A cursory glance at a Premier League table that resembles a concertina suggests this year will be the most exciting relegation battle ever witnessed.
With six points separating 11th-placed Everton from bottom-of-the-table Wigan Athletic – the same gap exists between Arsenal in second and Manchester City in third – half of the clubs in the top flight are under threat of relegation with 10 games of the season remaining.
It should make for a thrilling finale, not least because so many of the clubs in the lower reaches are putting up a determined fight to avoid slipping into the Championship.
Wigan, West Ham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, who are in the relegation zone, have accumulated 83points between them, which is a record at this stage of the season for teams occupying the bottom three places.
That statistic helps to explain why the view among managers is that the points total needed to survive will be higher than at any other time since the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams for the start of the 1995-96 season. Since then only West Ham United have been relegated with more than 40 points – they went down with 42 points in 2002-03 when Trevor Brooking was caretaker manager for the climax to the season after Glenn Roeder was taken seriously ill – and more often than not the safety mark has been well below a point a game.
"There is a suggestion it will take more points than in recent years to stay up," Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager, said. "I think it probably will, whatever that total is, I don't know. I said 40 points would stay up. I said that all along. I think you just keep plugging away and try to get as many points as it will take.
"It was the same last season. I didn't really set a target because, if you think about it, the target to stay up in recent years has changed from one season to the next."
Trying to work out where the relegation battle starts is almost as difficult as predicting the safety target, although bookmakers seem to have settled on the idea that anyone from Blackburn Rovers and below – Steve Kean's side are 14th and four points above the drop zone – is in danger.
Gérard Houllier, the Aston Villa manager, disagrees, claiming that his side, who are one point and two places above Blackburn, are still in a relegation scrap. If that is the case, then Fulham also remain in the mire.
At this time of year it becomes faintly amusing to hear managers trotting out the line "we're not looking any further than the next game". With the matches running out, it is impossible not to pore over the fixture list and try to work out where the points needed to climb clear might come from, as well as look at the run of games rivals have to negotiate and speculate on likely results.
A match has never been won on paper but it is a fair bet Wolves feel much happier about their run-in than West Ham or Blackpool. After Tottenham Hotspur visit Molineux on Sunday, the highest opponents Wolves face in their final nine games is seventh-placed Sunderland. There are a couple of crucial back‑to‑back West Midlands derbies, against Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion in May but playing all six clubs positioned from ninth to 14th is about as good as it gets.
West Ham, on the other hand, face a daunting finish to the campaign. Avram Grant's side still have to play Manchester United at home and Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City away. Blackpool's fixture list is not much better. Ian Holloway's side host Chelsea on Monday, Arsenal in their next home game and finish the season with trips to Spurs and United in two of their last three matches. "We need at least two more wins and two more draws," said Holloway, whose side are 15th with 32 points.
Albion, who make the short trip to Birmingham on Saturday, have the toughest home matches of any of the relegation-threatened clubs – Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Aston Villa and Everton all go to The Hawthorns between now and the end of the season. Birmingham, one point above Albion but with two games in hand, will be much more comfortable with the idea of Bolton, Sunderland, Wolves and Fulham coming to St Andrew's over the last couple of months.
Wigan, in another example of how high the survival bar has been raised this year, have nine more points than the average haul for a team at the bottom of the league at this stage. With Manchester City, Spurs and Chelsea three of their next four opponents, it looks increasingly bleak for Roberto Martínez, although the Wigan manager refuses to be downbeat or entertain thoughts of compromising his approach. "It is a real fight and we will need to work really hard to stay in the Premier League," he said. "But we are going to do it with style."
What is clear is that the balance of power has shifted significantly in the top flight this season. The fact that only 20 points separate Chelsea in fourth from Wolves in 18th – the smallest difference on record at this stage and half as many points as the chasm that existed between the respective positions at the end of last season – points to a playing field that has levelled and, in turn, produced a much more competitive and interesting league.
Whether that is down to the top clubs regressing or the rest of the division catching up is a matter for debate, with the answer probably somewhere in between. Chelsea, Aston Villa and Everton have all endured particularly disappointing seasons while Newcastle United, Albion and Blackpool have, by the standard of promoted clubs, fared surprisingly well. All three go into the final leg of the season outside the bottom three. It would, however, take a brave person to bet on that remaining the case come 22 May.
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