Thursday, May 21, 2009

And when they were down, they were down...

It's fair to say we've been banging on quite a bit recently about title chases, promotion and relegation but if you can't do it now, when can you do it?

One thing we find quite interesting is to see how well teams relegated from the top-flight last year are doing one year on - that is to say 'will they gain promotion back to where they were at the first attempt?'

Here in England, only one of the three teams relegated from the Premier League last year, Birmingham City, will be returning for 2009/10. City finished second in the Championship this season, just six points ahead of Reading who reached the promotion play-offs but ultimately failed at the semi-final stage against Burnley.

The last of the three teams to go down were Derby, and things got considerably worse for them in 2008/09. They finished in 18th spot, just four positions above the relegation zone, yet in some ways this is perhaps to be expected. Quite often a team that gets relegated one year will find themselves in the lower regions of their new league the following year, as has been proved across the continent.

Spain is a good place to start where this kind of thing's concerned. Last season, Murcia finished next to bottom in La Liga and now find themselves languishing in 15th spot in the Segunda División. Despite winning promotion back to La Liga on numerous occasions - most recently in 2003 and 2007 - they could yet go down to the Segunda División B in 2009.

Hansa Rostock are another good example of this. In 2007/08, they were relegated as the second worst team in the Bundesliga, but far from bouncing straight back this season, they face the prospect of having to beat already-relegated Wehen this Sunday to avoid the indignity of a relegation play-off the following week.

Some countries, however, have seen better performances from their relegated teams this season. In Italy, Parma have already secured promotion back to Serie A while Empoli and Livorno have every chance of following them via the end-of-season play-offs.

France, too, has been a good place for relegated teams to show their ambitions. Lens currently sit at the top of Ligue 2 having secured their promotion with two games to go while Strasbourg and Metz currently occupy third and fourth. Both could yet usurp Montpellier to take the remaining two promotion places.

You do, of course, see some relegated teams return to their footballing peak with a real flourish, as can be said for VVV Venlo in Holland and Sint-Truiden in Belgium. Both have finished this season as second-tier champions and won't be concerning themselves with any distracting and nonsensical play-offs, thank you very much.

Some teams won't be as fortunate, however. There'll be much chewing of fingernails when Nürnberg play their promotion decider against one of the current bottom four in Germany's Bundesliga. It could even be Borussia Mönchengladbach, ironically - the team who came up as champions at the end of the 2007/08 season.

And spare a thought for Excelsior who dropped into Holland's Eerste Divisie at the end of last season. They finished fifth in the table a fortnight ago which qualified them for the promotion play-offs which are played over not two but three rounds. Having received a bye to Round 2, they now face the prospect of playing RKC Waalwijk over not two but three legs... and that's just to get through to another three-leg tie in the final round. Excelsior find themselves 2-1 down from the first leg and the second leg will be played tomorrow evening (20:00 CET).

All of which highlights only too clearly why some teams do their utmost to avoid relegation in the first place. Though a relegated team is often cast as favourites to return to the top division the following season, it's by no means guaranteed. It can even be the start of something amounting to a freefall down the leagues, and that's when you know whether your team's got the will to survive or not.

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