Relegation battle: West Ham, Bournemouth and Aston Villa know time is running out
Three of the Premier League's bottom four are in action on Wednesday
On the first weekend that the Premier League programme was suspended, back in March, the vice-chair of West Ham United, Karren Brady, proposed “the only fair and reasonable thing to do is declare the whole season null and void”.
She cited the public health risks around Covid-19, a disease about which even less was known then than it is now.
The response was shrill. West Ham were 16th in the table, above the relegation zone on goal difference. Self-interest was suspected, and the word ‘survival’ - standard football-speak for the opposite of relegation - was still being bandied about in a way that would soon seem inappropriate amid a deadly pandemic.
But Brady had one thing right: She predicted that only by clearing the summer months of international tournaments, as the game's major confederations soon did, would there be any prospect of club football completing its fixtures.
The Premier League 2019/20 is now two weeks into Project Restart, and provided it is not derailed, it will come to something resembling a normal, nail-biting conclusion - at least at the lower end of the table.
The champions may have been crowned spectacularly early; the last dropouts into the Championship look set to be scrapping it out until late July.
Three of the bottom four are in action on Wednesday. For Norwich City, Bournemouth and West Ham, Project Restart is very much Project Deja Vu so far. They all reached mid-March on a run of three defeats in their last four league games. They all reach July with no points from a possible six in June.
Norwich look all but relegated. A seven-point gap effectively separates them from safety, given a debilitating goal-difference deficit. “We need a miracle,” admits manager Daniel Farke. Mostly, they need goals. Norwich, at Arsenal, have just one from their last seven league matches.
The knot of clubs above Norwich could scarcely be tighter. West Ham players will arrive at the London Stadium for the visit of Chelsea 17th in the table. By the time they kick off, they may have dropped into the relegation zone, with Bournemouth, who host Newcastle United, an earlier match.
Bournemouth and West Ham are locked on 27 points, as are Aston Villa, who have played one game more and gouged two points from their four outings since the resumption.
In the dry landscape of the Premier League’s basement, that counts almost as a strong run. In 13 matches combined, the bottom five in the division have collected a mere three draws and no wins.
Watford, in 16th, sit a point clear of West Ham, Bournemouth and Villa. But they have lost their last two, and have senior players unavailable for breaching lockdown rules. Manager Nigel Pearson, who has guided Watford up from bottom of the table since he took over in December, could see his club back in the drop zone by the end of the night.
Pearson knows the territory. He oversaw Leicester’s so-called Great Escape from relegation in 2015, and that back-catalogue persuaded Watford to make him their third manager this season. David Moyes, another with experience of a relegation dogfight, is West Ham’s second.
Their combatants in the relegation joust are not such famed firefighters. Dean Smith is in his second season at Villa, but his first as a top-flight boss. Eddie Howe is in the seventh season of this, his second spell in charge of Bournemouth.
Since promotion from the Championship in 2015, Howe has overseen one real skirmish with relegation, but always felt confident his Bournemouth teams were potent enough to come through crises. “The biggest concern now is the goalscoring issue,” said Howe of the meagre tally of 29 goals this term. “It’s very unlike us.”
With leading scorer Callum Wilson suspended, and the best provider of assists, Ryan Fraser, no longer part of the first-team squad as he seeks a move, Bournemouth have high hurdles to overcome.
And that’s before Howe turns his mind to the fixture list. Next up after Newcastle: Manchester United away, then Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester and Manchester City.
Karren Brady, meanwhile, surveys the calendar she thought should be declared null and void back in March and can glimpse some light.
West Ham’s next six opponents, after Chelsea, include Norwich and Watford. That's two big chances to eke out the points that might ensure the final game need not be a winner-takes-all, high-stress play-off to stay in the Premier League: West Ham host Villa on the last day of this, the longest of seasons.
Published: July 1, 2020 07:04 AM