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International Soccer
By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor - Archive - Email
Sizing up England's relegation battle
Steve Kean has watched Blackburn lose 21 times in 36 league games.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Relegation is a word that strikes fear in the hearts of anyone involved with a team that is dangerously close to the bottom three league places this time of year.

It can come in the form of a swift and cruel blow on the final day of the season, or like an inevitable march to the gallows over the last few weeks.

Relegation can be the cause of great heartbreak, while avoiding it is often celebrated like the winning of a championship.

It is what makes the sport of soccer so unique and is often the cause of the greatest drama on the last day of the season.

And this year's race for survival in the English Premiership figures to be no different, with plenty of twists and turns over the final two weeks to keep fans captivated until the end.

Wolverhampton has already fallen through the trap door and will be plying its trade in the Championship next season. But that leaves two more spots for an unlucky team like Blackburn, QPR or Bolton, while Wigan and Aston Villa can't yet count themselves safe from the reaches of the relegation monster.

The following is a look at how each of the five relegation candidates finish up, in order from the least likely to be headed down to the most probable.

WIGAN:

Remaining matches: at Blackburn, vs. Wolverhampton.

Wigan is no stranger to the relegation fight with the club securing its safety on the final day of the season last year.

And just a few months ago it looked like a similar escape would be required to keep the Latics in the top flight next season.

But a run of five wins from its last seven games, including impressive victories over Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle, has left manager Roberto Martinez and his team with a bit of breathing room as they sit three points above the bottom three.

Wigan has put together its strongest run of games all season over the past month, and the schedule is very kind as well.

An away game at 19th-place Blackburn could be tricky as Rovers will be in a desperate state, but if any points are needed on the final day, a home contest against already-relegated Wolverhampton is just what the doctor ordered.

ASTON VILLA:

Remaining matches: vs. Tottenham, at Norwich City.

Villa manager Alex McLeish was relegated with Birmingham last season, but he appears to be far enough away from the drop zone to avoid a similar fate with the Villains.

The club is three points above the bottom three with just two games to go, and maybe just as important is the fact that Villa owns the edge in goal difference on the other four relegation candidates.

McLeish is fortunate that only two games remain because if the season went a few weeks longer, he might be heading down for the second time in two years.

Villa's last win in the league came on March 10 and the club has scored more than one goal in a game just once in its last 13 outings.

A home match with fourth-place Tottenham on Sunday doesn't figure to yield any points, but Villa could take something from its final game at Norwich City, which realistically won't have anything to play for.

The team is limping to the end but should have enough of a lead to crawl over the finish line.

BOLTON:

Remaining matches: vs. Tottenham, vs. West Bromwich, at Stoke City.

Bolton may have a game in hand on the rest of the teams but that game comes Wednesday against Tottenham, which is chasing a place in the Champions League for next season.

Spurs will be a tough team to earn any points against, even at home, but Owen Coyle's men have claimed five points from their last three games to put themselves in a decent position.

The collapse of midfielder Fabrice Muamba seemed to inspire Bolton as Wanderers followed the incident with a three-match winning streak in March, and that upturn in fortune has allowed the Trotters to harbor hope of staying up.

Bolton is still suspect defensively with the team having kept just two clean sheets all season, but the attack has been awakened just enough to give them a good chance.

After the Tottenham match, Bolton's schedule becomes more favorable with a home game against a West Bromwich team comfortably in the middle of the table and having no real incentive over the next few weeks.

A win there could be enough to keep Bolton up, and, if not, a match at Stoke City awaits on the final day.

The Britannia Stadium has proven to be one of the toughest grounds in England to earn a positive result this season. But Stoke's place in the middle of the league could once again work to Bolton's advantage.

QPR:

Remaining matches: vs. Stoke City, at Manchester City.

Of the three teams promoted to the Premiership last season QPR, was considered to be the least likely to face relegation.

The club was coming off of a strong campaign in the Championship and had the most financial clout of the three teams.

But while both Swansea City and Norwich City have enjoyed successful seasons to remain in the Premiership next term, QPR will have quite a fight on its hands over the next two weeks.

QPR's 6-1 meltdown at Chelsea on Sunday must be put in the past because the club's season will likely hinge on the upcoming home match with Stoke City this weekend.

With four wins from its last eight games, QPR sits above the bottom three on goal difference, but must collect three points at home against the Potters or risk falling into the abyss.

The chances that QPR takes anything from its last game of the season at Manchester City seems highly unlikely considering that manager Mark Hughes' side has put together the worst road record in the league and could be facing a City team with the league title on the line.

QPR has been tough at home this season, but now must collect itself and rebound from a thrashing at the hands of a rival for a season-defining match.

BLACKBURN:

Remaining matches: vs. Wigan, at Chelsea.

It has been a long season for Blackburn manager Steve Kean, who has seen his team lose 21 times in 36 league games while also having to deal with the club's supporters protesting for him to be fired.

Ewood Park hasn't exactly been the type of environment that is conducive to winning, and it now looks as though Rovers will be headed down after spending 10 seasons in the top flight.

With Blackburn three points from safety at the moment, the club must beat Wigan at home this weekend to have any chance because three points cannot be expected at Chelsea in the season's final match.

A run of three wins in five games in March had fans believing that safety was possible, but since that time, the team has gone in the wrong direction at the worst possible moment.

With six losses in its last seven games, Blackburn seems just about doomed, and maybe Rovers fans will finally get what they have wanted just about all season: the departure of Kean.

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