With just seven rounds of fixtures remaining in the Premier League season, as many as six teams are still running from the spectre of relegation. While for some the struggle could already be considered futile, several others are mounting a last-minute grasp for salvation.
The division's top nine clubs have surpassed the 'magical' 40-point mark which traditionally ensures survival for another year, and a further five sides are within touching distance of the milestone. Half a dozen, however, require more points as soon as possible if they are to secure another campaign in England's top flight. FIFA.com examines the emotional battle to avoid the bottom three.
After three consecutive sixth-placed finishes under the guidance of Martin O'Neill, before a drop to ninth after a difficult campaign with Gerard Houllier at the helm last season, Aston Villa fans entered 2011/12 in pessimistic mood.
Two of the team's crown jewels were sold, Ashley Young to Manchester United and Stewart Downing to Liverpool, while Alex McLeish was named manager despite fervent opposition from the club's supporters due to the Scot's previous allegiance to rivals Birmingham City.
To nobody's pleasure, the fans' fears have been borne out on the pitch. A run of just two wins in their last 11 league matches, during which top scorer Darren Bent suffered a serious injury, has come at exactly the wrong time for the Midlands outfit.
The 1982 European Cup winners are now just five points above the drop zone, although they do have both a game in hand and significantly better goal difference than their immediate challengers. That advantage could be offset by a tough run-in, though, as Liverpool, United and Tottenham Hotspur lie in wait.
Even more pressing, meanwhile, was the announcement last week that club captain Stilian Petrov has been diagnosed with acute leukaemia and will be out of action for the foreseeable future, a huge blow for both the player and the club as the campaign reaches its climax.
Currently closest to Villa, on 29 points, are Bolton Wanderers, who have recovered remarkably from the loss of Fabrice Muamba after the midfielder's cardiac arrest during an FA Cup tie against Spurs last month.
Owen Coyle's side have recorded back-to-back victories, crucially against fellow strugglers Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, since the trauma involving Muamba brought Wanderers to a standstill.
The late surge could save the Trotters, whose year has been disrupted by injuries to key midfielders Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-Yong, plus the departure of centre-back Gary Cahill to Chelsea during the January transfer window. “When we started the season we had five players out injured who would have started in our team,” Coyle recently told FIFA.com. “We had a slow start and meant we were playing catch-up.
“What we know is that when we’ve got our best players available, we would certainly be well up the league. What we need to do, first and foremost now, is make sure we’re in the Premier League. We believe that we’ll do that, I’ve not seen anything to alter that belief and the coming months will show that.”
The final position of safety, 17th place, presently belongs to Queens Park Rangers, who have found life problematic since their return to the Premier League. Former Manchester City and Fulham manager Mark Hughes was appointed in January with a remit to keep the London club in the division, a task which looks likely to go to the wire.
A 2-1 defeat by Bolton a month ago appeared to end QPR’s hopes of survival but, to their credit, home victories over Arsenal and Liverpool have allowed Hughes’ men to claw their way out of the relegation zone on goal difference.
Away trips to United, Chelsea and City are on the horizon, but the Welshman is sure Rangers will not go down. “It's not easy gaining Premier League points,” Hughes told us. “There are no shortcuts - I've said to the players time and time again that you have to do the hard yards, you have to do the hard work.”
QPR’s position remains precarious, however, due to the determination of Blackburn and Wigan Athletic, who sit in 18th and 19th respectively but only require a point to reach safety. While the former, Premier League winners in 1994/95, have had an inconsistent season punctuated by protests against unpopular manager Steve Kean, ten points recouped from their last seven games have given Rovers hope.
Wigan, for their part, are riding the crest of an even bigger wave. Having recovered from a run of eight straight defeats early in the season, the Latics are unbeaten in four matches and have won their last two, including a first-ever victory against Liverpool at Anfield.
Since their promotion to the Premier League in 2005, Wigan have become famous for saving themselves at the close of the season and that has been no different under manager Roberto Martinez, and could be well prove to be their storyline again in 2012.
Martinez explained to FIFA.com earlier in the season: “We always face adversity in a way that I don’t think any other football club in world football do, which is sticking together, helping each other and making sure that we can get the rewards. That’s probably the biggest strength that we have got.”
The team with the biggest task, though, is undoubtedly Wolves, who are rock bottom, six points from safety and without a win in seven Premier League encounters, six of which ended in defeat.
The decision to part company with Mick McCarthy, who brought the Black Country club back to the Premier League and consolidated their position, has proven to be a costly one. Results have not improved under temporary manager Terry Connor, who now faces a monumental challenge to keep the club in the top flight.
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