In football leagues across the globe, the month of January is an important one.
It’s the midway point in the season and the time the transfer window opens and closes. It’s the time when European football takes center stage—when the top clubs vie for domestic league titles and separate from the rest of the pack.
Most importantly, January is the critical part of the season when the relegation and promotion "battles" begin to take shape.
In no other league does this fight gain more attention than in the English Premier League. Besides matches involving the top teams, Premier League relegation is the most watched, discussed and anticipated outcome in the English game.
Battle to Avoid Relegation
As in the past, everything is heating up—and that’s not just at the top of the table.
The most heated races toward the end of the year come at the bottom of the table, and this year figures to be no different in the English Premier League.
In a 38-match campaign, every point counts.
Just ask Bolton Wanderers, which finished the 2011-2012 season one point behind Queens Park Rangers (QPR) for the final "safety spot" to stay in the top flight.
As of Jan. 7, the bottom three look like this:
QPR sit at the bottom of the table with 13 points. Reading, with a better goal differential, sits second to last with the same amount of points. Wigan Athletic patrol the third and final relegation spot with 18 points.
At this point in the season, not one team as far as five spots ahead of these bottom three teams is safe.
Southampton, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Sunderland and Fulham are in the green zone now but could easily be in the red come May with a few poor results.
Here are my predictions as to which teams will fall to the English Championship Division for the 2013-2014 season.
Relegation Prediction: QPR
QPR seemed to be on the rise to stardom in English football when the club won the English Championship Division in 2010-2011 for promotion to the Barclays Premier League (BPL).
After a takeover by investors with money to spend, QPR was thought to challenge the "big boys" in the BPL within a few years.
So far, the exact opposite has happened.
After barely surviving relegation last season, QPR are again in a horrid situation.
Although the London club brought in great international talent such as Spaniard Esteban Granero, South Korean Park Ji-Sung, Frenchman Djibril Cisse and Brazilian Julio Cesar in the past year, QPR are five points back of a safe spot in the league with 17 games to go.
Many thought newly appointed manager Harry Redknapp would bring life back into the squad after their poor start to the campaign, but so far, QPR have been one of the worst teams in the league. The club has scored a league-worst 17 goals this year, and their minus-19 goal differential is second worst in the BPL.
With only two wins in 21 games, QPR seem unlikely to make up the ground they need to in the time remaining. While QPR had a surprising, rare win at Chelsea on Jan. 2, their schedule only gets tougher in the coming weeks with dates against Tottenham, Manchester City and West Brom.
QPR does have the talent to rise out of the bottom of the table, but their slow start to the season shows no reason why they will have a sudden turnaround at the end. Add in their recent internal problems after a quarrel about playing time between Redknapp and Portuguese defender Jose Bosingwa, and QPR have a lot to sort out on and off the pitch.
Adding a player or two in the transfer window might be an option for the club. However, after highly heralded French international forward Loic Remy turned down a move to Loftus Road from Ligue 1 powerhouse Marseille, Redknapp and QPR are going to find it difficult to woo someone who will help them win a title at the bottom of the table instead of the top.
Expect QPR to make a valiant run to avoid relegation, but the club’s troubles will be too much for them to overcome.
Relegation Prediction: Reading
Reading currently sit in 19th place and are tied on points with QPR with 13, but they retain the one-spot lead due to a plus-two goal differential.
The problem for Reading this season has been on the defensive end. They have allowed the second-most goals in the BPL with 40.
Offensively, their numbers are respectable with 23 goals in 21 games. Of the teams in the relegation battle, Reading seem to be the most ill-equipped for the ride that lies ahead.
So far in the transfer window, Reading has made the right moves.
Their first was signing Portuguese defender Daniel Carrico away from Sporting Lisbon. Although not the tallest of centre-backs at 6’0", Carrico will give stability at the back to the Royals, which they have been looking for all season.
