Relegation rumble captivates England
With Arsene Wenger declaring himself happy with second place and Carlo Ancelotti having admitted defeat months ago, the English Premier League trophy seems certain to remain in the familiar surroundings of Old Trafford. Yet if there is an air of inevitability to the Red Devils’ 19th title - their fourth in five seasons – that doesn’t mean we should expect a run-in devoid of drama.
In fact, look to the other end of the standings and you’ll see that twists, turns and tension are all but guaranteed in the six rounds of matches that remain. That’s because no fewer than ten teams, the entire bottom half, are involved in the tightest relegation battle of the league’s history.
In a season in which the gap between the leaders and strugglers has narrowed markedly, just six points separate second-bottom Wolverhampton Wanderers from a Fulham side eight places above them. Every one of the ten teams involved has already accrued more points than the three who went down last season and, with no-one cast adrift, the safest bet looks to be on the uncertainty continuing until the final day on 22 May.
As the finishing line comes into view and the jostling for position becomes ever more frantic, FIFA.com looks over the runners in this nerve-ridden relegation race.
Inconsistency and a plethora of draws – 14 in all – have plagued Mark Hughes’s side, but the return to fitness of striker Bobby Zamora, strong home form and a favourable run-in has left the Londoners feeling confident.
Goal difference: +1
Key player: Bobby Zamora
Quote: “Until you know mathematically you can't go down, there's always a little bit of a worry. But I have to say in terms of what we're producing, I don't have any concerns." Mark Hughes, manager
The Potters are preparing to face three of their fellow relegation candidates – Aston Villa, Wolves and Blackpool - in the space of seven days, although, like Fulham, solid home form could be their salvation.
Goal difference: -3
Key player: Kenwyne Jones
Quote: "It's going to be 40 or even more points to stay up this year. We have to get those points as quickly as we can." Tony Pulis, manager
One point from their last eight matches is the form that has transformed Steve Bruce’s side from European hopefuls to relegation contenders, although five of their last six games are against teams in and around the bottom three.
Goal difference: -10
Key player: Asamoah Gyan
Quote: "On paper, we have a fantastic-looking run-in. If we win two or three of those games, we could finish in the top ten." Steve Bruce, manager
The Birmingham outfit regularly challenged for a top-four place under Martin O’Neill, but have struggled since the Irishman’s departure, with successor Gerard Houllier battling dressing room dissent and fan dissatisfaction. Much will rest on England stars Stewart Downing, Ashley Young and Darren Bent.
Goal difference: -13
Key player: Ashley Young
Quote: “For a club of Villa's size it would be disastrous for everyone to go down. To be in the position we are in is not acceptable.” James Collins, defender
With Ryan Nelsen out for the season, matches against the two Manchester clubs still to come, and no wins in their last ten, Steve Kean’s Rovers face a nervy run-in.
Goal difference: -12
Key player: Christopher Samba
Quote: “It is tight but that is what makes it special. I think the Premier League is getting more physically challenging and more competitive every year.” David Dunn, midfielder
Alex McLeish’s side have won just once since beating Arsenal in February’s League Cup final, and while they have seven matches remaining, four of those involve trips to Anfield, Stamford Bridge, St James’s Park and White Hart Lane.
Goal difference: -12
Key player: Ben Foster
Quote: “The situation has been scary for some time. It's up to us to deal with it, and it will take strong minds.” Alex McLeish, manager
The early season sensations have faded badly and will need influential captain Charlie Adam to be at his very best if they are to confound the sceptics’ gloomy predictions.
Goal difference: -20
Key player: Charlie Adam
Quote: “We are not expected to win or stay in this league, so we are a dangerous animal because we are just looking forward to playing our football.” Luke Varney, forward
West Ham United
Two straight defeats ended the Hammers’ good run of form, but a clutch of shrewd January signings have left fans hopeful of narrowly dodging the drop for a second season running.
Goal difference: -18
Key player: Scott Parker
Quote: "I think we have a good chance. If you see the football we are playing, all season, we deserve to stay up." Avram Grant, manager
Several notable upsets have failed to compensate for Mick McCarthy’s side’s failure to beat those around them, and a tame 3-0 defeat by Everton last weekend cast a foreboding shadow.
Goal difference: -20
Key player: Matt Jarvis
Quote: “At times [against Everton] we were amateurish. We wouldn't win a Championship game playing like that, let alone a Premier League game. We know we are in a tough spot.” Karl Henry, midfielder
The league’s bottom side are also the bookies’ favourites for the drop and will need to pull off a spectacular escape act if they are to prolong their six-year stint in England’s top flight.
Goal difference: -23
Key player: Hugo Rodallega
Quote: “We've always been the small club who everyone believes will go down. It's great motivation for us and we will continue to concentrate proving people wrong." Roberto Martinez, manager