Predicting the relegation battle: Started from the bottom... and still here

Jamie McDonald

With the season two-thirds over, it's time to figure out if Aston Villa are really part of the relegation battle.

Aston Villa have had to worry about relegation as late the final third of the season since the abrupt retirement of Martin O'Neill before the beginning of the 2010-11 season. It's not a fun position to be in, and last year saw the club mathematically secure safety only on the Tuesday before the final weekend of play, when Arsenal defeated Wigan. With the club now two-thirds of the way through their 2013-14 campaign, things are shaping up much as they did last year. Villa currently sit only four points clear of the drop and a mere eight points from the bottom of the table. Though the club is currently in 12th, their position looks tenuous at best.

But is it really time to start panicking? Should Villa fans be worried about the drop? We've decided to take a look at the bottom half of the table and briefly speculate as to what they could expect from the coming season. We'll start at 20th and work our way up to 10th. I had planned on doing one post and then a wrote a few hundred words on Fulham, so this will be broken up.

Fulham - 6 W, 2 D, 18 L; -32 GD; 20 points

Magath will be taking the helm at a club that has the worst goal differential (-32) of any team in the football league.

The Cottagers have been absolutely dismal this year, and things aren't looking up any time soon. With the hiring of Felix Magath - and subsequent firing of Rene Meulensteen (no, you did not read that wrong. They hired the new manager before announcing the ouster of the old - Fulham have now had more manager this season (3) than they have had Premier League draws (2). That statistic continues to delight me, even a few days after I first read it. Magath will be taking the helm at a club that has the worst goal differential (-32) of any team in the football league. Their win total (6) is not the worst in the Premiership, but they have been a mostly all-or-nothing club managing to only grab a brace of matches in which they took one point,

Nevertheless, Magath is known for saving clubs from relegation, even late in a season, as his early career in Germany showed. It seems as if anybody could save Fulham, it would be Magath. And the Cottagers' schedule isn't as tough as it could be in their final twelve matches. Sure, they have Chelsea, Newcastle, Manchester City, Everton, and Tottenham left to play. But otherwise, it's all teams from the bottom half of the table. There are surely a few points to be had there, and while Fulham currently sit five points from safety (because yes, they could be safe at 24 right now, but they're not winning a differential fight any time soon), they've got a decent chance at nabbing a few wins.

Unfortunately for the club, their only seemingly winnable home matches are against the cities Norwich and Hull and a revived-looking Crystal Palace. They've also got a trip to Villa Park, after dominating Villa at the Craven Cottage in December, but I can't imagine that those few wins will be enough to lift them above three other teams. Expect to see Fulham make things interesting, but it's hard to see them digging out of the hole they find themselves in. Even a relatively optimistic record of 4-2-6 in the run-out would only bring them to 34 points.

(Interesting note: if you look to the English Conference, just one step down from League Two, Fulham would no longer have the worst differential around. In fact, they would look fantastic compared to Hyde, currently sitting in 24th. They've got a differential of -58 after surrendering an astonishing 87 goals in 33 matches, or 2.63 goals per match. They've given up four or more goals on eight separate occasions this season. Dear lord.)

Cardiff City - 5 W, 7 D, 14 L; -25 GD; 22 points

who loses a boring 1-2 match at home to a lower-league side in one of football's most prestigious competitions?

Ah yes, half of the reason people insist on calling this the British Premier League. Cardiff have most recently found themselves dumped out of the FA Cup by a lower-league side. In this case, defending Cup champs Wigan. But seriously, who loses a boring 1-2 match at home to a lower-league side in one of football's most prestigious competitions? What a bunch of losers.

But on a more serious note, Cardiff have a bit of a mixed bag as far as remaining schedule goes. They've been atrocious on the road this season (to the tune of a 1-3-9 record with a -19 differential), so we can pretty much chalk those matches up as losses. In some ways, that's good news for the club. Of their remaining "tough" fixtures (again, teams in the top-9), Tottenham, Everton, and Newcastle are on the road. These are matches that Cardiff will likely lose anyways, regardless of location, so there's no real problem for them there. At home, they're a much better club, getting 16 of their points. In the friendly confines of Wales they've got Hull (a like win or draw), Fulham (win), Liverpool (oh god, Cardiff are going to die), Crystal Palace (draw? Sure), Stoke City (win or draw), and Chelsea (loss).

The problem for Cardiff comes if they still need a result on the final day of the season, when they host Chelsea. It looks as if the battle for the title will go down to the wire this year, so Chelsea will likely still have a lot to play for. If Cardiff are fighting for their lives on May 11, they're going to be in a world of trouble. This is a club that either gets sent down or barely survives by the skin of their teeth. An optimistic reading sees them get somewhere around 15 more points. But that also means that they would improve their points-per-match by .4. I don't think it's happening.

