Premier League Relegation Watch: Matchweek 35

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Matchweek 35 marks the weekend when 20th place Reading and 19th place Queens Park Rangers, both on 24 points, must win to avoid being relegated. If either club has a result go against them over the next four matches, they will be mathematically eliminated from the top-flight.

The relegation focus, therefore, shifts to the other seven clubs that could potentially fill that fatal final spot in the drop zone. Here’s a look where each of the competing clubs stand going into this weekend’s fixtures.

Wigan Athletic (18th place; 33 played; 31 points)

Hardly a stranger to a relegation battle the Latics have lost two straight matches (0-1 to City and 0-2 to West Ham) and haven’t won a game since the 1-0 victory over Norwich on March 30th. Roberto Martinez’ men have been distracted from the Premiership due to their achievements in the FA Cup, where they are set to face Manchester City in the final on May 11th.

This weekend Wigan takes on a Tottenham side that can’t afford to drop points as they hunt down a spot in next year’s Champions League. Despite the competitive matchup it’s one that Wigan is capable of handling as they’ve taken points in six of the last ten meetings with Spurs.

A loss to Tottenham wouldn’t spell doom for Martinez’ side as their remaining schedule provides a game in hand and opponents with whom they are much better matched: West Brom (A), Swansea (H), Arsenal (A) and Aston Villa (H).

Aston Villa (17th place; 34 played; 34 points)

Three points clear of Wigan is Aston Villa, who welcome Paulo Di Canio’s Sunderland side to Villa Park for a six point relegation belter. Paul Lambert’s squad has only managed a single victory the last five times the Black Cats have visited the Midlands. But with Gabriel Agbonlahor’s return from a groin injury to play 90 minutes against Manchester United on Monday, the Villains have a fully fit squad for Sunday’s clash.

With Wigan’s game in hand, Villa can’t afford to drop points in this fixture before they see the season out away at Norwich City, home against Chelsea and away at Wigan.

Newcastle United (16th place; 34 played; 37 points)

Newcastle will be the first side to face a Liverpool sans Luis Suarez and will be hard-pressed to take full advantage. To do so, they must contain Daniel Sturridge, who will be deputizing, as well as the oft-injured Fabio Borini, who may see the field in a substitute role if he passes a late fitness test. For Newcastle, they’ll welcome the return of Cheick Tiote and captain Fabricio Coloccini while Hatem Ben Arfa will look to capitalize on his return to fitness.

Even on points with Sunderland and Stoke, the Magpies must grab a point this weekend as their remaining schedule is anything but easy: West Ham (A), QPR (H) and Arsenal (A).

Stoke City (15th place; 34 played; 37 points)

Another six point gripper is set when Stoke welcome Norwich City to the Britannia. After a seven match winless streak saw the Potters position in mid-table drop like a stone, Tony Pulis’ side managed to get themselves back on track with a 2-0 victory over QPR last week. To reproduce the feat Stoke may have to do so without the likes of Matthew Etherington, Marc Wilson, Charlie Adam and Cameron Jerome, who are all struggling with injuries.

Stoke’s remaining schedule (Sunderland (A), Spurs (H), Southampton (A)) affords them little room for error and a point against the Canaries could prove vital in securing their status in the top-flight.

Sunderland (14th place; 34 played; 37 points)

Consecutive shutout victories against Newcastle and Everton has spirits high at the Stadium of Light and a victory against Aston Villa would bring Paulo Di Canio’s side even on the magic point mark of 40 points. To make that happen the Black Cats will need to get by an inconsistent Villa side with their back to the walls.

Sunderland will feel this is the fixture that will secure their place in next season’s Premier League but a mild end of season schedule (Stoke (H), Southampton (H), Spurs (A)) means the Black Cats are not yet in “must-win” territory.

