As the Premier League resumes this weekend, the battle to avoid the drop is turning into a blockbuster, with just four points separating the bottom nine teams. Six of them have changed managers in an effort to avoid a relegation calamity that could cost an estimated £200 million in revenue.
The latest to switch are Crystal Palace, whose nosedive has seen them fail to win a league game in 2023. They have fallen from a comfortable mid-table perch to just three points clear of safety, hence the return of the pragmatic Roy Hodgson to replace Patrick Vieira.
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Some on the danger list are surprising. Who would have thought Leicester City and West Ham United, both in the top eight last year, would be involved? Everton -- a top-flight club since 1954 -- are again dicing with trouble as they did last season. Stand by for a series of crunch games. Leicester go to Palace on Saturday in the first of the massive six-pointers.
As things stand, Southampton, AFC Bournemouth and West Ham occupy the dreaded bottom three positions. Two of those teams, the Hammers and the Saints, clash at the London Stadium on Sunday. It is a game West Ham boss David Moyes dare not lose.
The other relegation clash this weekend is Nottingham Forest vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers. Forest have relied almost exclusively on their home form to stay afloat -- they have scored only four goals on the road in the league all season -- so they will hope the City Ground remains their best friend. Wolves, however, look a livelier proposition since Julen Lopetegui took over in November for Bruno Lage.
Bournemouth were everyone's tip for the drop, but Gary O'Neil has them scrapping hard, as shown by their recent win over Liverpool. No surprise if they edge past visitors Fulham on Saturday, especially as Marco Silva's team are reeling from the madness which saw him, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Willian sent off in the FA Cup quarterfinal loss at Manchester United on March 19.
As for Leeds United, their 4-2 win at Wolves and recent 2-2 draw with Brighton showed they have goals in them and new boss Javi Gracia has given them momentum, but their shaky defence faces a daunting test away to the leaders Arsenal and their injury problems are mounting. Tyler Adams is set for an extended spell after undergoing a hamstring operation, and Wilfried Gnonto returned from international duty with Italy injured.
Everton have taken 11 points from seven games since Sean Dyche took over from Frank Lampard. He has made them more physical and answered the goal-scoring problem by encouraging more runners from midfield to arrive late in the box; witness the two goals in the past three games from midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure, who has been restored to the team by Dyche. With Tottenham Hotspur in some disarray after the sacking of Antonio Conte, the Toffees will look to repeat their recent gritty Goodison Park win over Arsenal.
History shows that 38 points is probably the new safety target to stay in the Premier League. But this is a plot that will not fully unravel until the final day and you wonder what is on the last reel of this movie. On the season's final matchday, Palace play Forest at Selhurst Park, Everton meet Bournemouth at Goodison and Leicester are at home to West Ham. All dramatic matches in prospect. Wolves have to go to Arsenal for their final game while Southampton, showing signs of a pulse lately, are at home to Liverpool.
All nine clubs involved in this dance with the devil will hope to be safe by then. But this race is so tight and tense that it looks certain to go right to the wire.