HK$1.13b at stake in the fight to stay in English top flight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 May, 2011, 12:00am
 

Victory in the Championship playoff final reputedly is worth GBP90 million (HK$1.13 billion) to the team that reaches the promised land of the English Premier League, which makes clear what is at stake tomorrow for the five teams still battling for survival. Two of the five must go, along with already relegated West Ham, and only their parachute payments will cushion the fall.

This is not the first time five teams have been involved in a final-day relegation dogfight, but it is the closest battle in Premier League history because never before have the combatants been separated by just a single point going into the last game of the season.

The permutations are complicated and three of the teams - Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan - know they may not be safe even if they win. Goal difference could be decisive, which means there could be some shuffling of the pack even if four of the five teams lose (Wolves and Blackburn are playing each other). One of the few combinations certain to maintain the status quo is if all five draw.

Whichever teams go down can count themselves as unlucky because, with 39 points or more, they would have been safe in 12 of the previous 15 seasons with a 38-game Premier League.

There is still the possibility this season could break new ground with the relegation of two teams that take 40 points or more from their 38 games.

Tomorrow's fixtures bring echoes of previous final-day showdowns and one that has been highlighted this week wasWest Ham's win at already crowned champions Manchester United four years ago because Blackpool go to Old Trafford this time in a similar position, with Alex Ferguson expected to rest most, if not all, of his first-choice players ahead of next week's Champions League final.

In the end, a draw would have been enough for West Ham that day - just as it might for Blackpool - but the fact that United have lost a crucial relegation match in similar circumstances has caused some jitters among Blackpool's rivals.

But perhaps we should also note that on the final day of the 2008-09 season United were champions already but still won 1-0 at Hull, which did not matter in the end but could have done, and in 2004-05, when third in the table and with nothing to play for, Ferguson's team relegated Southampton with a 2-1 away win.

The other echo from four years ago is that Sheffield United and Wigan - the two teams in the survival battle with West Ham - played each other, just as Wolves and Blackburn do this time.

The difference then was that Wigan needed to win - and did, to send Sheffield United down on goal difference - whereas a draw might well be enough for both Wolves and Blackburn, which is the reason why the draw odds in that match are the shortest on tomorrow's programme.

Logic suggests Wolves and Blackburn will play safe, at least while they can, because a draw would mean two of Birmingham, Blackpool and Wigan would have to win to overtake them. The draw looks a good bet, even at shorter odds.

If a relegation-threatened team could choose their final-day fixture, it might be what Wigan face when they travel to ninth-placed Stoke. Relegation battlers have lost only one out of eight final-day games in the past 15 seasons against teams that were comfortably becalmed in the safe waters from eighth to 12th, with three wins and four draws.

Stoke are strong at home to teams like Wigan but if there is a good time to visit the Britannia, this could be it. If Wigan get even a point, it puts pressure on Blackpool and Birmingham to do the same at United and Tottenham respectively.

Birmingham may well have the hardest job of all because in Tottenham they face a high-placed team with something still at stake - the final qualification spot for the Europa League.

There have been two games with a similar scenario in the past 15 seasons and the relegation-threatened team lost both, by scores of 1-0 and 5-0.

In the event of a defeat, the best Birmingham can do is keep the score down to protect their goal difference and hope Blackpool and Wigan also lose. All in all, it doesn't look good for Birmingham.

Many twists and turns are likely once the matches kick off, and for in-play punters it promises to be an exhilarating ride. The most reliable of the five relegation-threatened teams when scoring first are Blackpool, with eight wins and just two defeats out of 14, while Wigan have lost only one out of 12 from that position.

Wigan are the best of the five at coming back from conceding the opening goal, taking something from nine out of 22 games. Blackburn, by contrast, have lost 14 out of 16 when conceding first.

Blackburn are best, however, at protecting a half-time lead (eight wins and four draws from 12). Wolves and Blackpool have the same abysmal record when trailing at half-time (one point from a possible 42).

On the stats the best in-play bet could be Blackpool in the unlikely event of them scoring first at Old Trafford. A goal in Wolves v Blackburn could be decisive because the hosts have lost 16 out of 19 when conceding first - a similar defeat rate to Blackburn's from that position.

Shortlist: Arsenal, Wigan, Malaga, Mallorca, Osasuna

TOP 5 BETS

1 Arsenal away win

Have scored in last five away games despite their problems

2 Wigan on handicap

Have a good shot at survival after last week's spirited fightback

3 Wolves v Blackburn draw

Caution likely and under 2.5 goals also worth considering

4 Mallorca on handicap

Solid enough with just three defeats in last 10 home games

5 Osasuna home win

Rank eighth on home form and have been scoring goals

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