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

The National - News - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - [email protected]­

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

Christo­pher Lee / Getty Images

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.

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