LONDON – Two in-form teams go head-to-head Saturday in a game that will go a long way to deciding the Premier League fate of Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers.
Despite the specter of relegation that hovers over both clubs, each approaches the showdown in a rare confident mood after two successive victories. It is estimated that relegation will cost a club £50 million in revenue and Villa Park is a sellout for the most important match it has staged for a long time. It will not be a place for the feint-hearted.
Villa is 17th on 27 points and QPR bottom with 23. A victory for Villa will leave it seven short of the 37-point mark that most agree is needed for survival.
With six points separating Fulham in 10th place and Villa it is easy to understand why manager Paul Lambert said: “There are a number of teams who will be edgy.”
Yet Premier League history proves that teams who are more than four points ahead of the drop zone at the beginning of March have a 90 percent chance of staying up, which means three from Southampton, Villa, Wigan, Reading and QPR will almost certainly be relegated.
Villa has a poor home record in high pressure games this season, losing to fellow relegation candidates Wigan and Southampton, plus Bradford City in the League Cup semifinal.
In fact, Villa has lost five of its last six home matches. There could be no better time for Gabby Agbonlahor to score his first home goal this season, but Villa will look to Belgium international Christian Benteke, with seven goals in his last seven games, to continue his hot streak.
For Rangers, Loic Remy has three goals in five matches since his January transfer and the Hoops’ main weakness is highlighted by the fact that one more goal from the ex-Marseille striker would make him their top scorer after only six games.
From a seemingly hopeless situation, the arrival of Harry Redknapp has seen the club slowly but surely give itself a fighting chance of remaining among the elite of English football. Suddenly the great escape is a reality, and in its remaining nine games QPR will face only one club which is currently in the top five.
For Rangers, who have spent over £40 million since last summer, relegation would mean financial meltdown. It is one thing to say “they’ll have to sell their best players,” but finding another club for the likes of Christopher Samba, who cost £15 million from Anzi in January and whose 4½-year contract is worth £20 million, may be difficult.
Villa has not kept a clean sheet in 18 matches, yet has failed to score just twice in its past 10 games.
At times, notably in beating Liverpool at Anfield and drawing at home with Arsenal — even in defeat against Manchester United — Villa has played exceptional football.
Emotions will run high, many tackles will have a raw edge, and given the potential prize for a winner, this is as big a Premier League game as there has been this season.
WHO WOULD BET against David Beckham coming on as substitute for Paris St. Germain in the Champions League final at Wembley and scoring the winning goal against Real Madrid?
Quite a few people actually, though Beckham’s scriptwriter has continually come up with unlikely ways of making Beckham a serial headline maker.
With Manchester United, Real and Los Angeles Galaxy Beckham has won 13 major trophies, and he is the last remaining English representative in this season’s premier European club competition.
Arsenal’s exit at the hands of Bayern Munich means that there are no English clubs in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since the 1999-2000 expansion.
Before the inevitable obituaries of English football a little perspective — the Premier League was the last major league in Europe to fall from Champions League grace: La Liga had no quarterfinalists in 2005; Serie A in 2001, 2002 and 2009; the Bundesliga in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Oh, and Chelsea is still the reigning European champion.
Away from statistics Arsene Wenger called it a “massive wake-up call” for the English game and the traditional Premier League powerhouses — the Gunners, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United — have fallen behind the best in Europe.
Despite Chelsea’s victory over Bayern Munich last May, not one of England’s top clubs are as strong as they were three years ago and massive investment is needed this summer for the Premier League’s finest to regain their place on the top table of European football.
United dominates domestically, but need to bolster their defense and add a player of the caliber of Bastian Schweinsteiger to its midfield.
Chelsea doesn’t know who its manager will be in August, but whoever he is needs to off-load the hapless and almost goal-less Fernando Torres (easier said than done), and hope teenage striker Romelu Lukaku, who has scored 13 goals on loan to West Bromwich, can return to Stamford Bridge and fulfill his enormous potential.
Arsenal must invest in players better than Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, while at City the arrival of Maicon, Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia last summer proves there is no substitute for quality.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.