Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughExit This Way - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough Exit This Way - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

Exit This Way

With just over 3 months of the Premier League remaining, we’ve reached the stage of the season in which the football calendar is littered with pivotal games. Matches take on added significance within both the higher and lower echelons of the league. Across the final 13 match days, each hard earned point, or three, becomes ever the more valuable as clubs jostle for either expected success or simply survival.

Roberto Mancini has cited an April trip to Old Trafford as an opportunity to claw back ground on Manchester United. The Italian defiantly stated that City are in no way inclined to relinquish their tag of Premier League champions, despite a challenging deficit of 9 points. Furthermore, neutrals can look forward to the prospect of Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton and Arsenal contesting for the two remaining UEFA Champions League positions.

Nonetheless, as we move towards the finale of another captivating season, it is the battle forming at the bottom that appears most intriguing. With Newcastle’s newly acquired French legion adding genuine quality and depth, it looks increasingly apparent that 3 of the current bottom 5 face relegation. With Southampton, Reading, Wigan, Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers currently separated by a mere 7 points, this post will depict each clubs chances of survival, and where cherished points can be won, and lost.

Southampton remain winless since the acrimonious departure of Nigel Adkins, yet signs of encouragement have been apparent since the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino. An excellent first half display against Everton should have yielded the south coast club more than a solitary point. In addition, an impressive showing at Manchester United left Sir Alex Ferguson commenting that the Saints had been the best team to visit Old Trafford this season. The Premier League does however remain highly unforgiving, as careless stoppage time defending cost the Saints a valuable win at Wigan last Saturday.

In order to survive, Pochettino will endeavour to bring out the best of top scorer Rickie Lambert, whose 11 goals this season have included contributions at strugglers QPR and Aston Villa. Through perseverance, Lambert has provided further evidence that exceptional quality can be replicated across all levels of our domestic football pyramid.

Perhaps the biggest issue that faces the Spaniard is the revolving door of goalkeepers that have started for the Saints this season. Calamitous errors from all 3 ‘keepers have characterised Southampton’s defensive woes away from St. Marys, a contributing factor to the 2nd worst away defensive record. Stability and continuity in defensive positions would be invaluable over the coming months if the club are to retain their Premier League status.

If Southampton are to enjoy a second season in the top flight, matches at home to QPR (2nd March) and away at Reading (6th April) are likely to be decisive. The return of the Adam Lallana from an extended spell on the sidelines will also provide the Saints with further creativity and innovation in ensuing weeks.

Brian McDermott and his workmanlike Reading were seemingly heading for a swift return to the Npower Championship. An agonising 1-0 defeat at Manchester City ensured that the Royals racked up 7 straight defeats in the immediate run up to Christmas, with just 9 points from 16 matches McDermott’s side lay bottom and 6 points from safety.

However, a slender victory at home to West Ham has since been preceded by a run of just 1 defeat in 6, with 10 points picked up in the last 4 matches. McDermott has utilised an indispensible team ethic at The Madejski, as a team forlorn of genius and imagination has successfully navigated itself away from the drop zone. This new found belief has been typified by a plethora of rip roaring comebacks, often instigated by Adam Le Fondre, the club’s top scorer with 12 goals.

With just one away success this season, at a hugely depleted Newcastle United, remaining trips to Goodison Park, Old Trafford and The Emirates are unlikely to produce a multitude of points. Reading have picked up a meagre total of 5 points from their travels this season, often appearing slightly overawed in the face of  obvious quality deficits.

In stark contrast to this Achilles heel, the Royals have been beaten only 3 times on home soil, on a par with Arsenal and Liverpool. The importance of maintaining this record over the coming months cannot be overstated, home matches against relegation candidates Wigan (23rd Feb), Aston Villa (9th March), Southampton (6th April) and QPR (27th April) will more than likely be the deciding factor in the Berkshire’s destiny.

In the same way that Manchester United are lauded for their usual experience and know how in closing out championships, Wigan Athletic are now thoroughly conditioned when it comes to the retention of their Premier League status. A failure to produce a league victory this calendar year has seen the North West outfit slump into the bottom three, consigning the Latics to their annual duel against relegation.

