Standing at the halfway point of what is turning out to be one of the most wonderfully unpredictable seasons in Premier League history, five sides have less reason than most to be enjoying themselves. For fans of Blackburn and Bolton, realistic hopes of improving on last season have been rapidly transformed into a desperate desire to survive, whereas QPR, Wigan and Wolves supporters will have started preparing themselves for the struggle some time in May. However, expected or not, the sudden, looming prospect of relegation is a terrifying, torturous, adrenaline-pumping one that causes devotees more heartache than joy along the way. In that spirit, let’s see how the teams involved have got on so far, and what their chances are of playing top flight football next season.
Blackburn: Bottom at Christmas. The phrase strikes heart-stopping fear into the heart of any football fan unlucky enough to be associated with it. In nineteen seasons of the Premier League, only West Brom in 2005 have survived this unwanted landmark, and Blackburn’s chances of joining them in the record books look doubtful. Rovers are beset by injuries, dealing with the constant vitriol pouring down from the stands on manager Steve Kean, and haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last twenty-two matches. Scott Dann, widely-praised after his debut season in the Premier League, has been poor since his £6m transfer from Birmingham in August, making the lengthy absence of Rovers captain Ryan Nelsen all the more troubling. His return, as well as those of fellow defenders Michel Salgado and Gael Givet, cannot come soon enough, especially with Dann now ruled out for several weeks. The only reason why Blackburn still have a hope of staying up is their success at the other end of the pitch. Largely thanks to the sparkling form of Yakubu, Rovers have scored more goals than anyone else in the bottom half of the table, with Junior Hoilett and Morten Gamst Pedersen often providing the creative spark. Also, despite fan protests, the team’s spirit seems to have held strong, and a commendable recent draw at Anfield was followed by the astonishing 3-2 win at Old Trafford, a result that suggests Kean may be the man to save Blackburn after all. However, signings must be made in January to provide more solidity at the back, and crucial players such as Hoilett and Samba need to be persuaded to stay.
Verdict: The gutsy performances against Liverpool and Man Utd were reminiscent of the Blackburn of Sam Allardyce’s tenure, but unless Kean’s side can consistently repeat this type of showing, their fragility at the back will send them down.
Bolton: With fourteen defeats from nineteen games, Owen Coyle’s side look like they still haven’t arrested the slump which began with a crushing 5-0 defeat to Stoke City in last season’s FA Cup semi-final. Though Ivan Klasnic has impressed with seven goals, Bolton still don’t carry enough threat going forward. They look like they’re missing the thrust and dynamism of Daniel Sturridge and Johan Elmander, who notched up a combined total of nineteen goals last season for Wanderers. Coyle deserves some sympathy on this front, since long-term injuries have deprived him of his two best creative talents in the shape of Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee. However, even their presence would have done little to solve the Trotters’ main problem, which is clearly their defence. Conceding at a rate of over two per game, Bolton are almost on track to match Swindon Town’s record of letting in a hundred goals in a single Premier League season, back when the top flight contained twenty-two teams. These defensive frailties have turned a previously intimidating trip to the Reebok into an almost-guaranteed three points, as eight of the ten teams to visit the stadium this season have found out. Gary Cahill has been poor since he had his head turned by bigger clubs in the summer, and the lack of a stable back four has also contributed to his side letting in eighteen more goals than they had conceded at this stage last season. The England international’s likely departure to Chelsea in January will further weaken this porous defence, especially as David Wheater, his logical replacement, has already been shown two red cards in seven appearances this season.
Verdict: Coyle has proven his quality as a manager, but keeping up a Bolton side that are leaking goals at a rate of knots will be the biggest challenge he’s faced. He must make some shrewd purchases in the transfer window to tighten up at the back, otherwise the Trotters’ eleven-year stay in the Premier League looks set to end.
