The long anticipated return of Premier League football finally comes to end on Wednesday 17th June with a double header of Aston Villa at home to Sheffield United and Arsenal travelling to play Manchester City. These fixtures being played ensure every side in the Premier League will have played the same amount of games going into the weekend, where the crowded fixture list to end the season gets into full swing. While the title is all but sealed for Liverpool, the league is by no means going to fizzle out to a conclusion. There’s the Champions League spots to fight for but also Premier League survival, a race with at least six clubs involved, with others who could get dragged into the battle. This article focuses on each of the bottom six clubs’ key player for the remainder of the season in their quest to avoid relegation.
Brighton and Hove Albion
Key man: Neal Maupay
Maupay signed from Brentford in the summer and has impressed in his debut season in the Premier League, notching eight goals and providing two assists in his 28 appearances. He has shown he can handle responsibility by taking on the mantle of The Seagulls main goal scorer from the ageing Glenn Murray which bodes well for the 23 year-old to fire Brighton to safety.
England international Lewis Dunk will also have a key role to play marshalling the Brighton defence. Brighton have the best defensive record of the bottom six clubs and they will need this to continue to provide Maupay the springboard to fire them to safety. Brighton currently sit two points clear of the Premier League relegation zone with nine games left to play and their goal difference may prove vital to their chances of survival, effectively giving them an extra point on their rivals.
West Ham United
Key man: Michail Antonio
For the last few years at West Ham every season has started with huge optimism with fans dreaming of a push for European places before having to settle for another season towards the wrong end of the table. This season is no different with David Moyes brought in for his second spell in charge following the departure of Manuel Pelligrini, with West Ham languishing in 17th with many players displaying uninspired performances. One man who never lets his side down is Michail Antonio and, had he not been injured for much of the first half of the season, West Ham may have found themselves in a far more favourable position going into the home straight of the season. His blend of pace and power mean he is a nuisance to defenders and when he’s in form he can run teams ragged. His versatility is also a major asset, as he is able to play anywhere from right back to striker.
David Moyes has utilised Antonio as a striker in the four games prior to Covid-19 halting play and it is here that he can be most effective for West Ham, as a lone striker or paired with Haller whose form has dipped horribly since his early season promise. Antonio has only managed two goals and two assists in an injury hit season but his battling capabilities should ensure he is vital for West Ham in their attempts to avoid Championship football.
Key man: Troy Deeney
Watford looked doomed when they appointed Nigel Pearson on the 6th December, their third manager of the season. They were bottom of the league and relegation already looked almost inevitable. Pearson has come in and rallied the troops of a squad who have enough quality to be far higher in the league after last season’s 11th placed finish and FA Cup final run with largely the same players. They went on an impressive run of one defeat in eight games immediately after Pearson was appointed and also handed Liverpool their only league defeat of the season so far in their penultimate fixture before lockdown in resounding fashion, scoring three to no reply.
Central to this has been their 31 year-old captain Troy Deeney, the uncompromising striker. He has not always been in favour in recent seasons at Watford under various management but Pearson has given Deeney the responsibility of leading the line to try and save the Hornets from relegation. What Deeney may lack in ability he more than makes up for in the physical side of the game. His bulldozer-like approach geared up for a tough relegation battle, Watford fans would have been worried when he publicly voiced his unwillingness to return to training due to safety concerns with Covid-19. It is not certain if he will be ready to return to action on Saturday 20th June when Watford host Leicester but Watford will hope he can have a major part to play between now and the end of the season. Not renowned for his goals, he has scored six goals and two assists in 18 Premier League appearances this season but it’s his ability to intimidate and bully opposition defenders which mean he is vital to Watford. It will also be interesting to see if £30m summer signing Ismaillar Sarr can kick on from his heroic performance against Liverpool, where he scored two and assisted the third, and prove to be a key man in the end of season run-in.
Bournemouth find themselves lying in 18th in the Premier League as the sides gear up for the restart. They could even slip down to 19th should Aston Villa beat Sheffield United in the first game back on Wednesday. The season break may well have done Bournemouth some good with their players visibly lacking in confidence in recent months. A side associated with open football and high-scoring games since they gained promotion to the Premier League in 2015, the Cherries have struggled in front of goal this season with 29 goals scored in 29 league games. Their two main goal threats, Callum Wilson and Joshua King, have both struggled with the pair on eight and 4 league goals this season respectively.
Wilson went from September 28th 2019 until 21st January 2020 without a league goal for Bournemouth and he looked bereft of confidence in this spell. However, the England international’s form had improved prior to the break with three goals in his last six and his all-round play noticeably better. If Bournemouth are to avoid relegation and secure their sixth consecutive season as a Premier League club they will need Wilson back to his best, starting with a tricky game at home to a notoriously difficult to beat Crystal Palace side on Saturday.
Key man: Jack Grealish
Should Aston Villa beat Sheffield United in their game in hand on the June 17th they will jump to 16th and have a real platform to build from as the season draws to a conclusion. Key to this will be Jack Grealish, the 24 year-old who has dragged his club through games almost single-handedly at times this season. He started the season playing deeper than fans are used to seeing him and in a central position but Dean Smith preferred to play him in a wide left position prior to the season break, where he has had a lot of joy even if it has not been enough to steer Villa up the table. His seven goals and six assists in 26 league games are impressive returns for a midfield player in a struggling side and many hoped Gareth Southgate would give the Villa captain a place in the England squad had the Euros gone ahead this month as planned. One thing that is for sure is that if Aston Villa have any chance of surviving this season they need Grealish to be at his best.
The return to fitness of John McGinn is also a huge boost for Villa as he is rumoured to have featured in a behind closed doors friendly against West Bromich Albion in the lead up to the return of the Premier League. Aston Villa travel to West Ham for the final game of the season in a game which could well decide both teams fate.
Key man: Teemu Pukki
Norwich have found their return to the Premier League a real struggle and are bottom going into the final nine games of the season. They are six points from safety and have the worst goal difference in the league, the nature of their playing style commendable if a little naive. There have been positives this season with the likes of Jamal Lewis, Max Aarons, Todd Cantwell and Emiliano Buendia all impressing.
However, if Norwich are to have any hope of staying up they will need Teemu Pukki firing on all cylinders. The Finland international scored a remarkable 29 goals for Norwich in the Championship last season after being snapped up as a free agent. He had continued that form into the opening weeks of the Premier League season, notably scoring a hat-trick against Newcastle in the second game of the season, however his scoring rate had slowed before the season break. He still has 11 league goals and four assists to his name this season which is impressive for a player in a side that has struggled so much. He also shocked many by scoring 10 goals in 10 games in Euro 2020 qualifying which saw Finland qualify for their first ever major tournament. A man high on confidence, he is sure to be able to add to his goal tally between now and the end of the season. The telling factor for Norwich will be if they can be defensively solid enough to ensure Pukki’s goals result in wins for the league’s basement club.
The players highlighted will all be desperate to ensure they can keep their respective clubs in England’s top division and it will be intriguing to see who can steer their sides clear of the drop. It will also be fascinating to see how the lack of crowds influences the teams, while they won’t have the fans pushing them on it may be that clubs towards the bottom of the table play with more confidence without a negative atmosphere from nervy fans. A new hero could even emerge to the fore to drive their club to another season in the division. All these factors make for a potentially exhilarating end to the season with games coming thick and fast in the condensed fixture schedule.