Norwich City (13th place; 34 played; 38 points)

The last time these two sides faced off at the Britannia it was a tight affair only separated by Matthew Etherington’s 72nd minute strike. The Canaries will hope to reverse their fortunes this time around but if they’re to do so it may be without defender Michael Turner, who manager Chris Hughton has deemed “touch and go” to feature.

Norwich’s remaining schedule provides them with two strong outs to the 40 point mark, home fixtures against Villa and West Brom, before finishing the season away at City.

Southampton (12th place; 34 played; 39 points)

Southampton’s return to the Premiership has resulted in some glorious football and memorable wins. But the Saints job is not yet done as they need a single point to ensure their survival in the top flight. Saturday’s fixture against mid-table West Brom provides the perfect opportunity to do so and with a fully-fit squad Mauricio Pochetino’s men will have no excuse but to execute.

If they’re unable to produce this weekend, things could get tricky for the Saints as competitive fixtures await against Spurs (A), Sunderland (H) and Stoke (A).

Managerial change a slippery slope for West Brom

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Tony Pulis brought much needed stability to West Bromwich Albion before his tenure soured in a hurry.

When Pulis took over at the Hawthorns, West Brom had seen both Pepe Mel and Alan Irvine do little winning in abbreviated managerial stints. Mel won three of 17 matches in charge, while Irvine could only nab five in 22.

[ MORE: Pulis sacked ]

So there is little debating, even for those who West Brom fans who revel in the club’s former free-flowing ways, that Pulis had a productive time in charge from January 2015 right on through most of last season.

But Pulis was seemingly limited to setting a points total and then kicking his heels up once Premier League safety was reached.

While that sounds a bit laughable, the facts are that the Baggies finished 10th last season despite an impressive start that saw the club comfortably eighth for much of the season. However, West Brom won five points from its final 12 matches to finish 16 points behind a European place (including five shutout losses at home).

The Baggies finished 14th the previous season, Pulis’ first full year in charge, but collapsed again after hitting the rarefied air of 11th. That final stretch? Five losses and four draws including shutout losses at home to Norwich City, Watford, and West Ham.

In doing so, Pulis belied his own budgetary critiques by proving the Baggies had the talent to compete for something relatively special.

Pulis was good at getting his side to play with the fury of a relegation contender from Day One, but it was so clear the side was sated once safety was secure. It wouldn’t be callous to opine that the manager would’ve viewed the Europa League as a nuisance to his “never been relegated” reputation (an idea buttressed by West Brom’s performances in Cup competitions, where Pulis never advanced to a quarterfinal while losing to Reading, Norwich City, Derby County, Northampton Town, and, this season, Man City).

What West Brom does next will say a lot. If it’s as simple as a rehashing of the “never been relegated” deck with Sam Allardyce, well, that’s something. But the Baggies are in the tricky predicament of having to replace a relatively stable hand who was their first good hire in three tries, while also running with the knowledge that their players clearly are capable of so much better than 17th.

The names on the bettor’s lists show what’s expected of West Brom: gritty style from an island manager. Derek McInnes is the favorite, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill just ahead of Sam Allardyce. Alan Pardew is next, followed by Ronald Koeman (For what it’s worth, bookies are still milking money from gamblers by including Jurgen Klinsmann’s name at 20:1 or so).

West Brom is in its eighth-straight Premier League campaign. The firing will jostle an already rocking ship, but the Baggies have steady leadership in Jonny Evans, Ben Foster, Chris Brunt, Gareth Barry, Gareth McAuley, and Craig Dawson. They have the wherewithal to achieve safety again, and can even look good in the process should a manager find the right way to use Salomon Rondon, Matty Phillips, Jay Rodriguez, Nacer Chadli, and others.

Who’s the right man for the job?

West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis

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Tony Pulis‘ reign over the Hawthorns is over, as West Bromwich Albion has fired the 59-year-old after just under three years in charge of the Premier League outfit.

Assistant coach Gary Megson takes over on an interim basis.

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The Baggies have not won a game since August, and were belted 4-0 at home by Chelsea on Saturday to leave the club one point above the drop zone.