QPR: Despite striding back into the top flight after a fifteen-year absence as winners of the Championship, Rangers are the lowest-placed of the promoted sides at the halfway point of the season. This is down to a combination of inconsistency and poor home form, with their only win at Loftus Road coming in a contentious 1-0 victory over nine-man Chelsea. Erratic performances don’t necessarily signal the death knell for a Premier League side, but since earning the bragging rights over their West London rivals, the R’s have taken just five points from ten games, with no wins in their last seven. A major reason for this slump is that like Wigan, they’ve scored at a rate of less than a goal per game, with attacking summer signings DJ Campbell and Jay Bothroyd notching up just three strikes between them. The experienced Heidar Helguson has seven goals in twelve appearances, but there has been little support for the Icelandic hitman. There is not enough creativity in Neil Warnock’s side, and one of the major reasons for this is Adel Taarabt’s poor form. The Morocco international, so central to QPR’s march to the title with nineteen goals and sixteen assists, has looked unsettled this season, with Premier League teams finding it much easier to combat his fancy footwork. Midfielders Shaun Wright-Phillips and Alejandro Faurlin have looked impressive, but their combined total of two assists must be significantly improved on in the second half of the season.
Verdict: After a decent start to the season, Rangers have faded badly. The return of Anton Ferdinand from injury will help, as the team pick up half a point more on average when he plays, but Warnock also has to bring in some attacking talent in order to improve his team’s strike rate. If the R’s don’t find their form soon, their lack of Premier League experience may well send them straight back down.
Wigan: The Latics had a terrible start to the season, as eight straight defeats left them rock bottom in mid-November, with just five points on the board. However, the club never faltered in its support for manager Roberto Martinez, whose emphasis on flowing, passing football has seen his side pick up ten points from their last eight games, climbing to eighteenth in the process. This encouraging run of results has included impressive draws at home to Liverpool, Chelsea, and away at Stoke after being reduced to ten men. Excluding the thrashings suffered at the hands of Arsenal and Man Utd, Wigan’s defence has let in an average of just a goal per game in this period, compared to two per game beforehand. The main problem for the club has been budgetary constraints, which have restricted Martinez in his efforts to strengthen a squad that achieved a small miracle by staying up last season. The permanent signing of Ali Al-Habsi for £4m has proved a wise investment, but the £9.5m garnered from selling Charles N’Zogbia has not been used to find a replacement for the mercurial winger. Wigan have consequently struggled for creativity, hitting the back of the net just seventeen times, fewer than any other team in the league. Hugo Rodallega, now in the last year of his contract, is a shadow of his former self, and Conor Sammon, though intelligent in holding the ball up, still does not seem like a top-quality striker. From a combined total of twenty-seven Premier League appearances this season, the pair have failed to register a single goal. Top scorer Franco Di Santo has just four strikes, and is inconsistent at best.
Verdict: Wigan have a fantastic spirit, and Martinez has done extremely well to lift his side out of a damaging slump, but he needs to add attacking talent in January. If he does, then the Latics’ experience of past relegation tussles should see them survive once again.
Wolves: Mick McCarthy’s men earned their right to play top-flight football in the final few minutes of last season, and it seems that his side will once again take their survival to the wire. However, an early-season blip, encompassing five consecutive defeats, has been overcome, and though they still lack overall quality, the team’s spirit more than makes up for it. Ten of Wolves’s seventeen points have been earned after going behind, showing the never-say-die attitude which McCarthy has drilled into his squad. In Steven Fletcher, he also has a rapidly-improving striker who has profited from the invention shown by Stephen Hunt and Matt Jarvis to hit eight goals in fourteen appearances. Wolves’s main problem has been in defence, but despite not having kept a clean sheet for sixteen games, Wayne Hennessey has been in impressive form, particularly in the recent draws against Bolton and Arsenal. Jamie O’Hara’s energy and passing ability will be missed during his month on the sidelines, but his potential replacement, the tough-tackling Emmanuel Frimpong of Arsenal, is an astute loan purchase.
Verdict: With a large squad and experience of what it takes to stay in the Premier League, Wolves should be well-prepared to earn themselves another season in the top flight. McCarthy’s side seems to be performing to their potential, and problems will only arise if the teams below them start playing to theirs.