Breaking down the relegation battle in the Premier League.
As the relegation scrap gathers pace, Richard Jolly assesses the form and hopes of the Premier League strugglers
It is the costliest drop in football.
Even in an era when parachute payments for demoted sides can amount to £87 million (Dh396m), a loss of Premier League status is still hugely expensive.
Relegated clubs can lose players, income and face.
The fact that neither Aston Villa nor Norwich City look like coming straight back up underlines their problems. The best way to avoid them is to stay up. For at least seven clubs, there are two months to save their skin and their revenue streams alike in an increasingly unpredictable scrap.
Certainly recent games have brought a dramatic difference. Leicester City seemed on course to become the first defending champions since Manchester City in the 1930s to go down.
Sam Allardyce looked likely to lose his proud record of never being relegated from the top flight as a manager.
Now Leicester and Crystal Palace are two of the form teams in the division. Each have won their past three games.
They are proof of the impact a new manager can make. So are Hull City and Swansea City, who looked doomed before new appointments. Leicester’s success under Craig Shakespeare has shown the merits of promoting from within, so Middlesbrough have followed suit by elevating assistant Steve Agnew after Aitor Karanka’s departure in the hope history repeats itself.
Only Sunderland of the bottom six have stuck with the same man, David Moyes.
It is a greater anomaly because their path to salvation always used to come via a managerial dismissal.
Now continuity could be damaging. Moyes thought Sunderland needed five wins from their last 12 games. They have only taken one point since, leaving them needing five wins from 10. Their plight is the most desperate. Even with the prolific Jermain Defoe, they have not scored in the last four. Middlesbrough have scored 20 league goals, one fewer than Everton’s Romelu Lukaku has mustered on his own.
At the other end of the spectrum, Swansea have outscored two of the top 10 and have, in Gylfi Sigurdsson, the man with the most Premier League assists.
Their problem is they have the division’s worst defensive record.
If clean sheets keep a club up Palace, who have not conceded in the last three, ought to survive. But they, with five of the top six to face, may have the hardest finish of all. Some need points on the board sooner rather than later: Middlesbrough’s last-four opponents include Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Their destiny could be decided in the next week, when they meet Swansea and Hull.
Watford face a similarly tough run-in. With others gaining ground, they have slipped by stealth into danger. Their best chance of escaping may come in the next two games.
Meanwhile, Hull’s wretched away record endangers them, but they have winnable home matches.
The visits of Middlesbrough and Sunderland are six-pointers that perhaps could be packaged as £200 million matches.
And April and May are littered with similarly tense fixtures, tests of nerves where the stakes will get higher as the clock ticks down.
It is often best to play teams in mid-table obscurity in the final weeks, but it is notable the relegation candidates barely have such games against demotivated opponents. They face a fight to safety.
If it looked as though a particularly low points tally should ensure survival, that does not appear the case any more. The usual marker of 38 should still apply.
And, while there will be shock results, this prediction is that the current bottom three will go down, two of them with at least a week to spare, but with a caveat.
Swansea could begin the final day in the bottom three and produce the last drama of the battle at the bottom.
Middlesbrough have scored 20 league goals, one fewer than Everton’s Romelu Lukaku has mustered on his own
Christian Benteke, left, and Crystal Palace have had an upturn in fortunes, but John O’Shea, right, and Sunderland are looking more and more likely to fail to beat the drop.