After Jamie Vardy scored in the 60th minute yesterday against Burnley to catapult Leicester City out of the Barclays Premier League relegation zone, the picture at the bottom of the table began to become a little clearer.
Firstly, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers are probably screwed. Both clubs are in the bottom two spots in the Premier League, five and four points back of 17th place, the minimum safety threshold, respectively, and have played one more match than any other club in the bottom five. The closest team trying to stave off relegation and has played 34 matches like the Clarets and QPR? Aston Villa, who are five points ahead of the Rangers and six above Burnley. The prospects of these bottom two teams coming back from that are slim.
It’s also clear that West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United likely will play another season in the Premiership. Even though the Baggies have to face Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal in three of their last four matches, because so many clubs below them also have brutal finishes West Brom should be fine. And despite their loss to Swansea City yesterday, Newcastle United have the clubs that surround them in the table to thank for similar reasons.
But it’s not yet clear how 18th place, the last relegation void that sucks a club into the Sky Bet Championship, will play out. Only two points separate 15th place and 18th place Sunderland, and all the clubs have played 33 matches, except Villa. But the real excitement lies in the fixtures—exciting for us, not for them, though. That’ll happen when a small club has to face some of the best teams in the Premier League over the span of a few weeks while they’re trying to survive.
For Sunderland, Leicester, Hull, and Aston Villa, the clubs in places 18 to 15 in ascending order, there are no easy roads to safety. With five league matches left in their schedule, Sunderland have to play three—home to Southampton, and at Arsenal and Chelsea within four days of each other to end the season—of the top seven teams in the English Premier League (EPL). In-between, they have to head to Goodison Park and then host Leicester in a major match.
It’s almost a definite Arsenal and Chelsea will take three points from the Black Cats. Sunderland’s play is pretty similar away from the Stadium of Light as when they are there, but they still have allowed more than ten goals more than they’ve scored wherever they’ve played. Combined, Arsenal and Chelsea have lost one match at home this season.
The Black Cats and Everton did tie when they last played, but the Toffees are a vastly different club now. Despite only having 41 points, Everton have won five of their last seven matches in all competitions. And at Goodison Park in the Premiership this season, the Toffees have a +6 goal differential, which seems like a mountain for a team like Sunderland. The only game they can sort of expect to win, then, is at Leicester City in mid-May.
For that club called Leicester City, their overall prospects are better than the Black Cats, however. In mid-week, they’ll face Chelsea at King Power Stadium, then home to Newcastle and Southampton the following two weeks, at Sunderland, and then host QPR on the final day of the season.
They certainly have legitimate chances against the Magpies, Sunderland, and Rangers, but given that they are only a point ahead of the last relegation spot, those fixtures against the Blues and Saints could haunt them; by the time they face the Black Cats in a few weeks, the Foxes may already be back in the relegation zone. For a team that has only won eight games all season, the pressure will be massive coming off the predicted heavy losses to Chelsea and Southampton.
Good thing for them that Hull City have the absolutely worst finish. As bad as it is that Sunderland have to play three of the top seven clubs in the league in their final games, the Tigers one-upped them and get to play four; they’re at home the next three matches—but against Liverpool mid-week and Arsenal six days later before they host Burnley five days later. Then they head to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham Hotspur and then welcome Manchester United to KC Stadium on the final day of the season.
Now that’s just a little unfair. Hull’s record this season against the Reds, Gunners, Spurs, and Red Devils? 0-2-3, with one of those losses coming against Arsenal in the FA Cup Third Round. In total, the Tigers only managed three goals combined in those games. Somewhere, Sunderland fans are grinning.
Aston Villa can hardly snicker themselves, though. While they get to finish the league season off against the Clarets, they have to fight Everton, West Ham United, and the Saints the next three weeks. They drew against the Hammers and the Saints in back-to-back games in November, but West Ham have equalized Villa’s total number of league wins (eight) since then and have netted 16 more goals than the Villans in the EPL. And Southampton, well, they happen to have scored 66 percent of all their league goals at home this season, where Aston Villa have to go to in a few weeks. Yikes.
This will happen every year, of course. From the Premier League to La Liga to Ligue 1, the bottom line is that someone has to face the giants at the end of the season, even if they are fighting for their survival; the big teams simply don’t face each other in the closing weeks every year.
None of these small teams have the wallets of these big clubs to get the players they need to make the relegation zone a joke. And Hull and Leicester have spent a whopping—wait for it—three years combined in the Premier League running. To put that in perspective, in the last three seasons alone Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City have not even finished below fourth place, and have been in the top flight for more than 100 years combined running. So, yeah, you must feel empathy for these little guys.
Or do we? As grim as it is, their horrendous remaining fixtures give us the most intriguing race left in the Premier League. With Chelsea all but secure as the champions, and the remaining UEFA Champions League berths ready to be divvied out to Arsenal, Man United, and Man City, in whatever order, this is the last suspense we have. We simply don’t know who will weather the punches and finish above 18th place; everyone is in almost as bad of a bind as their opponents.
So we root for May 24, the day when some of the bottom clubs emerge from the darkness and some falter. We root for a last moment goal, mistake, and the anxiety of scoreboard watching, just so we can see who survives when the 90th minute rolls along.
Hey, the top four just won’t give us that excitement anymore.