There could be trouble stirring in the Hornets' nest
WHEN the final whistle blows at the end of Manchester United’s clash with Leicester City on Saturday night, the Premier League season will have reached the halfway point.
And while the title winners are already known – Man City are a biggest price of 1/33 – plenty of things will still be up for grabs when the second half of the campaign starts on St Stephen’s Day.
Therefore, this is as good a time as any to reflect on our pre-season thoughts and also pick out the decent bets for 2018, if and where there is damage to be repaired.
In terms of the top of the table, City are riding off into the sunset, 11 points clear of nearest challengers United and practically unassailable.
Pep Guardiola’s boys have dropped just two points in their first 18 games – at home to Everton in their second match on August 21 – and they would have to lose four times from here on in to even give United a theoretical chance.
That presumes, of course, that Jose Mourinho’s boys are capable of winning every game they play from now until the end of the season.
The Red Devils are in the midst of a decent season themselves – certainly their best since Alex Ferguson stepped aside – but they keep failing to turn up for the very biggest games and will definitely taste defeat again between now and May.
Therefore, anyone who took the pre-season advice to back City at 9/4 should be more than pleased, while a number of firms who were going 2/1 have already paid out.
Indeed, all of our top of the table tips from August 12 – the opening day of the campaign – are looking pretty solid, even though the layers aren’t quite ready to pay out on some of them yet.
Odds and Ends also suggested a punt on the City-United straight forecast at 10/1 (now 8/13), while a City-United-Chelsea tricast was also flagged up at 25s and is now a 5/2 shot with Sky Bet.
Of course, there is still a long way to go but those bets are looking very decent and can hopefully pay for a holiday or two come the summer.
Meanwhile, Kevin De Bruyne has been sensational for City thus far, making a mockery of the pre-season 16/1 about him being named PFA Player of the Year.
Again, a bet was advised on the Belgian maestro, who is now 8/13 with Paddy Power.
I’d be fairly sure only injury can derail De Bruyne at this stage, although I’m tempted to suggest a cover bet on David Silva at 13/2, also with Paddy Power.
Liverpool’s Mo Salah is actually the second-favourite at 5/1 after a flying start to his Anfield career, but Silva has been majestic of late and it is almost unthinkable that the players won’t pick someone from Guardiola’s all-conquering machine.
And Silva (left) has been the subject of many plaudits from recently-retired pundits of late, many of whom have spoken about how highly he is rated by his peers, so that cover bet does make sense.
Not all of the summer picks are going so well, however, with Burnley in particular sticking two fingers up to the suggestion they might be relegated.
Sean Dyche has worked miracles at Turf Moor and shown a few more fashionable managers what can be achieved with togetherness and hard work on the training pitch.
With the Clarets riding high in sixth and only eight points short of the magical 40, we can safely assume they will be a Premier League club next term.
The same can not be said of Newcastle United, who looked best equipped of the promoted clubs to survive at the outset and underlined that feeling with three wins in their first six games.
However, while Brighton and Huddersfield have found their feet and held their own as the season has progressed, the Magpies have hit a wall and Rafa Benitez looks increasingly exasperated.
Much will depend on what money the Spaniard has to spend in January, but with just one point from their last nine games, something has to change on Tyneside pretty sharpish and they are definitely worth a bet at 15/8 (Sky Bet) to head straight back down to the Championship.
To be honest, there’s no shortage of relegation candidates, although David Moyes and Roy Hodgson have steadied the West Ham and Crystal Palace ships respectively and they are likely to be fine.
Stoke look lost under Mark Hughes and it is surely only a matter of time before the Welshman is given the boot so the identity of their new boss will be key to their survival prospects. Tony Pulis anyone?
Swansea are long odds-on to take the drop, but one team at massive odds of 33/1 who might be worth a look are Watford.
Marco Silva made a flying start with the Hornets and Everton wanted him to succeed Ronald Koeman, which definitely appears to have unsettled the Portuguese, who smelt an opportunity at a far bigger club than Watford.
Since that speculation, Watford’s form has fallen away, losing four of their last five matches, and the surrender at home to Huddersfield at the weekend was especially worrying.
It seems strange to say that a side who are in the top half at present could be relegation candidates, but all is not well at Vicarage Road and a seven-point cushion to the drop zone can quickly disappear.
Captain Troy Deeney is suspended again while Richarlison has slowed down after a great start to his Premier League career.
At 33/1, the Hornets are well worth a look in the relegation stakes.
Ironically, since Everton missed out on Silva they have appointed Sam Allardyce and soared into the top half.
While it is never particularly pretty under Big Sam, he gets results and will bring a few players in next month as well.
The Toffees spent big in the summer to try and wrestle free of seventh spot and promptly found themselves down in 18th.
At that stage seventh looked a million miles away but there has to be a chance Everton could finish up there again, such has been their form under Allardyce.
Sky Bet currently have Leicester as 11/8 favourites in the ‘without the big six’ market, closely followed by Burnley at 9/4.
Yet Everton are possibly more equipped to keep their recent form going and should be backed at 4/1 to finish in seventh heaven again this term, although that does presume the ‘big six’ emerge as the top six.
HAVE A PUNT
Newcastle United to be relegated, 15/8 (Sky Bet)
Watford to be relegated, 33/1 (Tommy French)
Everton, without the big six, 4/1 (Sky Bet)
David Silva, PFA Player of the Year, 13/2 (Paddy Power)
WHEN Thistlecrack put Cue Card to the sword in the King George at Kempton last St Stephen’s Day, plenty of punters who had backed him ante-post for the Cheltenham Gold Cup were already counting their money.
However, things haven’t worked out the way connections had hoped in the year since that victory, and Colin Tizzard sends his would-be superstar out on a bit of a retrieval mission in the big race of the Christmas period next Tuesday.
Thistlecrack (right) lost out to the ill-fated Many Clouds in a thriller at Cheltenham in January but then had an injury-enforce absence until a run in the Ladbrokes Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury at the start of this month.
After going well for a long time, he didn’t get home over three miles and trailed in fifth, suggesting his Christmas goose may just be cooked.
However, plenty of judges were prepared to put that run down to a lack of fitness rather than any lasting problems, and I’m very tempted by the 13/2 offered by Paddy Power about next week’s race.
As it stands, Thistlecrack is third in the betting and there is no doubt 6/4 jolly Might Bite is by far the likeliest winner.
The RSA Chase victor from March is the apple of Nicky Henderson’s eye and looks as talented as they come, but he also has his quirks and almost threw away his Festival win by switching off after the last.
He also fell at Kempton last St Stephen’s Day when the novices’ chase was won, so there are slight negatives and I’ll not be going in at 6/4.
Bristol De Mai is a 7/2 chance and is in sensational form but relishes a testing surface and with no rain in the forecast, a flat three miles at Kempton might not play to his strengths.
Fox Norton, like Thistlecrack trained by Tizzard, is worthy of respect while Whisper could run into a place but Henderson says he is light years behind stablemate Might Bite.
Which leaves Thistlecrack as the one to give the jolly most to do and well worth a bet at 13/2, a price that offer an each-way safety net for the cautious punter.