The math is changing in the scramble to avoid relegation from the Premier League.
From an unlikely nine-team scrap at the end of March, the field looks to have slimmed to six candidates with a month to go in the season. And one of them already appears doomed.
Southampton’s 11-year stay in the top division looks to be ending, with the team having plunged to last place and six points adrift of safety after collecting only three points from its past eight games.
Meanwhile, Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton and Bournemouth – all onto their second managers of the season – have found some form and results at the right time to seemingly pull clear of danger.
It leaves five clubs likely battling to avoid the other two relegation spots alongside Southampton, and there are some big names in there.
Like Everton, a nine-time English champion which has been in the top division in its various guises since 1954.
Like Leicester, which was a league champion – at preseason odds of 5,000-1 – just seven years ago.
Like West Ham, which has played in Europe for the past two seasons on the back on league finishes in sixth and seventh place.
Leeds and Nottingham Forest – historic clubs who have fallen on hard times for much of this century – make up the quintet and, with their fanbases, won’t go quietly.
The state of play is this: Southampton has 24 points, four behind next-to-last Everton and five behind third-to-last Leicester. Nottingham Forest and Leeds are a point clear of the bottom three, and West Ham a further four points ahead but with tough upcoming matches and involvement in the Europa Conference League to balance.
All have five games to play except for West Ham, which has six.
They all are fully aware that dropping out of the Premier League has never been so costly, with clubs gaining at least US$100-million a season through broadcast revenue alone from Britain and overseas contracts.
Here’s a closer look at the teams still seriously threatened by relegation:
SOUTHAMPTON (20th place, 24 points)
If the Saints lose – as expected – at Newcastle on Sunday, their fate could yet be sealed with three matches to spare if they are defeated at Nottingham Forest on May 8. Beating Newcastle would change everything, however, and Southampton did draw 3-3 at Arsenal last week. Indeed, the team is set to go down having drawn twice against Arsenal, beaten Chelsea home and away, and eliminated Manchester City from the English League Cup.
EVERTON (19th place, 28 points)
The arrival of Sean Dyche as manager in late January hasn’t had the impact many predicted. In fact, Everton has won three of its 13 games under Dyche – all resolute 1-0 victories at home – and none of the last six, which have included alarming home losses to Fulham (3-1) and Newcastle (4-1). The match at Leicester on Monday is huge, especially with games to follow against Brighton, Manchester City and improving Wolves. Everton finishes at home against Bournemouth.
LEICESTER (18th place, 29 points)
A win over Wolves and a draw at Leeds in its last two games has stemmed the bleeding for Leicester, which had lost eight of its previous nine matches to become the big team to drop into trouble. Beating Everton would lift Leicester, now under interim manager Dean Smith, four points above its rival ahead of a game against Fulham, which has little to play for this season. Leicester will not want to rely on getting much out of its last three games – against Liverpool, Newcastle and West Ham.
NOTTINGHAM FOREST (17th place, 30 points)
Forest gave itself hope of avoiding an immediate return to the second-division Championship by beating Brighton on Wednesday and still has that seemingly must-win home game against Southampton to come. Otherwise, it’s an ugly-looking final stretch for the team with the worst away record in the division. Forest must travel to Brentford, Chelsea and Crystal Palace alongside a home game against title contender Arsenal.
LEEDS (16th place, 30 points)
Leeds survived relegation last season thanks to a win in the final round and it could go to the wire again, especially if the team loses at Bournemouth on Sunday. Manchester City and Newcastle are the following two opponents, and scary prospects given Leeds has just conceded five to Crystal Palace and six to Liverpool. There could be so much riding on a season-closing home game against Tottenham on May 28.
WEST HAM (15th place, 34 points)
West Ham is unlikely to go down after winning three of its past six games and having a squad containing more quality than any of its relegation rivals, including players like England midfielder Declan Rice and Brazil playmaker Lucas Paqueta. Even if West Ham gets little out of difficult upcoming games against Crystal Palace (away), Manchester City (away), Manchester United (home) and Brentford (away), matches against Leeds and Leicester to finish the season offer a good opportunity for the win the team needs to stay up.