As easy as it is to just focus on the top of the table when it comes to the Premier League, but it’s important to remember that when the final bell tolls, three of teams will be sent down to the lower division. While the three new entrants into the league (Bournemouth, Norwich City, and Watford) are the consensus favorites to return to the Championship, a couple of perennial Premier League clubs should also be looked at as possible relegation candidates. Who will go down, and who will live to play another game in the top flight?
Perhaps the most unexpected team to be playing in the first division this season is AFC Bournemouth. Their opening match against Aston Villa on Saturday afternoon marked the first time since the club’s founding in 1890 that they played a competitive match in the top flight. In 2009, the club were near the bottom of the table all the way in the League Two (fourth division of English competition) and were nearly relegated even further down the pyramid only to be saved in the final days of the season. A change of ownership sparked a revival of the club, and they quickly started to rise through the ranks.
A barnstorming season last year saw the Cherries top the second division and earn their historic promotion to the Premier League. Over the summer, the newly promoted club made eight signings in an effort to get the squad ready for the higher level of competition. Among the new faces were Premier League veteran Sylvain Distin, Chelsea loanee Christian Atsu and Southampton keeper Artur Boruc. On opening day, three of the new signings made their debut for the club, but their intervention wasn’t enough as the Cherries fell 1-0 to Villa.
Despite losing their opening match, Bournemouth fans had plenty to be happy about. If it wasn’t for the outstanding play of Brad Guzan in net during the first half, the newcomers could have easily had a two or three goal advantage going into the second 45 minutes of action. If Bournemouth can continue to improve throughout the season and build on these types of performances, I think they can secure a second season in the Premier League.
Finishing just one point behind Bournemouth in the Championship last season was Watford. This wasn’t the Hornets first taste of Premier League competition, however, as a lone season in 2006/07 gave the club a small taste of what top division competition is like. They’ll be hoping that this latest venture into the top flight will end better than the last one when they finished at rock bottom of the table.
Just like Bournemouth, this summer has seen a range of new faces come into the Watford squad. Players from the likes of Roma, Werder Bremen, Napoli and Tottenham joined the English club, but the responsibility of keeping the club from relegation may fall to some of the already existing squad. Last year’s promotion winning team had two 20+ goal scorers, both of whom returned to the club this season. Former Tottenham man Heurelho Gomes remains the team’s number one keeper, and the rise in division almost guarantees a rise in action that the Brazilian will face. Quique Flores’ ability to build chemistry between the club’s new signings and existing faces will determine how this season goes for Watford.
Out of the three promoted clubs, Watford had by far the most promising start to the season. A thrilling 2-2 draw against Everton showed the exciting potential that the newcomers have in attack, but it also exploited the weaknesses in net and in the backline. If the shaky Watford defense can find a way to hold their own against stronger mid-table teams and fellow relegation candidates, their offense could be good enough to keep them up.
It took just one season for Norwich City to make their triumphant return back to the Premier League. In the 2013/14 campaign, the Canaries narrowly missed out on the safety zone as the fell just three points short of 17th placed West Bromwich Albion. During that season in the top flight, Norwich had the third worst goal differential out of the entire league (-34), and had also given up the third most goals in the league (62). Last year in the Championship, the club made a vast defensive improvement allowing the second fewest goals in league play, but an opening 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace showed that the jump to the Premier League may be too much for the once formidable defense.
The bitter defeat to Crystal Palace did have some bright spots for the team as they created numerous goal-scoring opportunities, and were unlucky to have one goal pulled back. The flip side of all of those chances created, is the team’s inability to put the ball in the back of the net. An opening miss by Lewis Grabban from six yards out would serve as a foreshadowing for the rest of the afternoon. Despite registering 17 shots (six on target), and dominating possession (63 percent), Norwich failed to make any real impact on the match. An improvement in attacking play will be an absolute must for Norwich to stay safe.
