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EYE ON EPL

Norwich next to follow Villa into the drop zone

As the English Premier League (EPL) enters its final two weeks, a fierce battle at the bottom of the table is in full swing.

With Aston Villa already consigned to a place in the Football League Championship, the struggle to avoid relegation has essentially narrowed down to three teams: Newcastle United, Sunderland and Norwich City.

The Magpies are 17th with 33 points, but the Black Cats (32) and Canaries (31) are within touching distance and both have the advantage of a game in hand.

To me, all signs point to Norwich being the second side to plummet into the lower tier, following Villa. And I believe it will be down to bitter rivals Newcastle and Sunderland fighting it out on the final day of the season next Sunday to see who will take the dreaded third relegation spot.

For all their hard work on the pitch, the Canaries have struggled to do the most important thing all season - scoring goals. They have scored just 35 times in the EPL, with only Villa (27) and West Brom (32) faring worse.

It is tougher for a team to be promoted back into the EPL, than for a team to maintain its top-flight status. Championship teams play 46 games, eight more than in the EPL.

This was clear in their 0-1 loss to third-placed Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday when, despite playing better than the Gunners, they failed to put the ball into the net.

They know this is the kind of game they needed to win as it could have brought momentum, but instead they have now lost three games on the trot, with tough fixtures against Manchester United, Everton and Watford coming up.

If they continue to play like they did against Arsenal they could survive, but it will be very difficult.

Looking at Newcastle and Sunderland, it is anyone's guess who will stay up. But regardless of the outcome, it will be rather sad to see either team relegated. Feisty Tyne-Wear derbies aside, they are teams with proud histories and large fan bases.

It is the same for Villa. Though they deserved to go down as they had no fight at all, they have been in the EPL for so many seasons.

It is tougher for a team to be promoted back into the EPL, than for a team to maintain its top-flight status. Championship teams play 46 games, eight more than in the EPL, and there is also the problem of budget restructuring and player sales when a team is relegated.

Just look at Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, former English giants whose glory days now seem a distant memory after relegation more than a decade back.

The reality is that whoever gets relegated may face a dramatic fall from grace like Leeds and Forest. Yet if any team has the slightest of edges, it would be Newcastle, for one reason - Rafael Benitez.

Despite a poor start, it looks like he has managed to steady the ship with two wins and two draws in the last four games.

There are very few experienced coaches who can calm and guide players, but he is one of them.

I think the three teams all still have a chance to save themselves, but they have to go all out to win all their remaining games and hope their rivals drop points.

For the players, every game is going to be a grand final from now on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Norwich next to follow Villa into the drop zone'. Print Edition | Subscribe