Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Championship Relegation Battle begins in earnest

In modern day sport, it is increasingly common that tense occasions are over-hyped. Take for instance the Premier League Darts on Thursday evening. The massively exciting prospect of "Judgement Night", where four players faced elimination from the competition, essentially boiled down to those four players all losing, and the two players with the least points going into the night went home anyway. That's not really drama. What's often more intriguing is something that goes unnoticed for a great length of time, before gradually culminating in a very exciting finish. Like a good Test match. For that, you need to look no further than the Championship.

The league table at this stage, with the majority of teams having six games remaining, is one that either excites, or horrifies. 11th placed Birmingham, on 52 points, are only 5 places above the relegation zone. Teams such as Barnsley and Peterborough keep churning out results to keep their survival hopes alive, and crucially, prolong the battle for safety that the rest of the division faces. Charlton have had a great season in many respects. Few additions to a League One squad, some brilliant results along the way (the 5-4 win at home to Cardiff, and 4-3 at Watford especially), and yet the total of 51 points - good enough for 14th position - leaves the side only 4 points above the drop. It really is an incredible table.

I would argue that today is the first Significant Day in this crazy relegation dogfight. Forget the ludicrous clamour for coverage of Di Canio's political history, or the mad frenzy surrounding England's supposed failure out in Montenegro (it was a good point, honest), the Championship is really where there should be great intrigue. Yet, as the 'big clubs' are supposedly where the media feel they ought to devote their coverage, there is a risk that this superb battle for safety won't be covered anywhere near as much as it deserves. 

Significant Day, no. 1 then. There are some huge fixtures in the Championship, and not just at the bottom. Cardiff travel to Watford for the evening kick-off, with the visitors struggling to cross the line required to reach the 'promised land', with its high-quality football and incessant media coverage. Leicester also travel to Brighton, in the fight for one of the coveted play-off spots. Naturally, the games between the lower-placed sides won't be given as much notice, and you could argue that's fair - people want to know which teams will be playing Premier League football next season more than they want to know who will be playing in League One. And yet that's a cheap way of arguing that we should just ignore the battle because the stakes aren't high enough. But they are. The Championship, evidently, is such a competitive league that teams lower in the table this season can suddenly leap forward and challenge for the Premier League. Look at Crystal Palace, seemingly perennial relegation candidates, yet they are up there challenging for promotion. As Charlton found out, League One is an equally competitive league, and it takes time for teams to readjust to it before they manage to clamber back out of it. Hence, this fight matters.

Today sees the following crunch games:
Huddersfield (47pts, 22nd) vs Peterborough (46, 23rd)
Sheffield Wednesday (47, 21st) vs Blackburn (47, 19th)
Whilst these are the most significant given the proximity of the teams to the relegation zone, others are not safe. Charlton v Leeds is a big game, as there is a risk that the loser slides closer to the drop. Its about time the Sky people stopped talking about how far off the playoffs Leeds are, and instead focus on how far above the drop. Both should be safe, with 51 and 52 points respectively. Yet with the chaos this season has served up, who knows where safety will prove to be. Burnley also host Bristol City, in a game that could compound the misery of the visitors, who are already 7 points off safety, and see the hosts climb clear of trouble. Blackpool travel to Forest, Ipswich travel to Derby, and Barnsley - the form team, really - visit Palace. Two games where points could prove a real boost given wins are not expected. Wolves also travel to Bolton, and with three victories on the spin, the team spirit should give them hope of stealing something from the game.

So, a big day in the Championship. Typically, we won't be much closer to finding out which teams will eventually go down after today, as there are still clashes to come between bottom-half sides. But despite that, the cluster of teams at risk of being dragged down is large enough for today to mean a great deal to many teams. A few can claw their way towards relative safety, while others could find themselves drifting towards the impending doom of Carlisle away. (Its a distance thing.) 

Completely randomly, I think 54 points will mark 21st position come the end of the season, and hence mark safety. With 13 teams not yet reaching that mark, and lots of matches still to be played, nobody can afford to relax. 

Watch this relegation battle, because its going to be exciting. And if you're involved, good luck, it feels horrible for us as well.


My match report from the subsequent 2-1 victory over Leeds can be found here. 

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