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25 games down, 13 to go: the Premier League is entering crunch time.
While Chelsea look to be running away with the title, two draws from their last three games is a sign that nothing can be taken for granted during the run-in. Elsewhere, the battle for the top four will see two big clubs with lofty ambitions have to go without Champions League football, while at least seven teams in the bottom half of the table will be wary of the ‘R’ word: relegation.
So who will be the winners and losers as we enter 2016/17’s climax then? We gathered our main writers to predict the Premier League run-in in our roundtable discussion. Read on and don’t forget to come back in May to laugh at us for being so wrong / congratulate us for being spot on…
1) Who will win the Premier League title?
Jonathan Fadugba: Simple answer, really: Chelsea. Antonio Conte has made this Premier League management lark look easy, swatting aside every possible obstacle (missed transfer targets, poor early season form, language barriers, the Diego Costa issue) with poise and style. He has the intelligence, experience and man-management skills to not let his team lose focus.
Dave Fox: Chelsea. They’re clear at the top, look nigh-on unbeatable at their best, and in truth can afford to drop a few points and should still stroll to the title.
Dave McNair: Chelsea – I think with the lead they have they won’t be caught. The others are too inconsistent too while Conte won’t allow them to become complacent.
Ross Tyson: It’s over already really. I mean yes, Sky and BT will keep their dwindling audiences on tenterhooks by claiming anything can happen but do you see a side that haven’t dropped back-to-back points since September throwing away an eight point lead? With no European distractions? Let’s see.
Deji Faremi: Chelsea. They’ve been the only consistent side in the league [besides Sunderland who’ve been consistently poor]. They look solid defensively – they say that’s what wins you titles – have a healthy squad and aren’t competing in the Champions League or Europa League. Can’t see them messing it up from here.
2) Can anyone rise up and challenge Chelsea? If so who?
Jonathan Fadugba: Would say Manchester City, but their defence is made of cheddar cheese. Would say Spurs, but by default they have to finish below Arsenal. Would say Manchester United, but they don’t score enough goals. Would say Arsenal, but come on. So, no. I do expect Chelsea to have a wobble but not sure any chaser can keep the momentum needed.
Dave Fox: I can’t see a serious, sustained title challenge from anyone. That said, I think Spurs will be the “best of the rest” and closest to Chelsea at the season’s end. Of all the would-be challengers, they are most impressive on their day and don’t seem to have the glaring problems of the others (except, perhaps, a reliance on Harry Kane’s goals).
Dave McNair: I don’t think anyone will get close enough for Chelsea to lose the title but I think Liverpool may push them furthest with no other commitments other than the league.
Ross Tyson: It will all depend on Chelsea, because if anybody else is to win the league they’ll likely have to win maybe nine or ten of the last 13 games while also hoping Chelsea drop points at least four times. Considering each of the chasing pack’s spells of inconsistency this is a gigantic ask. I would keep my options open, but no, nobody will catch them.
Deji Faremi: Very unlikely. Manchester City could cut the points gap when they play Chelsea if they win. But will they remain consistent before and after that game? I think the lack of consistency from the others mean they can’t put up a genuine fight.
3) Who will finish in the top four, and which two of the so-called ‘Big Six’ will miss out?
JF: Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United. Spurs and Liverpool to drop out.
DF: Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester City and Manchester United will make the top four. I think Arsenal will miss out (of course, I’ve thought that for what feels like a thousand years and yet every year they make it. A bridge too far this year, maybe). And while there’s much to admire about Liverpool, I think their squad isn’t deep enough for a full season of tiring Klopp gegenpressing.
DMcN: Chelsea 1st, Liverpool 2nd, Man City 3rd, Man Utd 4th, Spurs 5th, Arsenal 6th. I think both Manchester sides are looking solid enough to grab the other top four spots.
RT: Top four: Chelsea – Obviously. Manchester City, even though I see them going to the semi-finals of the Champions League I think they’ll also get top four. Liverpool – Even though their entire team went on strike in January, their poor form was split between three competitions, so they didn’t lose as much ground as they could have. They’ve got a similar (if not less demanding) schedule now to what they had during their best run of eight wins in nine Premier League games from September to November.
Then I literally can’t split Arsenal and Tottenham. I think this is Wenger’s last season, so there might be a tiny drop off. But they always finish above Spurs, and Spurs do have Europa League commitments. I think it might be as close as it was last season with them.
Will miss out? Manchester United, despite spending about quarter of a billion in transfer fees, wages and agent fees. However Jose, still packs a mind game punch, and will convince all of us mouth breathing, TalkSport listening drones that a League Cup win and late runs in the Europa League and FA Cup made it a successful season, and if you thought one of the best managers in recent football history spending loads at one of the world’s biggest clubs would lead to instant success it was YOU who was silly.
Deji F: This is tough. Chelsea will win the league, and the top four is Arsenal’s birthright – somehow. The rest is too close to call. (Cop out! – Ed.)
4) Who will win the Golden Boot?
JF: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Swedish immigrant running amok in Europe, pass it on. pic.twitter.com/R3M4bknqOL
— Jonathan Fadugba (@JFfutbol) February 20, 2017
DF: As I write this, Alexis Sanchez is top scorer with 17, closely followed by Romelu Lukaku (16), Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (15) and Jermain Defoe and Harry Kane (14). I have a sneaky feeling that Harry Kane will end up top scorer.
DMcN: Alexis Sanchez if he continues to play as a striker for Arsenal as they rely on him for goals. If not, Zlatan Ibrahimovic as he rarely seems to miss a game for Manchester United.