Sunderland - 6 W, 6D, 13 L; -13 GD; 24 points

What an absolutely enigmatic club. Only five times this season have they finished a matchday and found themselves out of the relegation zone. But they've also gotten 10 points from their last five league matches and charged into Wembley for a League Cup final against Manchester City. There is a very real chance, given Manchester City's fixture congestion and the relative unimportance of the League Cup to a team of their stature, that Sunderland could win the League Cup and thus qualify for Europa League play. There is also a very real chance that they could be the third team in four seasons to qualify to play in Europe the next season while not qualifying to play in England's top flight (see: Birmingham City 2010-11 and Wigan Athletic 2012-13).

We talked a bit about this on last week's podcast, but I'm really not sure how I would feel as a Sunderland fan right now. They've got a chance to see their club win hardware, but they've also got to be terrified of dropping into the financial morass of the Championship, a morass from which Sunderland do not seem equipped to emerge quickly. Yet they are actually playing for something!

But aside from that cup run (and hey, they're in the quarters of the FA Cup, too!) things do not look good for Sunderland right now. They've got a match in hand, thanks to the storm that ripped through the country last week, but it's a trip to Manchester City, so I think it's safe to call that a loss. From there they've still got to travel to Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, and the other Manchester. And that doesn't even count a visit from Everton in April. With their cup schedule as it is, and the need to put the City match somewhere in there, Sunderland will also be facing a team that has been run ragged over the course of the final few months of the season.

There really is not a lot of upside here, and relegation is an absolute possibility. Their most winnable matches look to be visits from West Brom and Cardiff, and from there it's hard to see too many more points. Reaching 40 will be a stretch. Their best hope is for the continued poor play of teams around them.

West Bromwich Albion - 4 W, 12 D, 10 L; -8 GD; 24 points

If we're going on pure vitriol, this is the team that I would like to see relegated more than any other. It looks as if Leicester City will be up next year, so Villa will still have a West Midlands rival, and nothing would make me happier than seeing the smug Baggies fans sent down to the land of misery. Enjoy a rivalry with the scum down there.

But on a more serious note, West Brom have only won one match out of their past sixteen. If it is possible to draw your way to safety, the Albion are trying it right now. But even they will need to cobble together a win or two over their remaining 12 matches to secure safety. Keep up the recent pattern and they'll struggle to reach even 37 points. That's a bona-fide relegation worry even in a year where the line will almost definitely be south of 40. So what have the Baggies got to contend with in the final months?

Well, to start things off, the player who is probably their best striker will be facing an FA hearing to determine his fate after making a lewd gesture. If the hearing does not go in the club's favor, they will be without Anelka for at least five matches. Their schedule in that span certainly could be worse though. If they can manage to lift themselves above the scrum before their final five matches, West Brom will do themselves a huge favor.

Because boy oh boy are those final five a problem. Sure, they include salvageable visits from West Ham and Stoke, but they also see Manchester City and Arsenal visit the Hawthorns and a trip to Tottenham. I can't actually see the Baggies getting anything from those three matches.

If there is any good news for West Brom, it is the fact that they still have matches against the only three teams lower than they are on the table. Win two of those and they likely give themselves some breathing room. Sweep all three, and it's tough to see them dropping. But the question remains: in a season where they have only totaled four wins, can anybody comfortably predict them taking two or three more?

Norwich City - 6 W, 7 D, 13 L; -20 GD; 25 points

Ah, another reason not to worry if the Baggies drop, because Aston Villa and Norwich City have developed a pretty fun - if immature - rivalry in the past 18 or so months. The Canaries, like the Baggies, have had a pretty poor run of form in league play lately, winning only one match from their past eleven. They've also been atrocious on the road, managing only eight points in thirteen efforts. But Norwich City have been a team that have defied the odds in recent years, and the idea of them coming out of the relegation fight unscathed is not altogether crazy.

Zero points in their last four matches is a distinct possibility.

The only problem for them is if they can't secure safety before the final four matches. If you thought that West Brom had it tough, Norwich would like to counter with home matches against Liverpool and Arsenal bookending trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Zero points in their last four matches is a distinct possibility.

That said, in the eight matches before then, Norwich have ample opportunity to reserve their position in next year's premiership. After a visit from Tottenham, they get to play Villa at Villa Park, and then have a six-match run that includes the teams currently sitting 18, 17, and 20 respectively. Again, this is a situation where Norwich may not have to be great to survive. Simply by being better than the worst, they should assure themselves a chance of staying up.

And hopefully you've noticed the change in tone here. There really aren't a ton of points separating clubs in the bottom half, but the four worst are so bad that it's hard to see those above them falling too far. We'll be back tomorrow to take a look at the clubs sitting in 15th-10th.

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