As the Premier League draws ever nearer to 30 games played, the relegation quagmire turns into a relegation scrap. With Villa looking dead and buried, and with Swansea and Palace looking relatively safe (and not for the latter’s lack of trying), it is becoming more and more likely that Norwich will battle with the two teams from the North East to avoid the drop. Sunderland sit one point above Norwich and Newcastle, with the Magpies having a game in hand. So who looks most likely to be playing Friday night football against Preston North End next season?
The Black Cats are no stranger to a relegation dog fight, having not hit the magic 40 points since the mesmerising 2011-12 season. Alongside this, they have an incredibly experienced man at the helm, with Sam Allardyce having a history of saving teams from the drop. Admittedly, he has taken a lot of stick in recent years for his long-ball football, but he does keep clubs up.
But the most important asset on the Wear is Jermaine Defoe; the human embodiment of a “Fox in the Box”. In comparison to Newcastle and Norwich, who have lacked a prolific striker this season, Defoe’s 11 league goals and 89 Draft Fantasy Football points have been a lifeline for Sunderland this season. It is vital for Defoe to stay fit towards the end of the season, or Sunderland would have to turn to the unreliable Dame N’Doye and Fabio Borini to pick up the goals. Personally, I think I’d rather have van Aahnholt up front…
One of Sam Allardyce’s best moves over January was to pick up midfielder Wahbi Khazri, who in his five starts for the club has looked to be a dead-ball specialist. His two assists at Anfield, and a bizarre goal at home to Manchester United have proven that he can do it on the big stage. Having a strong set piece delivery in your armoury could be the difference that keeps Sunderland up this season
Where Sunderland excel in strikers, Norwich look weak. We have known for years that Cameron Jerome simply isn’t a 10 goal a season premier league forward, and Mbokani hasn’t had the greatest time since joining on loan from Dynamo Kiev. Having scored 3 and 4 goals apiece this season, things are looking desperate for the Norwich front line, which explains the panic loan signing of untested Patrick Bamford. The signing of Naismith, although a good move, was never going to alleviate this problem as he sits deeper and plays a more creative role.
To their credit, goals have been coming from midfield, with Hoolahan, Brady, Redmond and Howson all scoring over 70 Draft Fantasy Football points so far this season. From a fantasy football point of view, this creates a problem as it is very difficult to tell from whom the points are going to come from next. I would stay clear of the mercurial Redmond and Brady (who has recently picked up a knock), and look towards Hoolahan or Howson as a potential pick off of the waiver wire.
Norwich’s defence this season has hardly been their saving grace, and they haven’t kept a clean sheet since the 2nd of January. Russel Martin has been the closest thing they have had to a leader in the back line, which looks a bit more reliable with the recent acquisitions of Pinto and Klose. Avoid picking up a Norwich defender off the waiver wire, as they are one of the most porous defences in the league.
Although Newcastle strikers have faired a bit better than their bitter rivals this season, Perez and especially Mitrovic have left a lot to be desired. Dubbed by some on the Tyne as “the next Alan Shearer”, he left a sour taste in many Geordie’s mouths after being sent off just 15 minutes into his first home start. Despite featuring in 24 games this season, he has only mustered up a total of 5 goals and 61 Draft Points. Many thought that Newcastle’s striker curse would have been lifted with the loan of Seydou Doumbia, but due to a lack of fitness and dedication on the training pitch, he has only played for 28 minutes since January.
Newcastle’s star performer without a doubt this season has been Gini Wijnaldum. With 9 goals and 4 assists this season, The Dutchman has earnt 116 points this season, the fourth highest points from a midfielder. Also in that midfield is Jonjo Shelvey, another smart January signing, who has put in a number of solid performances since moving from Swansea. Townsend plays as we all expected him to, lighting up the occasional game with his lightning pace, before fading back into obscurity for a few weeks.
Newcastle fans will be shouting at their screen about their game in hand, but many forget that this game is away at Manchester City. With games against Leicester, Liverpool and Tottenham still to play, they arguably have the most difficult run in.
The most intriguing thing about the race to avoid the drop is that all the teams still have to play each other, meaning they are very much in control of their own destinies. In my opinion, if Jermaine Defoe stays fit and continues his goal scoring form, he should provide enough to push Norwich and Newcastle down. If not, then Wijnaldum could be the difference maker, keeping Newcastle alive. As for Norwich? It is early days yet but I would not be surprised to see them relegated. Much more will be learnt on the 20th March at the Tyne-Wear derby.