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ESPN FC  By Dale Johnson

The relegation scrap: Premier League battle going down to the wire

With three rounds of games remaining in the Premier League season, Dale Johnson assesses the teams battling to avoid the drop, with just two points separating five teams for 18th place.

ASTON VILLA
Position: 14th
Points: 35
Remaining fixtures: West Ham (h), Southampton (a), Burnley (h)

Aston Villa's position looks relatively comfortable after victory at home to Everton. They now top the mini-league of five teams hoping to avoid relegation and have the comfort of two relatively straightforward home matches left to play.

Christian Benteke's outstanding run of form continues and his brace last week took his recent tally to 11 goals in just nine games. A player who could not buy a goal two months ago is now eighth in the Premier League scoring chart -- level with Wayne Rooney on 12 goals.

What does loom on the horizon is the FA Cup final date with Arsenal at the end of the month. Just how much that will distract them as we get towards the climax of the league season remains to be seen, so manager Tim Sherwood would prefer to get safety wrapped up once and for all.

NEWCASTLE UNITED
Position: 15th
Points: 35
Remaining fixtures: West Brom (h), QPR (a), West Ham (h)

Newcastle's worst fears were realised last weekend when they not only lost heavily to Leicester City, but Sunderland picked up three huge points against Southampton. What at one stage looked like a possible (if improbable) relegation battle for the Magpies suddenly came sharply into focus. 

With manager John Carver accusing defender Mike Williamson of deliberately getting sent off in the defeat at the King Power Stadium, in which Daryl Janmaat also saw red, there is clearly big trouble behind the scenes. Newcastle have since backed Carver after two days of talks but there is now little room for error. 

While Carver will be without Williamson and Janmaat this weekend, he will be boosted by the return of Papiss Cisse from his seven-match ban for spitting at Manchester United's Jonny Evans. Cisse is the club's leading scorer with 11 goals and could be crucial in the remaining games, starting with the visit of Tony Pulis' West Brom on Saturday. The Baggies are now safe from relegation, have kept three consecutive clean sheets and won their last two away games -- not what Newcastle will want to hear. 

There is still breathing space for Newcastle, and in general their fixtures are not too daunting, but they need to stop this run of defeats very quickly -- and they now have the worst goal difference of the teams in this pack of five.

Mike Williamson leaves Jamie Vardy on the deck, leading to his red card.

LEICESTER CITY
Position:
16th
Points: 34
Remaining fixtures: Southampton (h), Sunderland (a), Queens Park Rangers (h)

Leicester boss Nigel Pearson can now boast five wins in six games, a run that has dragged them out of the bottom three, but they remain perilously close to the drop zone. A new tactic of coming out of the blocks quickly was again expertly executed last week with a goal in the first minute against Newcastle and they never looked back from there, going on to win 3-0.

The visit of Southampton at the weekend might have looked a much more difficult prospect earlier this season, but Saints' form has started to tail off badly and they have now won only three of their last 11 fixtures. In fact, few at St Mary's would be too distraught if they were overtaken by Swansea for seventh place in the table, thus removing any danger of having to play in the Europa League.

What is certain is that the trip to Sunderland the following Saturday has "six-pointer" written all over it. The smart money is on Leicester still being above Sunderland when they meet, but that game could go a long way to deciding who drops into the Championship. That said, with a final-day home game against what will surely be an already-relegated QPR, the Foxes may be 17th but their actual position seems stronger than their league placing.

Leo Ulloa has found his goal-scoring form at the right time for Leicester.
Leonardo Ulloa hit a brace as Leicester eased to victory over Newcastle.

HULL CITY 
Position:
17th
Points: 34
Remaining fixtures: Burnley (h), Tottenham (a), Man United (h)

It must be frustrating for Hull after they won back-to-back games, including the home win over Liverpool, when results at the weekend sent them from a position of some comfort to one of real concern again. They had the chance to further banish their relegation fears on Monday evening but came up against an in-form Arsenal side who won 3-1 at the KC.

Hull now face a massive home game with Burnley at the weekend, and should they not take all three points from that fixture they will face a nervous couple of weeks. It doesn't help that Burnley are one of Hull's bogey teams, with the Tigers having lost eight of the last nine meetings, and failing to score in six of those.

Steve Bruce must take the Tigers to Tottenham on the penultimate weekend before entertaining a Manchester United side who could need a result on the final day to ensure a place in next season's Champions League. It all points to a very nervous day for the home fans on Saturday, but Burnley have now scored only one goal in their last nine matches which should give Hull some confidence after their own recent clean sheets.

SUNDERLAND
Position:
18th
Points: 33 (one game in hand)
Remaining fixtures: Everton (a), Leicester (h), Arsenal (a), Chelsea (a)

A 2-1 victory at home to Southampton on Saturday kept their hopes alive, as with results elsewhere going against them anything other than three points would have made an already tough task all the more difficult. But they are one point behind Leicester, with of course the two teams facing each other a week on Saturday in a monumental relegation showdown.

Before that, they must make the trip to Goodison Park to face an Everton team that saw their late-season revival come to a halt at Villa on Saturday. Sunderland may have won two away games all season, but they have only lost six -- a record bettered by only five teams. Their record of eight draws on the road is the most in the Premier League, an outcome that they would probably take.  On the flip side, Everton have lost only three home games, which can only be bettered by the top three, and have six consecutive wins at Goodison in all competitions. 

If they can get a point at Everton, and win at home to Leicester then 37 points might well be enough. And they would have the two away games at Arsenal and Chelsea in the final few days of the season as bonus fixtures. But there are a lot of ifs, buts and maybes in this calculation, and results elsewhere could yet cause more damage this weekend.

QUEENS PARK RANGERS 
Position:
19th
Points: 27
Remaining fixtures: Man City (a), Newcastle (h), Leicester (a)

The game is almost up for Queens Park Rangers after they slumped to their 14th away defeat of the season, 2-1 at Liverpool last Saturday. They are now seven points off safety with only nine points still on the table, and a trip to the Etihad to take on Manchester City this weekend. Should they lose to City, then relegation will be confirmed. A draw will also send them down should Hull get anything at home to Burnley (due to Sunderland and Leicester having each other to play).

The chances of Chris Ramsey pulling off one of the all-time rescue acts looks slim in the extreme, but win at the home of the deposed champions this weekend and they should stay alive, for another week at least.

With games against Newcastle and Leicester in the final two weeks they could actually have a chance of staying up, but the tough part comes first.

Time is all but up after Burnley lost at West Ham.

BURNLEY
Position:
20th
Points: 26
Remaining fixtures: Hull (a), Stoke (h), Aston Villa (a)

The fat lady is singing for Sean Dyche and Burnley with a run of only one win -- which amazingly came away at Manchester City -- in their last 14 league games going back to Jan. 10. They have also only scored one goal, which was the winner at the Etihad, in their last nine games and are now the outright lowest scorers in the top flight with 26 goals.

A 1-0 defeat at West Ham over the weekend looks too damaging to recover from. They travel to Hull this weekend knowing anything other than a victory will rubber-stamp their return to the Championship at the first attempt. Even if they beat the Tigers they can only get to 35 points by winning their final two fixtures, and that looks unlikely to be enough to finish on the right side of the line.

Dale Johnson has been an editor and journalist at ESPN for 18 years. You can follow him on Twitter @dalejohnsonESPN.

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