WITH all except two of the teams in the bottom half of the Premier League table having reached the halfway stage of their respective campaigns, the battle to avoid relegation is reaching a critical stage. Who is involved in the fight to remain in the top-flight? And what are their respective strengths and weaknesses as they attempt to avoid the drop?

15 LEEDS UNITED (P20, Pts 22)

The Northern Echo: Leeds United's Jack Harrison, bottom left, celebrates after scoring his side's third goal during the English Premier League soccer match between West Ham and Leeds United in London, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Ian Walton).

Pros: Sunday’s battling 3-2 victory at West Ham lifted Leeds nine points clear of the relegation zone, and while three of the teams below them might have games in hand, at this stage of the season, it is surely better to have points on the board.

Marcelo Bielsa’s side have not lost the cavalier spirit that carried them so far last season, and while their injury problems remain severe, key players should start returning soon. In Brazilian forward Raphinha, Leeds boast a genuine match-winner, and in Bielsa, they can also call on one of the most respected coaches in the game. Bielsa’s ‘have a go’ approach might not be for everyone, but it will almost certainly mean Leeds continue to pick up victories.

Cons: Bielsa can barely put a team out at the moment, and while Sunday’s victory put some daylight between Leeds and the bottom three, it came at a cost with Adam Forshaw and Junior Firpo joining a crippling injury list.

Bielsa’s ferocious training regime could mean the squad is running on empty come the final weeks of the season. Even if injured players start returning, it could take them time to get back to full speed.

Patrick Bamford remains on the sidelines, and in his absence, Leeds do not really have a natural centre-forward. Raphinha helps plug the gap, but if he was to break down, Bielsa’s side really would be in trouble.

16 EVERTON (P19, Pts 19)

The Northern Echo: Everton's Michael Keane and Demarai Gray after the Premier League match at Carrow Road, Norwich. Picture date: Saturday January 15, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Norwich. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

Pros: Now that Rafael Benitez has gone, much of the toxic atmosphere that had built up around the Toffees should also start to dissipate. Benitez was a divisive figure from the outset thanks to his Liverpool links, so his departure should help bring the club back together.

On paper, Everton have much the strongest squad of all the teams currently in the bottom six. A fit-again Dominic Calvert-Lewin should guarantee goals, especially if Richarlison can regain his best form alongside him in the final third. Everton started the season by picking up ten points from their opening four games. Provided a degree of stability returns, they should be capable of a similar sequence again.

Cons: The rot that set in under Benitez clearly runs deep. Everton have won just one of their last 13 league games and have been leaking goals left, right and centre. Clearly, a defensive improvement is required.

The identity of the club’s new manager will be crucial. Benitez was incapable of halting the downward spiral, but there is no guarantee a Duncan Ferguson or a Wayne Rooney will be any better. Everton’s squad contains big names and big egos who have been underperforming. Are they the sort of players you want in a relegation fight?

17 WATFORD (P19, Pts 14)

The Northern Echo: Watford manager Claudio Ranieri (right) and Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe on the touchline during the Premier League match at St James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne. Picture date: Saturday January 15, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Newcastle.
Pros: Watford can score goals, indeed their goals-per-game ratio is better than all bar one of the sides in the bottom seven. Emmanuel Dennis has been a huge success story this season, and both Joshua King and Joao Pedro are also capable of finding the net.

The Hornets have been busy in the early weeks of the transfer window, and some of the early signs to emerge from Saturday’s draw at Newcastle were positive. Once their new additions properly bed in, they should improve the team. There is a core of the Watford squad that have spent their time at Vicarage Road bobbing between the Premier League and Championships, so the challenges of a relegation fight should not faze them.

Cons: Prior to their weekend draw, Watford had lost nine of their previous ten games. They have been in dreadful form, with Claudio Ranieri’s future as manager coming under scrutiny.

Is Ranieri the right man to sort things out defensively? He failed to keep Fulham in the top-flight and has shown little to suggest he is getting to grips with Watford’s defensive issues. Keeping Ranieri would be a gamble, but sacking him so late in the season might be even riskier. Watford’s board have gone down that route before, and seen their side relegated.

18 NORWICH (P21, Pts 13)

The Northern Echo: Norwich City's head coach Dean Smith looks on before the English Premier League soccer match between West Ham United and Norwich City at the London Stadium in London, England, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Ian Walton).
Pros: Having looked dead and buried for the vast majority of the season, Norwich finally displayed some signs of life at the weekend as they beat Everton. If nothing else, the victory proved the Canaries’ players have not thrown in the towel.

It hasn’t been plain sailing for Dean Smith, but Norwich have improved since the former Aston Villa boss replaced Daniel Farke in mid-November. The Canaries can still be carved apart far too easily, but they at least look marginally more solid than they did in the early weeks of the season, with Smith’s defensive work starting to bear fruit.

Cons: Prior to the weekend, Norwich had failed to score in seven of their previous eight league matches, and they remain hugely reliant on an out-of-sorts Teemu Pukki, who is finding life rather harder in his second campaign in the top-flight.

While they closed to within a point of safety with their weekend win, Norwich have played more games than all of their rivals in the bottom six. Indeed three of the sides in the bottom five have at least two games in hand on them. There is clearly a reluctance to spend money this month, which severely limits Smith’s scope to change things.

19 NEWCASTLE (P20 Pts 12)

The Northern Echo:
Pros: With their new Saudi Arabian backing, Newcastle will be trying to spend their way out of trouble this month. Kieran Trippier and Chris Wood have already arrived, and at least two more big-money additions are planned.

Allan Saint-Maximin is a match-winner on his day, and while Callum Wilson will be sidelined for another month, he should be back for the run-in, where his proven goalscoring pedigree could be crucial.

Despite Newcastle’s league position, there is a feel-good factor at St James’ Park following the departure of Mike Ashley and Steve Bruce. A sold-out St James’ could be a key asset.

Cons: Remarkably, Newcastle have still just claimed one victory in all competitions this season – and even that was a fraught one-goal success over Burnley. Quite simply, this is a side that has forgotten how to win.

Defensively, the Magpies are extremely poor, and while reinforcements might arrive to address that, there will be no time to bed them in. Eddie Howe can claim to have improved Newcastle’s play since replacing Bruce, but he took Bournemouth down because they conceded far too many goals. So far, he has shown little to suggest he is capable of avoiding a similar fate on Tyneside.

20 BURNLEY (P17 Pts 11)

The Northern Echo: Burnley players appear dejected after Leeds United's Daniel James (not pictured) scores his side's third goal of the game during the Premier League match at Elland Road, Leeds. Picture date: Sunday January 2, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER
Pros: Burnley have crashed to the bottom of the table in the last few weeks, but that is largely because they have not been playing. The Clarets have four games in hand on Norwich and three on Newcastle.

Sean Dyche’s side have built their long-term Premier League survival around being defensively solid, and for all that they are bottom of the pile, they have still conceded fewer goals than any other team in the bottom half. Maintain their defensive solidity in the second half of the season, and they should be capable of scrapping their way to survival.

Cons: Scoring goals was an issue before Chris Wood left, and it will be even more of a problem now Burnley’s main striker is playing for Newcastle. There are question marks over the future of James Tarkowski beyond the end of the month, and it feels like the end of an era as Dyche’s squad is broken up.

For all that they have spent most of their Premier League life in the bottom half, Burnley have rarely been involved in a full-on relegation scrap. Is there enough quality in Dyche’s squad to be able to survive such a battle?