CHELSEA’s victory over Arsenal last Saturday saw the Blues take an iron grip on the Premier League title.
The cushion is nine points over Tottenham and it’s now almost impossible to see them not being Champions in May.
At the opposite ends of the table, things are much more interesting. Two points separate the bottom six clubs and suddenly the fight for survival is well and truly.
This week, PREMIER LEAGUE WEEKLY is going to assess the survival chances of four of those teams who are in action tomorrow.
MIDDLESBROUGH – 15th, (21pts, GD -8)
Crystal Palace (A – Feb 25), Sunderland (H – Mar 11), Swansea (A – April 1), Hull (A – April 4).
MIDDLESBROUGH have by far the best defensive record of the bottom six. They have even conceded fewer goals than Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. That approach means they have only been heavily beaten once all season.
Manager Aitor Karanka has talked all along about it being a case of survival this campaign and he has given the impression of not being worried about their position. Plus, they have never been in the bottom three at any stage so far.
THE fewest goals and the fewest wins tell their own story. With just 19 goals in 24 games, Boro have only picked up a meagre four victories. There is a lot of pressure on Spanish striker Alvaro Negredo to deliver and he is the top scorer with just six. Reinforcements arrived in January in Rudy Gestede and Patrick Bamford, but they are yet to cut it at the highest level.
But not all the blame should be pinned on Boro’s strikers. Karanka operates a rigid 4-2-3-1 which is very much safety first. The emphasis is on not losing games and too often, not enough players get into advanced positions.
THE feeling all along has been that Boro will just have enough. However, it could be a case of Karanka gambling a little bit more knowing that the value of one win and two heavy losses still beats two draws and a narrow defeat.
HULL – 18th, (20pts,GD -25)
Leicester (A – Mar 4), Swansea (H – Mar 11), Middlesbrough (H – Apr 4), Sunderland (H – May 6), Crystal Palace (A – May 13).
NEW manager Marco Silva has had a galvanising effect on everyone at Hull City. I was there for last week’s victory over Liverpool and it was palpable. The players followed out his plan to the letter, and there was a better atmosphere inside the ground, as suddenly the fans had belief in what they were seeing.
The key is for Silva to carry that on. Is it a case of the new manager effect or something more permanent? But in Andrea Ranocchia and Kamil Grosicki, the Tigers may have brought in two very effective signings.
HULL brought in seven players during the January transfer window – which is over half a team and it’s very difficult to get that many players to gel in a short space of time. Plus Silva’s record after four league games is identical to that of Mike Phelan. But the rot set in for Phelan and Hull never recovered.
They also have a major concern in the goalscoring department. Do Abel Hernandez, Oumar Niasse and Dieumerci Mbokani really have the quality to keep the Tigers up?
UNTIL watching their win over Liverpool at first hand, I was convinced Hull would be relegated. Now I am genuinely not sure. Silva struck me as bright and confident. with plenty of ideas. But ultimately the decision to sell Robert Snodgrass to West Ham could be pivotal.
I am certain Hull will be well organised as witnessed by clean sheets against Liverpool and Manchester United, but Snodgrass’ ability to score or set up a goal will be badly missed.
CRYSTAL PALACE – 19th, (19pts, GD -13)
Middlesbrough (H – Feb 25), Leicester (H – Apr 15), Hull (H – May 13).
SAM ALLARDYCE is the self-titled master of avoiding relegation. He has kept Blackburn, Bolton, West Ham and Sunderland in the Premier League and he will be confident of doing the same for Palace. And after his dismally short spell as England manager, he can’t afford to have another big hit on his reputation.
When you look at Palace’s squad and see names like Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke and Jason Puncheon, you see goals and a threat to opposing teams. And when the Eagles are at their best, they have a devil-may-care attitude which sets them apart. Most of their players have won at Chelsea and Liverpool and beaten Tottenham and Manchester City, so they know they can do it. But that has gone missing in recent weeks and needs to be rediscovered.
WHEN you think of Selhurst Park, you imagine the Ultras singing in the corner, a good atmosphere and a difficult place to play. But the statistics do not back that up.
Palace have acquired a pathetic seven points at home from 12 matches with a staggering nine defeats. That truly is relegation form. But it’s part of a longer run of losses which stretches back to December 2015. Since then, they have recorded just 30 points from 43 Premier League games, which again only points in one direction. Changing that losing momentum could be the hardest thing.
PALACE are truly in a downward spiral. In his last post-match press conference before being sacked, Alan Pardew talked about turning round their home form as the key to the season. He was right.
Allardyce has already lost to Swansea and Sunderland at Selhurst Park and those three six-pointers to come must yield at least two wins for the Eagles to have a chance of staying up.
SUNDERLAND – 20th, (19pts, GD -18)
Middlesbrough (A – Mar 11), Leicester (A – Apr 4), Hull (A – May 6), Swansea (H – May 13).
IN Jermain Defoe, Sunderland have arguably, along with Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, the best player at a bottom six club. He has 14 goals already and needs only one more to equal last year’s tally, which was enough to keep the Black Cats up.
Defoe has been absolutely sensational for Sunderland and his form would be worthy of discussion about an England recall. The other thing Sunderland can call upon is belief. They have been in worse situations than this in the previous four seasons and survived every time.
THERE are only so many times you can pull off a ‘great escape’ and you just wonder if this is one too many for Sunderland and David Moyes. They have been in the bottom three since September, so simply climbing out of that would be a huge boost to morale.
The harsh reality is that apart from Defoe, Sunderland have few game-changers in their team and the squad is not of Premier League quality. That could be their biggest problem in the last three months of the season.
THE lack of quality and depth may be Sunderland’s undoing despite the goals of Defoe and Moyes’ coaching skills. The key for them is to stay in the fight for as long as possible. If they get to those two six-pointers in May in with a chance, their survival experience could then kick in.
Adam’s Saturday Scores
Arsenal 2 Hull 1
Manchester United 2 Watford 0
Middlesbrough 1 Everton 2
Stoke 1 Crystal Palace 1
Sunderland 1 Southampton 1
West Ham 2 West Brom 2
Liverpool 2 Tottenham 1
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