WITH six games left, nine teams involved and three to fall below the dotted line, the unpredictable battle to stay in the Premier League is reaching fever pitch.
This weekend, eight of them go head to head in four crucial fixtures that could make or break their respective bids to avoid the dreaded fate.
12th-placed Aston Villa host the basement boys Fulham, 18th and 16th lock horns as Cardiff entertain Crystal Palace.
Hull and Swansea are locked level on 33 points and languishing in the middle pack but still not mathematically secure while Norwich in 15th face a West Bromwich Albion side two places below them and teetering on the brink.
With West Ham so close to the magic 40-point mark, it’s safe to assume their relegation fears are somewhat at ease.
From Villa downwards, ten points separate the bottom nine, who all harbour hope (however faint) of remaining in the division.
Fulham’s position, five points adrift at the foot of the table, looks increasingly perilous with the 3-1 home defeat by Everton last Sunday illustrating just why they’re prime candidates for plunging into the Championship.
Their trip to Villa offers another chance for Felix Magath’s side to emulate the revival that kept the Cottagers above water under Roy Hodgson back in 2008. But time is desperately running out.
The Villans have been the definition of inconsistent for much of the campaign, beating league leaders Chelsea one week to losing 4-1 at home to Stoke the next. Having led early and wasted a number of opportunities, another 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford was hard to take.
Villa Park hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Paul Lambert’s troops this term (or in the past two or three in fact). Just five league wins this term so far is a record hardly worth shouting about.
Three points against the bottom club – at home – will be expected, and edge them closer to survival for sure.
Another defeat for the West Londoners would add to the already-existing doom and gloom and take them a step closer towards the inevitable.
If one team badly need a win to boost morale right now, it has to be West Bromwich Albion.
From managerial changes to quenelle gestures and punch-ups in the dressing room, it’s all been happening at the Hawthorns, where one of the most extraordinary games unfolded last weekend.
Leading 3-2 against Cardiff with 60 seconds to play, the Baggies somehow failed to see out their advantage as Matts Moller Daelhi rescued the visitors in the nick of time. Saido Berahino may drop his head in shame.
Although the cushion between themselves and the drop zone currently stands at three points, the position of Pepe Mel’s 17th-placed side is a perilous one.
Their nack of surrendering leads and starting games at a sluggish tempo has found them out over the past four months.
It will be no easy task facing a wounded Norwich who have pride to restore after a humbling in South Wales which saw the players reimberse the travelling supporters. All 901 of them.
The Canaries have upped their game at Carrow Road since the turn of the year, remaining unbeaten and keeping five clean sheets, but have been generally difficult to beat on home soil, losing on only four occasions this term.
The 2-0 victory over fellow relegation rivals Sunderland a fortnight ago was hugely significant. Another similar performance and result could propel them as many as three places higher in the table and take them further clear of trouble.
But with Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal just around the corner, the importance of this six-pointer to Chris Hughton’s job prospects and the club’s immediate future cannot be stressed enough.
Just a point and place below are a rejuvenated Crystal Palace, who gave a stirring reminder of their renaissance under Tony Pulis by outplaying, outfighting and deservedly beating Jose Mourinho’s table-toppers in front of arguably the best home crowd this season packed into Selhurst Park.
The Eagles were flying high at the start of 2014 but have swooped lower in recent weeks with the gloss of their stark improvement wearing off.
The Bluebirds are three points behind 17th with six games to go and can ill-afford a slip-up in a fixture considered to be a home banker if they are to fulfil their ultimate goal.
Palace took the spoils in December and after securing one of the results of the season last time out – will arrive in South Wales on cloud nine, aiming to do the same.
The immediate need for a victory is less felt by Hull and Swansea, who are currently enjoying mid-table mediocrity in 13th and 14th respectively with the same number of points.
As is the case when teams adjacent in the table lock horns, a tight and closely-fought contest usually transpires.
Another draw between these two then – after the 1-1 at the Liberty before Christmas – is therefore the most likeliest outcome.
Not many fixtures have been played in all four divisions of English football and steeped in rich tradition – but this is one of them.
The Tigers came up, went down and made a return to the promised land within the space of four years.
They would be forgiven for having half an eye on their first Wembley trip in over 80 years although there is the incentive of claiming a tenth league win, which would guarantee their top-flight status for another year.
The Swans have been here since 2011 and only now have shown the soft-centre that has cast their patient possession approach into doubt. Their vulnerability has been magnified and weaknesses exploited while wretched home form has been their downfall.
Both will be optimistic of their chances and may be looking up rather than down. Though, in this the cruelest division of them all, you are not safe until you’re safe.
With second-from-bottom Sunderland also facing a tricky trip to Tottenham on Monday night, the destiny of those falling down the trap door is beginning to mould into shape.
Hold onto your hats, it’s squeaky bum time!
Cardiff vs Crystal Palace Image by joncandy via Creative Commons License
Fulham vs Aston Villa Image by nicksarebi via Creative Commons License
Lugano celebrates for West Brom Image via StaticGuim.co.uk
South Stand (Jarrold Stand) Carrow Road Image via geograph.org.uk
The Liberty Stadium Image via Wikipedia