One down, two to go as 'Survival Sunday' looms
Five teams will be fighting for survival on Sunday as the English Premier League reaches its climax with what is poised to be one of the most fraught relegation battles in years.
With Manchester United wrapping up a record 19th title last week, the final day of the 2010/11 season will be dominated by events at the foot of the table, where only one point separates five teams.
West Ham were the first side to be relegated after they slumped to a dramatic defeat at Wigan on Sunday. The Hammers' exit has left Blackburn, Wolves, Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan facing a nerve-jangling finale.
For Wolves and Blackburn, who face each other at Molineux, the equation is simple: victory will guarantee their Premier League status for another season. The two clubs sit just above the relegation zone with 40 points, followed by Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan, who all have 39 points.
Wolves had looked doomed for much of the year but have climbed out of the drop zone after a draw with Birmingham that was followed by back-to-back wins over West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland.
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy said he had told his players to ignore the possible permutations and stay focused on Blackburn. "Everyone's been in our earholes - the media, mums, dads, kids, friends, saying what if this happens or this happens," McCarthy said. "But I just told them that if we won our games there was nothing anybody else could do about it. We've done that and have got to go and do it again against Blackburn."
Former EPL champs on the precipice
Blackburn boss Steve Kean's preparations could scarcely have been worse. The Rovers manager was charged with drunken driving following his team's 1-1 draw with Manchester United last week, and was subsequently summoned to India for an unscheduled meeting with the club's owners. British press reports meanwhile have suggested that Kean, who took over as manager following the controversial dismissal of Sam Allardyce in December, may be sacked even if Rovers manage to stay up.
The fate of Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan may hinge on results elsewhere. Blackpool face the toughest task, travelling to Old Trafford to face Manchester United knowing they will need to get a result to have any chance of staying up.
Although the build-up has been dominated by talk of United fielding a weakened team ahead of next week's UEFA Champions League final against Barcelona, Seasiders manager Ian Holloway has backed his team to defy the odds. "We've got to go to Manchester United and probably get a win, and that might not even be enough," Holloway said.
"I believe it will be, though, because Wolves are at home to Blackburn. I've had some strange things happen in my life and maybe the main man up there has written a story that would probably beat Cinderella. And I believe we can do it, whoever United put out. I want to spoil their party."
Birmingham manager Alex McLeish has called on his team to be fearless when they travel to White Hart Lane for a daunting tie with Tottenham, who are chasing fifth place and a UEFA Europa League berth. "It's a tough game but the players have got to go and not fear it," said McLeish.
"We've got to go and do the job ourselves and see if we can pick up a point or, against expectations, three points. There's obviously a lot of pressure. I suppose the comforting thing is we've been under pressure before and managed to cope with it."