FULHAM’S fear of relegation to the Championship prompted the Cottagers to take emergency action last night by moving aside boss Rene Meulensteen after just 17 games at the helm.
But with more than half of the top flight still battling to beat the drop, it promises to be an enthralling run-in, albeit an anxious one for Sunderland.
The Football Echo’s Chris Young examines the current state of the relegation scrap and which sides are in the greatest danger of plummeting into the Championship.
THOSE of a Sunderland persuasion would be falling into hypocrisy if they criticised Fulham’s decision to embark upon the managerial merry-go-round.
After Ellis Short’s decision to jump up and down on the panic button last March paid off – in the very short-term at least – Sunderland showed that last-gasp changes in the dugout do not always result in catastrophe.
But Fulham owner Shahid Khan’s hasty move of the chess board last night had more than a whiff of desperation about it.
The deposed Rene Meulensteen described Fulham’s hierarchy as “freaking out” after taking to the airwaves within hours of his dismissal and it’s impossible to disagree.
That is what the fear of losing the Premier League’s financial windfall can do to owners.
However, Sunderland will desperately hope that the removal of Meulensteen – who had hardly improved the Cottagers – and the appointment of disciplinarian replacement Felix Magath sees the top flight’s basement boys slip out of the division at a whimper.
By reputation, Magath appears to be a German Paolo Di Canio and will certainly make Fulham more organised defensively for next weekend’s trip to West Brom.
Yet the damage may already have been done.
Realistically, Fulham will need to win six of their remaining 12 league games. There are too many old heads at Craven Cottage, lacking the legs or energy necessary to achieve that tally.
But given the topsy-turvy nature of this season’s relegation battle, it would be naive to completely write off the Cottagers.
Sunderland rejoined Fulham in the bottom three on Tuesday night and didn’t have the luxury of clawing themselves back out of the drop zone in midweek.
Their failure to beat Hull City last weekend felt like a rabbit punch to the midriff, though as the Black Cats squandered the opportunity to forge some breathing space for themselves in the relegation battle.
But does it matter that Gus Poyet’s side now lie third bottom on just goal difference?
Composure is the key attribute which will be needed among players and supporters over the next three months, while the path to Premier League survival navigates around a succession of hair-pin bends.
Sunderland may be back in the relegation zone for weeks, it may be for months. But the only concern should be where they lie by tea-time on May 11.
Poyet’s men still have five games at the Stadium of Light against their relegation rivals, plus a trip to Norwich City. They have to believe that those fixtures offer sufficient opportunity to get the points necessary to beat the drop.
Sunderland lie third bottom, yet they are only four points adrift of 10th-placed Swansea City. Those are the hairpin margins separating the sides desperate to avoid the financial wilderness of life in the Championship.
That tiny advantage may be sufficient for Swansea, Hull, Aston Villa, Stoke and West Ham though – all of whom have 27 or 28 points on the board.
From those foundations, a return of just three wins from their final 12 games should be enough to get over the finishing line.
Even though the gaps are so slight and the relegation picture seems to change by the week, it is difficult now to envisage the three doomed sides emerging from outside the current bottom six.
Fulham and Cardiff are predictably the odds-on favourites with the bookmakers to form two of that infamous trio and it’s a logical prediction.
Despite Fulham’s hefty outlay in the January transfer window – including £11million on Konstantinos Mitroglou – the overhaul of an over-the-hill squad has come too little, too late.
And even though Magath is no spring chicken and boasts an impressive CV from German football, he is still a novice in the Premier League.
The same applies to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Cardiff.
For all the likeable ex-Manchester United frontman had built himself a lofty reputation in his native Norway, the baby-faced assassin remains a toddler when it comes to experience of managing on these shores.
The signings of Kenwyne Jones and Wilfried Zaha have improved their survival prospects, but the Bluebirds are still far too open at the back.
But if the current bottom two are still in that forsaken area at the end of the season, the other relegation spot is much more of a free-for-all.
West Brom, only lying above Sunderland on goal difference, lack a serious goal threat after losing the services of Romelu Lukaku and Shane Long.
Plus, the Baggies are another of those sides with a manager – Pepe Mel – taking his first steps in English football.
Sunderland have generated some momentum under Gus Poyet and have proved there is sufficient quality in their ranks to pull away from danger.
But the Black Cats’ form at the Stadium of Light remains dubious, while the Capital One Cup final is the great unknown. How will Sunderland react if they succumb against Manchester City next month?
Like Sunderland, Crystal Palace have defied those pre-Christmas predictions of doom and gloom to embark upon a remarkable run under Tony Pulis.
Only three of Palace’s points under Pulis have come away from home though.
The ex-Stoke boss has taken advantage of the heated atmosphere at Selhurst Park to record wins over Hull, West Brom, Stoke, Cardiff and West Ham there.
But that was an appealing run of fixtures. Their remaining home games are against Manchester United, Southampton, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Liverpool. That’s not so straightforward.
The smart money for relegation is on Norwich though.
The last four entries on the fixture list for the Canaries are harrowing – Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
That will be playing on the minds of Norwich’s players already.
Chris Hughton’s men will be plagued by the worry that their points tally needs to have reached the late 30s before those final four games.
Anything less and...
Do Norwich have the goals in their ranks to collect that many points over the next eight games though? With Gary Hooper’s scoring run drying up over recent weeks, it’s doubtful.
But as Sunderland and Palace have both proved this season, it’s dangerous to be making predictions in this relegation battle.
Just when a team look as if they have been hurtling towards the abyss, they have turned it around – West Ham being the prime example after taking 10 points from the last four games.
All Sunderland can focus on is recording the four – at most five – victories needed.
Whatever their league position or the fortunes of others, Sunderland have to keep their cool to get those wins.
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