Five points separate the bottom eight in the Premier League – this could be the tightest top-flight race to survive ever

    AS the Premier League reaches its halfway point this weekend, millions of anxious fans are asking the same question.

    Where are Norwich and Watford to bail us out?

    Conor Coady and Everton are in real trouble

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    Conor Coady and Everton are in real troubleCredit: Getty
    The Toffees face a reinvigorated Southampton, themselves still in danger, on Saturday

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    The Toffees face a reinvigorated Southampton, themselves still in danger, on SaturdayCredit: Rex

    Because while the title race might already be down to two teams, the fight to avoid the drop is wide open.

    Just five points separate the bottom eight and you can make a case for absolutely any of them to be relegated this season.

    That is because, unlike most years, there are no absolute bankers to go down, with even Fulham refusing to reprise their customary role of top-flight cannon fodder.

    So from bottom-of-the-table Southampton all the way up to Leicester in 13th, the absence of the usual safety net is making this year’s high-wire act more precarious than ever.

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    The fact that six of the Frightful Eight are facing off this weekend only adds to the drama.

    And nowhere will the stakes be higher than at Goodison Park when Everton host a Saints side revitalised by two morale-boosting cup wins in a week against Crystal Palace and Manchester City.

    It’s a pity for Nathan Jones that those victories don’t come with points, because that’s what he needs far more than extra matches right now.

    Just like tomorrow’s opponents, Southampton have managed just five points from their last ten league games and can no longer take their place among the top-flight elite for granted.

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    Next week marks the first anniversary of Rafa Benitez’s sacking after his disastrous 200 days in charge at Everton.

    But things have only gone from bad to worse at the so-called  People’s Club, where they flogged Richarlison, the player who kept them up almost single-handedly last season, and spent the money on Neal Maupay, James Garner and Dwight McNeil.

    Frank Lampard has just received the backing of owner Farhad Moshiri but it’s the fact there are no obvious managerial alternatives available that is keeping him in a job. The same is probably true at West Ham, where David Moyes spent £158.1million last summer to take the team to one place above the relegation zone.

    Leeds continue to veer from the sublime to the ridiculous under the highly emotional Jesse Marsch while the dead cat bounce enjoyed by Gary O’Neil is well and truly over at Bournemouth.

    Jesse Marsch's Leeds veer from sublime to the ridiculous

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    Jesse Marsch’s Leeds veer from sublime to the ridiculousCredit: Reuters

    Leicester appeared to have pulled their way out of trouble after a disastrous start to the season but without the injured James Maddison, have dropped right back into trouble and are by no means safe.

    Nottingham Forest remain as unpredictable as ever, giving Steve Cooper a new contract when everyone expected him to be sacked and continuing to sign new players like there’s no tomorrow.

    In fact, the only one of the strugglers showing any discernible signs of improvement are Wolves, where the appointment of Julen Lopetegui is finally starting to have an effect.

    Victory at home to West Ham tomorrow could lift Los Lobos (Portuguese Wolves) out of the relegation zone for the first time in four months and possibly as high as 15th, depending on results elsewhere.

    But nothing is that straightforward in this year’s fight for survival and the only thing for certain is there will be a lot of loose bowels in the boardrooms in the coming months.

    TEN WOUT OF TEN

    QUITE a few eyebrows have been raised by Manchester United’s recent decision to sign Burnley cast-off Wout Weghorst on loan.

    But having seen the speed with which Erik ten Hag has transformed the team this season, I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

    Wout Weghorst could be a shrewd signing by Erik Ten Hag

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    Wout Weghorst could be a shrewd signing by Erik Ten HagCredit: Rex

    The no-nonsense Dutchman might have spent a small fortune acquiring Antony, Casemiro, Tyrell Malacia,  Lisandro Martinez  and Christian Eriksen last summer but they have all been key players in the Old Trafford revival.

    And if he believes Weghorst can help cement a top-four position this season, who are we to argue?

    TODD A BLUES DUNCE

    IF it’s true that a fool and his money are soon parted, then Chelsea’s new owners should be wearing a dunce’s cap.

    Having paid £4.25billion to buy the club from sanctioned oligarch Roman Abramovich, they spent a further £260million in the summer transfer window.

    That still wasn’t enough to keep Thomas Tuchel in a job and after 100 days of the new regime he walked away with £15m in compensation.

    A similar sum was handed to Brighton for boss Graham Potter and less than two weeks into the January window they are still splashing out like a drunk in a whorehouse.

    David Datro Fofana, Benoit Badiashile, Andrey Santos and the on-loan Joao Felix have already been added to the Boehly Collection this month and enquiries have been made for Enzo Fernandez, Mykhailo Mudryk, Moises Caicedo and God knows who else.

    Having allegedly suggested a 4-4-3 formation to former manager Tuchel, maybe Tinkerman Todd now favours his Blues going 5-5-4.

    VAR DOESN’T LINE UP

    TWO goals were scored from offside positions in Sheffield Wednesday’s FA Cup win against Newcastle because there was no VAR.

    But they had all the technology in place for the Liverpool v Wolves tie yet still couldn’t tell if Toti Gomes’ late winner should have been ruled out.

    Josh Windass' first goal for Sheffield Wednesday against Newcastle would have been ruled offside if there was VAR

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    Josh Windass’ first goal for Sheffield Wednesday against Newcastle would have been ruled offside if there was VARCredit: Rex

    Meanwhile, the Carabao Cup will use the red and blue lines now  the competition has reached the semi- final stage despite coping perfectly well without it in the previous rounds.

    Four years after VAR was introduced into the English game and we still can’t make our minds up if it’s been a help or a hindrance. It’s the sporting equivalent of Brexit.

    AUSSIES ARE ARCHER’S TARGET

    JOFRA ARCHER marked his return to cricket with three wickets for MI Cape Town in the new South African T20 competition.

    After 18 months out with back and shoulder injuries, England’s quickest bowler now seems a shoo-in for this summer’s Ashes series.

    Skipper Ben Stokes certainly seemed excited when he welcomed Archer’s return on social media.

    Jofra Archer returned to cricket this week and took three wickets

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    Jofra Archer returned to cricket this week and took three wicketsCredit: Rex

    Yet England haven’t struggled in Archer’s absence and it seems unfair one of the front-line bowlers should have to make way for his return.

    But that’s the nature of elite sport and having someone who can scare the living daylights out of Aussies David Warner and Steve Smith can only be a good thing.

    HE’S IAN POUTER

    MOVE on over Cristiano Ronaldo because there is a new king of the sporting prima donnas.

    LIV golf rebel Ian Poulter threw a hissy fit after the Ryder Cup Team Europe Twitter account did not wish him or Sergio Garcia a happy birthday this week.

    Pocketing around £20million for his part in tearing the sport apart obviously isn’t enough for the 47-year-old man-child.

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    It seems Poulter now expects colleagues he abandoned to organise him a party with jelly and a cake.

    The best part of it all was that it was not until 15 minutes after his meltdown that the LIV organisation took to social media to send him birthday greetings.

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