Premier League: Sunderland look likely to claim last top-flight relegation spot

Andy Brassell casts his eye across the relegation battle and thinks Sunderland fans have every right to be worried…

It was a textbook hard luck story – chances coming and going, hitting the crossbar, and being undone by a sucker punch when in the ascendancy. Yes, QPR’s defeat to Everton on Sunday was perhaps unfortunate, but it had relegation certainties written all over it, a feeling reinforced by a typically frank post-match interview by Joey Barton which had a sense of the post-mortem about it.

With eight games to go for most teams in the Premier League, the relegation scrap is beginning to crystalise at two different points, and the advent of the international break is probably an appropriate point to analyse it. The bottom two of Leicester (1.222/9 to go down) and QPR (even shorter at 1.132/15) look pretty much doomed.

Even if the latter are only three points behind third-bottom Burnley they face a tough run in, with Chelsea and trips to Liverpool and Manchester City on the horizon. The home form of Chris Ramsey’s team has also deserted them at the worst possible moment – they have lost the last five straight at Loftus Road in the Premier League.

The other cut-off point is between 14th and 15th, to almost quote The Charlatans, where five points separate West Bromwich Albion and – below them – Hull City. So if we assume for the sake of argument that Leicester and QPR have had their chips, we are left with with four possible candidates to fill the remaining spot in the relegation zone.

The aforementioned Burnley are the current occupants, and the favourites to go, at 1.9110/11. There is reason behind this in the sense that they are simply the division’s smallest club, and punters feel that they can’t continue to defy the odds as they have quite spectacularly on occasion this season, notably in taking points from Chelsea and Manchester City in recent weeks.

Their programme after the resumption is tough, with the north London pair of Tottenham and Arsenal on the menu, though both have to come to Turf Moor. It is not inconceivable that the Clarets could eke a few points out of that pair of fixtures, but perhaps more crucial to their prospects of a top-flight stay is that they still have to play Leicester (at home), Hull and Aston Villa (away). Sean Dyche and his team have considerable fortitude and their own fate in their hands still.

Above them Sunderland, priced at 2.6413/8, have a right to be worried. They have just a point more than Burnley and their late loss at West Ham on Saturday takes us back to our previous theme of hard luck tales – Nenê clearly fouled Seb Larsson in the lead-up to Diafra Sakho’s winner, but play continued and Dick Advocaat was sunk in his opening game.

While much criticism of the Dutchman’s truncated reign as Serbia boss overlooks the chaos in which he was expected to work, he remains a left-field choice for the role, and he faces a battle to lift confidence off the floor. Their next match, the derby with Newcastle, takes on epic proportions with a horrible run-in coming up and ending with trips to Arsenal and Chelsea in their last two games.

Saying that a team should ‘just about be alright’ is akin to the kiss of death, but Hull (4.3100/30 to drop) and Aston Villa (6.05/1) really should be, even if they have less than a point per game each. The Tigers were excellent against Chelsea and Dame N’Doye and Abel Hernández look capable of filling the gap left by the injured Nikica Jelavic.

The late nature of Villa’s defeat at Swansea reminded us that they’re not safe yet and their first match after the international break is a tough one too, as they visit Manchester United – though Tim Sherwood and company will perhaps have an eye on the home game with QPR, a team that has lost all but one of their 14 away games this season, four days later as a ready source of points.

There is plenty of fun still to be had with the permutations – if you’re a neutral, at least – but Sunderland look especially vulnerable, to these eyes at least. So savour that Tyne-Wear derby on Saturday 4th as it could be the last for a while.