The relegation race (it is the race no one wants to be a part of – a bit like the 1500m at Sports Day) is entering its final stretch with just a handful of games to go and with Aston Villa done and dusted only two places remain in the bottom three. So with three teams left vying to remain in the Premier League but does this weekend’s fixtures mean for the relegation run in?
17th Sunderland – P34 Pts: 31 GD: -18
18th Norwich – P34 Pts: 31 GD: -25
19th Newcastle – P35 Pts: 30 GD: -26
Let’s start with the 3 o’clock kick offs and Sunderland are venturing a little south to The Britannia to face a Stoke City that are haemorrhaging goals at an almost sacrificial rate.
Once famed for their tight defence under Pulis, Stoke City appear to have lost some of that defensive solidarity in recent months. No clean sheet since the beginning of March and without a win since Jack Butland got injured on international duty, Stoke have conceded 12 goals in their last three games (albeit they were against Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City). Sunderland will certainly feel like they could get three points on their travels here.
Jermain Defoe is seemingly loving life once more and the England striker whilst being 32 has chipped in with 13 goals this season coming at only a 175 minutes a goal (only bettered by five players). Defoe has always been a goal scorer, a type of player crucial to retaining Premier League status and with Big Sam carrying out his witchcraft at making teams tighter and harder to beat once more, surely Sunderland are in the driving seat to stay in the Premier League.
Newcastle United are next up at 3pm and welcome FA Cup finalists and ex-Newcastle United fan favourite Alan Pardew back to St. James Park.
Crystal Palace have simply been woeful since Christmas. Once touted as Europa League upstarts, Palace have gone into freefall since the turn of the year with their FA Cup run the only crumbs of comfort in a dismal run. With the FA Cup final on their mind, it’ll be interesting to see how Palace treat the rest of the season. Will players push on and try to stake a claim in the XI to start at Wembley? Or are players likely to play with restraint, trying to avoid suspensions or injury so they can be part of that famed day?
It is this uncertainty of what Palace could turn up that will make this game so hard for Benetiz to plan for. Newcastle need points, so in that sense he has to set Newcastle up for the win but Newcastle’s greatest short coming has been their defence and maintain a tight and organised line will also be high on the Spaniards tactical wish list. This is a Newcastle team too good to go down, but we all said that last time out. It’s a massive club and football in the Northeast frankly needs some success to come its way once more. I think it might be too late for Newcastle however but that is more of an indictment of Steve McClaren that Rafa, who certainly has made Newcastle better since his appointment.
And then, last but not least, Norwich City’s teatime game at the Emirates. Will the Canaries be in full song at the final whistle? Quite possibly so.
Any points here for Norwich will be a victory as at the start of the season you see an away day to North London and probably put a zero in the point’s column. That is however before Arsenal decided to revert to their 4th place love in.
The fact Arsenal aren’t winning the league this year, in a season where City, United and Chelsea have all been pretty poor compared to their normal high standards, Arsenal should of seen this as an opportunity to stake a claim that they aren’t the decades perennial under-achievers. Admittedly, the loss of Santi Cazorla has been much larger than people realise. His ability to find that pass to Ozil and Sanchez who in turn would find THAT pass for the assist is massively under-rated. He is the playmaker in the middle third of the field for that Arsenal team and his influence is massive.
So with Arsenal struggling to string some wins together or even to put games to bed (West Ham and Crystal Palace particularly spring to mind), Norwich will go into this confident that if they are drawing or a goal behind come the 70th minute that the Emirates will once more become restless once more over apparent lack of progress. For Norwich however, their FA Cup final was last week against Sunderland and they duly came in the runner up position. The 3-0 defeat to Sunderland was huge for their season and Alex Neil will have a tough task in galvanising his squad for this game.
So after all that, will the relegation battle be any different come Match of the Day this evening? I for one, think that Sunderland could of made a big stride to retaining their Premier League season with only Newcastle keeping pace with Big Sam and the Black Cats.
How on earth do Sunderland keep doing this come the pointy end of the season?
Stoke City 1-2 Sunderland
Newcastle United 2-1 Crystal Palace
Arsenal 2-0 Norwich (I can also see this being a horribly cagey 1-1 affair)
Rich, The Sweeper Football Blog