Image from Sportal
With all the hype of high reputation managers in Manchester, London and Liverpool, an ever-changing top of the table and goalkeeping errors galore, it’s very easy to look no further than the title race in this already exciting Premier League season. But operating below the big boys is an ever-intriguing relegation battle, with the bottom seven teams either looking to escape the bottom three and kick start their season or peering over their shoulders at the desperate pack below. We’re not even half way through the season and games are already being labeled as relegation six-pointers, so here are my predictions on who will finish where come the end of May.
13th – West Ham United
The Hammers started this season earlier than the rest of the Premier League sides due to their Europa League exploits, and it couldn’t have got any worse for Slaven Bilic’s men. Knocked out at the same stage, and by the same team as last year in Europe’s second tier club cup competition, their achilles heel has been undoubtedly their home form, where their move to the Olympic Stadium has taken a bit of getting used to. The atmosphere is not the same as the Boleyn Ground, with the club having to play chants through the stadium sound system to generate even the slightest of noise at Hammers home games. I’ve been to the Olympic Stadium and it’s very unique compared to all the other Premier League grounds in the way that the fans are so detached from the action, with the pitch being so far away. Bilic has also said that recently his players have lost their appetite during training and matches, which is never a good sign. I really do feel for West Ham fans at the minute; they were really happy in their old home, but the owners have seen economic advantages in this move, so there will be a few seasons of adjustment to it. You need to create long-lasting memories in a stadium to make it your home properly, and West Ham need some big wins, or maybe a cup run to give them that stability. It’s not been all doom and gloom, they have shown in recent weeks why they were so successful last season and what will save them this year is the quality of their squad. You can’t get relegated with a player like Dimitri Payet in your side, and after a slow start, West Ham should be fine and can start now looking up towards the mid-table.
14th – Leicester City
It’s almost as if the Foxes never won the Premier League. I’m sure the Leicester fans won’t care though; if it were me I’d still be on the hangover from last season. The mistake they made though, in my opinion, was in pre-season, where they didn’t strengthen well enough and tried to replicate the ‘clever buys’ they made last season. The only way Leicester could have challenged with the big teams is if they had bought world-class talent to match last season’s success. The signing of Islam Slimani was a step in the right direction, and although he’s not world class, he is of European calibre and has already come up with some crucial goals this season for Claudio Ranieri’s men. But there haven’t been enough signings like him, which is strange considering how much money they received for winning the league. On top of this, they’ve started giving last year’s key players six-figure-a-week wages, meaning the pressure is lifted a little bit from players such as Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, meaning the economic rewards threaten to take away the never-say-die attitude that Leicester had. This clearly shows in Leciester’s form this season. The big adventure for them this year is the Champions League and their almost effortless qualification from the knockout stages proves that Ranieri’s men only turn up when they want to. In the league however, they’re almost unrecognisable from their title winning team that graced us only six months ago. Despite this, there have been glimpses of the ‘Leicester of old’, a 4-2 win over Manchester City followed by a mentally strong comeback win against all the odds at Stoke proves that there is still some heart in this Foxes team. With their European exploits not resuming until February, Leicester should pick up enough points until then to avoid a mad rush for points in the latter stages of the season.
15th – Crystal Palace
Every time I’ve watched Palace play this season, you really don’t know which type of performance you’re going to get. A constant problem with Palace over the years has been their struggle to get out of a losing run, and that’s why managers have come and gone since their return to the Premier League three years ago. However, there are two reasons why Palace will be fine once again this year. Firstly, they score goals, even in defeat, and that will be crucial at the turn of the year with regards to steering themselves away from the drop zone. They have clinical strikers with points to prove in Christian Benteke and Connor Wickham, while they’ve also got steel in their midfield in James MacArthur and Joe Ledley. Selhurst Park will also play a key role in their survival, with their fans being up there with the best in the entire division. Secondly, despite his critics earlier in his career, Alan Pardew does have a cool head in this type of situation (barring obviously a headbutt against Hull City a few years ago when he was at Newcastle). He’s a club legend and has the full backing of the supporters and the owners and that creates a positive atmosphere in the stadium and at the training ground. Palace have been here before and come through, I fully expect them to do that again this time around.
