Thursday March 5th, 2015

Last week, we detailed the race for the top four and the glory and riches of Champions League football, but there's an equally desperate, cluttered and big-money race going on at the bottom of the Premier League, where three unfortunate clubs will be sent down to the Championship at season's end. With last place in the Prem soon to be worth about $150 million due to the new domestic TV rights deal, getting relegated is more painful than ever, and with the competitive depth at the top of the second division this season, a quick return to the top for those who drop is anything but assured.

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There are currently nine teams on 30 or fewer points after a midweek set of matches that saw the top seven in the table all win their matches (along with now-eighth place Stoke, which jumped Swansea).

As such, there wasn't much movement at the bottom. That's good news for the top teams that follow, and another matchday off the dwindling fixture list for those in the relegation zone.

Which three will pay the price come May? Here's a breakdown of where things stand with just 10 or 11 matches remaining for each club:

Crystal Palace (12th place, 30 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 6, Away: 4

Vs. Top-10: 6, Bottom 10: 4 (3 home)

Palace was a bit of a hard-luck loser at Southampton on Tuesday, the 1-0 loss breaking a string of five straight away wins since Alan Pardew assumed the managerial role. The club is in pretty good shape at the moment, sitting eight points and five teams ahead of Queens Park Rangers and Burnley, who are in 18th and 19th, respectively, right now on 22 points.

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The schedule isn't great. Palace still has four matches left against current top-six sides, and there's only one match (vs. Swansea on the final day of the season) left where the opponent may have nothing really to play for, but the Eagles have been much improved under Pardew.

If they can tighten up a bit at Selhurst Park, where they currently allow the league's most goals per home match, they should comfortably end up settled in for another Prem season next year.

West Bromwich Albion (13th place, 30 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 5, Away: 5

Vs. Top-10: 6, Bottom 10: 4 (2 home)

On one hand, West Brom's plight seems pretty simple. The Baggies still have home matches remaining against Queens Park Rangers and Leicester City. Win both of those, and they'd have a minimum of 36 points and be in extremely strong shape to survive. What if they don't, though?

Those are the only two matches remaining on the schedule against teams currently below them in the table. West Brom still has to play each of the current top five again, three of those away, and its two "easiest" away matches remaining are at Newcastle and Crystal Palace.

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West Brom has improved since bottoming out in 17th place after Matchday 20, but the Baggies are not out of the woods yet. They're an impotent team away from home, having scored just 0.64 goals per road match and being shut out in half of them.

If they can't handle Liverpool or Chelsea at home, the only other chance at the Hawthorns outside of the two relegation contenders is against Stoke.

I expect West Brom to scrape its way to another Prem season, but if you're looking at a sneaky, big-odds relegation candidate, this isn't a bad roll of the dice. A number of betting shops have the Baggies at between 20-1 and 25-1 to go down.

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Everton (14th place, 28 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 6, Away: 4

Vs. Top-10: 5, Bottom 10: 5 (3 home)

This is ... unexpected. The Toffees overachieved last season in terms of their finish vs. their underlying stats (and may have had the best points-to-payroll performance in Premier League history), and now they're on the bad end of the regression slingshot combined with a roster weakened by injury and aging. 

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They're the prototypical "too good to get relegated" side, but maybe they're just not that good (and stretched thinner by the ongoing Europa League campaign). After losing 2-0 at Stoke on Wednesday, Everton still hasn't beaten a team in the current top nine this season in 14 tries. The Toffees have five points from those matches, and are 0-7-1 away against the top eight. It's pretty hard to survive on points garnered only from the bottom of the table, but Everton may pull off something like that.

The good news: The club is six points (plus 11 goals of goal difference) above the drop zone. Plus, all three matches remaining against UCL contenders are at home, and Everton also has four clashes left with teams in 16th or worse. It can take care of business and leave nothing to chance with a few wins. Or, I guess it can extend the worst club start in nearly nine decades and flirt with disaster.

Roberto Martinez already took a team to Europe while getting relegated (Wigan). Could he somehow surpass that trick, with Everton dropping to the Championship while winning the Europa League and qualifying for the Champions League? No, right? Like, seriously, no, right? Ugh.

Hull City (15th place, 27 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 5, Away: 5

Vs. Top-10: 7, Bottom 10: 3 (1 home)

If the Tigers get relegated, they will look back on opportunities like Tuesday, when they drew 1-1 at home to Sunderland, as a costly two points lost. 

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Hull has easily been the worst statistical team in the league all season, which is hard to do in a league where Aston Villa's brutal offense exists. Hull's league position actually flatters the club significantly. Now, the remaining schedule is pretty brutal and this could be a problem unless it does something it hasn't done all season: beat a top-10 side. The club is currently 0-8-5 in 13 chances against them.

Worse, four of Hull's remaining home matches are against Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool. The Tigers also have to play at Southampton and Tottenham. They only have two "easy" matches left: at Leicester next Saturday, and home to Burnley on May 9.

The "best" news for Hull at the moment is the five-point gap to the trap door. If the Tigers survive, it likely will be more because three teams were worse than they are than anything they managed themselves. They can change that narrative with an upset or two ... and they may need to.