Roberto Martinez’s side are often pleasing on the eye, with young midfielder James McArthur providing a subtle blend of passion and elegance in possession. Wigan are however apparently permeated with inconsistency, as proved when a damaging home defeat to Sunderland was followed up by a stirring 2-2 draw at Stoke just last month. Being geographically located in a ‘Rugby League town’, the club also fails to attract necessary levels of support. Cauldron like atmospheres have proved decisive in relegation battles gone by, see West Ham United 06/07.

Martinez will hope that the imminent return of Arouna Kone will go some way to halting his sides recent descent. A return of 6 goals doesn’t do the Ivoirian’s energy and direct approach justice. Having featured for a mere 90 minutes throughout the duration of the African Nations Cup, Kone will be desperate to play a major role in ensuring his side’s survival.

A stunning conclusion to last season earned Wigan a total of 43 points and 16th place, and whilst a direct repeat may seem unlikely, consecutive home matches against Newcastle (17th March) and Norwich (30th March) may provide some much needed respite for the Latics. Furthermore, a visit from Aston Villa on the final day may yet prove fundamental in the fortunes of each club.

Aston Villa’s campaign could best be described as calamitous to date as Paul Lambert has faced a myriad of issues since joining from Norwich last summer. Without a league since mid-December (8 games), as well as humiliating cup defeats against Bradford and Millwall, the midland club find themselves firmly embedded in the relegation zone.

As much as Villa’s pursuit of success through youth and sustainability is to be desired, a lack of leadership has been evident in harrowing home defeats to Southampton and Wigan. Although the club couldn’t have foreseen the ill health of club captain Petrov, they bravely decided against recruiting any experience in the January window. A further issue for Villa is their highly unflattering goal difference, which at -26 is comfortably the worst in the division.

Positives have been largely isolated this season for the Villains, but one individual who has produced in the face of adversity is striker Christian Benteke. The young Belgian has exerted a much needed physical presence and scored an impressive assortment of goals. Benteke will need to produce more performances of the ilk he has done on Merseyside twice this season if Villa are to remain a Premier League outfit.

Villa’s young squad are going to have to show enhanced mental capabilities over the coming months, a skill that they’ve failed to produce to date. A home game against bottom club QPR (16th March) is most definitely a quintessential six pointer, whilst the aforementioned trip to Wigan on the final day is shaping up to be a momentous occasion.

As expected, January brought an influx of high profile faces at basement side Queens Park Rangers. The signing of the Christopher Samba and Loic Remy, from the jaws of Newcastle United, have been hailed by many as crucial. Along with the mecurial talent of Adel Taarabt, these players of authentic quality will be expected to play a big part in Harry Redknapp’s latest ‘great escape.’

Without being an outstanding success to date, Harry Redknapp has brought steel since the departure of Mark Hughes. Since his arrival in late November, QPR have lost just 3 of 12 league matches and kept recent clean sheets against Manchester City and Tottenham. With no cup involvement left, QPR most likely to need win at least of 6 of their remaining 13 cup finals.

With Taarabt the club’s top scorer with a paltry 4 goals, it is fairly evident that Redknapp’s side have been dismal going forward this season. With just 18 goals in 25 league games, QPR are yet to provide any forceful evidence that they have the required firepower to survive. Once back from a muscle injury, new French forward Loic Remy will be expected to carry this mantle.

Although a highly doubtful concept, Redknapp will hope to have secured safety before a final day trip to Anfield. If this prospect is to be realised, home matches against Sunderland (9th March) and Wigan (6th April) appear to offer Rangers opportune chances to make up ground.  

 In all likelihood, 3 of the 5 discussed clubs will be plying their trade in the Npower Championship next season. Televised visits from Chelsea will be replaced by potential mid week trips to Doncaster Rovers and other Yorkshire outposts. The second tier of English football is fiercely competitive, becoming a graveyard for those that slip out of the Premier League. Fans of Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton and many more will most certainly vouch for that.

Not mentioned thus far, it is also likely that the crucial element of luck will be a contributing factor as the fate of these 5 strugglers unfolds. Whether it is a favourable deflection or ‘a matter of inches past the post’, the fate of each team is to a certain extent controlled by unforeseen circumstances. Undoubtedly refereeing controversies will also be forthcoming, as the pressure cranks up on all parties involved in the climax of the Barclays Premier League.

Two synonyms of ‘Survival’ are continuity and endurance, if these characteristics can be displayed in correlation with some individual brilliance, the benefitting clubs are likely to avoid feelings of despair and anguish come 6pm on Sunday 19th May.

Michael Dobson