By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 11, 2012) US Soccer Players — Courtesy of the break between the end of the European seasons and the beginning of EURO 2012, there's a month or less left in most of the European leagues. That means midweek games that could determine a team's season, and we get some of them later today involving and impacting US National Team players.
AZ In The Eredivisie
Jozy Altidore's team plays their 29th game this afternoon (1pm ET on ESPN's online channel ESPN3), and they currently trail leaders Ajax by a point. They play Twente (3rd) and PSV Eindhoven (4th) back-to-back, get a breather against 16th-place VVV-Venlo, and then play the team currently in 5th, Feyenoord. Though the rankings should shift before these games are played, facing three of the teams directly behind you when your lead is three points or less isn't easy. Tag all of them with 'must win' if you like.
Ajax has it easier. They play 6th-place Heerenveen later today and Twente on the 29th, and close out the season against currently 8th-place Vitesse Arnhem, but otherwise it's lower half of the table opponents. Ajax hasn't dropped a point since February 5th, a period where AZ lost to Utrecht and drew with Heerenveen, Breda, and Vitesse.
Premier League Relegation
We covered this in last week's Corner, but the relegation zone in the Premier League has already shown it can grab a club from higher up the table. Blackburn are our latest unlucky team, and there's already a six-point gap between 15th-place Aston Villa and 16th-place Bolton isolating those teams between 16th and 19th. Wolverhampton are six points behind 19th-place Wigan (who play Manchester United today), and with six games remaining it's not much of an insult to go ahead and suggest their chances of escape are slim.
Wigan, Blackburn, and Queens Park Rangers (who play Swansea City this afternoon) are level on points. With all due respect to the other relegation candidates, 17th-place QPR are the ones telling the 'too good to go down' story. Well, sort of.
In March, QPR started the month by drawing with Everton and would go onto beat Liverpool and Arsenal. The problem is they lost to Bolton and Sunderland, the kind of clubs they need to be beating to get themselves into Villa territory and relative safety. Big name wins are nice, but all points count the same. After starting April with a loss to Manchester United, they get Spurs and Chelsea later this month back-to-back and finish against Manchester City. That's three of their last six against top-10 clubs.
Meanwhile, Bolton play Spurs on May 2nd but otherwise they spend the rest of the season playing teams currently out of the top 10. Advantage Bolton, who can turn their one-point lead over the clubs on 28 points into a safe gap and leave Wigan, Blackburn, and QPR to figure out which of them gets another Premier League season.
Bundesliga European Places
Jermaine Jones's Schalke 04 (they've got Timmy Chandler's Nurnberg today) are the club to watch, though closing a six-point gap between 3rd and 2nd is probably asking too much. Instead, their primary role is hanging onto that automatic Champions League place. Schalke currently have a four-point lead over Borussia Monchengladbach, and there's a seven-point gap between 4th and 5th. In other words, qualifying directly to the Champions League is Schalke's to lose.
Hannover 96 is also in contention for a European place. Steve Cherundolo's club are currently 8th, a point and goal difference out of the final Europa League place. That means getting to 6th. Hannover are on a three-game losing streak for obvious reasons. They've played Bayern Munich, 'Gladbach, and Schalke back-to-back-to-back. Their remaining five games are comparatively easy. They play 9th-place Wolfsburg later today and the team currently in front of them Bayer Leverkusen on the 28th. Otherwise, it's teams out of the top-half of the table. That includes a finale against Kaiserslautern (Leverkusen's Wednesday opponent), who should be officially relegated by the last game of the season.
On the surface, making a case for Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams's Hoffenheim is a bit of a stretch. Currently 10th in an 18-team league, they're five points out of that final European slot and would need a lot to happen to push some combination of Wolfsburg, Hannover, Leverkusen, and Werder Bremen out of the way. Hoffenheim play Hamburg today, a club that has skirted relegation trouble and are currently two points above the drop zone. Still, Hoffenheim have played well in recent weeks. After a disastrous 7-1 loss to Bayern Munich followed by a more reasonable 2-1 loss to Stuttgart, they salvaged their March by beating 'Gladbach, drawing with Schalke, and beating Kaiserslautern. Of their remaining five games, only one is against a team currently higher than them in the standings. With the schedule cooperating, there's an opportunity for Hoffenheim.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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