16th – Sunderland
I said this at the start of the season, I said this when they made the worst start to a Premier League season ever (ok maybe I doubted it a little bit), and I’m still saying it now: Sunderland are staying up; it’s what they do. But this year they’ll go about it differently. Normally they need a change in manager to give them a boost, but David Moyes is a good enough manager to be trusted in this situation. Yes they made a terrible start, but with a new manager the first win is so important in football, unfortunately for the Black Cats it took about ten games to arrive. Now, their fortunes have changed, and are higher in confidence as a result. It’s obvious that the Scot knows which games they should try and win, and which games they are likely to lose, and will plan to accumulate these points up accordingly, proven by their performance at Liverpool last month, where they were described as the “most defensive team [Jurgen Klopp] has ever seen”. They’ve also got one of the most natural goal scorers in the league in Jermaine Defoe, he’s a consistent finisher with a cool head, and, providing he stays fit, will be the difference for the North East side. Jordan Pickford will also play a big role in their fate; he’s a young, hungry goalkeeper from down the road with a bright future. When Sunderland are confident, they play well, and they way they’re going, they should be playing Premier League football next year.
17th – Burnley
The Clarets are the yoyo club of English football, following several relegations and immediate promotions between the Championship and the Premier League. They’ve never made it to the second season in the Premier League, but this year, I think they’ll make it. Their big advantage is Turf Moor, where they’ve only lost three times this season, and two of those opponents were Manchester City and Arsenal, who were both made to sweat in those games. Their away form has been dreadful, having only scored two goals all season away from Lancashire, and one of them was a penalty. But few teams will beat them at home again this season, and they will eventually pick up points on the road, so that should be enough to keep them up. I’m a huge admirer of striker Andre Gray, and his partnership with Sam Vokes is already proving to be difficult to defend against. On top of that, they have Ashley Barnes who always seems to come up with crucial goals, even when you’ve forgotten he still exists! Michael Keane has been a rock at the back for them this season, while players such as Tom Heaton, Ben Mee and George Boyd won’t want to go down again. All this, along with a clever summer signing in Jeff Hendrick from Derby is positive news for Burnley. It may well go down to the final few days of the season, but in my opinion this is the best Premier League squad that Burnley have had, meaning their best chance of survival.
18th – Middlesbrough
This may seem a surprise considering the size of the club and the players they have, but I think Middlesbrough will fall through the trap door this season. Their defence looks solid as they don’t concede many goals, and only once, against Liverpool last week, have they been properly outplayed, but they’re not winning enough games. Aitor Karanka said the other week that if they keep playing the way they are, they will win games, but that’s not enough to survive in the big league. With so many competitors going for the title this year, there won’t be many opportunities to claim three vital points, so you have to take what you can get at all opportunities. Three out of their four wins this season have come against Bournemouth, who were unlucky not to get something out of that game, and fellow strugglers Swansea and Hull. They’ve already played teams at the Riverside that they should be beating if they want to stay up such as Crystal Palace, Watford and Stoke and these dropped points may come back to haunt them later on in this season. The relegation battle will be close this year, and Boro may prove me wrong and stay up, but for me, the mentality just isn’t there.
19th – Hull City
This has been a banker since August 1st. The off-field troubles in Hull with the lack of a buyer for the club damaged their summer transfer window, and Hull haven’t really got going yet this season. They have a small squad with an inexperienced manager, and even if they buy in January, it will take time for them to settle in and by the time they do, it could be too little, too late for the Tigers. You can’t really see where the goals are going to come from if teams nullify the threat of Robert Snodgrass, while the defence is one of the worst in the division. They look like a Championship team already and it will almost be a miracle if they stay up.
20th – Swansea City
I can’t believe I’m saying this given what I’ve just written in the previous paragraph but I think Swansea are in a worse position than Hull, which I why I think they’ll finish bottom. The new American owners of the Welsh side have not benefited the side so far. As soon as they came in the axe was already over Francesco Guidolin’s head, and he was gone after only a matter of weeks. They then made what I think is a terrible choice of fellow American Bob Bradley as manager. His club managerial record was bordering upon semi-pro prior to his arrival in Wales and so far, he’s not been tough enough as a manager. To stay up, you need a manager who’s prepared for the fight, a motivator with a never-say-die attitude, and Bradley has been too nice since his appointment. Instead of reiterating how much of an honour it is to be there and saying how great it is for American ‘soccer’, he should be saying “I’m here to keep Swansea up and not get caught up in the big occasion”. Swansea have the players to stay up, such as Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente, but the manager will hold them back.