It might not get the pulses of big-six supporters racing but the fight for survival in the Premier League is by far the best show in town.
Up and down the land, players, managers and supporters are being driven to distraction by one of the tightest races in memory, with each adopting their own methods of trying to stay above the line.
Only six points separate Crystal Palace in 12th from bottom club Bournemouth. And with fixtures against Manchester City, Brighton and Arsenal to come before the international break, no wonder Palace boss Patrick Vieira is feeling the heat.
‘If I am sitting in front of you and telling you that I am not concerned, it would be a lie,’ he said. ‘Of course we are concerned. Of course we are aware of our position.’
The problem for Vieira and his fellow bosses is that there is no safety blanket, no Norwich City, to tilt the odds in their favour. In previous seasons, the Canaries and others have been so poor that they have been as good as down from a long way out. There is no such luck this season.
Patrick Vieira, whose Crystal Palace side are 12th, admitted he is concerned about relegation
Julen Lopetegui’s Wolves are also involved in the intriguing battle to avoid relegation
In this high-stakes game, Wolves manager Julen Lopetegui looks the coolest player at the table. He greeted the media on Friday by handing out boxes of pizza left over by the players, who had been rewarded for keeping a clean sheet against Tottenham, and made off-the-wall analogies comparing Premier League games to melons. ‘You don’t know what it will be like until you open it,’ he said before adding – with a twinkle in his eye – ‘The game at Newcastle will be a hard melon.’
Lopetegui is a cat on hot bricks in his technical area but seeks to spread a focused air of calm at the training ground.
At Leicester, perhaps things have been a little too relaxed. Brendan Rodgers’ team are only two points above the line and Sportsmail understands that the mood has changed drastically since last weekend’s defeat at Southampton. ‘I think before that game, they all assumed they would be OK,’ said one source. ‘That has changed now.’
Leicester defender Timothy Castagne admitted his team know they are in a relegation fight
Defender Timothy Castagne backed that up. ‘It would be stupid to say we are not [in a relegation fight],’ he said. ‘We know we are.
‘A lot of the time we talk about more fighting, more aggression – the dirty part of football. In these games it’s what you need.’ At least Leicester have James Maddison, perhaps the best individual player involved in the scrap.
Look closely and you can see the pressure taking its toll. Under different circumstances, would Rodgers have asked Jannik Vestergaard – a player already well out of favour – to train alone for comments made in an interview, as was revealed by Sportsmail on Thursday?
Nottingham Forest boss Steve Cooper was frustrated with refereeing decisions v Everton
Would Nottingham Forest’s Steve Cooper, another level-headed character, have let rip at man in the middle John Brooks after the 2-2 draw with Everton, even suggesting his performance should be scrutinised by referees’ chiefs?
Forest got a rough deal in that game but perhaps the big call went in their favour – a penalty shout for Everton when Seamus Coleman tumbled under Jack Colback’s challenge. Indeed, a selection of the theories aired in recent times by some of these clubs make UFO conspiracies seem rational.
Of those in the struggle, only Wolves can say they definitely made the right call with their change of manager. They were bottom when Lopetegui took control and are now level on points with Palace.
West Ham persisted with David Moyes but the season continues to be a grind for them
Leeds boss Javi Gracia had to jump to the defence of the underperforming Georginio Rutter
West Ham have stuck with David Moyes yet the season continues to be a grind, with little sign of a breakthrough. Leeds seem no better off than when they sacked Jesse Marsch on February 6 and Javi Gracia was required to defend Georginio Rutter, bought from Hoffenheim for a club-record £35.5million but whose displays so far have been desperately average. No wonder he is still to score. ‘Every day he’s working hard, trying to improve and trying to help the team,’ said the Spaniard.
On the south coast, Bournemouth have to show they can recover from their 3-2 stoppage-time loss at Arsenal, where the Cherries led 2-0. At Southampton, rookie coach Ruben Selles has benefited from the post-Nathan Jones bounce to claim six points from a possible nine and haul Saints back into contention.
Gary O’Neil’s Bournemouth must show they can respond following the defeat to Arsenal
Rookie coach Ruben Selles has done well to give Southampton a chance of survival
Everton boss Sean Dyche has plenty of experience with regards to how to avoid relegation
In a battle as tense as this, though, you would probably rather have Sean Dyche in your corner than the opposite one, after performing this trick so many times in his previous job.
The former Burnley boss can sometimes head down verbal cul-de-sacs when speaking publicly, talking about his players’ ‘delivery’ of their performances, yet he is crystal clear about the task in hand.
‘The mentality, the underbelly, that says we will stop at nothing to be relentless to go and win games,’ said Dyche as his side prepare to meet. ‘That is a good mentality to have. It’s led by me and the staff but we want buy in from the players.’ Every one of his rivals would settle for the same.