To add to their attacking needs, Reading are hoping to sign Australian playmaker Tom Rogic from Central Coast Mariners in the A-League (via the Daily Mail). If they are able to acquire him, Rogic will come to the Royals bringing a bright mind to the pitch—and a few goals for his side, fans hope.
While the transfers announce that Reading will be in it to the end to avoid demotion, team depth remains the biggest issue.
Lacking playmakers off the bench, manager Brian McDermott will have to rely on Russian forward Pavel Pogrebnyak to take over as primary goalscorer. The 6’2" striker has shown flashes of brilliance this year but only has four goals in 16 games to show for it.
For Reading to inch their way out of the relegation zone, the Russian will have to put in at least twice as many goals in the second half of the season.
With five points separating them from the safe zone, Reading will have to rely on their top players like Pogrebnyak and Nicky Shorey, who leads the club in assists with four in 21 games.
Expect Reading to continue earning points at home, as 11 of their 13 points have come at the Madejski Stadium. Their horrid road record of zero wins, two draws and nine defeats will have to improve a great deal for the Royals to keep a place in the Premier League.
Reading will fight to stay in the top flight, but a five-point deficit and a continuing poor defensive effort will have Reading supporters looking to the English Championship Division next season.
Relegation Prediction: Aston Villa
The last spot in the relegation zone can come down to a number of teams, but the race figures to focus on three: Wigan, Southampton and Aston Villa.
Wigan sit in the relegation spot at the moment, but don’t expect them to be there for long.
After a remarkable run a season ago that saw Wigan beat Manchester United at Old Trafford and take points from Arsenal at the Emirates, Wigan survived the drop zone with a late-season surge that put them well ahead of the bottom three at the end of the season.
While Wigan may not need such an impressive run this year to escape, they still have their work cut out for them. Wigan’s five wins are more than the two teams above them, but with only three draws so far, they find themselves just behind Southampton and Aston Villa.
Wigan has the right man at the job in manager Roberto Martinez. Although the team has struggled, Martinez always seems to get his squad to play at a high level when their backs are against the wall.
With players such as former Chelsea striker Franco Di Santo up top, Irish international James McCarthy in the middle and recent MLS signee Roger Espinoza, Wigan will earn the points needed to stay atop the drop zone.
Expect the battle to come down to 17th-place Southampton and 18th-place Aston Villa.
While the teams are both sitting at the bottom of the table, they are trending in opposite directions.
After a slow start to the season that saw them lose their first four contests, Southampton have quietly picked up their play. The Saints have improved vastly over the last two months and have taken all three points against teams they should.
With recent wins against lowly Reading and struggling Newcastle United, Southampton seem to be heading in the right direction going into 2013 under current manager Nigel Adkins. And with a much better goal differential than the other relegation-fighting clubs, Southampton are a safe bet to rule out of the relegation zone by the end of the season.
That leaves Aston Villa.
Not used to being in the relegation zone, Aston Villa have had a disappointing season so far.
After a decent start, Aston Villa went winless in December in the Premier League and have fallen down the table as a result. After a win over lowly Reading on Nov. 27, Villa have drawn three BPL games and lost four.
Even more disturbing, those four losses weren’t close.
In those losses, Villa were outscored 18-1 and were routed by Chelsea 8-0 two days before Christmas. In poor form at the moment, Aston Villa will have to find a way to close up the gaps on defense if they want to see Premier League football next season.
So far the Villans haven’t made a splash in the transfer market, but rumors of Paul Lambert and his staff going after Manchester City centre-back Joleon Lescott have come to light.
Villa will surely need to make a move, and adding a defender will help greatly. With a league-worst minus-24 goal differential, Villa will need all the help they can get at the back end of their squad.
Although Lambert has talented players such as Charles N’Zogbia, Marc Albrighton and Stephen Ireland, the team's defensive issues will hound Villa until the end. It hasn’t been a good ride for American goalie Brad Guzan in the BPL as well, with a league-worst 41 goals out of his net.
It doesn’t seem like it will get any better for the Villans as their fight against relegation continues.