Let’s face it, there are three possible scenarios for the rest of the season. First, we win all our remaining 14 games and end the season on 67 points, above Palace but with us left to moan about having just missed out on a play-off spot (which given our prevailing form we would have been a shoo-in to win). Second, we lose our next five or six and relegation is effectively confirmed in time to plan for an Easter break far away from football. Third, understandably, something in between.
It’s premature to get really excited after the Plymouth game, given how poor they were. The next couple of games, both away, will determine whether last Saturday was the crucial win we hope or just a blip. But, and call me an irrational dreamer if you must, there are grounds for relative optimism.
First, the players are still learning how to play together, which is hardly surprising given how long many of them have been at the club. This in itself offers the possibility of continued improvement if confidence can be bolstered by more good results.
Second, the return of Racon and prospective return of Zhi do, for the first time this season, give us real options in midfield. A group of (in no particular order) Sam, Soares (who has extended his loan), Ambrose, Racon, Zhi, Bailey, Spring, Holland, Wright and Shelvey, plus Semedo if he gets fit in time, should stand comparison with most of this division’s midfields. Also, while there are drawbacks with the midfield quartet on Saturday (Bailey, Racon, Spring, Soares), with Bailey not especially comfortable wide-left and Soares’ inclusion meaning no starting berth for Sam (who to my mind has been involved in most of our best moments this season), it must be behind Parkinson’s thinking that all four of them are likely to score. Bailey, Racon and Spring have all demonstrated that they can shoot. Given that we have spent most of the season with forwards firing blanks (or rather not able to load in the first place), this has to be a real change for the better – and a merited pat on the back for the boss.
Third (and on this one the jury has to still be out), is the possibility that Kandol and Dickson can provide the forward partnership that we need (and with Burton suspended for Saturday presumably Todorov will at least make the bench). And finally, barring injuries the defence is looking reasonably settled, with Ward looking like the type of player who can partner Hudson, Murty still here, Youga likely to improve with a run (I hope), and Elliot having taken his chance to prove himself our number one in goal.
Given this, it seems almost irreverent to think about relegation (I’m actually fearful that we will end the season is better shape than at any other time in terms of team performance – but still go down). Nevertheless, in the interests of balance let’s take a look at the division (remember when we did this based on points totals for promotion and thought those were hard times?). It goes without saying that two of Wolves, Reading and Birmingham will get the automatic promotion spots (with the one missing out favourites for the play-offs). The next eight (down to QPR in 11th) are in a scrap for three play-off spots, Then there’s a block of six (possibly seven including Barnsley after their win at Sheff Wed and given their games in hand) unlikely to feature in the promotion or relegation battles. That leaves the bottom six.
From what I’ve seen this season, Palace aside Plymouth are the worst team (obviously they are on a very bad run and weren’t always so poor), followed by Derby, Norwich, Southampton and Forest (despite their act of gross larceny in winning at The Valley). Derby seem to be pulling themselves together under Clough and their trouncing of Blackpool suggests they are unlikely to drop back sufficiently to come within our realistic orbit. I find it hard to see Watford imploding either. That to my mind makes Southampton, Plymouth, Forest, and Norwich as the likeliest targets for us to overhaul (it’s not exactly rocket science is it?). And the good news is that they are all on awful runs.
Southampton, who could of course be bottom on Saturday, may take the administration option if their next five or six games turn out badly. Leaving that aside, they are on 28 points from 32 games. Of their remaining 14 games (seven home, seven away) next three are Preston and Cardiff at home then Ipswich away. All tough games but all capable of being won by a team in form. Fortunately you can’t say that of Southampton, who have won just one of their last 15. They have yet to play away at Birmingham and Wolves and will still host play-off contenders Preston, Cardiff, QPR and Burnley. Of the teams around the bottom they have Derby at home and Forest away (on the last day of the season, which could be interesting). Oh, and us of course. Bottom line is if we end the season around or below Southampton we’ve had it. Points prediction: 11 points from remaining 14 games, season total of 39 points.
Plymouth. It’s tempting to predict nil points for them for the remainder of the season. But of course they could sack Sturrock and get the replacement lift that all except us benefit from. They are on 35 points from 33 games. Recent form of 6 points from 11 games is another welcome statistic. Next up for them will be Sheff Utd at home and Wolves away. These games could see the manager go. After that they still have to play Reading and Birmingham but also vital (for them) clashes against Watford (home) and Norwich (away). Like Southampton they have a relatively good final bout of games, against teams with possibly nothing left to play for (Coventry, Doncaster, QPR and finally Barnsley). Points prediction: 12 points from 14 games, season total of 47.
Forest. They’re on 34 points from 33 games. Of their remaining 13 fixtures only six are at home, starting with Derby in the next round of fixtures then Preston, Swansea, Wolves, Bristol City, Coventry and finally the Southampton fixture on the last day. Add in away trips to Reading, Watford, Burnley, Barnsley, Sheff Utd and Blackpool and it’s not an impossible situation for them. However, they’ve taken only 1 point from their last four fixtures and if they lose against Derby and then away at Reading they will be on a real slide. Points prediction: 13 points from 13 games, season total of 47.
Norwich. I can’t wish relegation on Norwich, which is one of the best away trips going. Well, I can, but only in extremis (ie us or them – and of course we host them on the final day, so remember these comments Norwich, if you’re safe we want the points). But only 32 points from 33 and they too are on a poor run, not having won in 5. Next up are home games against Burnley and Coventry, both winnable. But if they fail they have QPR and Blackpool away to follow, so much for them rests on the next two. Of all the clubs around the bottom Norwich’s run-in looks the easiest (at least before the final day). Only Birmingham away and Reading at home, with winnable home fixtures. Points prediction: 13 points from 13 games, season total of 45.
Last season Leicester went down with 52 points, but from the above it would seem that, even allowing for higher points averages than before for lowly teams (as they scrap for survival), 50 points should be sufficient. If Southampton fall by the wayside we have to be targeting 22-25 points from our remaining 14 games. That might be a mix of 6-7 wins 4-7 draws, ie only losing at most four more games. Another way of looking at it is that if we continue our present form – two wins, two defeats in the last four – we would end up on 46 points, at least in the mix. Basically we have to be the form team for the remainder of the season. But before our thoughts can turn to clashes with Watford, Southampton, Derby and Norwich there is the small matter of Barnsley and Swansea away. The importance of the former might have been eased by their midweek result, but we have to view this as a winnable game coming on the back of our success last Saturday – and there aren’t that many of them left.