EPL teasing extraordinary 9-team relegation battle over final stretch
LONDON (AP) — A good relegation fight can keep things interesting at the bottom of the Premier League. Usually it doesn't involve nine teams, though.
Just four points separate last-place Southampton from 12th-place Crystal Palace heading into the final stretch of the season as the threatened clubs and a few nervous managers try to reverse their fortunes.
Palace manager Roy Hodgson calls it "exceptional," and he's been coaching since the mid-1970s.
"You don't normally have almost a whole bottom section of the table all fighting to avoid relegation and you certainly don't see so many teams which most people would say, 'they can't get relegated, they're too big a club to get relegated," said Hodgson, who at 75 is the oldest manager in league history.
The top 11 teams can all still qualify for European competitions and peering across the gulf — an 11-point gap from Aston Villa to Palace — any of the bottom nine could be relegated.
Saturday's home game against Leicester will be Hodgson's first back in charge as the replacement for the fired Patrick Vieira. The south London club is on a 12-match winless run and still looking for its first victory in 2023.
Backers of Vieira pointed out that the team's struggles came against some top teams. The winless slide includes games against Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool.
"We're in a dogfight. We've got a slight advantage but not a very big one," said Hodgson, who was in charge of Palace from 2017-21.
Stats provider Opta says, in fact, Palace has a huge advantage, describing it as the easiest remaining schedule. The team faces only two current top-10 clubs — Tottenham and Fulham — the rest of the way.
Everton is 15th but that could change by the time the Toffees host Tottenham on Monday night. The Merseyside club hasn't been out of the top flight since 1954 and, with a new stadium opening soon, can't afford to drop into the Championship.
It's so tight that last-place Southampton, which hasn't been out of the Premier League since 2011-12, could move up four spots if it beats fellow struggler West Ham on Sunday at London Stadium.
Ruben Selles is Southampton's third coach this season. Six of the bottom nine have changed managers as owners are desperate to remain in the richest league in the world. The exceptions are West Ham, Leicester and Nottingham Forest.
"We understand that at this time of the season it can get more tense," said Forest manager Steve Cooper, who was handed a new contract in October at a time when many thought he'd get fired because his team was in last place.
Forest hosts Wolverhampton on Saturday but Opta estimated that Cooper's team has the third-toughest remaining schedule.
"We've got a period of games to really attack and we can make it what we want of it," Cooper said. "Hopefully some positive results and performances and then the league will tell its own story. The league position is in our hands, as it is everybody else."
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