Can Sunderland Dodge Relegation?
Sunderland AFC are currently participating in their ninth consecutive Premier League season. However, judging by the football club’s recent performances, there isn’t going to be a 10th. Indeed, with time running out in the 2015/16 campaign, the Black Cats’ odds of dodging the relegation bullet this season are getting longer and longer.
Manager Sam Allardyce is fully aware of his team’s tenuous position, too. According to a Guardian article published on March 4th, Allardyce believes that Sunderland essentially have a one in three chance of avoiding relegation to the Football League Championship at the end of the season. The other two soccer clubs chasing for the same one-in-three odds are Norwich City and Newcastle United. Presumably, two of these clubs will occupy the 18th and 19th place positions while the other will be able to breathe a sigh of relief at 17th place.
Aston Villa’s Doomed Season
The good news for these three clubs is that barring some kind of dramatic turnaround, there is virtually no chance that all three end up in the red zone. The third relegation bullet will almost certainly be taken by Aston Villa, who seem almost destined to finish the season in dead last.
Villa, rather impressively, are one of the few founding Premier League football clubs to have never been relegated. There have been some close calls along the way, of course. Last year, the Lions ended up in 17th place, just three points out of the red zone. It was the fourth season in a row where Villa had finished at 15th place or lower.
Two More Teams for the Chopping Block
With Aston Villa’s doomed season almost sure to end the soccer club’s unbroken run of sticking around in the Premier League, the question is which other two teams will be hitting the road. Which clubs will be joining the Claret and Blue on the chopping block?
Allardyce’s comments about his club’s chances of avoiding relegation came after Swansea City—once a red zone possibility—managed a surprise 2-1 win against Arsenal. Swansea’s subsequent weeks were lucky, bringing the club face to face with not one, but two other teams facing relegation (Norwich City and Aston Villa, respectively). Swansea beat both teams, which should be enough to keep them in the Premier League for another season.
It’s possible that Crystal Palace—who fell behind Swansea after back-to-back losses to Liverpool and Leicester City—could join Sunderland, Norwich City, and Newcastle United in the battle to avoid relegation. The next few weeks will be pivotal for determining what happens on that front.
Norwich City would make a good amount of sense for relegation. The club earned promotion to the Premier League at the end of last season, but only narrowly. They finished third in the Football League Championship and then beat Middlesbrough in the Championship play-offs to finalize a promotion. But while the Championship’s reigning victor and runner-up (Bournemouth and Watford) probably have enough points right now to avoid relegation, Norwich City have not done quite enough to show that they belong in the Premier League.
Struggles at Sunderland
Then again, neither have Sunderland. The Black Cats have been struggling ever since the early and mid-2000s when they ping-ponged in and out of the Premier League seemingly every season. Though they are now in their ninth straight EPL season, Sunderland have only broken into the upper half of the league table once. (In 2011, they finished 10th.) Otherwise, the Black Cats have repeatedly finished in the teens, closing out last season in 16th, three points shy of the red zone.
That reprieve was a chance for Sunderland to go back to the drawing board and figure out a better way forward. Unfortunately, that “better way” didn’t emerge in the early weeks of the 2015/16 campaign. The Black Cats opened the season with back-to-back losses against Leicester City and Norwich City. In fact, the football club didn’t get a win until October 25th—the 10th game of the season—when they trounced Newcastle United 3-0.
The early struggles led to the sacking of manager Dick Advocaat. But while Allardyce has been able to get wins from the Sunderland squad in ways that Advocaat wasn’t—the Black Cats have won six Premier League matches since Allardyce took over—the 61-year-old manager is fully aware that a relegation would likely cost him his job.
As a result of those stakes, Allardyce is pushing his team very hard at the moment. He reportedly exploded and gave the soccer squad in the wake of a March 1st draw against Crystal Palace—a game that Sunderland’s Fabio Borini managed to save with an equalizer at the 90-minute mark. But draws aren’t what the Black Cats need right now, and Allardyce knows it—particularly against other vulnerable teams like Crystal Palace.
To his credit, Allardyce has coached some significant wins out of his team. Sunderland made some good headway in January, beating Aston Villa and Swansea City by favorable margins in back-to-back matches. The day before Valentine’s Day, Sunderland even enjoyed a 2-1 upset win over Manchester United—not something that many soccer pundits would have predicted early on this season when the Black Cats were at the bottom of the table.
Still, for every step forward, Sunderland have taken another step or two backward. In November, they gave themselves some room to breathe with wins against Crystal Palace and Stoke City. But December brought games against big-name clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool—all of which Sunderland lost.
Sunderland vs. Newcastle United
Perhaps most damning was a March 20th away game against Newcastle United. In the Guardian piece, Allardyce is quoted as saying that he wants his team to finish at the “top of our little league.” By that phrase, he means the small bunch of teams fighting to avoid relegation—certainly including Norwich City, Newcastle United, and Aston Villa, and potentially including Swansea and Crystal Palace as well. In other words, while all games count at this point, what the Black Cats really need to do is win matches against those four or five teams.
Quite simply, they haven’t been doing that. First, there was the March 1st draw with Crystal Palace. Then, on March 20th, Sunderland headed to St James Park for their second 2015/16 game against Newcastle United. Sunderland’s biggest victory of the season came when they faced the Magpies in the fall. As such, this match would have been a good opportunity for them to improve their goal difference and better their position in the “little league” at the bottom of the table.
Instead, Sunderland drew Newcastle 1-1 to earn just a single point in the Premier League standings. The visitors had the lead for much of the match after a 44-minute goal from Jermain Defoe put them up one point before heading to the locker rooms. But a late equalizer gave Newcastle a draw and made Sunderland’s path to relegation avoidance more difficult.
In the Guardian article, Allardyce said that Sunderland would need five wins “or the equivalent” to be safe of relegation. The good news is that the Black Cats have eight games to go. Norwich City are two points ahead but have played one extra soccer match.
With two draws since Allardyce made those comments (one against Newcastle, the other with Southampton), Sunderland need four wins of their remaining five games and at least one draw. Their upcoming schedule still includes home matches against West Bromwich Albion, Leicester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Everton and away games at Norwich City, Stoke City, and Watford.
A win in that Norwich City match is essential since Norwich is the only near-relegation team that Sunderland will face in the final eight weeks of Premier League competition. The Black Cats have also beaten Stoke this season and only lost by one point to both West Brom and Watford. Those four games are Sunderland’s best chances at wins—though the home field advantage could help them against Leicester, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Everton.
What will happen? Can Sunderland win the number of games they need to win to stay ahead of Norwich City and Newcastle United? Or will the Black Cats be headed back to the Football League Championship for the first time since 2007? Tune in on April 2nd, when Sunderland take on West Bromwich Albion in what promises to be a key fixture for the current soccer season.