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PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am

Wembley beckons for the four teams that qualify from this weekend's FA Cup quarter-finals, but away from the glamour there is an almighty battle for survival at the bottom of the Premier League as the season enters the final 10 games.

Derby and Fulham are almost gone, but the seven teams immediately above them in the table are separated by just four points from Middlesbrough in 12th place to Reading in 18th. At this stage, with 10 games to go, it is the most tightly contested relegation scrap since the Premier League was reduced to a 38-game format in 1995-96 - the nearest comparable battle to avoid the drop was in 1996-97, when the bottom six were separated by just three points at this stage of the season.

Middlesbrough are in FA Cup action tomorrow and, with Birmingham and Bolton also without league fixtures this weekend, there is a chance for Newcastle, Wigan, Sunderland and Reading to make vital ground on their relegation rivals. That quartet all face opponents from the top eight, so any points gained this weekend would be a major boost to their survival hopes.

There have been some amazing escape acts in recent seasons by West Ham, Portsmouth and West Brom, but the general rule is that 33 of the 36 relegated teams since 1995-96 have been at best only two points clear of the relegation zone with 10 games to go. If that pattern is repeated this season, Middlesbrough and Newcastle (who have a cushion of four and three points respectively) will be safe, though that won't become clear for several matches yet.

A key factor with Middlesbrough and Newcastle is that five or six teams need to improve past them before they drop into the relegation zone. Even though the points differentials are small at the bottom of the table, all the teams below Boro and Newcastle are averaging less than a point per game, so it is unlikely that they will all improve enough to condemn Boro or Newcastle.

That point is emphasised by the fact that no team outside the bottom six at this stage of the season have been relegated since 1995-96, which offers encouragement to Wigan, who are 14th but only two points clear of the relegation zone.

Of course, Boro, Newcastle and Wigan won't be safe if they stand still, and in that regard Newcastle's declining form puts them in real peril. They were the best of the bottom-half teams in the first 14 games of the season, taking 18 points to stand comfortably eight points clear of the relegation zone.

Over the past 14 games, however, Newcastle have taken just 10 points (only bottom two Fulham and Derby have been worse). The first eight of those games were under Sam Allardyce (the last four of his reign were all defeats), which shows that the rot had set in before Kevin Keegan's arrival.

An average of a point per game from now on would probably be enough for Newcastle to escape, as that would take them to 38 points, but any less and they would be in danger. In eight of the past nine seasons, 38 points has been enough (in most cases more than enough) to guarantee safety. The average safety mark, without the need for goal difference to be taken into account, is 36 points in the past nine seasons.

The form team in the bottom half of the table are Tottenham, who took 12 points from their first 14 games but have taken 20 from their last 14. Yet while Spurs are almost certainly safe now, and Juande Ramos is receiving plenty of plaudits for turning them into trophy winners, credit is also due to Middlesbrough and Wigan, who have taken only a point less than Tottenham over the last 14 games. That is another positive sign pointing towards good survival chances for Boro and Wigan.

Next on the list of form teams among the relegation battlers are Sunderland, who have taken 17 points from their last 14 games. Birmingham have made some progress under Alex McLeish, though a factor against both Sunderland and Birmingham is that promoted teams have a poor survival rate once they become embroiled in a relegation battle.

Birmingham, though, have a potentially important factor in their favour - the best goal difference among the relegation battlers. Apart from the bottom two teams, Reading, Newcastle and Sunderland have the worst goal differences, which could be significant at the end of the season given how close the teams are on points.

Apart from Newcastle, Fulham and Derby, the only other team in the bottom half of the table who have gone backwards (taking fewer points from their last 14 games than from the first 14) are Reading, though at least they managed their first victory of 2008 with last week's late winner at Middlesbrough. Bolton's profile has not been that progressive either and they have the added complication, for now at least, of involvement in the Uefa Cup.

Taking all factors into account the teams most in danger of filling the final relegation place are Reading, Bolton and Sunderland.

Rampaging Reds

Home wins out of 14 for Liverpool against Newcastle in the Premier League: 11

More Gunners goals

Games out of 14 with over 2.5 goals for Arsenal against bottom-half teams. Try the HiLo for their visit to Wigan: 10

AC look OK

Away wins for Milan, joint highest in Serie A, and they can get a victory at Empoli tomorrow: 7

Hail Monkey Hangers

Away goals conceded by Gillingham, the most in League One. Hartlepool have the firepower to beat them: 39


Fulham have lost 25 points from a winning position this season, the most in the Premier League. If they had held on to only half of those points, they would be 12th in the table

Labouring Latics

Home wins out of 13 since the start of October for Oldham, who look vulnerable against Tranmere: 3


Frankfurt, Manchester City, Charlton, Bristol City, Hartlepool, Orient, Tranmere, Yeovil, Nice, Milan, Lazio, Everton, West Ham, Valencia, Lyon


$150 Hartlepool (HW, Sat), Tranmere (handicap, Sat), Milan (AW, Sun). Last week: seven winning bets out of 10



FA Cup quarter-finals

Man Utd v Portsmouth

Barnsley v Chelsea

Premier League

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough

Blackburn v Fulham

Liverpool v Newcastle

Reading v Man City


FA Cup quarter-finals

Middlesbrough v Cardiff City

Bristol Rovers v West Bromwich Albion

Premier League

Sunderland v Everton

Tottenham v West Ham Utd

Wigan Athletic v Arsenal