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Wednesday, 5 February, 2003, 12:07 GMT
Premiership fall guys
Jean Tigana looks pensive
Tigana stares into the abyss

It happens with painful regularity - a team that has appeared safe all season hits a shocking run of form late on and slides inexorably into the relegation zone at the very death.

Last year it was Ipswich; three years ago it was Wimbledon - but who might it be this time around?

Birmingham's slump
1 Jan: 0-2 v Leeds
5 Jan: 1-3 v Fulham
12 Jan: 0-4 v Arsenal
18 Jan: 1-1 v Blackburn
1 Feb: 2-4 v Bolton
4 Feb: 0-1 v Man Utd

Two candidates are beginning to emerge through the mire, and the future looks equally bleak for both.

On one hand we have Steve Bruce's Birmingham, with five defeats in their last six games; on the other, Jean Tigana's Fulham, with just one win in their last seven Premiership games.

The worry for Birmingham fans is that Bruce has already gambled hugely in the transfer market - and to little effect.

Six players came in through the window in January, and the difference to the club's results has been negligible.

Of the three signed from English clubs, two were reserves and one from the Nationwide League, hardly the stuff to turn a struggling team around.

Meanwhile, Gallic goalscoring hero Christophe Dugarry has continued in the same hot form that has characterised his career - i.e. not scoring any goals.

Fulham's fall
26 Dec: 1-1 v West Ham
28 Dec: 0-1 v Man City
11 Jan: 0-0 v Bolton
19 Jan: 1-0 v Middlesbrough
29 Jan: 1-4 v Man City
1 Feb: 1-2 Arsenal
Fulham, a point and a place better off in 15th, find their world collapsing all around them.

Their chairman has already sold their ground and publicly stated that funds for investment on the playing side are strictly limited.

Strong rumours continue to circulate football that Jean Tigana is on his way out - another victim of Mohamed Al Fayed - while only Steed Malbranque of the first-team squad has any reason to be happy with his form since Christmas.

Steve Bruce shouts at his players
Bruce's transfer gambles have yet to pay dividends
The mood at the club is woeful. Confidence in the future is shot to pieces; confidence in the present is hardly any better.

Birmingham's next two games are against Chelsea and Liverpool. They still have to face West Brom, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and West Ham - matches that surely qualify for the mythical "six point" status so beloved of cliche.

Fulham meet Aston Villa and then West Brom, but must cope with a final six games that see them come up against four of the Premiership's current top five.

The one glimmer of hope for both clubs is the form of the current bottom three.

Generally there is one club in the relegation zone who have enough about them to drag themselves clear as springtime approaches - but the current occupants look awfully well suited to life in Division One.

Sunderland have shown no sign whatsoever of sprinting to safety. Howard Wilkinson has done nothing to halt a slump that has lasted for months - the club has won less than a point per game over their last 75 Premiership fixtures.

West Brom still look every inch the top-flight tourists - here for one season, then off back home - while West Ham, so blessed with attacking talents, have seemingly incurable problems at the back.

Forget survival of the fittest. In this dogfight, it's a battle of the incompetents.


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