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The Mini-League: A Look at Bolton Wanderers’ Relegation Rivals

With the run into the end of the season underway how are Bolton’s relegation rivals lining up?

Bristol City v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

So the teams down the bottom of the table have either 10 or 11 games left this season depending on whether they were playing a stadiums tin pot enough to have games called off. I think around 45 points will be enough to guarantee safety this season at this point. With that in mind, lets look at each in tern starting at the foot of the Championship table.

Birmingham City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Few would have foreseen that Sunderland would be in this position after so long in the top flight. Not since Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2013 has a team dropped straight through to the third tier. After years of being the fourth worst team in the Premier League I never thought they would do well this season, but never did I expect this.

They hoped to turn their season around after a 3-3 draw at home to then bottom of the league Bolton Wanderers by brining in Wales manager Chris Coleman. Some thought it was a master stroke, I thought it was the final nail in the coffin and it appears that will be the more likely outcome.

Sunderland are now a team in free fall. They are four points adrift from safety having played a game more than the teams currently most precariously perched above the drop zone.

Sunderland have a mixed run in but a difficult one nonetheless. Those where points are most possible are Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday, Reading and Burton Albion. The problem for Sunderland is that the other end of the spectrum play-off chasing Preston North End, high flying Derby County, mid table Leeds United and Norwich City, play-off chasing Fulham and title chasing Wolves.

Within that run I struggle to see how they could get up to 40 points let alone get enough to stay up.

Burton Albion v Brentford - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Burton were always going to struggle this season so it is no surprise to see them in the drop zone. Their remarkable rise from non-league football to the second tier had to cool off at some point and it is hard to see that point not being this season.

They are currently 3 points adrift of safety with the worst goal difference in the league and 11 left to play. Burton’s big must win games are Birmingham City, Hull City, Sunderland and Bolton. The issue is all their other games against Bristol City, play-off chasers Sheffield United, Wolves, title challengers Cardiff, play-off hopefuls Middlesbrough, Derby and play-off contenders Preston. Burton will have to pick up a lot of points against their relegation rivals to have any real chance of escaping the drop.

As nice as it is to have smaller clubs in the Championship, it was always going to be hard for the club to sustain themselves at this level with the widespread financial might.

Birmingham City v AFC Bournemouth - Carabao Cup Second Round Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

City have been a shambles for years now. With the exception of around half a season under Gary Rowett they have been destined to drop into the third tier of English football. Its amazing to think that since their last minute equaliser against Bolton to stay up back when Dougie Freedman was in charge they have in the most part failed to progress despite having resources available to them.

Birmingham sit two points adrift with a goal difference just as terrible as Burton’s. Birmingham have some key games coming up against Bolton, Burton, Hull and QPR. They also have some scary looking fixtures against Cardiff, Bristol City, Wolves, United and Fulham. Somewhere in the middle of that are Ipswich Town.

The games are available for Birmingham should they go on a run. I though do not think that this will happen under Gary Monk. Hitting a third manager in a season is a damning indictment of the way the club is being run and the path it is currently on. For me at this point you need a manager who is a realist, and I do not see Monk as that man. I may be proved wrong, but I think his appointment will be the final nail, rather like that of Coleman.

Millwall v Barnsley - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Moneyball football may well be put on hold at Barnsley now owned by Chinese billionaires.

The loss of manager Paul Heckingbottom to Leeds has not helped their attempts to maintain their Championship status, especially as he has not been replaced by experience. Of all the clubs down the bottom of the league they would in my mind be the most likely to sort themselves out next season, making them the club I would most like to see go down if we stay up, on the assumption we will once again struggle.

They have a game in hand on all those in the relegation zone, apart from Burton, and sit two points clear as it stands. With games against Millwall at home, Nottingham Forest, Norwich, Leeds and Bolton they may well feel that they have the games available to maintain their Championship status. But these games are important with Boro, Bristol City, United, play-off outsiders Brentford, Derby and Ipswich also coming up.

Losing the manager who got them into this league is a massive blow, the question for Barnsley is whether it will be too big a blow to recover from.

Hull City v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images

I do not have the record books in front of me but I cannot imagine that two clubs dropping from the top to third tier in successive seasons has happened many times before, if at all.

Hull are another one who I feel have made a terrible managerial change in an attempt to avoid the drop. Nigel Atkins is a manager even Bolton fans on dropping into League One with no expectations were highly sceptical about, so I have no idea how he landed a decent Championship job, on paper at least.

Hull started the season alright and have since dropped into the relegation race. This is arguably the most dangerous way of doing the whole relegation fight thing and makes them prime candidates to keep slipping. This is particularly the case when their latest trick was losing at home to home comfort lovers Millwall.

Hull though do look relatively good at the moment 3 points above the drop zone with a massively better goal difference than those around them. They actually have a fairly appealing run in featuring Norwich, Ipswich, Birmingham, QPR, Burton and Wednesday. These games certainly leave enough points available for them to stay up. Games against Cardiff, Bristol City, Wolves and Aston Villa are those at the other end of the spectrum where points will be hard to come by, but they are far outnumbered by those who are a little less scary.

Reading v Stevenage - The Emirates FA Cup Third Round Replay Photo by Harry Murphy/Getty Images

Certainly a team I did not anticipate would be hovering just clear of the drop zone.

Locked on 35 points along with Bolton, Reading will be sweating at this point and just as thankful as we are that those below us seem incapable of picking up points at the moment.

Reading’s remaining games do give them hope of finding enough points. Having said that the only two teams around them they play are Wednesday and Sunderland, meaning they will need to improve their form to be sure of staying clear of choppier waters.

Bolton Wanderers v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

I feel like Wednesday may already be too far away for to be really dragged into trouble, but a Bolton win on the weekend would drop them below us, a prospect I would find terrifying. Wednesday also have Sunderland, QPR, Hull and Reading to play, with 45 points my current target for survival they will likely have enough to stay up as having 37 already puts them in a strong position.

Bolton Wanderers v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

All this leaves only Bolton to be looked at.

Having not even been leading a league game going into the 12th fixture of the campaign it is remarkable that we now sit 5 points above the drop zone. An historically bad start to the campaign gave way to top six form which has since settled to mid table form. Through the improved spell we have still left plenty of points begging, but we have picked up enough to be in a decent position heading into the run in.

We have huge games coming up against Wednesday, Birmingham, Millwall at home, Barnsley and Burton. Nottingham Forest at home on the last day of the season is also a game where points could be obtained along with the game against mid table Leeds. Tougher games consist of Villa, Derby and Wolves.

Within that run there are the points available for us to stay up. If we can gain a mixture of draws and wins against the teams around us and a result or two elsewhere I think we can get the 10 points which should be enough to survive.

It will be a tough run in, and the other teams all have attractive games as well. We have defied the odds just to be in with a chance of survival, but now the hard work begins to secure what is so tantalisingly in reach.