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Saturday, 19 January, 2019

Progressive Spurs threaten Conte’s classy champions

Antonio Conte is the Premier League king
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The final day of the 2016-17 Premier League campaign will lack intrigue, but it has been a fascinating season, in which Antonio Conte has shown himself to be a masterful operator who probably hasn’t had the adulation he deserves.

Chelsea go into the last match having already gained 40 more points than they managed last season with largely the same group of players, which shows how superbly Conte has motivated and instructed his squad.

Two things that don’t receive enough recognition in English football are the amount of points each team gets - we are obsessed with league positions - and the feat of finishing second in the league.

If you are the runner-up in a World Cup or European Championship you get no end of praise, and if you cross the line in second in the Olympics you have a silver medal to treasure for life.

In the Premier League second place is ludicrously regarded as less important than fourth place, meaning Tottenham’s fine season will be ignored by history, which is a shame because they have provided superb entertainment and have surpassed last season’s points tally by ten points with two matches left.

Weirdly, Arsenal have also gained more points than last year despite finishing second 12 months ago, as have City, while United will do likewise if they beat Palace on Sunday.

It is beautifully set up for another enthralling title battle next season, with bookies betting roughly 5-2 City, 3 Chelsea, 10-3 United, 9 Spurs, 10 Liverpool and 14 Arsenal to illustrate how open it is.

Much will depend on who goes and who arrives at the big six next term and here is my idea of what each of the challengers needs to do before hostilities resume to maximise their chances of success.

Given their dominance this term it’s easy to say they don’t need to do a whole lot over the summer, but retaining the title is not as simple as replicating the previous year’s performances and the key moments are likely to take place in the coming days as the club fight to keep their most important employees.

By far the top two on that list are Conte and Eden Hazard. If they avoid losing them they can then seek to strengthen the squad, albeit the list of essential requirements is comfortingly short.

If Conte and Hazard stay, it will take some spectacular spending by United or City to prevent them (a) going off favourites and (b) retaining their crown.

Man City
The Citizens have been chronically disappointing this term. At their best they are astonishingly powerful but they have squandered points with remarkable sloppiness and it is only Pep Guardiola’s magnificent previous achievements that have spared him from a more hostile reaction to his side’s feeble season.

Major surgery is required to turn this unbalanced panto horse of a football team - brilliant up front, laughable at the back - into a thoroughbred.

A keeper whose ability lies in his hands rather than his feet might be a start, and the full-back situation, once such a solid foundation for City, demands just as much attention.

It doesn’t end there, either, with at least one competent centre-back needed, and if Guardiola doesn’t fancy Fabian Delph as a midfield dynamo he will need to recruit another one.

Watch out, then, for the arrival of four new attacking midfielders or forwards in the coming months.

Man United
My gut feeling is that, sickeningly, Jose Mourinho will do at Old Trafford what he has often done and bring about considerable improvement in his second season.

But a more logical assessment of his chances of finding the significant increase in their points tally that will be necessary to mount a title challenge suggests it won’t be easy.

The United squad is weird in that it features a huge number of players of roughly similar quality but not 11 that can combine to form a truly top-class team. If football was 19-a-side they would nearly be champions of Europe.

David de Gea is outstanding in goal but stars are rare elsewhere in the dressing room and a lack of goals is the fault that needs the most urgent remedy. United have scored at least 20 fewer league goals than their top-six rivals.

Here’s another thing: does Mourinho still have the same inspirational qualities that he clearly had when getting other teams he managed to perform so successfully? I’m just wondering whether the big-name performers still look and listen with any sense of awe.

United will probably take forward steps next term, although they are likely to be expensive forward steps, but they are priced up as if major progress is inevitable, which it absolutely isn’t.

A professional odds-compiler estimated Spurs would be nearer 5-1 to be champions of England for the first time in 57 years next term if they continued to play at White Hart Lane rather than having to spend a year at Wembley while the new stadium is being completed.

I would be having an enormous bet on them at 5-1 if that was the case and will be steaming in anyway because it may well be the Wembley factor is being overplayed and that this hugely progressive squad will still be the ones to beat.

It probably cannot help that they will not be at the Lane every other week, more because other teams are likely to raise their game at Wembley than because it will cause the hosts to play worse football, but at the prices they are still the standout bet at this stage.

In terms of summer comings and goings, they clearly need to keep the majority of their players on the payroll, but apart from Kyle Walker, who is not much better than the underrated Kieran Trippier, it doesn’t sound as though Mauricio Pochettino’s squad is about to be broken apart before August.

I find it difficult to get enthused about the Reds’ prospects of ending their title drought. Champions League qualification would make things more testing for Jurgen Klopp’s side, who have lacked consistency this term even without the distraction of midweek trips to the continent.

And it will require some shrewd scouting and generous spending to get the squad’s overall strength to the necessary levels to challenge for the domestic crown.

They are still not good enough at the back, and there is a significant reliance on the skill merchants to pull rabbits out of the hat to get them victories.

Klopp may renovate wisely enough to make Liverpool a force next season but as things stand I look forward to having some hefty match bets on Tottenham to finish above them.

First things first: I now don’t care whether Arsene Wenger stays or goes. It’s dragged on so long it has failed to be remotely fascinating. Go. Stay. Whatever. Just make up your mind so we can finally be spared the endless debate.

Whether or not he is in charge, it is easy to see why the market rates them the weakest of the big six.

They may well lose one or two of their main men and it will be hard to fill those holes and then take the team forward.

Arsenal are still a club most fans would love to support but they are not as dynamic as Wenger’s previous sides. They are brittle, far less dazzling on the counter attack and have some passengers in the squad.

Tottenham have to be the bet if you want to get involved at this early stage. Chelsea are the safest alternative, especially if you believe Conte and Hazard are likely to stay.

Authorities shouldn’t ease up on jockey bans

Oisin Murphy is lucky he has not been suspended until the autumn leaves have turned brown and fallen to the ground, following an absurd piece of riding that betrayed his reputation as one of the brightest jockey prospects in Britain.

He was scooting to a ten-length victory aboard Sir Pass I Am in a 2m handicap at Chepstow on Tuesday evening when he suddenly decided to ease down.

This is not unusual behaviour when a horse is miles clear approaching the line, but there is easing off and there is virtually bringing your mount to a halt, and his exaggerated braking almost had catastrophic consequences as two horses closed dramatically in the final strides.

Sir Pass I Am just held them by a neck but it was a ridiculous move by Murphy, who came close to earning a lengthy ban.

As a regular punter on distance markets, I am a keen student of jockeys’ habits in situations in which they have a race sewn up.

Some keep pushing as if their riding fee will increase by a grand per length won by, others tend to let their horse keep going at an even tempo all the way to the line, and some try to conserve as much energy as possible, and also potentially help with future handicap marks, by slamming on the anchors.

That is part and parcel of betting on distances, and what Murphy did is irrelevant in that sense.

It was more the scare he gave his backers and the damage such an incident does to the image of the sport that was so bad.

He should have been suspended even though he did not throw away the victory just to teach him a lesson and act as a reminder to other jockeys that showboating like this is extremely dangerous.

Reckless motorists get penalties even if they don’t actually cause a crash and the same principle should have applied on Tuesday.

If you are the runner-up in a World Cup you get no end of adulation, and if you finish second in the Olympics you have a silver medal to treasure
E.W. Terms
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