Guns are drawn in fight for survival
Bleak days for Pardew and Lambert, but times of desperation are bound to produce surprises
The 11 teams still realistically in danger of being relegated from the Premier League this season have either seven or eight games to reach safety. This is, plainly, squeaky-bum time.
Sam Allardyce could send West Ham United down on the final day. Alan Pardew could suffer the same fate at Newcastle United at the end of next month when he returns to St James’ Park for the first time as a manager with bottom club West Bromwich Albion.
Rafa Benitez, the current Newcastle and former Chelsea manager, will host the outgoing champions on Tyneside on the final day. If the job is not done by then, a win for Newcastle could confirm Premier League football for another season and deprive Antonio Conte of a Champions League qualifying farewell. Whether Benitez will stay with the Magpies after that remains to be seen.
New Southampton manager Mark Hughes could sneak out of the bottom three and leave his former club Stoke City in the relegation zone, although he may need a victory over another of his former clubs, Manchester City, to do so. Southampton have one of the toughest runs-in.
It is not much easier for Paul Lambert, who replaced Hughes at Stoke in January when many expected Martin O’Neill to fill the post. Lambert might not win another Premier League match. O’Neill, it turns out, may have dodged a bullet.
Bournemouth and Watford play each other at the weekend and with 36 points each, are already within touching distance of safety. Although both clubs have tricky runs-in featuring games against the rivals below them, it would surely take a catastrophic collapse for either to fall into the bottom three now.
But, like Burnley, Everton and Leicester, who are in that safe middle ground, they will both have a say in the final fallers, as well as the Champions League qualifying places. Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth still have to travel to Anfield and play Manchester United at home, while Watford also have visits to Old Trafford and Wembley to negotiate.
Watford manager Javier Gracia has won three of his last five games, including the impressive 4-1 win over Chelsea, and he must face three of the chasing pack at Vicarage Road and travel to Huddersfield in a fortnight.
Chris Hughton’s Brighton only have two of their rivals to play, including the intense ‘derby’ against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in less than a fortnight. They also play Huddersfield who, like Brighton, were promoted to the Premier League for the first time last year.
Brighton undoubtedly have the hardest final two fixtures of all these sides. They must travel to Manchester United on the penultimate weekend and play Liverpool on the south coast in their final game. There is also a visit to Manchester City to re-arrange, as well as Hughton’s former team Tottenham to play at the Amex Stadium.
Home form is always crucial to sides at the wrong end of the table and where once Newcastle were invincible, they have wobbled this season, even under Benitez who stands by his team’s defensive record. Amongst sides whose goal difference could be the deciding factor, Newcastle have the tightest for and against comparison.
Although they have often struggled at a tense St James’ Park this season, they are unbeaten since Manchester City ran amok in late December, achieving notable wins over Manchester United and Southampton in their last two home fixtures. With Huddersfield up next on Saturday, another home win could see Benitez reach the sanctity of mid-table with weeks to spare.
And once he has achieved safety, the Spaniard will surely be in a position to sit down with owner Mike Ashley and make plans for next season and beyond. He will be in his strongest negotiating position if he delivers Premier League football. He could walk if Ashley fails to find sufficient funds this summer.
The final month of the season has to produce some unexpected results and if any team, and manager, are capable of ruining betting coupons, it is surely Swansea and their new coach Carlos Carvalhal.
Since taking over on Christmas Eve – and suffering a 5-0 thrashing at Liverpool two days later – the Portuguese coach has reversed that result against Jurgen Klopp’s side to win 1-0 in Wales, and also defeated Arsenal, Burnley and West Ham. But they have lost heavily to Tottenham and Brighton too. Swansea play away to both Manchester clubs and host Chelsea, but it is the games at home to Southampton and Stoke, and their visits to West Brom and Bournemouth, which will surely decide their fate.
As for David Wagner’s Huddersfield Town, the Yorkshire club have just three remaining home games against Watford, Everton and Arsenal. They also face trips to Chelsea and Manchester City, but it is perhaps their next two games which will shape their ability to stay away from the bottom three.
Huddersfield’s next game is at Newcastle where they won last season, despite being eventually pipped to the Championship title by the Geordies. Seven days later, the Terriers travel to Brighton, where they lost last season.
They need points to halt the freefall. Twelve months ago, Huddersfield had a mini-breakdown in the latter stages of their Championship campaign, losing four of their last seven fixtures and crawling into the play-offs. They even failed to win all three play-off matches and beat Sheffield Wednesday and Reading in the semi-finals and final respectively on penalties. Such a capitulation this season would be likely to cost Huddersfield their top-flight status.
The fixtures may have been kinder to Roy Hodgson who has just former club Liverpool, at home, from the top six to worry about in Crystal Palace’s last seven games. But does that make it easier for the ex-England manager and the division’s oldest boss?
Palace still have to travel to Bournemouth, Watford and Stoke and the aforementioned clash with Brighton on the horizon. But they do play West Brom, another of Hodgson’s former clubs, who could be dead and buried by then.
David Moyes has not been so fortunate with West Ham as he contemplates a late run-in which is dominated by the top six. He has to play four of them. There are London derbies at Chelsea and Arsenal on their list and Manchester City and Moyes’s former employers Manchester United have yet to play at the Hammers’ hostile London Stadium.
But there are only three teams below them at the moment and two of them, Southampton and Stoke City, are the next visitors. Moyes will need victory in one or both of those games to appease the Hammers faithful who protested at their last humiliating home defeat to Burnley. It would also avoid a potentially painful final-day showdown with Everton and their manager Sam Allardyce, who is not a man to shy away from confrontation with his former clubs.
Mark Hughes has yet to take charge of a Premier League game for Southampton but he has reached the FA Cup semi-finals and the Welshman, who saw his new charges beat Wigan Athletic after taking over from Mauricio Pellegrino last week, will take his team, featuring a fit-again Shane Long, to West Ham on Saturday.
Hughes also has a mixed bag of remaining fixtures, including the prospect of home games against Chelsea, a week before their semi-final meeting, and Manchester City, who employed Hughes many moons and many millions ago. As well as a trip to Everton, Southampton play West Ham and Swansea away and entertain Bournemouth in the south-coast derby at the end of next month.
Lambert has not won a match since Stoke beat Huddersfield in his first game in charge in mid-January. They have drawn four, against Watford, Brighton, Leicester and Southampton, and lost their last two to Everton and Manchester City. With Spurs, Burnley and Palace to play at home, and Arsenal, West Ham, Liverpool and Swansea to play away, Lambert could fail to win another game. He would also fail to deliver for Stoke’s owner Peter Coates, who was so desperate to get O’Neill.
Pardew must be contemplating relegation now more than any of his rivals. Clinging to power at The Hawthorns, the former Newcastle United manager is 10 points away from safety with Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham to play, as well as former clubs Palace and Newcastle.
And if he is still the Baggies manager, that trip to Tyneside on April 28 could be very painful indeed.