With Huddersfield and Fulham now just weeks away from being confirmed as two of the 2018/19 relegation sides, the reality of the relegation battle is now hitting home. With eight rounds remaining of this Premier League campaign, the identity of the third relegation team remains very unclear.
Admittedly, the other results in Cardiff’s last weekend of Premier League action could have been a lot more favourable. However, the professional nature of the Bluebirds’ 2-0 win over West Ham indicates that Cardiff’s status as the prime candidate to join Fulham and Huddersfield in the Championship remains highly questionable.
It was also a welcome departure from the shoddy home performances that Cardiff produced against Watford and Everton, and there were never any guarantees against a West Ham side that has been a byword for erraticism so far this calendar year.
It goes without saying that their home form will be key to survival. Significantly, over two-thirds of Cardiff’s points have come from their home matches, even though no team had conceded more home goals than Cardiff’s 31 prior to the last Premier League weekend.
Still just two points adrift of safety ahead of FA Cup quarter-final weekend, the Bluebirds have the work ethic required to escape the drop. However, their run in compares somewhat unfavourably to their relegation rivals, with Chelsea and Liverpool visiting the Cardiff City Stadium in two of the last three league fixtures to be played there.
With Cardiff having found home matches against the league’s current top six to be punishing experiences this campaign, the visit of Crystal Palace the final home match of the season is logically Cardiff’s best chance of getting over the line, assuming that they are still in with a chance come the first weekend of May.
Even so, it is still worth noting that Palace entered their FA Cup quarter-final tie having scored in nine straight competitive away matches. Across those matches, the Londoners had averaged well over two goals per match, meaning that the Eagles could just as easily hit form when least expected, and stun Cardiff.
Particularly in the case of their 3-0 home defeat to Everton on 26 February, Cardiff have underestimated out-of-form opposition to a disastrous end at times this season. That itself is the hallmark of a team bound for relegation, but all it takes is for one slip elsewhere to change the entire complexion of the fight to avoid the one remaining relegation spot. Logically, that slip will come from either – in order of their current proximity to Cardiff in the table – Burnley or Southampton. The two clubs swapped places over weekend of 9 March, with Southampton stunning Tottenham 2-1 at St Mary’s in a result that thoroughly tore up the script at both ends of the table.
That victory for Southampton was also a seismic result in the context of the Saints’ own run-in. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men face just one more member of the current top six (Liverpool) and have potentially-crucial home advantage for that game. Southampton also end the season with a much easier task than Cardiff – specifically, a home game against a Huddersfield side that will have only pride to play for by then.
For that reason, it seems like it will be just a straight fight between Burnley and Cardiff to avoid relegation. Yet, with Cardiff significantly likelier to drop than Burnley in the relegation outright market on Sporting Index, everything could easily hinge on the Bluebirds’ trip to Turf Moor on 13 April.
Any result that benefits Cardiff more than Burnley, and at least keeps them within touching distance of the Clarets, will make a real impact. Sean Dyche’s men face an absolutely lethal quartet of fixtures to end the season, starting with a trip to Stamford Bridge on 22 April, before home games against Manchester City and Arsenal sandwich a difficult excursion to Goodison Park.
Ultimately, Cardiff’s survival appears improbable, but far from impossible. Given that just nine points separate Cardiff from the heights of 11th place as of mid-March, the traditional 40-point threshold that normally guarantees Premier League safety appears to once more be sufficient.
That is the minimum to guarantee survival, but in a league where no team outside the top six appears capable of putting together a truly consistent run of form, the tally required to secure survival could be as little as 37 points on this occasion.
In previous years of the Premier League’s existence, the range of minimum point tallies for survival has differed wildly. This was certainly the case in the mid-2000s, when West Ham dropped into the second tier with 43 points back in 2003.
That remains the highest PL relegation tally under the 38-game format, and contrasts wildly with the 34-point minimum that would have been enough to secure survival over the following two years.