Season So Far: The Run-In (Part Two)

Six games to go and not surprisingly the relegation picture has changed quite significantly since my first look at the run-in. Four games ago I believed that eight sides were involved in the relegation battle. Of those teams, I was bold enough to condemn both Wigan and West Brom to the drop, being undecided about the third club who may join them in the Championship. While Wigan are very much still involved – indeed they currently sit rock bottom – West Brom, no doubt just to spite me, have confounded all expectations and probably secured safety with half a dozen games still to go.
Another team I’d factored into my original analysis was Fulham but a few decent results, including a win over the Seasiders, has seen them open up a bit of a gap to the bottom three. This leaves six sides who I believe will be battling between themselves to escape relegation. That’s not to say a different side will not plunge into the mix, as anyone from Newcastle (currently 9th) down may still require the odd point here and there to survive, but you’d think it would take a really poor run of results for one of them to sink.
Let’s take a look at the home and away fixtures for those sides who are in most danger at the moment.

Most striking in the above table are the imbalances in symmetry. Namely the game in hand for Birmingham, four home matches for Blackpool and four away fixtures for Wigan. However, before we get on to other sides’ fixtures, we’ll once more focus firstly on the Seasiders.
Home Is Where The Points Are For Blackpool?
It surely goes without saying that if ‘Pool are to survive, they will have to perform at Bloomfield Road. A great deal has been made in the media of Blackpool being a much better away side than at home, but it’s not a view I necessarily buy into. While the Seasiders have picked up slightly more points away from home – 18 as opposed to 15 – the points per game difference in negligible – 1.05 away in comparison to exactly 1 at home. 
In addition, whereas ‘Pool have sometimes capitulated on the road (Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham to name just three), there have been very few home games in which the Seasiders have not competed (only West Ham and Birmingham instantly spring to mind). In fact Blackpool have been very unlucky to only have won four games at Bloomfield Road. When you consider that the remaining home fixtures are also far easier on paper than the daunting trips to White Hart Lane and Old Trafford you can see this so-called superior away record is largely a myth.
The first game up against the Latics is likely to set the tone for the remainder of the run-in. A victory for ‘Pool will raise spirits and build a solid foundation for the home games to come. A draw, or worse still a defeat will only increase the pressure on Ian Holloway’s side. After this follows the visit of a Newcastle side with little to play for, and then home matches with Stoke and Bolton, one of which will definitely have their minds elsewhere on a cup final. One has to think that a minimum of six points will be required from the four home games, if not slightly more. It’s certainly achievable, but you get the feeling the outcome of the Wigan match could be decisive.
The Other Bs
Both Blackburn and Birmingham currently have a three point cushion to the relegation zone, but this is by no means of any comfort to their supporters. For all that has been made of the Seasiders’ poor run of results, Blackburn have fared even worse in the last eight games, failing to win any of those, scoring only nine goals in the process. Two tough home matches against the blue and red halves of Manchester sandwich a local derby against Bolton – hardly the ideal set of fixtures for a team that has scored over two thirds of its points at Ewood Park.
Away from home Blackburn must face a resurgent Everton, followed by two massive six pointers against relegation rivals Wolves and West Ham. It’s hard to see how Blackburn can reverse their downward momentum, but based on their current points tally, four or more points from those last two away games could be enough to save them while condemning the opposition to the Championship.
In contrast, Birmingham will be targeting their games at St Andrews as the ones to rescue their season. Their next home game sees them take on a crisis-stricken Sunderland, while the other two home ties see them pitched up against notoriously bad travellers Wolves and Fulham. Should they fail to capitalise on these home fixtures though, the away games look anything but easy and it’s hard to envisage them getting much return on these four matches.
Bottom Three – Cut Adrift?
The three Ws who currently occupy the relegation places have varying prospects. Bottom side Wigan must play four of their remaining six games away from the DW Stadium, leaving them in an uphill struggle. On the plus side, none of their final set of fixtures come against top six opposition, but ultimately they have the most ground to make up and they realistically have to win at least half of their remaining games to stand a chance – a big ask for a club that has not won back-to-back games all season.
Back-to-back wins for West Ham over Liverpool and Stoke back in late February / early March looked to have buoyed the Hammers, but with only one point from a possible nine, they have been sucked right back into the scrap. The signing of Demba Ba, combined with the return to fitness of Thomas Hitzlsperger reinvigorated Avram Grant’s men, but it was not enough to steer them clear of trouble. The Irons will hope to take advantage of some kind home fixtures, but of their away games only Wigan looks like one from which they could get something.
Last but not least we come to Wolves. Mick McCarthy’s side have rightly won plaudits for the way they have played this season, especially against the top teams, including memorably taking the scalp of the previously unbeaten Manchester United. Failure to convert these performances into results against lower half opposition has left them vulnerable however, and a confidence-sapping 3-0 home defeat to Everton last week has put them in a precarious situation. Wolves’ fixtures, home and away, don’t seem to be that threatening, but these are precisely the games they have found difficult.
Place Your Bets Now
In what has been an unpredictable season, sticking my neck out and guessing who will have the privilege of visiting the Falmer Stadium next season is tricky. I’ve already proved myself wholly incapable of such a task by writing off West Brom who now seem to be safe only four games later. Not one to believe in jinxes though, I will make some loose predictions for the run-in:
  • Wigan will be relegated – Ok, so this is hardly an inventive pick, but as the current bottom side they will surely have too much distance to make up bearing in mind their dearth of home games. A win for the Latics at Bloomfield Road tomorrow though could change everything. Conversely, if they don’t win at Blackpool, it’s tough to see any way back for them.
  • Birmingham will survive – Despite the horrible away games they have to endure, they could take a giant leap towards safety tomorrow against a depleted and out-of-form Sunderland. Two other home games that also look kind on paper, as well as a headstart on the bottom three should see them safe.
  • Blackburn will occupy a relegation spot at some point – I’m not convinced Blackburn will be relegated, but I can see their season hinging on the games at West Ham and Wolves which fall towards the end of the season. They may have to win these games to lift themselves to safety.
  • Molineux will be the scene of last day relegation drama – A final day showdown between Wolves and Blackburn already seems to be an appetising prospect. The chances of both sides being safe before this game are slim, and it is likely one of them will say goodbye to the Premier League at Molineux on 22nd May.
I’m sure these views will change as the weeks go by, but I’m confident that at least three of the above will come true. What about the Seasiders though? With more than a hint of bias, I do genuinely believe that Blackpool will stay up. It may well be heart ruling head, but the upcoming home games give Holloway and his team a superb opportunity to retain Premier League status. That said, defeat to Wigan tomorrow, while not catastrophic, would be worrying. The next month or so is likely to result in an outbreak of insomnia, one suspects.
Not to rob readers who have made it this far of a full-blown prediction, I will suggest a potential bottom three, with the caveats that I hold no ill feeling towards the chosen sides, and that a bias towards Blackpool is no doubt an influencing factor! Here are the three I’m tipping for the drop:
  • Wigan Athletic
  • Blackburn Rovers
  • West Ham United

I’ll revisit this topic again in early May, when there should be more clarity to the relegation battle. Until then, sleep well and don’t have nightmares…