The most draws and a number of more self-destructive sides beneath them mean the team may still stay up
Football is full of little mysteries and one of the most puzzling surrounds West Bromwich Albion's apparent ability to defy gravity.
After one win in nine games since Pepe Mel, an acclaimed part-time crime writer, became manager at The Hawthorns and with only two wins in their last 20 Premier League games – and five victories all season – they somehow stand 16th. Relegation remains a real danger but the chances of escaping it are decent.
Albion fans joke that it must all be to do with the team literally working their socks off. The failure of club officials to note that footwear supplies were wearing thin and new stock needed ordering, meant Mel's first-teamers ran out of blue-and-white hooped socks in February.
They must now wear plain blue hosiery until the end of a campaign in which a side who kicked off in August under Steve Clarke's control have ground out 13 draws, more than anyone else in the entire division.
Draws, though, may no longer be good enough and Ben Foster, Albion's goalkeeper, has aptly identified Saturday's home fixture against Cardiff City as a "monster game".
If Mel's inability to speak fluent English – his assistants Keith Downing and Dean Kiely issue the half-time homilies – hardly helps the cause, his desperation to avoid the drop cannot be overstated. This, after all, is a 51-year-old who, during a previous incarnation in charge of Real Betis in Spain, declared that he would rather his teenage daughter announced she was pregnant than the team be relegated.
The terror of losing Premier League status tends to skew the judgments of those involved, prompting the sort of dramatic, arguably knee-jerk, gestures which have seen every club in the current bottom six change their manager this season. Fulham have sacked two.
In West Bromwich's case the all consuming desire to keep Nicolas Anelka happy – and possibly scoring goals – seemed to blind senior management to the serious ramifications of the striker's antisemitic quenelle gesture in late December. Their reward for not immediately suspending him was to see Anelka subsequently become the first leading player to use Twitter to announce he was walking out on a club. The reality that West Bromwich remain almost within touching distance of mid-table despite gaining only 28 points from 30 games, merely emphasises that those beneath them have been even more self-destructive.
If Fulham's failure to realise their squad contained too many players over 30 partly explains why Martin Jol, René Meulensteen and, now, Felix Magath have all occupied the manager's office at Craven Cottage this season, Cardiff's civil war between the owner, Vincent Tan, and the former manager, Malky Mackay, proved horribly debilitating.
While feuding over player recruitment transformed a corner of south Wales into a bloody battleground, some bad buys last summer have hardly enhanced Sunderland's survival hopes.
As all the attention focused on Paolo Di Canio's rudimentary man-management skills and the player revolt which led to the Italian's departure after collecting a single point from the season's opening five games, a few of the 13 overseas signings made by the club's then director of football Roberto De Fanti were already looking expensive mistakes.
De Fanti was dismissed in January, by which time the non-scoring £6.5m striker Jozy Altidore, to name one higher profile acquisition, had been dubbed "Dozy Anti-Score" by fans and Gus Poyet was contemplating the biggest challenge of his fledgling managerial career.
Overall, the Uruguayan has performed an excellent job but Poyet acknowledges it is thanks to an unusual season featuring so many troubled teams that the Wearsiders are still actively planning for a Premier League future.
"We had only one point when I got the job in October so I never expected to be safe by now," he says. "With our number of points [25 from 29 games] in previous years we could have already been gone by now but this season I think it will go to the last match, probably even to the last second of the last match."
While Sunderland – who may profit from the exceptionally few injuries sustained by a squad now feeling the benefits of Di Canio's intensive pre-season training regime – could definitely do with beating West Ham at the Stadium of Light on Monday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suspects a draw at The Hawthorns would not necessarily spell doom for the Cardiff players he inherited from Mackay.
The lowest points tally ever collected by a Premier League team finishing above the relegation zone was the 34 accrued, coincidentally, by Albion in 2004–05. Nine years on that record could soon be revised.
"I'd thought we needed four more wins to stay up," says Solskjaer, whose side have 25 points from 31 fixtures. "But teams around us are not winning either so I actually think survival might take less than 37 points. But we can't lose at West Brom. That's vital. It's not negotiable." With his position already under scrutiny, Mel appears equally adamant. "The only thing that will do for us is victory," he says.
After watching his Crystal Palace side (28 points from 30 games) take two points from their last five matches while scoring one goal, Tony Pulis accepts his record of never having been relegated is under threat. "It was always going to be tough," says Ian Holloway's successor, whose side face Chelsea at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
As Poyet ponders a medium-term switch to a back three, Pulis maintains mere tactical trickery is not enough. "At this stage it's mainly about confidence and good fortune," he says. "We need things to go for us. At the moment they're not – but when we create chances we have to take them."