January 28, 2016

LINSEY | Premier Predictions for the Premier League

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A grueling 38-game season from August to May determines the Premier League champion. The teams play most weekends, with several additional games squeezed in over the holidays. Therefore, a good chunk of the season happens between early December and late January, which is inconveniently overlapped with winter break, devoid of Daily Sun soccer articles. As a result, I could have written this week’s article as a laundry list of everything that happened in the soccer world in the last seven weeks.

Yet, dear reader, this week I am going to look to the future instead of looking back. I am going to predict the final standings for this season after the final fifteen games. The top four teams at the end of the season qualify for the UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious European competition, and earn the prize money that comes with Champions League qualification. So let’s begin with that most critical of standings sections, the top four.

At the moment, Leicester shockingly leads the Premier League. The Foxes sit three points clear of Manchester City and Arsenal. I’ve covered their rise here in the Beautiful Game, but will they keep it up? In the end, I think Claudio Ranieri’s team will be able to pull it off and finish in first place. Sergio Aguero’s return will boost Manchester City to second place, and a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur team looks a good bet to finish in third. Arsenal has a penchant for finishing fourth in recent seasons, and late-season fatigue for stars like Mesut Ozil might be on the cards.

In fifth, I place West Ham United, which would represent a career year for the East London club. The summer addition of French maestro Dimitri Payet has completely galvanized the side, unlike any transfer in recent memory. Another traditionally average team, Southampton, should continue to overachieve and finish in sixth. They pulled off the signing of Charlie Austin a few days ago, when the Queens Park Rangers striker had been linked with much more industrious and rich clubs. Less than 10 minutes after making his debut off the bench, Austin scored the late winning goal against Manchester United last weekend. United themselves will slink down to seventh, which would tie their worst finish in the Premier League era. Their fans are tired of the sideways and backwards passing that coach Louis van Gaal mandates in order to maintain ball possession. In a season where counter-attacking and direct play has tended to be dominant, van Gaal’s mantra has made his team’s dullness stick out like a Manchester City fan in the Stretford End.

Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool team will finish eighth. In recent weeks, his team has improved, but I expect more growing pains in the German’s first season managing on Merseyside. In ninth, expect Guus Hiddink to resurrect a horrendous Chelsea side from the season’s first half and make them a force in the second half of the season. In 10th, I pick Stoke City, who has continued to evolve into an attacking juggernaut. Quique Sanchez Flores has impressed in his first year in charge of newly promoted Watford, and he will lead one of the Premier League’s least talented clubs on paper to a stunning 11th place finish.

Francesco Guidolin was recently appointed manager at Swansea City, and I expect the talented Italian to lead a bounce-back in the second half. They have the talent to finish 12th in the division. In thirteenth will be Everton, who really should be doing much better with the players they have, such as Romelu Lukaku and John Stones. If they finish this low, it is tough to see Roberto Martinez keeping his managerial job. Finishing 14th and free of relegation worry is Crystal Palace. Their forwards have struggled, which will lead to the team falling several places before the campaign concludes.

As we approach the lower end of the table, I will add an important reminder that this is perhaps the most important season in Premier League history. Next season, a humongous new TV rights deal kicks in, which will make all 20 English clubs among the 40 richest soccer teams in the world. Expect an incredibly spirited battle to remain in the league this year, for the barely safe and relegated teams will be affected by this season for years to come.

That said, I expect West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle, and Bournemouth to be the last three teams to survive. West Brom and Newcastle have Premier League pedigree and thus will be able to avoid the disaster of relegation. Bournemouth has an incredible team spirit and can avoid the drop. However, I have worse news for fans of Norwich City, Sunderland, or Aston Villa, as these three teams are most likely to be relegated to the second division (which is confusingly known as the English Championship). Norwich failed in their last battle against relegation and might suffer the same fate this time around. Sunderland and Villa have slightly different stories. These historic English clubs have suffered in recent years after poor player decisions over the past decade. They need a relegation in order to get fresh management, players and ideas. Both teams, given the size of their fan bases, will eventually return to the top division after a restart.

So there you have it — my predictions for the standings at season’s end. Given the unpredictability of this season so far, though, anything can happen. Here in the Beautiful Game, I will cover all the action every two weeks. Hang on; it will be a wild ride.