, however, he and Gary McCallister could only steer the team to ninth last term.

 Houllier was replaced by Alex McCleish, the former Birmingham City manager, who had taken Villa’s city neighbours down into the Championship in 2011, despite winning the Carling Cup. Many Villa fans were against the appointment from the start, not just because of the Scot’s connection to their fiercest rivals, but also because of his perceived negative tactics and unimaginative style of play. Having to sope with the loss of two of Villa’s best attacking players of last season, Downing and Young, McCleish faced a tough task nut the signings of N’Zogbia from Wigan and Bent from Sunderland, should have gone at least most of the way to replacing the lost energy and firepower.

 Unfortunately for Villa fans and McCleish, things have not gone according to plan and the lack of goals and creativity in this Villa side have gone a long way to proving those who doubted the Scot’s credentials correct. Villa have scored just 36 goals in 35 games, the third lowest in the Premier League after Wolves and Stoke, managing only seven wins in the entire campaign to date. 2012 has seen McCleish’s side pick up just 13 points from a possible 48, winning just once in their last 14 Premier League outings, if that ain’t relegation form, I don’t know what is.

 Aston Villa currently sit on 36 points, three points above the trapdoor, with three games remaining; away at West Brom next, followed by a visit from Tottenham and a trip to Carrow Road on the final day. With things going down to the wire, the Derby against Roy Hodgson’s side this weekend takes on massive significance. I reckon Villa are going to need at least two, if not three points from their remaining matches and, should they lose to their high flying neighbours, who are looking to cement a top-half finish in the Premier League for the first time ever and would be more than happy to do that at the expense of their more illustrious rivals, then the task becomes all the more difficult. One thing is certain though, if they can’t find a win, or at least two draws from their last three fixtures, the Villains could be in the Championship next season, for the first time since the inauguration of the Barclays Premier League.

Villa club crest

 So there they are, the five teams who can still go down this season. As you can probably tell from the article, I think that Blackburn will almost certainly go down, with the question remaining about who the third casualty will be. For me, it is between Q.P.R. and Villa; Villa have by far the worst current form out of all of the five but they may, just, be able to do enough to hang on in the face of Q.P.R.s awful away form. This weekend’s fixtures are all important for both teams, if Rangers can get a point at the Bridge and Villa fail to beat Albion, then the noose tightens around McCleish’s neck, however, it could easily go the other way and that, is the beauty of football! 

Please feel free to comment with your opinions as this is a hot topic, I’d be very interested to hear what you have to say.

 

Q.P.R. Image by urbanmkr. Villa Image by Dan Farrimond