LONDON (Reuters) - Sunderland’s precipitous plunge from top flight to third tier in successive seasons will have sent shock waves through the Premier League, where almost half the teams go into the final weeks of the season still haunted by the spectre of relegation.
Instead of filling their coffers from the off-the-scale TV revenues and fixtures against some of the biggest clubs in the world, Sunderland will next year be playing Accrington Stanley and Fleetwood.
Their demise will further sharpen the focus of players, fans, owners and shareholders of the many clubs desperately trying to scramble clear of the log jam at the bottom of the Premier League.
So congested is the bottom half of the table that Crystal Palace, who began the season by failing to score a goal in seven successive defeats, have climbed to 11th, 38 points and probable safety.
They visit Stoke City on Saturday with the hosts in dire trouble on 30 points, three adrift of safety, despite battling to three successive draws.
“When we do get chances we have to take them – this is a must win game for us,” Stoke manager Paul Lambert told Premier League Productions.
“They (the fans) can see the fight and the spirit that the lads have given them and I think that’s what Stoke City fans want - they want players battling for everything. That’s what they’ve done since we’ve been here and because of that we’re still well within the fight.”
West Bromwich Albion, bottom on 28 points, have also shown fight recently but it’s almost certainly come too late and anything other than a home win over Tottenham Hotspur will seal their fate.
Southampton also occupy a relegation place, on 32 points, though they have three games remaining and still have a chance to get clear.
They visit Everton on Saturday ahead of a potentially decisive clash with Swansea and a last-day appointment with champions Manchester City.
Southampton produced an excellent performance to beat Everton 4-1 at St Mary’s in November and though they would dearly love a repeat, a draw at Goodison Park might prove a good result.
Swansea, a point above the Saints, have their future in their own hands with games against Bournemouth, Southampton and Stoke to come but, having not won for two months, they are very short of confidence.
Huddersfield have the opposite run-in and will be desperately hoping their 35 points is enough to avoid an instant return to the Championship as they face trips to Manchester City and Chelsea before hosting Arsenal in Arsene Wenger’s last game in charge.
Despite wrapping up the title weeks ago, Pep Guardiola’s side are unlikely to relax as they are on 93 points, two short of Chelsea’s 2004-05 Premier League record and with three games left to try to reach the magic 100.
West Ham United are also on 35 points and their fans will be wondering which version of their wildly inconsistent team will turn up after they followed two battling draws with 4-1 defeats by Arsenal and Man City.
David Moyes’s side visit Leicester City on Saturday ahead of a clash with Manchester United and a last-day home game against Everton - fixtures that should enable them to avoid the embarrassment of playing second-tier games in the Olympic Stadium next season.
Fifth-placed Chelsea’s slim hopes of remaining in the mix for a Champions League place almost certainly depend on beating Liverpool on Sunday, when the outgoing champions will hope the visitors will be suffering a hangover from their Champions League exertions in Rome.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond