Sunderland and Villa roll the dice for high stakes
A football team's fate is never sealed in January, yet for Aston Villa and Sunderland their position is so perilous at the foot of the Premier League that a defeat in their clash today would suggest they are already destined to be relegated.
If the Championship play-off final is the most valuable club match in world football, this relegation showdown is its mirror image, a desperate bottom-of-the-table skirmish in a costly battle to cling on to a place in the richest club competition on the planet.
The stakes today are ridiculously high, even if the end of the season is five months away.
If Villa lose, the gap between themselves and safety could be stretched to 14 points. It looks like a game Rémi Garde's side have to win if they are to mount a serious survival mission.
The Frenchman, though, has not won a game since replacing Tim Sherwood in the hot-seat two months ago.
If Sunderland win, manager Sam Allardyce would feel a lot more confident about catching the sides above them but, after a pointless December, he knows that few people believe his players are good enough to put together the run needed to climb out of the bottom three.
The reality is that both Villa and Sunderland could go down in May anyway.
Over the past decade, for every club who have made an instant return to the top flight, regrouping and rebuilding successfully in the Championship, more have ended up falling even further down the Football League ladder.
Of the 30 teams who have been relegated since 2004 (not including last season's trio as they have not completed a full season) only seven have bounced straight back. However, eight clubs have followed one relegation with another to League One within four years.
Eleven of the relegated clubs are still stuck in the second tier, trying to find a way out, while Blackpool, Portsmouth, Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic are now scratching around in League One or Two.
If the boards at Sunderland and Aston Villa have done their jobs properly, relegation clauses would automatically force players to take a 50pc wage cut, which prevents the sort of financial catastrophe seen at Leeds, Southampton and Portsmouth in the past.
Those clauses exist at Sunderland, but Villa are not thought to have inserted them in all their contracts.
To make matters worse, next season brings the start of a three-year television deal under which the 20 Premier League clubs will share £2.9bn a season - a rise in TV income of roughly 58pc.
According to the business advisory firm Deloitte, the Championship play-off final won by Norwich City at Wembley last May earned the Norfolk club approximately £130m.
That is the minimum, according to Deloitte, that the three promoted teams can expect to earn from one season in the Premier League.
The cost of relegation is obvious and that is why both Aston Villa and Sunderland will feel they have to win today. (© Daily Telegraph, London)