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Monday, 10 December, 2018

No stopping sensational Man City but Eagles could soar to dizzy heights

The Thursday column

Crystal Palace celebrate after Patrick van Aanholt put them 2-0 up against Manchester United
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This is probably the easiest season to predict the Premier League finishing order since I first started this annual caper 15 years ago.

Without further ado, here is how they will end up when the final matches have finished just before 5pm on May 12, 2019.

1 Manchester City
Hideously obvious but the first rule of punting is never ignore the obvious. If, as expected, they dominate the division again it will be interesting to see how long it takes for people to start becoming sick of them.

I’m a massive fan of City’s beautiful brand of football but like most of us I like to see the glory shared around a bit. For now, though, I’m looking forward to enjoying this wonderful team, who can hopefully give it a real go in the Champions League too.

They are evens to beat Arsenal on Sunday. Evens!

2 Liverpool
There were some extremely poor goalkeeping displays at Anfield last year. Indeed one guy saw five goals whizz past him in just 33 minutes in one match – and in the summer Liverpool paid £67m to sign him.

But Alisson was not to blame for many of the goals Roma conceded that night and he should bring about an improvement in a key area as Liverpool bid to close the gap on City, which they should do successfully enough to make them the best of the rest but probably not to such an extent that their 29-year wait for a title triumph finally ends.

3 Tottenham
Plenty of Spurs fans are moaning about a lack of new recruits but when a team is a good as theirs continuity is an asset rather than a weakness and, in their lovely new home, I expect Mauricio Pochettino’s men to have another excellent season.

It is hard to think of an area of weakness, and this superb manager is likely to bring more joy to the Lane.

4 Chelsea
Predicting how Chelsea will perform is tricky, as evidenced by form figures for the last four seasons of 1-10-1-5.

Yet another new manager adds to the conundrum and with transfer activity still permitted until 5pm today there is still uncertainty on what the squad will look like.

The switch to 4-3-3 from 3-4-3 will mean they look significantly different to how they did under Antonio Conte, but Eden Hazard currently remains on the payroll, Thibaut Courtois is easier to replace than many think and Jorginho could add quality in the supply to the forwards so they should have a decent campaign.

5 Arsenal
Wannabe by the Spice Girls was the best-selling single in the month Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal which shows how odd it will feel to have a new manager in the Gunners’ dugout.

It will be interesting to see how Unai Emery changes things, but a tighter, higher-tempo approach that places less emphasis on instinctive flair is a reasonable assumption.

I suspect Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will bang in enough goals to give his Golden Boot backers a great run for their money, but it is asking a lot of the new gaffer to break into such a star-studded top four.

6 Manchester United
People still think that tipping United not to do particularly well is a reckless act, but since Fergie left they have ended up in seventh, fourth, fifth, sixth and then second position so it is not outlandish to foresee another season of struggle under the increasingly charmless Jose Mourinho.

If his summer of constant moaning about how hard his lot is, as if he is the manager of some bankruptcy-threatened National League South side, is all an act that is masking the creation of a phenomenally strong team spirit then give the guy an Oscar.

I suspect the reality is he is trying to blame the board for any failings that are about to unfold in the coming months and that he will continue to behave without grace or class until United are out of the Champions League places or he is fired.

7 Crystal Palace
This comes with a warning: if Wilfried Zaha leaves the club today you can put a 1 in front of their predicted finishing position, but if he stays Palace should have a superb season and will be hard to beat in the handicap.

The marvellous Roy Hodgson did a stunning job to revive the Eagles last season and he will surely not have to contend with as many injuries as he did while masterminding the great escape.

8 Fulham
The Cottagers play Palace in what could be the handicap decider on Saturday and I would be a seller of the match’s position in the Match of the Day running order.

Fulham gained ten more points than any of their Championship rivals in the second half of last season and have recruited lavishly and wisely. They are absurdly short for relegation and look attractive in virtually every season-long match bet they have been priced up for.

9 West Ham
After a tangible managerial upgrade and a summer spent snapping up some decent new talent things should be far less stressful at the London Stadium this season.

And in Marko Arnautovic they have a goalgetter who is by no means the worst 66-1 chance in the Golden Boot betting.

10 Wolves
There are some new flats that are going up in central Croydon, right near the station, that look extremely swanky. Croydon is due a major facelift, with a whacking great shopping centre, entertainment venues and a general facelift.

