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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

Sports

Relegation battle in spotlight now

The Straits Times | Aleksandar Duric | Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

Manchester United playing against Tottenham during an EPL soccer match.

Up until last week, the race for the English Premier League (EPL) title was billed as one of the closest yet, as Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City were all in the mix.

In a space of seven days, the Reds are suddenly odds on to win the league for the first time in 24 years, after beating City 3-2 two Sundays ago, coupled with second-placed Chelsea's unexpected 1-2 defeat by Sunderland last Saturday.

Brendan Rodgers' team, riding high on an 11-match winning run, should have enough in them to seal the title. They take on the Blues on Sunday, knowing that their Anfield crowd will be at its most vociferous and inspirational.

Meanwhile, Crystal Palace, whom they will meet on May 5, have nothing to play for, with their Premier League status secured. Newcastle, their final opponents on May 11, are on a wretched five-match losing spree and do not look like troubling the Reds' title charge.

The more interesting battle, it seems, will take place at the other end of the table.

With three games to go, only three points separate the bottom-four sides Norwich, Cardiff City, Fulham, and Sunderland. Even 12th-placed West Ham, who are seven points clear of safety, are not mathematically safe and must be peering nervously over their shoulders.

Credit has to be given to Palace - top candidates for relegation before the season began. They are guaranteed survival following a run of five straight wins under the brilliant guidance of former Stoke manager Tony Pulis.

For me, Fulham and Norwich are sure-fire bets to end up in the Championship next season.

Norwich may be two points clear of safety for now, but their last three games are against Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. It will be a tough ask to expect them to get anything from these three matches.

Fulham's new owner Shahid Khan has also let the club down with baffling managerial changes.

With the club embroiled in a battle for survival, he sacked Martin Jol, replacing the experienced coach with two foreign managers who have not managed EPL teams before - first Rene Meulensteen, then Felix Magath.

The result? The Cottagers also have the worst defensive record in the league, having conceded 77 goals, and deserve to go down. It boils down to a tough tussle between Cardiff and bottom- placed Sunderland.

While Cardiff are on a two-game unbeaten run, the momentum is undoubtedly with Gus Poyet's team, after they defied all odds and secured four points against City and Chelsea in their last two games.

Breaking Jose Mourinho's 77-game unbeaten home streak at Stamford Bridge will also give their survival charge a much-needed boost.

With one game in hand over the three teams above them and a relegation six-pointer against Cardiff at home on Sunday, I tip the Black Cats to beat the drop.

stsports@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 22 in The Straits Times.

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