The bottom five of QPR, Reading, Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic and Southampton know only two of them are likely to survive
It is getting to that stage of the season when the Premier League relegation battle has a clear, almost definitive, list of runners and riders. Unless something unusual happens over the course of the remaining 10 games, three from Southampton, Wigan Athletic, Aston Villa, Reading and Queens Park Rangers will be taking a short summer break before returning to kick off the 2013-14 season in the first week of August. In the Championship.
Those clubs fill the bottom five places in the table, which has generally provided a cut-off point in the past, with Blackpool the only team in the previous 12 years to suffer relegation after being in 15th position or higher with 30 points still available. In other words, there is little evidence to back up the popular notion that every season there is a club that implode and slide into the relegation zone at the wrong time.
Newcastle United and Sunderland would be the two most at risk of being reeled in but, with the two north-east clubs sitting six points clear of the bottom three, they would have to endure a torrid end to the campaign to get caught up in a relegation scrap, especially as those below them are showing few signs of being capable of putting together a string of results.
Reading, who host Villa on Saturday in the first of six crucial meetings between the bottom five clubs between now and the end of the season – Brian McDermott's side also welcome Southampton and QPR to the Madejski Stadium next month – are the bookmakers' favourites to go down. They have lost their past three games and travel to Manchester United and Arsenal after facing Villa.
"It's easy to criticise from the outside," Jobi McAnuff, the Reading captain says. "We accept that happens and there are reasons we have been written off – because we haven't gone out and spent £30m-£40m on getting new players in. A lot of players haven't played in the Premier League before. I can't speak for any other club but from our point of view that definitely motivates us. It was a challenge to get here, it's a bigger challenge to stay here."
For Villa, who have won only one of their past 11 Premier League matches, the next two fixtures could go a long way to deciding their fate. After playing Reading, Paul Lambert's side host bottom-of-the-table QPR. "They're huge games, I don't think anybody can hide behind that," Lambert says.
The Villa manager's message throughout the season has been "we'll be fine", but the lack of experience in his squad, allied to a defence that is an accident waiting to happen – they have failed to keep a clean sheet in their past 17 matches and, significantly, have the division's worst goal difference – leaves the Midlands club in serious danger of losing their top-flight status for the first time since being promoted in 1988 after one season down.
"You have to appreciate what you have here. It's an unbelievable place to work at," Lambert said, alluding to the state-of-the-art training ground. A lot of [the players] have been brought through the ranks so they don't know any different. The only thing they probably know is that they're in an absolute war now and they have to see it through."
Wigan, who face Everton in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Saturday, are guaranteed to be in the relegation zone after the Reading-Villa match, although Roberto Martínez is unlikely to be fazed by that prospect. In the past two seasons Wigan were bottom at this stage but survived after finishing with a flourish. In 2010-11, Martínez's side picked up 15 points from their last 10 games and ended up 16th. Last season's run-in was even more spectacular. Victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United helped Wigan take 22 points out of a possible 30, which is the most ever accumulated by a team in the relegation zone with 10 matches to play.
One school of thought is that Wigan will be better equipped than any of the other Premier League strugglers because their players have been in this situation before – "They know how to cope," Martínez said this week – although an alternative argument is that if a club keeps knocking around at the wrong end of the table year after year, sooner or later they will be relegated, as Coventry City found out in 2001.
Southampton looked as though they would avoid being dragged into the dogfight when they defeated Manchester City last month but that surprise victory remains Mauricio Pochettino's only win since he controversially supplanted Nigel Adkins as the manager in January.
Saints still have a three-point cushion but last Saturday's home defeat against QPR was particularly damaging. "No one said it was going to be easy – everything takes time," Pochettino said ahead of Saturday's trip to Norwich. "If you were expecting some kind of magic wand to find solutions to everything then [you were wrong]."
After replacing Mark Hughes with Harry Redknapp in November, QPR felt that throwing a fortune at the January transfer window was the way to address their bleak predicament. It is a high-risk strategy but one that Rangers were willing to gamble on with the new £5bn Premier League TV deal kicking in at the start of next season.
With the most benign run-in of any of the bottom-five clubs – the average position of their opponents is 12th and Arsenal at home is their toughest game on paper – QPR will fancy their chances of pulling clear if they can beat Sunderland at home on Saturday and pick up consecutive league wins for the first time in two years.
"We need another five wins at least I think," Redknapp says. "We need to win half our games and get a draw or two and get to 37 points. Whether it is going to be enough I'm not sure. But if someone said: 'You can have 37 points,' I think you'd have to be a fool not to take it."