Overall, Pulis oversaw wins in just 36 of his 121 matches, losing 49, in what will go down as one of the least successful stints in his well-traveled career. Only three PL clubs have scored less than the Baggies’ nine goals.

Here’s the club statement:

“These decisions are never taken lightly but always in the interests of the Club.

“We are in a results business and over the back end of last season and this season to date, ours have been very disappointing.

“We would like to place on record our appreciation of Tony’s contribution and hard work during a period of transition for the Club which included a change of ownership. We wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Pulis will almost certainly be back on the touch line soon, as he hasn’t spent more than a few months out of work since 2002.

Pressure builds on Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Bosz

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Borussia Dortmund has fallen to fifth in the Bundesliga table thanks to a trio of consecutive losses in league play, and suddenly there is loads of pressure on manager Peter Bosz.

The Dutchman came to Westfalenstadion after upper management pushed Thomas Tuchel out over the summer, and while he won seven of his first eight league matches in charge by a total goal differential of 21-2, things have come crashing down. The black & yellow have lost three in a row Bundesliga matches and four of their last five across all competitions, with their only win in that span coming over third-tier Magdenburg.

With fans feeling helpless over the departure of the wildly successful Tuchel that came as a result of a falling out between the German and his superiors, Bosz would always be on a short leash. He inherited a flawed squad, yet one that had achieved much under his predecessor, and immediate failures would naturally be lumped on the new man.

The most recent defeat, a 2-1 falter at Stuttgart, was a microcosm of Dortmund’s recent failures. The team conceded a comically poor goal five minutes into the match, worked hard to equalize just before the halftime break, and conceded again just after returning to the pitch. They controlled much of the match, but largely failed to capitalize.

The head man summed it up pretty well. “The defeat really hurts,” Bosz proclaimed after the final whistle. “We came here to win, so we’re very disappointed. When you see the goals we conceded, it borders on the ridiculous. It hurts because we actually put in a relatively good performance in the first half. The team performed well after conceding the early goal, only the final ball was lacking. The second half wasn’t as good. We need to keep going, we won’t give up.”

So what do the Dortmund executives do? Does Bosz get the benefit of the doubt based on performances? Or does he get blamed for the sudden dropoff in results? There is plenty of pressure given the team sits not only nine points back of Borussia Dortmund in league play, but is also third in a brutal Champions League group with almost no hope of recovery, and even threatens to miss out on a drop to Europa League play if they slip behind Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia, whom they find themselves level on points with.

Even if the club sticks with the Dutchman for now, his room for error has almost completely evaporated and it’s only mid-November. The next two matches will likely tell the tale, and it’s an uphill battle. Tottenham comes to Westfalenstadion on the backs of a disappointing defeat to North London foes Arsenal, followed by the home end of the Rivierderby against a Schalke side that sits second in the Bundesliga table, three points above Bosz and Dortmund.

Antonio Conte calls Tony Pulis a “really good manager”

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West Brom, after four straight defeats, sits 17th in the Premier League table, most recently suffering a 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Chelsea.

Yet Blues boss Antonio Conte has offered his counterpart an olive branch, supporting his fellow Premier League manager at a time of panic.

With reports that Pulis could be fired this coming week – some say as early as Monday – the Baggies boss is under heaps of pressure, but Conte doesn’t believe he should be. “I must be honest, I think Tony Pulis is a really good manager,” Conte said, hoping those in charge don’t make decisions based on Sunday’s result.

“He has great experience and it’s always very difficult to play against his team. This game became easy because we started very strong, with great concentration and desire to win. We showed from the start our will to win this game. But I repeat: Last season we struggled a lot against them.”

West Brom has lost four in a row in league play, and they haven’t picked up a win since August, and as The Guardian points out, they have the lowest average possession in the Premier League and have the second-lowest shots on target thus far. They registered just two shots on target against Chelsea, and held 39% possession, which is actually slightly above their average for the season.