But the flats are going for £600,000, ie. they are priced up as if the rejuvenation of the town is an inevitability. Those flats are Wolverhampton Wanderers. Yes, they should turn out to be great, but their price assumes this is a certainty.

I’m not saying Wolves won’t be the most impressive and successful promoted team in decades, but their sharp upward trajectory is not news to odds-compilers, and I’m happy to be neither with nor against them.

11 Leicester
Leicester are second favourites with the one firm that appears to have deigned to price up the Prem without the big six – well played BetVictor – yet their manager Claude Puel is the sack race jolly.

The view is probably that if Puel is pushed he will be replaced by Big Sam or Wenger and they will achieve a higher finish in the end.

James Maddison is lovely player to watch and Jamie Vardy is still underrated so they should be safe, if ultimately unspectacular.

12 Everton
The Toffees might well strengthen the quality of their squad on deadline day, in which case 12th is potentially too gloomy a prediction, but I am not in a rush to be with them this term.

Marco Silva’s reputation exceeds his achievement and there are worse throwaway bets than him to go first. Anyone who thinks Richarlison is worth £40m has a question mark against them.

They are surely too good to go down but are equally not good enough to satisfy their fans’ desire to bridge the yawning gap between themselves and the big six.

13 Burnley
They will surely regress to the mean after last year’s excellent efforts but Sean Dyche knows what needs to be done to keep them safe from harm and the challenge of accommodating a European campaign while staying up should not be insurmountable.

14 Bournemouth
Only the big six gained more points than the Cherries in the second half of last season and this admirable club can remain in the big time again under the guidance of Eddie Howe.

15 Brighton
We are now into the teams who have a real survival battle on their hands. Brighton may not have significantly superior talent to their relegation rivals but they are superbly run, shrewdly managed and may just have the tools to survive again.

16 Watford
Now it gets tough. Watford are that weird party guest who never really spoke to anyone all night but was among the last to leave.

They could easily go down but I’ve thought that for the past two seasons so maybe they can just about keep their heads above water although I couldn’t really tell you why.

17 Southampton
Mark Hughes strikes me as fortunate to keep getting high-profile jobs, and I do not expect him to gild his reputation this term.

But the club have spent reasonably generously in the summer and in ace poacher Charlie Austin they have the goals to get the job done.

18 Newcastle
Love Rafa though I do, the road ahead of him keeps getting steeper and this season even the mighty Madrileno may find the task of keeping the Magpies up beyond him.

The players have opted not to fulfil their media commitments in a row over unpaid bonuses, which hints at a troubled mood in the camp when only total unity is going to do if they are to survive.

They lack goals, talent and fizz, and at 5-1 are a massive price to go down.

19 Cardiff
Opposing promoted teams the following season is seldom a lucrative tactic, but Cardiff’s squad does not look strong enough and Neil Warnock has a huge task to keep the Bluebirds in the top flight.

20 Huddersfield
I love the manager and I love what the players did to fight for their survival last season, but the goals dried up alarmingly in the second half of last season – they notched just 11 in their final 19 games – and it will be brutally tough to reproduce those heroics.

More by Bruce Millington

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Swell of England optimism likely to end in predictable heartache

Rights war detrimental to coverage

The US PGA Championship will not be on Sky this week. And unless deals are done, nor will it be possible to watch the top divisions in Italy, France, Spain and Holland on established subscription TV channels this season. It’s deeply dissatisfying.

In the good old days every worthwhile football match was either on Sky or terrestrial TV. So was all the cricket, rugby, golf, tennis, boxing, arrers and anything else that was worth watching.

Then along came BT Sport, which I learned to live with because it was just another number to press and another direct debit to absorb.

Lack of TV coverage set to damage betting turnover on US PGA Championship

But now sports rights are being flogged to the highest bidder even if that bidder’s broadcast capabilities are vastly less viewer-friendly than Sky or BT, which is why if you want to watch the final Major of the year this week you will have to register with, sign up to a seven-day free trial and watch the action on a PC, tablet or phone.

And I don’t want to do that. I want to watch it on a nice big HD television set. I want to use my device for betting or looking at videos of cute labradors while I’m watching the golf.

I want to admire Lionel Messi’s skills on a proper screen, not squinting at a phone. It’s change, but it’s certainly not progress.

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The marvellous Roy Hodgson did a stunning job to revive the Eagles last season and he will surely not have to contend with as many injuries this term
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