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Monday, January 30, 2023

Decisive days or an opportunity to escape? Premier League clubs face crunch time in 11-team relegation fight

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Can a team be simultaneously sitting in the top half and doing the cliched nervous look back over their shoulder at the bottom three? How about being adrift alone at the bottom on the worst run in the division, but at the same time being only two wins off mid-table?

The Premier League, congested and contorted and crammed in as it is this season, offers plenty of both to the entire bottom half – and perhaps beyond.

Brentford, for example, sit tenth. They have their manager signed to a new deal, beat Man City before the World Cup, produced a credible – first half, at least – display to hold Tottenham to a 2-2 draw on Boxing Day and are in the top half of the table. All should look, and feel, well. But they also have just that one win at City in their last seven and, if they do not beat West Ham before the turn of the year, will have only two league victories to their name in four months when they host Liverpool in their 2023 opener.

Such a bewildering mix of impressive and implausible is rife throughout the lower end of the Premier League as we approach the midway point, making the double-header of matches across the new year period even more important, both to short- and longer-term plans.

Two quickfire league games are then interrupted by the FA Cup, with the backdrop of the January transfer window giving all clubs both opportunity and cause for pause at the same time. Is it time for change? Will an addition or two work wonders? Is the squad deep enough? And, usually after a couple of bad results in that particular month, how late is too late to switch manager and still get a face or two in for a brand new head coach?

Some have already made that move, of course. Nottingham Forest made the big, bold call to do the complete opposite and actually back their manager, but Bournemouth have new owners as well as a new boss, with Gary O’Neil given the chance after a caretaker stint. In more routine fashion, Southampton and Wolves both replaced their head coaches right before the World Cup break, with contrasting fortunes upon the league’s return.

Nathan Jones has been unable to guide Southampton to an immediate win, but Julen Lopetegui picked one up with Wolverhampton Wanderers in the very last minute against Everton.

Regardless of the points haul from that particular gameweek, the mentality is the same among those at the bottom: focus on the next game fast, because this is the period when back to back positive scorelines can have a huge impact on the league table and the campaign as a whole.

Speaking after the 3-1 loss to Brighton which left Saints bottom, James Ward-Prowse highlighted the importance of upcoming matches. “This time of year gives you the opportunity to turn bad results around very quickly and it’s a definitive period of the season for us,” he said. “There’s a lot of winnable games coming up but that’s down to us and it starts on the training pitch with the work we’re going to do with the manager.”

Julen Lopetegui kept the forward-looking approach too. “We are happy but we are happy only for today,” he said. “We will enjoy it but it is only three points and we know we have ahead of us a very hard task and we will continue working to improve a lot of things. I am aware of our position. But this is only one step. We are in a bad position and we have to be ready tomorrow morning to start thinking about Manchester United. When we win we are happy for two or three hours, no more.”

Lopetegui has had an instant impact for Wolves

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Lopetegui has had an instant impact for Wolves

(Getty Images)

The same theme will doubtless be heard from Leeds United, West Ham United and Everton, the three clubs just outside the dotted line right now.

And while the quality of their squads and the stature of their managers will mean they’re not really expected to be in a battle at the bottom come April and May, both Leicester City and Aston Villa are, by any normal measure, in a bit of a scrap right now – just four and five points respectively above the drop zone.

With such emphasis on the upcoming games, then, it’s only natural that one or two might be feeling something along the lines of trepidation, as much as opportunity.

The Hammers face Brentford and Leeds, and need at least one result to ease the pressure on David Moyes, despite him saying he still feels he has the fans’ backing. Saints hosting Forest – 20th vs 19th as it stands right now – might be the single biggest battle at the bottom of all, but Everton will also harbour real concerns over where points are coming from next, given they travel to Man City before hosting seventh-placed Brighton.

West Ham have struggled this season after so much success in the pervious campaign

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West Ham have struggled this season after so much success in the pervious campaign

(Getty Images)

There’s even scope for mind games, double-bluffing or raising optimism through victory in the cup as Crystal Palace play Southampton and Brentford face West Ham – do those teams go full strength to leave opponents feeling down in defeat, save themselves for the league or risk key players through injury?

It all leads in to who might be looking extremely concerned by mid-January after Everton vs Southampton, Wolves vs West Ham and Brentford vs Bournemouth all take place on the same day, with just one more round of Premier League games to follow before the transfer window shuts.

And perhaps, if previous years are anything to go buy, just one more round of games for clubs to make the huge call over whether those on the pitch and in the dugout are enough to keep them in the top flight.

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