Analysis: Swansea win makes it Sunderland v Newcastle for Premier League survival
And then there were four.
That was the grim conclusion drawn by downbeat supporters throughout the North East after Swansea skipper Ashley Williams tapped in a shock winner at Arsenal on Wednesday night, moments before Newcastle United succumbed to an 11th defeat out of 14 away games.
Over recent months, Swansea have looked a decent outside bet as a side that Sunderland and Newcastle could overhaul in the relegation dogfight.
The Welsh club have a manager at the helm with no Premier League experience, lack a recognised goalscorer and have clearly been plagued by in-fighting this season – testified by Jonjo Shelvey’s £12million move to St James’s Park.
But while the six-point margin to Swansea is far from insurmountable – particularly if results swing the complexion of the relegation dogfight again tomorrow – it looks a healthy buffer for Francesco Guidolin’s side present, particularly when their notably superior goal difference is taken into account.
Sunderland’s escapologist acts over recent seasons, and the rapid descents of the likes of Norwich and Hull during the home straight, demonstrate the dangers of writing anyone in or out of survival.
Yet now. On March 4. With 10 games to go. It looks to be a case of three out of the bottom four facing the financial armageddon of Championship football.
Well, in reality, it’s two from three, with Aston Villa already relegated in all-but-name.
Remi Garde’s side have given up, pure and simple.
Sunderland, Norwich and Newcastle uncomfortably linger side by side on 24 points; separated by wafer-thin margins of goal difference. Although the Magpies have a game in hand, it’s at home to Manchester City.
As was the case in 2008-09, Sunderland will have to finish as North East top dogs if they are to remain in the Premier League.
It could, of course, be the fate of both under-achieving, mismanaged clubs that they are fighting for promotion in the Championship next season.
The pair each face do-or-die trips to Carrow Road in April, which could go a long way to deciding which of the trio avoid the drop.
Tomorrow’s encounters could be similarly significant.
Norwich’s trip to Swansea holds evident spoils for both clubs, Newcastle are on home soil against a Bournemouth side who won’t consider themselves safe yet on 32 points, while Sunderland travel to Southampton looking to earn revenge for last season’s 8-0 thumping on the south coast.
But, for Sunderland and Newcastle, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the Tyne-Wear derby in just over a fortnight is going to be a deciding afternoon for both clubs.
Sunderland will have two weeks to prepare for the derby after tomorrow’s encounter due to the FA Cup scheduling, and that will put even more of a dazzling spotlight on the fixture.
The Black Cats’ biggest relegation rivals are their biggest rivals full stop.