Forest staring into the abyss

 

Even before Christmas, a yawning gap has opened up at the foot of the table, leaving the bottom five clubs at least six points adrift of 15th-placed Everton.

Staring into the abyss below them are Nottingham Forest, Southampton, Blackburn, Coventry and Charlton.

But with 18 matches gone and a further 20 still left to play, only one thing seems certain - that Forest will go down.

Manager Dave Bassett may have proved a miracle-worker in the past at Wimbledon and Sheffield United, but the transformation required at the City Ground seems even beyond his immense restorative powers.

Striker Pierre van Hooijdonk not only summed up Forest's impending plight when he walked out at the start of the season, complaining that no ambition had been shown to avoid relegation, but he also ensured that his prediction would come true. For in those early months, when the rot inexorably set in, Forest were not only deprived of the one player who could have kept them up as part of a harmonious side, they also lost out on the chance to sell him and delve immediately into the transfer market.

Charlton are the favourites to join Forest in returning from whence they came to the First Division. The memory of those magical few months when topflight football returned to the Valley amid a steely determination to avoid the fate which befell Barnsley last season has now all but faded.

Having reached the heady heights of ninth place back on October 24th after beating West Ham, Charlton have not won since. Their only other victories came earlier in the season against Forest and Southampton, and the form which took Clive Mendonca to five goals in just seven games has deserted him.

Clean sheets have been just as hard to come by, while kamikaze errors have condemned Alan Curbishley's side to defeats against Everton, Blackburn and Aston Villa even when their overall performances may have deserved at least a point.

However, the third relegation place seems rather less assured. Derby, Sheffield Wednesday, Everton and Newcastle could all get sucked into a relegation battle late in the season.

But given Derby's durability, the relative resurgence of Everton and Wednesday, and the quality at St James' Park, it is Southampton and Coventry that would still seem to have the most to fear in 1999.

The Sky Blues have been there time and time again. It would be kinder on their players and supporters to fast-forward to the final day of the season when they inevitably pull survival out of the proverbial bag.

As is so often the case among struggling teams, goal-scoring remains their greatest problem following the departure of Dion Dublin, although John Aloisi has arrived from Portsmouth to support Noel Whelan and Darren Huckerby.

One team who should almost definitely escape are Blackburn, for whom the fears of relegation should become a distant memory by the end of the season.

The acquisition of Brian Kidd as Roy Hodgson's replacement was an astute move, allowing him to finally step out of Alex Ferguson's shadow and prove to the public at large the man-management skills which those at Old Trafford have known about for years.

That leaves Southampton, who have been in the top flight for the past 20 years. It would be a huge loss to English football if the Saints were lost down to the First Division, meaning that a huge swathe of the country was without Premiership representation, with the most southerly top-flight club then becoming Wimbledon.

There are the faint signs of a renaissance at the Dell, but question marks remain over whether it will be enough.

Matt Le Tissier is always held up as Southampton's main hope, but rediscovering the tight defence which reinvigorated them last season and the goal-scoring abilities of Egil Ostenstad could prove just as vital.

Prediction

Bottom: 20th - Nottingham WSForest.

Relegated: 19th - Charlton.

Relegated: 18th - Southampton.