22 April 2007

How the other half lives

In 20th place, with the draw against Manchester City yesterday, Watford’s long-assumed fate in dropping back down to the Championship was sealed. I will be very surprised if they don’t return within 3 seasons at the most.

However, the rest of the weekend’s games involving teams at the bottom of the table have made the relegation fight a touch more interesting. First and foremost, Sheffield’s draw at Charlton.

If any of the three teams who’ve inhabited the relegation zone were to escape the quagmire, Charlton was the hot pick. Having sat at the foot of the table for most of the first half of the season, they’ve steadily improved throughout Alan Pardew's tenure, and have only lost once in the last eight games. Admittedly, when he was hired, I thought Pardew’s rebuilding project would take place in the Championship next season, but since February, he’s looked capable of keeping the team in the Premier League, which is an accomplishment not to be understated.

Victory over Sheffield on Saturday would have seen them leap past their opponents into safety. They looked likely to achieve it when they finally took a 1-0 lead after 60 minutes, but soon after, Jonathan Stead pulled back a priceless goal on the road, and Sheffield held off Charlton for the remainder. Now, with 3 games left, Sheffield’s not out of the woods, but they maintain a 2 point advantage over their closest pursuer, one better on goal difference.

Over the next three games, Charlton will travel to Blackburn before hosting Tottenham and finishing against Liverpool at Anfield. Sheffield will take on recently-relegated Watford at Brammall Lane before going to Aston Villa, and facing 16th placed Wigan at home on the final day of the season.

West Ham also stirred matters up more with a victory over Everton, which sees them only one point behind Charlton, 3 behind Sheffield. Thanks to that win, they’re not out of it by any stretch of the imagination either, and if they stay up, home wins over United (1st), Arsenal (4th), and Everton (5th) may have sealed it.

The aforementioned Wigan welcomes West Ham next Saturday in yet another six-pointer that will go a long way towards deciding how this will all pan out. After that, the Latics are at home against Middlesbrough and away to Sheffield. It’s seems as if we’ve had matches between the bottom five or so teams every week over the final couple of months. Meanwhile, West Ham will host Bolton and then visit Manchester United, where they could not only change the dynamics of the relegation fight, but the title race as well.

Fulham is probably the only other team that could be drawn into this mess. Middlesbrough’s draw with Manchester United sees them join Aston Villa and Manchester City in getting to 40 points, which is usually what’s necessary for safety, in the last couple of games. Right now Fulham are only 3 points ahead of Charlton and still must travel to Arsenal and Boro and host Liverpool. They’ll honestly have to better their previous results to get any points from those fixtures.

I fully maintain the right to change my forecasts game-by-game for my usually inane weekly predictions, but just looking at the final fixtures, it’s tempting to try and figure how it’ll all fall out Against Blackburn, Tottenham and Liverpool, Charlton probably won’t be favored to pick up any points despite their recent achievements. Sheffield, meanwhile, has to look at the Watford and Wigan matches as opportunities to least come away with something, if not all three points. Other than in the upcoming Wigan contest, West Ham won’t be preferred by many punters; both Bolton and Manchester United are very difficult matches for a run-in to save top-tier status.

Both Charlton and West Ham will have tough times staying in the Premiership. It’s a credit to them that we’re still having this discussion given they’ve been in the relegation zone nearly all season, but that will bring little consolation. Both teams will have to win games where they won’t be favored, and still hope that Sheffield or Wigan slip up in comparatively easier matches. If anything, Wigan looks most liable to take one of their places, and even Fulham is probably more threatened than the Blades with their past results and difficult run-in. However, being a full three points ahead of Charlton while with a better goal differential may just save Lawrie Sanchez’s new squad.

With Chelsea unable to take advantage of Manchester’s slip up yesterday, it looks like the bottom end of the table should be a fair bit more exciting than the top; the Blues will need help even if they win against United. Thankfully though, we should at least have one fight that will make for a fun final few weeks.

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