Sunderland (16th place, 26 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 5, Away: 5

Vs. Top-10: 5, Bottom 10: 5 (4 home)

The Black Cats haven't found many ways to win this season, holding just four victories to their name. They've managed 14 draws, though, which is why they are four points clear of the cut line. In fact, had it not been for the 8-0 thrashing at Southampton, they'd have a very credible goal difference that would essentially be worth an extra point against the relegation contenders below them. 

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That's not the case, though, so more points will be needed. The good news is there are four home matches left against the bottom 10, including two against Aston Villa and Leicester that will be crunch relegation clashes. After last year's run-in, you can't assume anything with this team, but even if it doesn't get anything from the road dates at Chelsea and Arsenal, there are three other road matches where points will be available.

This is far from a dynamic team–Sunderland has played seven 0-0 draws in the league already this season and has only scored 23 goals, second fewest after Aston Villa–but the Black Cats are hard enough to beat that if they can handle business in a couple of the relegation six-pointers, they should limp across the finish line.

Aston Villa (17th place, 25 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 5, Away: 5

Vs. Top-10: 6, Bottom 10: 4 (3 home)

The Villans were the huge winners midweek, with Christian Benteke's converted penalty at the death pushing them to a crucial 2-1 home win over West Brom. Since Hull and Sunderland (with one point each from their draw) were the only other relegation sides to gain anything, that spot kick could prove to be an enormous boost to Villa's survival hopes.

Even scoring twice against the Baggies, though, Villa remains dead last in the league with just 15 goals in its 28 matches. As a reminder, Leeds United currently holds the Premier League record for fewest goals while staying up, with 28. The Villans almost certainly will make history if they can escape.

The remaining schedule has some pros and cons. The bad is the four away matches remaining against UCL contenders (both Manchester sides, Southampton and Tottenham). Only the So'ton match is late enough that it has a chance to "not matter" for the opponent, and Villa has been absolutely impotent away from home this season, with just four goals scored in 13 matches. Somehow, that's been enough for them to scrape out three 1-0 wins and a couple of draws. The good news is they have four late home matches and none against the top eight in the league. 

They're far from safe, especially with a -23 goal difference that likely will be inferior to a team that catches them from behind down the stretch.

Queens Park Rangers (18th place, 22 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 5, Away: 6

Vs. Top-10: 5, Bottom 10: 6 (2 home)

QPR has a game in hand at this point, which is obviously very valuable, but it has already beaten the four other primary relegation candidates at home, so it is going to have to do one of two things: do some work at home against mid-table sides, or start getting points on the road when it hasn't all season.

The recent 2-0 win at Sunderland represents the Rs' only three points of the season away from Loftus Road. They have four remaining matches against teams in 12th or lower, and they're going to have to get something done there, both to add to their point total and stop other relegation candidates from banking three at their expense.

QPR's main issue is its defense, which is a major issue for a relegation candidate, as goals against are worth more in expected points than goals for (e.g. you are assured at least one point if you keep a clean sheet). The Rs are tied for the most goals allowed in the league so far, and the underlying stats suggest they are indeed the worst defensive side in the EPL. They have allowed the most danger zone shot attempts and their expected goals against (based on chances conceded) is the worst in the league, per the data compiled by Michael Caley at SB Nation's Cartilage Free Captain blog. 

They're going to need their offense, which has underproduced based on advanced stats, to have more of a cutting edge if they're going to survive. This is much more important to QPR than other clubs, too, because significant Financial Fair Play sanctions may await if they are relegated.

Burnley (19th place, 22 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 5, Away: 5

Vs. Top-10: 6, Bottom 10: 4 (1 home)

Burnley was the odds-on favorite to get relegated prior to the season, and it entered this week as the most likely side to go down per ESPNFC's relegation odds, even though it was (and still is) four points clear of last-place Leicester.

Both the Turf Moorians' actual and underlying numbers are very similar to QPR's, but they have one fewer match remaining and only one home match left against a bottom-10 side. Burnley's been frisky for most of the season, but only has one away win in its ledger. If it doesn't nick a couple more somewhere, it's hard to see how it will scrape out of this.

Leicester City (20th place, 18 points)

Remaining Games: Home: 7, Away: 4

Vs. Top-10: 5, Bottom 10: 6 (3 home)

I'm surprised Leicester has been this poor after rolling through the Championship last season. Second-division sides as dominant as the Foxes were usually fare pretty well in their promotion campaign, but it's been anything but in this case. After Aston Villa's win, the Foxes are seven points from safety, and even a rather favorable remaining schedule may not be enough to save them.

They do have the very unusual-for-the-Prem split of seven home and four away matches remaining; the league usually is just about balanced as it works its way through the schedule, but cup ties postponed a Leicester home league match that hasn't been made up yet. They do get shots at Hull City and Aston Villa, but they obviously will need more than that. In a very-best case scenario, Leicester will likely have to nearly double its point haul for the season to survive. 

Can the Foxes find 15-16 points from 11 matches to even give themselves a chance? It feels like every season, one team near the bottom goes on a run, but Leicester's underlying numbers are the worst in the league aside from Hull City. This doesn't look like the right spot for that kind of spurt.

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