RT: Romelu Lukaku. Of the six players all within three goals of one another he’s the only one whose side aren’t under any pressure, and Everton have no need to rotate. I won’t risk the wrath of the Everton fans by saying he’s also playing to catch the eye of bigger clubs, that would be unkind.
Deji F: Alexis Sanchez, if he continues to lead the line for Arsenal.
5) Which manager is most under pressure?
JF: Sam Allardyce. With the England debacle already a devastating blow I’m truly not sure his career could survive the secondary setback of relegation. It would more or less end the only major unique selling point on his CV. What would be left for him if he goes down? China or Saudi Arabia may beckon but I fear for Big Sam’s managerial career if Palace go down.
DF: Most of the talk right now is of Claudio Ranieri being under pressure at Leicester, but the goodwill he amassed last season might see him through to the end of the season even if they do (at which point, Claudio, leave). There haven’t been any rumours about Sam Allardyce being under pressure at Palace, but even if there’s none from the board, he is surely feeling the pressure. Big Sam’s reputation is mostly built upon the fact that he’s never been relegated from the Premier League. If he takes Palace down, what are the odds of him getting another Premier League job? He doesn’t have much else to hang his hat on, and the fact that he signed Jay Jay Okocha for Bolton is less and less relevant with each passing year.
DMcN: Claudio Ranieri. Struggling side, may be gone before mid-March at the rate Leicester are playing. Arsene Wenger will also be under even more pressure than he is now if Arsenal don’t start getting good results soon.
RT: In my own twisted mind I’ll go with Eddie Howe, just because he’s nice and looks like a physiotherapist your mum would fancy. He seems to be seen as the next big thing. Bournemouth won’t go down, but they can’t relax yet – they’ve conceded the second highest amount of goals and it’s not like he’s been working on a shoe-string budget. Call it pressure to impress, not pressure to save his job.
Deji F: Sam Allardyce. He was brought in to save Palace, make them look good again, but he’s only managed to turn them into Sunderland. Palace are at least a mid-table side, and it will be a shame if he gets them relegated.
6) Random rest of the season prediction
JF: Claudio Ranieri to be sacked before the start of next season because it’s 2017 now and romance is dead. Also, an all-London FA Cup final. Not entirely sure who (Millwall? Chelsea?) but picture this scenario: Arsenal v Spurs at Wembley with cup glory and the head of Arsene Wenger at stake. Just imagine it.
DF: Burnley won’t win a single away game. Though is that random?
DMcN: N’Golo Kante will win Player Of The Year and Dele Alli will win Young Player Of The Year.
RT: The pressure of relegation and the general political landscape get to Jamie Vardy, who after scoring a hat-trick on the final day lifts his shirt to reveal a ‘Trigger Article 50’ t-shirt underneath. His second goal is followed by another vest reading ‘You said Brexit means BREXIT’. After scoring his third he unfurls a banner which reads “You can’t deny the will of the 52%, get on with it.” Meanwhile, Huddersfield and Leeds play out the most exciting Championship play off final off all time.
Deji F: Leicester City win the Champions League two weeks after they’re relegated from the Premier League. Just kidding. I think West Brom could finish in 7th, and get a Europa League spot for next season. Sorry Everton fans.
7) Which three teams are going down?
JF: I took a cheeky punt on Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough at 200/1 so I’ll stick with it. Swansea and Hull made fantastic managerial appointments so I think they’ll be fine. Bournemouth are in free-fall, though traditionally they do wobble around February before recovering. Sunderland are a threat to this as they’ve been appalling all season, and to be honest I do expect them to go down. But Bournemouth’s defensive record is even worse than the Black Cats’ and they don’t have a Jermain Defoe, with cruel injuries consistently ruling out key men. Middlesbrough can’t score goals while I have a feeling the old Allardyce magic may fail to kick in after his England humiliation.
DF: Sunderland, Leicester and Middlesbrough. As much as I’ll feel sorry for Jermain Defoe’s one-man rescue act, the ghost of David Moyes can’t save that rabble. Despite what I said above about Allardyce I think Palace have enough quality shot through the squad to lift them (just about) out of trouble, but sadly I don’t think Leicester will keep their heads above water. I can’t see them lifting themselves. Ranieri appears unable to motivate them, and they’re sleepwalking into relegation.
Middlesbrough meanwhile have spent much of the season bobbing around lower mid-table, not looking particularly impressive but not being bad enough to worry anyone, either. I think hoping to stay up by eking narrow wins and low-scoring draws won’t be enough. There’s always one team thought safe who get sucked in, and I think Boro will be that team.
DMcN: Hull City, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Hull are playing well but I just don’t see them having enough to stay up. Palace and Leicester have the squads to perform better and I think will pick up performances sooner rather than later. Sunderland rely far too much on Jermain Defoe and concede far too many goals and Middlesbrough just don’t score enough goals.
RT: Really hard to call, I think despite the audacity of Paul Clement not being an ex-pro he keeps Swansea up. To the chagrin of Paul Merson, exotic foreigner Marco Silva keeps Hull up, which by the way is a remarkable effort. I think Sunderland will go, Leicester’s free fall continues, and then it’s whether Sam Allardyce’s nouse or Middlesborough’s defence decide the final place. I’ll say Boro, Leicester and Sunderland.
Deji F: Here’s another tough one. It’s so close around the bottom seven and any of those teams could get sucked in. I really fear for Sunderland though; I think they’ll definitely go down. Can’t say which two will join them.
What do you think of our predictions? Agree? Disagree? And what do you think will happen? Let us know below, on Twitter @JustFootball or on Facebook. And hit up those places to follow us for more Premier League coverage between now and the end of the season.