The battle for Premier League survival intensifies

benitez smile

Entering the penultimate weekend of the Premier League Season, the battle to avoid relegation between Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland is finely poised.

Following Newcastle’s recent resurgence under Rafa Benitez, the Magpies have climbed out of the relegation zone, after collecting 8 points from the last available 12.  That excellent run of form, beginning after a 3-2 defeat away to Norwich, has been inspired by the outstanding play of Andros Townsend and far improved defensive performances, directed by stand-in goalkeeper Karl Durlow.

Ironically since then the Canaries have lost each of their previous three games to slide to 19th place in the table, one below Sunderland who recently defeated Alex Neil’s side 3-0 at Carrow Road.

Subsequently the Black Cats have maintained their survival prospects by earning two creditable draws at home to Arsenal and away to Stoke.

Jermain Defoe’s last minute equaliser at the Brittania Stadium moved Sam Allardyce’s men to within a point of their fiercest rivals Newcastle as the battle for Premier League Survival intensifies.

Although this weekend none of the three sides involved can either secure safety or be relegated, the outcome of the fixtures will go a long way to determining the team who is to continue playing in the top flight next season.  The reward – along with the prestige – of doing so is estimated to be at least £100m.

In the ascendancy to earn that are Newcastle, who travel full of confidence to Villa Park to face already relegated Aston Villa. Victory for the Magpies is vital in their efforts to survive, since they have played a game more than both Norwich and Sunderland, who host Manchester United and Chelsea respectively.

As previously mentioned contrasting to Newcastle’s recent upturn in form, Norwich have lost 3 consecutive games, whilst Sunderland have collected only 5 points from their last available 27.

The Black Cats are well versed in finishing seasons strongly, as they have done in each of the past three seasons, and will require to do so again to retain their Premier League Status.  Ironically following tomorrow’s fixtures their remaining two opponents are the same as those of Norwich – mid-table Everton and Watford.

St James’ Park will be the venue for Newcastle’s final game against runners-up Tottenham, a week on Sunday, when the outcome of the battle for survival will be determined.  Should the Magpies emerge from that triumphant, then Mike Ashley’s decision to replace Steve McClaren with Rafa Benitez at the beginning of March will undoubtedly prove to be one of his best as Newcastle owner.

Naismith leaves Everton amid lack of opportunity


Steven Naismith has officially left Everton for Norwich City, the fee undisclosed but rumoured to be around £8.5m. It’s a good deal for the Toffees if that is the price, a substantial sum for a player approaching 30 who wasn’t in Roberto Martinez’s first-choice XI, but the Scotland international will be missed nevertheless.

Naismith’s career at Goodison Park goes down as a curious one. Signed by David Moyes in 2012 when Rangers imploded, Naismith struggled initially. It became clear that the right of midfield wasn’t his position – too lacking in pace to provide the thrust needed from wide – and he didn’t have the appearance of an out-and-out striker either. Playing just off a lone centre-forward would prove to be Naismith’s best role but it wasn’t one he was able to fulfil under his fellow Scot – that was Marouane Fellaini’s domain.

Moyes left for Manchester United in the summer of 2013 and eventually took Fellaini with him, and it was the arrival of Martinez from Wigan Athletic that led to Naismith’s best times in Everton blue, and the finding of his best position. Martinez from day one has encouraged Everton to play passing football – a departure from Moyes’ more direct approach, though Moyes wasn’t the Neanderthal he’s sometimes characterised as.

Naismith in time showed himself to be a crafty player, capable of clever, quick passes in tight areas and with subtle, hard-to-track movement. He could have been tailor made for a Martinez team in that regard, and there were games when Naismith was out of favour that could have been turned by his introduction. Opposition defences learned to sit deep and get men behind the ball to frustrate Everton and prior to the emergence of Gerard Deulofeu’s devilish crosses, it was an easily stifled team.

But Naismith didn’t always get the nod and the gap in the squad he could have filled created by Fellaini’s exit was quickly taken by Ross Barkley. Martinez is enamoured with the young England international and understandably so, but Barkley is very much on a learning curve and the performances don’t always live up to the hype. Naismith never held the same faith of the manager, who picks Barkley week in, week out, almost no matter what.

Naismith, by comparison, scored a hat-trick against Chelsea in September and then disappeared. He didn’t even start that game, entering only as a substitute when Mo Besic went down injured. Naismith scored all three against the soon-to-be-ex-champions, from an unfamiliar left midfield role, and was barely seen again. As parting memories go it’s not a bad one to have, but there’s the feeling Naismith’s tenure could have been much more.