- Premier League
Fight on show in the relegation scrap
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Can Magath mastermind a Great Escape?
Back-to-back wins weren't in the script for a Fulham team that most had understandably filed in the pigeonhole marked "dead and buried." But Felix Magath - the side's third manager of the season, remember - has overseen a return of nine points from a possible 15 to resuscitate the Cottagers' survival hopes. Having occupied the foot of the table since February, the west London outfit are in a position where a win at Tottenham combined with a Norwich loss against Liverpool would see them out of the drop zone.
The experienced Magath isn't setting off fireworks over the Thames just yet, though. "We've had two wins in a row and that's very nice but it's not enough to stay up in the league," he said after a fortunate 1-0 win over Norwich. The creativity of Lewis Holtby will be missed when they face his parent club Spurs this weekend, but thereafter a not-too-scary run-in of Hull (home), Stoke (away) and Crystal Palace (home) gives them a previously unfathomable chance of a 14th consecutive season in the Premier League.
Will Solskjaer fittingly oversee a last-gasp escape?
Isn't this why we watch football? For its sheer unpredictability? (See Wednesday's matches as further evidence of the sport's joy.) Only the boldest of pundits would have predicted three points for tumbling Cardiff at silky Southampton last weekend, in particular off the back of their hiding at home to Crystal Palace. But win they did to ensure this rather excellent relegation battle continues in earnest and keeps the dream scenario alive for the neutral that it runs until the final round of fixtures when fingernails will be gnawed to the nub.
In spite of all the seemingly never-ending off-field distractions, Cardiff, three points adrift of safety, deserve credit for finding the focus at Southampton that means they are still in with a shout of playing Premier League football next season. They are next in action at home to Stoke, who, while in form, do not travel well. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has four games remaining to oversee a dramatic, late escape, which would be rather apt for the former Manchester United striker.
Are Villa falling apart at the seams?
The Championship's hands are pulling at the laces of Aston Villa, whose four defeats in a row have dragged them back into the relegation mire. With Villa shorn of their most influential player, Christian Benteke, the four points that separate them and the bottom three have the feel of a smaller margin, in spite of their game in hand. They host Southampton on Saturday looking to avoid losing five straight matches for the first time since January 2001.
Their task has not been helped by the suspension of two of Paul Lambert's assistants, even if chairman Randy Lerner has praised the Scot for his "total loyalty and commitment" during a testing time. And as Villa have slumped, those around them have begun to puff out their chests, making for a mad scramble to safety required by a club seemingly lacking cohesion from the coaching setup downwards.
Should Pulis be named Manager of the Year?
Tony Pulis has been an easy target for the odd barb, following his archaic football at Stoke and penchant for wearing a cap and conducting news conferences while standing up. But when the target of any quip proves he is actually very good at what he does, then those guffawing in the back begin to be the ones who look very silly indeed. Make no mistake: The job Pulis has done at Crystal Palace has been remarkable.
Building from the back by organising a previously madcap side, Pulis has overseen 10 wins from 22 games, lifting Palace from 19th in the table to 11th. To underline what fine work Pulis and his coaching staff have done with the team's defensive setup: Since the Welshman took over, only Jose Mourinho's Chelsea have a better defensive record. This week's 3-2 win at in-form Everton was the icing on the cake for Palace, as a fourth win on the road all but secured their top-flight status. Roll on West Ham, for the London club now have a top-half finish in their sights.
Which other sides are still in danger?
If we are to take any club from 13th-placed Hull City upward as probably safe, considering the Tigers have five games left to play and the improbable point swing that would have to take place for them or 12th-placed West Ham to be seesawed into danger, then Swansea's plight is not to be ignored, even if style over substance can confuse heart and mind. The Swans are on the same number of points as thrower-away of wins West Brom, who are not in action until Monday, when they travel to Manchester City and hence escape the pessimism of this weekend-themed column, for now.
Garry Monk's men have a presentable opportunity to ease their anxiety when they head to Newcastle, more on whom below. As for the basement dwellers, Sunderland's week gets no easier as they follow a trip to the Etihad with a game at Chelsea. Their gobsmacking point at City should arguably have been three, and it is up to the noncommittal Gus Poyet to turn a deflating ending into an uplifting one, or otherwise have his ego dented by relegation.
Can Pardew lift the gloom at Newcastle?
Newcastle fans could be forgiven for wishing for the end of the 2013-14 season already. The campaign's final weeks for the Magpies have largely been miserable - their tepid stumble into midtable obscurity has swirled optimism down the plughole, giving them little to look forward to come 2014-15. To summarise what has been endured at St James' Park: Newcastle have lost six of their past eight home league games, failing to score in each defeat. The Toon Army deserves better.
The club's current position of ninth in the table is misleading, for it fails to take into account the quality, or lack thereof, of Newcastle's recent performances. As is often the case in football, the numbers do not represent the story. Speaking after the loss at Stoke, under-pressure manager Alan Pardew said they "lacked creative flair" - which, considering the failure to replace the sold Yohan Cabaye, is hardly a shock. Loic Remy's expected return versus Swansea is at least a rare bit of good news on Tyneside.