The Premier League title race took another twist at the weekend, but a win for table footers Fulham closed the gap between themselves and 14th placed Swansea. Just five points separate seven teams at the bottom of England's top tier, with the battle to stave off relegation expected to go down to the wire.
Securing their top-flight status is the sole aim of those currently fighting for survival and with the business end of the season now upon us, it's crucial that those engulfed in the battle pick up points at every given opportunity. In 14th, Swansea are the best placed to secure safety, despite a poor run of form that has seen them win just one of their last six league games.
Regardless of their fall down the table, the Swans are still averaging the most possession (60%) and have the best pass success (86.2%) in the Premier League this season. Despite Michael Laudrup's sacking in February, the team are evidently still looking to play the aesthetically pleasing style of football that won them the plaudits following their promotion in 2011.
However, it remains to be seen whether their playing style will be enough to ensure they maintain their stay in England's top tier. While it's easy on the eye, Swansea are currently averaging the most passes per shot (43.9) in the league and the lack of cutting edge could prove telling come May. Michu's return to fitness will be a boost to the Welsh side, but they need to be more ruthless in front of goal, especially away from home where they've netted just 12 times in 14 matches.
Perhaps the polar opposite to the way Swansea play, Crystal Palace are a much more robust unit following Tony Pulis' appointment earlier in the season. Mirroring his Stoke side, Palace are currently averaging the most interceptions per game (17.5), while only Liverpool (22.7) are making more tackles per game (21.9) in the Premier League this term.
Furthermore, only Stoke (793) have won more aerial duels than the south London outfit (684) in the division, somewhat justifying the comparisons between both teams under Pulis. The defensive solidity of Palace will be crucial to their survival, with the team exhibiting this quality in the recent 0-0 draw at Sunderland.
The Black Cats currently sit three points behind Palace in the table, but have two games in hand over their relegation rivals. Gus Poyet has been praised for his work since taking charge of Sunderland, but will have his managerial exploits tested between now and the end of the season.
Perhaps the greatest feat of the Uruguayan has been to improve the defensive aspects of their game, with all eight of the clean sheets they've kept this season coming during his tenure. Bringing out the best in the likes of Fabio Borini, Adam Johnson and Vito Mannone has given the team a fighting chance of forcing their way out of the bottom three, while the January acquisitions of Liam Bridcutt and Marcos Alonso have helped bolster the ranks in key areas.
While they have lost only three of their last 12 league encounters, Sunderland need to capitalise on any goalscoring chances handed to them. Only Everton (12.7), Chelsea (12.1) and Manchester United (12) are currently being fouled more times per game than Sunderland (11.9) and they must pounce on any potential opportunities from set-piece situations in the attacking third, much like Ki Sung-Yueng's goal in the 4-1 rout of Fulham earlier in the season.
The Cottagers are currently rooted to the foot of the Premier League, though the 1-0 win over Newcastle at the weekend will have significantly boosted morale as we head into the final stretch. The victory at Craven Cottage was their first in nine, a winless streak that began with the aforementioned 4-1 loss to Sunderland, and recently appointed manager Felix Magath has a tough task on his hands if he's to keep the west London side in the Premier League.
Only Stoke (10.7) are averaging fewer shots per game than Fulham (10.9), while the Cottagers are conceding the most (18.4 per game) in the Premier League this season. Despite the win at the expense of Newcastle, Magath knows he must improve the team at both ends of the pitch to help secure their top-flight safety. With a WhoScored strength of 'coming back from losing positions', the German can't question the fighting spirit of the players, but will need to cut out the number of mistakes that are being committed.
Only four sides have committed more errors that have led to a goal than Fulham (8) this season, with two of those coming against direct relegation rivals - West Brom and Cardiff. The Bluebirds have won just once in the league since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer succeeded Malky Mackay and the inexperience of the Norwegian is perhaps proving to be a hindrance to the team.
Moreover, the frailities of the Welsh side are limiting their impact in games. Cardiff are currently averaging the fewest tackles (16), committing the fewest fouls (9.2) and have received the fewest yellows (38) in the Premier League this term. Any team locked in a relegation battle must boast a fighting spirit, but the Bluebirds are perhaps a little lacking in this department and it could cost them their top-flight status.
In contrast, West Brom have displayed such a quality under Pepe Mel. The Spaniard secured his first league win as Baggies boss at Swansea, and while West Brom have conceded first in seven of the eight league games he's taken charge of, they've secured a positive result in five of those. The Midlands outfit haven't necessarily underperformed during his short reign, but if they can avoid conceding first in their remaining fixtures, their chances of staying in England's top tier will increase.
Finally, Norwich are currently level on points with Swansea, but the loss to Southampton will not have eased their concerns about dropping down into the Championship. Only Cardiff (eight) have lost more successive games away from home than Norwich (five) at present, but their home form has helped keep their head above water. The Canaries are unbeaten in five at Carrow Road, conceding just one, and with meetings against both Sunderland and West Brom looming, Chris Hughton's side must look to their performances at home as a means of survival.
Either way, the relegation battle in the Premier League is the closest it has been for some time. Any of the bottom seven teams - perhaps even more than that - could drop into England's second tier by the time the current campaign comes to an end and it's very possible that the bottom three won't be decided until the final day of the season.
Which three teams do you think will be relegated from the Premier League this season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
All statistics courtesy of http://www.whoscored.com where you can find yet more stats and player ratings.Suggest a correction