The battle for survival at the foot of the Premier League looks like it is going to be every bit as tight, tense and exciting as the title race this season.
Six teams are fighting it out for the right to stay in the Premier League but it is not easy to judge who will win the race to be out of the bottom three on 15 May.
Here is a look at the chances of Bournemouth, Norwich, Swansea, Newcastle, Sunderland and Aston Villa as the season enters a crucial stage.
The Cherries have already defied expectations by being outside the bottom three after 22 games. Injuries to key players looked like they could take their toll on the side early in the season but Eddie Howe has managed his squad well and kept spirit and morale high. Wins against Chelsea and Manchester United have shown Bournemouth are a side to be reckoned with, but it will be results against the sides around them that ultimately decides their fate.
If January signings Benik Afobe, Juan Iturbe and Lewis Grabban come good and give the side a boost Bournemouth have every chance of staying up, although they have a tough run-in with Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United in their final seven games.
In a similar vein to Bournemouth, not much was expected from Norwich and their young manager Alex Neil but the Scot has given his side an excellent chance of survival against the odds – however, experience and class could make a big difference in the run-in.
Steven Naismith is expected to arrive from Everton and would make a fine addition to a squad that are among the lowest scorers in the division, while another new signing, Swiss defender Timm Klose, must help shore up one of the Premier League’s worst defensive records so it will be a close run thing as to whether the objective of survival is achieved.
All things considered Newcastle should have enough experience and talent to pull away from the relegation dogfight. Jonjo Shelvey made an instant impact in the victory against West Ham but the signing of a new striker would make a massive difference, especially given the absence of Papiss Cisse through injury.
With fellow strugglers Bournemouth, Sunderland, Norwich and Swansea to play between 5 March and 16 April and Aston Villa in the penultimate game of the season the Magpies’ future is in their own hands.
There has been a major shift in fortunes following the eighth-placed finish achieved by Garry Monk last season. The failure to replace Monk could be costly and new head coach Francesco Guidolin – a man with no Premier League experience – has his work cut out, especially with Leicester, Liverpool, West Ham and Manchester City in the final four games of the season.
The depth of Swansea’s squad has been exposed and judging by results the group are in need of a major confidence boost. The decision to sell Jonjo Shelvey to a relegation rival was a bizarre one and unless they arrest the slide soon it is hard to see a way back for the Welsh side.
Their first win of the season didn’t come until the 10th league game, so for Sunderland to be in with a shout of survival at all is credit to the work Sam Allardyce has done since his arrival. In appointing the former Bolton, Blackburn, Newcastle and West Ham boss the Black Cats made a shrewd move although their safety is far from assured.
They have the worst defensive record in the division by far so to keep Sunderland in the Premier League would be a major achievement but another great escape will rely on rivals failing and one or two unexpected wins against big sides.
Nine points from safety with only two wins all season – it is hard to see how Aston Villa – a side present for every Premier League season to date – can get out of their current mess.
Remi Garde – a Premier League rookie in managerial terms – is targeting a great escape to rival Leicester’s last season but the Foxes were already five points better off at the same stage.
Uncertainty off the pitch hasn’t helped matters and although Mathieu Debuchy and Loic Remy have been linked it may already be too late.