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The Premier League juggernaut rolls back into town this weekend, and the race for title glory looks more open than it has in years.
Adrian Clarke looks into his crystal ball to predict who will be smiling, and crying, when the football season comes to a close next May…
If you choose to discount Liverpool on the basis they still have an iffy keeper and a dodgy defence; write off Spurs because of the ‘Wembley Factor’ and their penny pinching approach to wages; and leave Arsenal off the list because no one knows who’s staying or going – a shortlist of six Premier League contenders quickly becomes three.
The first of them, Manchester United, are priced up extremely short at 33/10.
I know Jose Mourinho has won the title in his second season at every club he’s managed (what an achievement!) but it would be remiss to forget that there was a gargantuan 24-point chasm between his side and Chelsea last term.
While Lindelof, Lukaku and Matic are all strong additions (making a muscular side even beefier!) I’d question if United’s boss will afford his players enough freedom to turn a healthy portion of those 15 draws last season, into victories.
Don’t get me wrong, they’ll be tough to beat, and in the big games United will adopt a stop-the-opposition-first mentality, but climbing from a points tally in the late 60’s to the late 80’s feels like it may be a stretch too far.
Champions Chelsea look under-cooked and short-staffed ahead of their title defence, but surely that situation won’t last?
Morale may be low at Stamford Bridge right now, but that’s nothing three or four new faces won’t fix.
I find it hard to believe the Blues hierarchy won’t let Antonio Conte have the players’ he needs.
There’s a danger the Italian’s obsessive approach could backfire if the dressing room shuts off to his intensity, like they did with Jose; but my hunch says they will knuckle down and be strong contenders again.
Striker Alvaro Morata is coming into his prime at 24, and midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko should develop a formidable partnership alongside serial winner N’Golo Kante. A price of 7/2 appears fair.
Manchester City will probably be the most improved team.
Pep Guardiola’s tinkering cost them points last season, but now that he knows which liberties he can and cannot afford to take in English football, I’d expect the Spaniard to get his strategies right more often.
They will score a bucket load of goals. The only question mark I have over the 17/10 title favourites is their ability to shut up shop at the other end.
Can they avoid silly defensive leaks in the big games?
With a focus on hard pressing I sense they will, but I wouldn’t put my house on it.
Man City are my tip for the title, but it could be any member of the Big Six that walks away with the trophy.
Who’s going down?
After selling their best defender, Michael Keane, and brightest forward, Andre Gray, I worry a little for Burnley, who are available at 13/10.
The club’s balance sheets have never looked healthier, but Sean Dyche’s squad was superior last term.
So when you consider that only their stonking home form saved them in 2016-17, I don’t hold out much hope of survival.
New boys Huddersfield Town (3/5 to go down) may be out of their depth in the top flight. Very few of their players have Premier League experience, and that could be a major problem. The Terriers look certs for the drop.
While Brighton and Newcastle also have to come under consideration, I’m also looking nervously at Crystal Palace.
Frank de Boer was a cultured player, and his reputation as a coach is excellent, but my gut tells me the Eagles are the wrong fit for the Dutchman.
He is pragmatic, which is a plus, but changing the team’s style could easily create hazards in the months ahead. De Boer hasn’t spent too much cash strengthening his group this summer either, which hints at a slight lack of ambition within the corridors of power.
If you share my doubts, at 5/1 you can make some money out of Palace’s demise.
Last but not least, will Harry Kane make it three Golden Boots in a row?
He’s an 11/4 favourite that’s difficult to back against, but Gabriel Jesus and Romelu Lukaku are two other hit men that have to come into the equation.
Providing he stays fit, I could see Manchester City’s brilliant Brazilian enjoying a phenomenal campaign.
Relegation: Burnley 13/10
Golden Boot: Gabriel Jesus 8/1