The most important player on Norwich’s side in my opinion is returning forward Cameron Jerome. After moving from Crystal Palace in the summer, the 28-year-old managed to immediately settle into his new surroundings and lead the attack with team high 20 goals. On Saturday, it was Jerome’s acrobatic effort that looked to level the scores only to be called back for a high kick. Jerome looked dangerous against Palace, and he will need to recapture some of his magisterial form from last season to help keep the club up, or possibly attract interest from another club should Norwich get relegated. The opening day defeat does not bode well for Norwich, and their yo-yo ride between first and second division may continue come May.
Sunderland barely survived the drop last season, and a miserable start to their season against Leicester City makes their hopes for survival even bleaker. The game was essentially out of reach before the half time whistle even blew, as Leicester put away three goals against a seemingly hapless Sunderland defense. Despite two consolation goals for the Black Cats, Dick Advocaat’s men clearly looked the second best team on the field all afternoon. With all due respect to Leicester City, they are not one of the powerhouses in the league, and if they can dismantle Sunderland with such ease, it may be a very long disappointing season at the Stadium of Light.
The most glaring issue that Sunderland had last year was their lack of a scoring threat. Through the 38-game season, the Black Cats scored just 31 times (0.8 goals/game). On 18 occasions Sunderland were shutout, and no player scored in the double digits. Steven Fletcher led the line with a disappointing five goals, and the co-leader Connor Wickham left for Crystal Palace in the summer. The one bright spot has to be the aging striker Jermaine Defoe. Despite joining the team halfway through the season, the 32-year-old still scored four goals, and he also scored during the defeat to Leicester. A combination of poor attacking play and a porous defense looks set to seal Sunderland’s fate as a second division team next season.
As bad as this defeat looks, if there’s one man that knows how to steer his club to survival its Dick Advocaat. The Dutch manager took over a struggling Sunderland late into last season, and at that point in time, the club sat just one point above the relegation zone. In his nine games in charge, Advocaat managed to claim 12 points including a historic 0-0 draw at the Emirates against Arsenal. The big question for Sunderland fans has to be whether Advocaat can guide the club to an even higher finish when he has a full preseason to shape the club in his vision, or if the club is destined for relegation.
Few teams lost the star power that Aston Villa had over the summer. The club’s two most talented players, Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph, left for Liverpool and Manchester City respectively, and after barely surviving last season the team could hardly afford to lose any players. Villa did their best to reinvest their transfer profits into future stars in the likes of Idrisa Gueye from Lille and Jordan Ayew from Lorient. How will the club handle these two massive departures, and did they bring in enough reinforcements to keep the club afloat?
Saturday’s performance against Bournemouth would have done little to reassure fans, despite winning 1-0. The hosts dominated Villa for the majority of the first half and it took several highlight reel saves from Brad Guzan to keep the scores level. Over the summer, the Villans brought in Micah Richards and Jordan Amavi in an attempt to solidify the defense that gave up the third most goals last season. Perhaps the new signings need more time to settle into Tim Sherwood’s setup but an early test from Bournemouth proved that the defense still leaves a lot to be wanted.
Just like Sunderland, Villa can contribute a large portion of their survival to the manager. Former Tottenham boss Tim Sherwood took over the club in February and immediately started playing a more attacking style. Before his introduction, the club had been shutout 15 times in just 25 games. Sherwood’s new style of play seemed to bring confidence to players like Tom Cleverley, who has since moved to Everton, and Scott Sinclair in the midfield which ultimately provided better service to Benteke up top. This new mindset also pushed Villa all the way to the FA Cup final, which was an accomplishment in itself. Even with the exits of Benteke and Delph, I believe that Sherwood and Villa board have done enough in terms of new singings and tactical changes to eek by another year in the Premier League.
It would be easy to just pick the three newcomers to be sent back down to the Championship when the season comes to an end in May, but I think that one of them will survive. Their impressive display against Everton showed the league that Watford came to play, and that type of positive attitude on the field makes them my favorites to stay up and send Sunderland down. The final bottom three will be Sunderland in 18th, Bournemouth in 19th and Norwich City in 20th.