At the top of the table the two Manchester clubs have for pretty much the entire season looked the only contenders for the title, despite Spurs keeping up with them until the turn of the year.
But at the bottom end of England’s premier division things have been far less clear-cut. Three out of any six or seven could have ended up scrapping for their lives come the run-in in what has become the annual tight fight for survival.
It looks like Alex McLeish has managed to pull his Aston Villa side clear of the scrap now, and Roy Hodgson has seen his West Brom side reach all-but-safety with eight games left to play.
So that leaves five: Blackburn, Bolton, Queens Park Rangers, Wigan and Wolves. But of these five, who is hitting form at the right time of the season? Who looks fragile? Who has the toughest run-in? And who will succumb to the pressure of ‘squeaky-bum time’ at the bottom end of the table? These are all questions which will contribute to the eventual answer of which three clubs will be playing Championship football next season.
It seems easiest to look at each club separately, so that is what I shall do.
Blackburn Rovers: For 80 minutes Steve Kean’s side frustrated the champions elect Man United at Ewood Park in the Monday night football. They defended resolutely and looked sharp and dangerous on the counter attack. What is key is how confident the players looked to get on the ball and get things happening.
It is testament to Steve Kean that he has managed to instil such confidence in his players considering the pressure he has been put under by the fans, who have spent the entire season calling for Kean to be sacked. Blackburn looked dead and buried approaching Christmas, but it was again against Manchester United that they showed their belief and their fighting spirit.
A remarkable victory at Old Trafford was the catalyst for Blackburn to give themselves a fighting chance, and despite being in the bottom three after defeat to United this week they will fancy their chances to scramble themselves out of trouble. And, if only out of respect for the job Kean has done, nobody could say they do not deserve it should they stay up.
Their run-in looks tricky, with trips to West Brom, Swansea and Spurs in April. The home games against a struggling Liverpool and then a huge game against Wigan on the penultimate day look like must-wins for Rovers, with a trip to Stamford Bridge on the final day not a fixture they will relish should they need a result to survive. But with the confidence they have played with in recent games, Kean may just pull of the great escape.
Finishing Position: 17th
Bolton Wanderers: Owen Coyle’s side have really used tragedy to inspire them after the horrific incident with Fabrice Muamba at White Hart Lane. Few pundits would have predicted that Muamba’s collapse on the pitch would have had a positive effect on the Bolton players, but it certainly has done. The players look as if they finally have something, or rather someone, to play for. That may sound like I am suggesting they were not playing for Owen Coyle, but that is not quite what I mean. Certainly they were under-achieving for Owen Coyle. Remember them punching above their weight at the top end of the table when Coyle first arrived?
Wanderers have won their last three games, all against clubs in the relegation battle with them. They have beaten Blackburn, QPR and Wolves in the last three weeks, which has seen them climb out of the bottom three. They currently sit 16th, one point above Blackburn and the drop zone.
Owen Coyle’s men only play one of the top five in their run-in, although they do have tough away tests at Stoke, Newcastle and Sunderland. They will surely look to the home games against Fulham, Swansea and West Brom as key dates. Take nine points from those games and Coyle will surely think that his side will be playing in the Premier League next season.
Final Position: 16th
Queens Park Rangers: Mark Hughes was extremely active in the January transfer window after he took over at Loftus Road, and spent big. He brought in goal-scorers in Bobby Zamora and Djibrill Cisse in an attempt to fire the London club out of trouble.
But with Cisse getting sent off as much as he is scoring goals, and with other strikers Helguson and Campbell struggling for fitness, QPR have shown mediocre form recently. Yes they beat Arsenal last time out, but they have only picked up seven points form their last six games, and face a gruelling run-in.
Rangers face trips to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and The Etihad, while they also welcome Spurs, Swansea, Stoke and West Brom to Loftuis Road. It is not a pleasant run-in for a side fighting to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
Rangers have some talented players, but the problem is encapsulated within one man: Adel Taarabt. A real talent, Taarabt could have set the Premier League alight and steered his team well clear of the relegation zone. But one goal all season (last time out against Arsenal) is not good enough for a creative player, especially one who is prone to a tantrum or two. And with the gamble to bring in Joey Barton not paying off, it may just be too much to expect that Rangers will get the points to survive.
Final Position: 18th
Wigan Athletic: Roberto Martinez showed great loyalty to Wigan and to chairman Dave Whelan when he turned down the chance to move to Aston Villa last summer. He may not regret that decision necessarily but he must wonder why his chairman has not repaid that loyalty with the money to bring in the quality which they clearly needed to avoid another relegation battle this year.
The team has not been strengthened, and with the loss of Charles N’Zogbia to Aston Villa and Tom Cleverley returning to Man United after his loan last year, they lack any real creative class. They managed to hold on to Hugo Rodallega, but the Columbian frontman has netted just twice this season amid season-long speculation that he wishes to leave the club.
The harsh truth is that Wigan simply do not score enough goals, and that is why they currently sit 19th in the table, a point from safety. Defensively they are better off all except QPR in the relegation battle, but this will not save them if they do not find a goal-scoring touch.
With Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal ahead in the next three weeks, Wigan could be adrift by the time they get to May. The final two games against Blackburn and wolves will be huge, but only if they can keep in touch in April.
Final Position: 19th
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Wolves are in deep, deep trouble. Sacking Mick McCarthy mid-season was a mistake, and appointing an inexperienced number one in Terry O’Connor was an even bigger one. Wolves have looked even more out of sorts since O’Connor took the helm, and sitting six points from safety it will take a real fairytale story for them to retain their Premier League status.
Tough trips to Stoke and Swansea will not be games Wolves will pinpoint as winnable, and with Arsenal, Man City and in-form Everton making the trip to Molineux in the coming weeks, it looks grim for O’Connor and his players. If Man United are now odd-on certainties to take a 20th Premier League title, Wolves are easily as odd-on to be playing Championship football next season. Would McCarthy have kept them up? Probably not, but he certainly would have kept them afloat longer than his replacement has done.
Final Position: 20th