When the final whistle blew at the Emirates on Wednesday, signifying both Sunderland's ninth 0-0 draw of the season and the priceless point that guaranteed the Black Cats' survival in the relegation race, it left two very nervous teams battling over one last spot in next season's league.
The scenario for Sunday is simple: Hull City must beat Manchester United (which is all but sealed into fourth place and a Champions League playoff spot) to have any chance of survival.
If the Tigers do get the three points, any non-win by Newcastle at home to West Ham will do the trick. A Newcastle draw in that scenario would leave the sides level on points, but Hull would survive on superior goal difference.
Neither Hull nor Newcastle was expected to be in this pressure-packed position when the season kicked off, although there are different gradients of surprise when comparing the two. Hull was listed at a we-don't-think-you're-safe 7-2 to be relegated, but those were still longer odds than seven teams in the 20-team league, meaning Hull had a fairly decent presumed cushion.
|Hull City vs. Manchester United||Hull must win (and get help) to avoid relegation; Man United has slim hopes of finishing third (and avoiding UCL play-in round).|
|Newcastle vs. West Ham||A loss leaves Newcastle open to relegation.|
|Arsenal vs. West Brom||Any Arsenal result that doesn't see the Gunners blow a +7 goal differential over Man United seals third place.|
|Stoke City vs. Liverpool||A Liverpool win seals a Europa League berth for the club.|
|Everton vs. Tottenham||Spurs, who trail Liverpool by a point, can sneak back into Europa League if Liverpool slips up.|
|Manchester City vs. Southampton||The Saints trail fifth-place Liverpool by two points, sixth-place Tottenham by one and are within range of a Europa League spot.|
Newcastle was listed at a much loftier 11-1, which makes its predicament quite intriguing. That was the same price as Stoke City, which will finish a comfortable ninth in the table this season. The Magpies weren't a certainty like the expected top seven, but they were quite far from the likes of Burnley and QPR–and even Hull–in the eyes of the bookmakers.
That said, both teams are in this predicament on merit. Hull entered the campaign with significant hopes of advancement and a Europa League qualifying spot in its pocket, but it threw away its European adventure and proceeded to be one of the most toothless Premier League sides all season. Advanced stats have disliked Hull pretty much from the get-go, and it has lost six of its last eight matches–including a soul-crushing 1-0 home loss to Burnley, which still relegated the Clarets–to fall into 18th place, two points behind Newcastle and safety.
For Newcastle even to be in this position with one match remaining is fairly shocking, but the club has more than earned it. Even after highly critiqued manager Alan Pardew elected to leave midseason to take over at Crystal Palace, the Magpies had plenty of breathing room. At the end of February, they were sitting on 35 points, a total that still could stand up as just good enough for survival. When SI.com ran a relegation primer in March, Newcastle wasn't even mentioned, as it was so far above the cutline.
What's happened since under John Carver, though, would set the standard for Premier League collapses should Newcastle not survive on Sunday. After eight straight defeats, the Magpies finally grabbed an uninspiring point at home to West Brom, and then proceeded to throw away a lead at already relegated QPR last weekend. One point in their last 10 matches has seen them passed by the likes of Leicester City, Aston Villa and Sunderland, and here we are, safety still not assured, somehow.
Oddly, this is not unfamiliar territory for the Magpies. The club suffered a comparably shocking relegation in 2009, with an eeriely similar schedule on the final day. At that point, owner Mike Ashley put the club on the market for what now would be around $150 million–a hefty price for a Championship club, but a potential bargain for a club the size of Newcastle. He quickly changed his mind, and Newcastle bounced back the very next season, winning the Championship and promotion back the Premier League.
Recent history doesn't favor that kind of recovery, though, even for clubs that have the financial might to withstand the drop initially. If Norwich City falls to Middlesbrough in this season's promotion playoff, only two of the last 15 teams (five seasons) to be relegated would have earned promotion back to the Premier League the following season. Both West Ham (in 2012) and QPR (in 2014) made it back up via the playoff. The last club to gain auto-promotion in the season following a relegation is that Newcastle side in 2010, which won the Championship by 11 points over West Brom.
That may be small solace to the Northeast club should the worst-case scenario unfold this weekend, with the added grief of having arch rival Sunderland squeak to safety ahead of them. Championship Sunday may lack the requisite drama at the top of the table this season, but there certainly will be two matches at the bottom worth watching. Well, given how these sides of played, maybe not worth watching, but certainly worth following.
For one, the final whistle will bring a giant exhale and the start of planning for another season in the top flight, with all the riches and spotlight that go with it. For the other, it's an instant push into the unknown, and with a highly competitive Championship returning a large number of promotion contenders, who knows how long the stay in the second level could be.