Rarely has the term “relegation six-pointer” been so relevant than its description of last night’s match between Burnley and Everton.
Everton sat three points outside the bottom three, and four points clear of 19th-placed Burnley. With a better goal difference than Watford, an Everton win would have effectively given them a seven point advantage over the two teams immediately below, and left the bottom three clubs looking very much like the sides that will drop into the Championship.
But a late winner helped Burnley secure a 3-2 win and closed the gap between themselves and Everton to a single point, opening up the possibility of Everton falling below both teams in the table within the next two rounds of fixtures.
It was only the latest twist in an increasingly interesting relegation battle that, at various points of the season, has involved seven different clubs: Norwich, Newcastle, Burnley, Watford, Everton, Brentford and Leeds.
With an improvement in results that has seen Newcastle move well clear of the relegation zone, it can be easy to forget that the club spent most of the first half of the season at the foot of the table. But although the arrival of wealthy new owners in late-Autumn came at a time when changes to the squad would still have to wait for the January transfer window to open, there was always a sense that reinforcements would have a significant enough impact to steer the club out of trouble.
Such a task was made much more likely due to there being three other clubs with a similar points total, and Newcastle were seldom more than a win and a draw away from climbing out of the bottom three.
Of the six remaining teams that are in – or have drifted towards – serious danger of relegation, three have been in or around the bottom three all season, with another trio of clubs that have slid precariously down the league.
If asked at Christmas on who I thought would go down, I’d have responded with Norwich, Watford and Burnley. All three were struggling to collect points and appeared far less likely than Newcastle to suddenly find some winning form. Teams such as Leeds and Everton were also a bit closer to the bottom three than fans would have been comfortable with, but both were far enough away from the relegation zone to not need to worry excessively about being dragged into the mix – as long as they could steadily add to their own respective points tally.
However, by mid-February, the picture had changed considerably. Leeds and Brentford were plummeting towards danger, and each in the midst of a run that would see them take just 1 point from 24. Both teams fell to within one loss of the bottom three. At the same time, Burnley had become much more difficult to beat, losing only once in seven league matches – a 1-0 loss to in-form Liverpool – during the two months after the New Year fixtures. Watford and Norwich, too, were beginning to close the gap on the teams just above the relegation zone.
And then there’s Everton; a team whose good start to the season had given them enough of advantage to remain comfortably clear of a relegation scrap, but whose deteriorating form has led them to become an increasingly active participant.
A lot of the focus relating to Everton had been on Rafa Benitez, an unpopular managerial appointment that appeared from the start to be only one minor crisis away from being subject to a change. But an encouraging start, aided by some impressive performances of players brought in on free signings or minuscule transfer fees, took some of the pressure off the former Liverpool boss.
Things began to quickly go wrong for Benitez when a series of first team players were sidelined through injury, some of whom were set for long lay-offs, and results inevitably suffered. Defensive performances also became a growing concern, though in spite of a poor run of results between November and January, Everton were no pushovers and the points taken at home to Spurs and Arsenal, and away against title-chasing Chelsea showed an ability to grind out enough results to avoid becoming serious relegation contenders.
Pressure was nevertheless mounting on the Everton board, and Everton’s loss away to Norwich prompted a managerial change, with Frank Lampard taking over.
At the time, Everton were four points clear of the bottom three, but with games in hand not only over the two sides immediately below in the table, but also over the teams above. Key players were gradually returning from injury and there was just enough time to add new signings before the closure of January’s transfer window.
The club’s remaining fixtures included more than enough opportunities to claim the points needed to stay in the top flight, and the results of at least five other teams placed either below or just above Everton in the table still did not suggest a realistic chance that the Blues would get dragged into contention.
But with each passing week, the possibility has increased and Everton are now in a position in which they’re likely to need to win the kind of games that they have generally lost so far. The club’s remaining fixtures include Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and twice against Leicester.
The list also includes a trip to fellow strugglers Watford, with Everton’s away record against the rest of the bottom seven clubs in the league having seen them lose four and draw one from the five matches played. Home games against Brentford and Crystal Palace – who between them have three wins over Everton already this season – complete the list.
As Leeds and Brentford have shown, with mini-revivals that have respectively seen them take 7 pts from 9, and 9 pts from 12, a difficult situation can quickly become much more positive. It’s not inconceivable, therefore, that Everton can do enough to survive, even if the odds are turning against them, with Burnley and Watford appearing to have an advantageous set of fixtures as well as a points deficit in the table that has all but been wiped out.
Time is running out though, and unless a dramatic improvement is delivered quickly, Everton’s long run in the top flight could finally be coming to an end.