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 By Ian Darke

Premier League's most exciting race this year? Avoiding relegation

With a purring Manchester City turning the "title race" into a procession, the Premier League's most dramatic finale could be the scramble to avoid the drop.

Currently, 11 teams are still feeling twitchy with 11 games remaining. Even Bournemouth, as high as 10th place, are only five points clear of the relegation places. This might be a dogfight equally as tense as the one in 1994, when a Chelsea goal 36 seconds from the end of the season sent Sheffield United crashing out of the Premier League. That same year, Everton stayed up by coming from 2-0 down against Wimbledon at half-time to win 3-2 amid breathless scenes at Goodison.

Remember in 1996, when then-Manchester City manager Alan Ball, acting on fatally false information from elsewhere, told his players to waste time and hold on for a draw against Liverpool? In reality, they needed another goal, but it was too late.

There have been many other such nail-biting finishes, like a seemingly doomed West Bromwich Albion completing a last day escape in 2005 with a win over Portsmouth, whose fans joined the celebrations knowing the result relegated their bitter South Coast rivals Southampton.

In short, stand by for something equally tense in May as this one looks likely to go the last minute of the season.

How might it play out?

Southampton's lifeless display against Liverpool on Sunday should worry their fans as it leaves the Saints in the drop zone. They have enough good players to escape but where was the fight and spirit?

Roy Hodgson has effected a revival at Crystal Palace, who had failed to score or win a single point in their first seven games. But the recent loss of danger man Wilfred Zaha with a long-term injury (he missed their first seven games too) will alarm Hodgson especially, as Christian Benteke has depressingly failed to score yet at Selhurst Park this season. Palace are yet to win without Zaha so they have problems.

So do bottom club West Bromwich Albion, who made a bold decision to sack Tony "never relegated" Pulis and bring in Alan Pardew. The new man is trying to produce a more watchable Baggies team and signing Daniel Sturridge was a coup but in trying to be more expansive, have they lost some vital resilience?

Their 3-0 defeat at Chelsea on Monday leaves them dangerously detached at the bottom. West Brom were actually two points above the bottom three when Pulis got fired. As one WBA fan joked: "We've found a more attractive way of losing."

West Brom have shown little fight since Alan Pardew replaced Tony Pulis.

Brighton & Hove Albion keep nicking points and have as good a defensive record as Arsenal. Australian goalkeeper Matt Ryan has proved a good signing, and Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy don't give much away in central defence.

Stoke got rid of Mark Hughes and replaced him with Paul Lambert, who was far from their first choice. The farcical on-pitch squabble about who would take a last-gasp penalty against Brighton did not reflect well, especially when Charlie Adam's kick was saved to deny Stoke a much-needed win. This is an erratic team with many players unaccustomed to relegation fights. It might be touch and go for them.

Having seen West Ham beat Watford on Saturday, I would be surprised if either team went down. Marco Arnautovic was electric upon return from injury for the Hammers, but Watford's early season sensation, Richarlison, looks in need of a break.

The kind of fight showed by Newcastle in beating Manchester United -- "they fought like animals," according to Jose Mourinho -- will encourage the Toon support even if their team is a bit short on quality and goals.

Huddersfield were dropping like a stone with five consecutive defeats until Sunday's excellent 4-1 win over Bournemouth. Their survival might depend on whether Steve Mounie's form against the Cherries was a flash in the pan or a sign that he's come to grips with English football. The signing of the clever playmaker Alex Pritchard from Norwich might improve his supply lines.

Swansea, as charismatic manager Carlos Carvalhal admitted, were "in the intensive care ward with hardly a pulse" but Carvalhal has sparked a remarkable change of fortune, with a series of wins including over Arsenal and Liverpool. The patient is alive and well if still far from safe. Without wanting to understate Carvalhal's tactical tweaks, what he has done best is relax the players and allow them to play without fear.

Carlos Carvalhal desperately needs a win against Southampton.
Swansea are playing with renewed confidence and they can thank Carvalhal for his relaxed approach.

Reports from Swans' training ground speak of plenty of laughs and jokes among the serious work. The manager even served reporters with Portuguese pastries last week; they're gobbling up his colourful quotes too. In particular, the new boss is getting a far better tune from striker Jordan Ayew, who has been encouraged to run at defenders with the ball and cause havoc.

The team spirit angle is important. Indeed, it might end up being the difference in such a tight argument.

Harry Redknapp, who once had a bunch of strangers on his hands at Portsmouth after a busy January window, took his players for a bus trip to watch horse racing followed by a beer and a bite at an Italian restaurant. They soon formed a bond and Pompey pulled off a remarkable escape.

It's going to be a photo finish to decide who goes down in May and the plot is thickening every week. It's great for the neutrals, agony if you follow any of the teams involved.

While predictions are tricky, from this range you could argue West Brom (the numbers are against them), Palace (no Zaha) and Huddersfield (will they score enough goals?) are most at risk.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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