We’ve never seen a relegation battle like this

Everton fans - Reuters/Carl Recine

Never before has a Premier League relegation battle been like this. Four teams fighting to avoid two places with two games to go is not unusual. But all four are clubs who, in relatively recent history, have been battling for the biggest prize at this point of a campaign: they have all been champions. They all have a rich pedigree and honours board.

Most recently, in 2016, it was Leicester City who won the title. Before that it was Leeds United in 1992, Everton in 1987 and Nottingham Forest in 1978.

To put that in perspective only seven other clubs have won the English top-flight league, either the old First Division or the Premier League, in the 45 intervening years since Forest’s triumph.

“That is it. Do or die. Fight and fight right to the end,” said Leeds’ caretaker head coach Sam Allardyce and it summed up how dramatic it could end up being and how it may simply come down to which teams hold their nerve.

According to sports analysts Nielsen’s Gracenote, Leicester have an 83 per cent chance of relegation; Leeds 72 per cent chance; Everton 29 per cent and Forest 17 per cent and that would appear to be a reasonable assessment. But it can change quickly.

Football also changes quickly, or sometimes too slowly, and Leeds have only been back in the top division for two seasons after an absence of 16 years. Forest were exiled for even longer and this is their first campaign back since 1999. Leicester returned in 2014 having been out for a decade.

Leicester with the Premier League trophy - AFP/Adrian Dennis

Leicester with the Premier League trophy – AFP/Adrian Dennis

For Everton it is different, of course, and would feel more seismic should they lose their status for the first time since 1951, returning in 1955.

To put that in perspective Everton have only ever been relegated twice before in their 136-year history. Only Arsenal have stayed in the top-tier longer.

But these are all clubs with fanbases, grand old names and scale, who expect more. It feels as though there is even more at stake than usual in the final two rounds of matches. With Southampton having ended their 11-year spell it would in fact be the first time since 2017-18 when all three promoted teams stayed up if Forest survive.

It is tight. Just four points separate the four teams and two will definitely go down. “There’s a mini-league going on in our part of the table and we want to stay minimum where we are now,” Forest manager Steve Cooper said before adding: “There’s so much that can happen in the next two games and we’ve got to concentrate on what we can control, concentrate on the present.”

It will be a big story whatever happens between now and the final whistle next Sunday although matters are complicated because of the staggered kick-off times this weekend. All four play at different times across the next three days with Leicester’s Dean Smith having spoken of how unfair it has been that his side have had to play catch-up with three successive Monday fixtures. In truth that sounded defeatist from Smith and there is unfortunately a gathering sense of resignation at Leicester, the only team in Europe’s top five leagues yet to keep a clean sheet since the World Cup, who finished eighth last season but have since collapsed.

It can work both ways, of course. But, in theory, Everton can claim a significant advantage if they beat Wolverhampton Wanderers away in the 3pm kick-off on Saturday. By the time Forest face Arsenal at home at 5.30pm the same day they will know whether Everton have gone above them or not.

On Sunday Leeds will be aware of both results, and where it leaves them, as they play West Ham United away at 1.30pm. They could be relegated with a loss, while Leicester may be left boosted by what has preceded them or know that if they lose away to Newcastle on Monday evening then they will be relegated if the other three have won.

Leeds could be relegated this weekend if they lose at Newcastle on Sunday - Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

Leeds could be relegated this weekend if they lose at Newcastle on Sunday – Reuters/Andrew Couldridge

While Smith has suggested it is unfair, Everton manager Sean Dyche has been more pragmatic about the scheduling. “You can look at it either way. You can dress it up. I have been either side of it. Last club, this club. When you feel the game is the right day, the wrong day,” Dyche said. “That’s just the way it goes. At the end of the day the schedule is what it is and you have to deal with it.”

It is a failure to “deal with it” which has left all four teams in this position — although Forest, despite the vast spending from owner Evangelos Marinakis, may well have taken this position at the start of the season; their destiny remains in their hands.

Relegation should also, given they have only just come up, impact on Forest the least and affect Everton the most. Leeds and Leicester argue they are braced for the possibility. But for whoever goes down it will have huge ramifications. Not least with two big names back in the Championship.

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