Saturday, October 18, 2008

Relegation Battle at the early stage

Is it too early to be talking about relegation battles in this Barclays Premier League season? Perhaps.
But of the 10 clashes this weekend one stands out as an almost ‘must win', ‘do or die', encounter and it takes place at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday.

That it features Stoke City will not come as a surprise to many. Most pundits felt that the squad put together by Tony Pulis lacked the necessary quality to perform at the very highest level. That the nascent relegation mire also involves Tottenham Hotspur is unheralded, unanticipated, and widely unexpected.

Spurs remain as the only BPL side yet to win a game this season, with a manager whose tenure is under threat, and with a bunch of profoundly talented but under-performing players who still seem to be displaying first date nervousness when kitting up and taking to the field with each other.

Juande Ramos has been given the dreaded ‘vote of confidence' by the Tottenham board of directors, who insist that he will be given time to get things right. Even at this stage, time may be running out.

If Tottenham are still bottom of the league when all around them are tucking into their turkey at Christmas time (it's worth noting that only one cub in the history of the BPL has been bottom of the table heading into the New Year, and still managed to avoid relegation) Ramos's position will be untenable. Changes will have to be made; horses changed in midstream; and the building process begun again, no doubt with an influx of new players after the January transfer window closes.

Spurs need a result this weekend, and so do their opponents. It was never going to be an easy season for Stoke City, and despite a fantastic spirit at the club and a manager who knows how to best utilise the resources he has, they're ‘workmanlike', at best.

In Rory Delap they have an individual who can produce siege gun throw-ins that have already proved their effectiveness in unsettling even the best defences, and in Ricardo Fuller they have a striker who, on his day, is a major threat. Looking through the rest of the squad, and with every respect to a group of players who work hard and play hard, there doesn't appear to be an awful lot more to concern other teams in the league.

Conversely, Hull City have had a stunning start to their first season in the top flight. They host a financially beleaguered West Ham United side, also on Sunday, in a game that could see Phil Brown's side move even close to the top of the table.

Everyone's favourites to make their stay in the BPL a short one (‘season-long' seemed to conform to most expectations) Hull have confounded in style. Back-to-back wins in North London have taken them to the heady heights of 3rd in the table, and produced a confidence and self-belief that is proving hard to shake.

West Ham have also enjoyed a good season start, but the club is, reportedly, in disarray off the field, with bad financial news counteracting the feel-good factor of having a new, dynamic and charismatic manager. Sunday's clash will give us a good indication of where both teams are ‘at' at this juncture.

From inept, to sublime, and back to merely ordinary; that's been Arsenal's form of late, losing to Hull at home, dismantling FC Porto in the UEFA Champions League, and then failing to get more than a point at Sunderland. Arsenal need a win on Saturday at The Emirates to keep the pressure on title race leaders Chelsea and Liverpool, and they face an Everton side that may well be buoyed by David Moyes' decision to sign a new 5 year contract.

Liverpool face a Wigan Athletic side that has played better than their current points total suggests, knowing that in their last league encounter at Anfield they allowed Stoke City to escape with a point.

Having said that, two weeks ago, Liverpool came away from the City of Manchester Stadium with all the spoils, despite trailing 2-0 at half time. It is precisely that kind of result that serves to firm up Liverpool's title credentials, but they do need to despatch Wigan on Saturday with a minimum of fuss to add further weight to their burgeoning expectations.

Manchester United must be confident of taking the points against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, despite the fact that the Baggies have secured two wins on the bounce in recent league games. Tony Mowbray's side sits 9th in the table, and continue to try to play attacking, stylish football. They will relish their day at the Theatre of Dreams, and would be delighted to come away with a point. Manchester United need to be ruthless.

Left, right and centre, once again the Barclays Premier League throws up fascinating encounters. If Stoke were entertaining Tottenham in their current positions with only a few games of the season remaining, we would have every right to invoke ‘do or die'. So why not now?

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