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).

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.

Netherlands manager Danny Blind fired after Bulgaria loss

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The Netherlands are in real trouble, and the manager has paid the price.

The Dutch national team has parted ways with Danny Blind the day after a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria left the Dutch fourth in their World Cup qualification group halfway through.

The move garnering all the headlines from Saturday’s loss was Blind’s decision to start 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt. The Ajax youth product, who has just two Eredivisie starts to his credit, made two crucial errors and yanked at halftime, but the damage had been done. Spas Delev scored twice in the opening 20 minutes for Bulgaria, and that was all the home side needed as the Dutch offered little in front of goal.

Blind was also criticized for not getting Memphis Depay on the field as they chased the game. The Netherlands held 74% possession, but could only manage 3 shots on target. Depay has been in good form since his January move to Lyon, with five goals in his 10 Ligue 1 appearances.

This decision was something Blind saw coming. He told national broadcaster NOS immediately after the Bulgaria loss, “I blame myself. It can’t go on like this. Things have to change.”

“I need to think about [my future]. I do not throw the towel in here. I’m incredibly disappointed, especially since I had a good feeling about this match. It makes sense that I put myself in front of the mirror.”

However, the problems for the Dutch go far deeper than Danny Blind. They missed out on Euro 2016 largely thanks to the failed 2nd tenure for Guus Hiddink. His assistant Blind took over, but the results have been equally as poor. The Netherlands sit fourth in UEFA World Cup qualification Group A, with losses to Bulgaria and France plus a draw with Sweden. It’s not over for them though, as they sit three points back of a second place spot with five matches to go, and three of those five at home.

With the Netherlands still yet to play their friendly against Italy this coming week, former goalkeeper Fred Grim takes over on an interim basis. Grim collected 101 caps for the Netherlands, and has served as the Netherlands U-21 manager for the last two years. Before that, he took charge of his first full managerial job as head man of Dutch 2nd-tier club Almere City.

Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery, scores in England win

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Jermain Defoe’s friendship with terminally-ill Bradley Lowery has been special to watch unfold, and the Sunderland striker brought his little buddy to Wembley today.

Then he notched a match-winner.

Lowery walked Defoe out onto the field in a replica England kit before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, and then Defoe scored his 20th goal for country.

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It was his first since 2013, the last year Defoe was called up for the Three Lions.

Here’s the goal, which was followed by a second-half Jamie Vardy tally as England stayed atop Group F with a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

Two Russian soccer fans stabbed in Serbia

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Two Russian fans have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed following a friendly soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said Sunday police were looking for the knife-wielding perpetrators who attacked a group of Lokomotiv fans in downtown Belgrade late Saturday.

Serbian media reports said the Russian fans were attacked by supporters of Red Star’s rival Partizan Belgrade.

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The match, which Red Star won 2-1, was meant to promote Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

Stefanovic says “nobody should think they could hurt the Serbian-Russian friendship” with such attacks.

Serbia has seen a surge of fan violence inside and outside stadiums. In 2009, a French football fan was fatally beaten in Belgrade.