THE Covid-19 pandemic ensured last season was the most surreal in Premier League history.
Liverpool had their
long-awaited title essentially won by Christmas, but in the end were forced to wait until July to get their hands on the silverware, at an empty Anfield some 350 days after they kicked off their campaign with a thumping home win over Norwich in front of a raucous crowd.
Nobody could have foreseen what was to unfold, with the season looking likely to be abandoned at one stage before empty grounds and artificial noise became the new normal.
Remarkably, the new term, which starts with promoted Fulham hosting Arsenal at lunchtime on Saturday, could be just as unpredictable, with no firm plans in place for the return of fans, and with teams coming back to serious action without much preparation time.
Just 55 days will separate the seasons, and in the interim we’ve had both Manchester clubs and Wolves in European action, as well as an international break with has only served to disrupt pre-seasons.
And, unlike in each of the last two years, the transfer window remains active for the opening weeks, with much business to be done before October 5 despite uncertainty over budgets in the current climate.
With all that in mind, I find it hard to believe the club with everything already in place, Liverpool, don’t go to post as favourites.
Rather, that honour goes to Manchester City, who finished 18 points adrift of an easing-up rival in July, and then suffered yet more Champions League heartbreak, going down to unheralded Lyon.
That was just one of a series of unexpected defeats to beset Pep Guardiola’s side over the season, with the failure to replace Vincent Kompany tripping them up time and again.
That City are a biggest price of 5/6 with Betway owes more to the transfers they are expected to complete and the opinion that ‘they simply have to be better this time’ than anything else.
Guardiola has thus far brought in winger Ferran Torres as a replacement for Leroy Sane, with Nathan Ake also joining from Bournemouth, presumably as a back-up to the excellent but
injury-prone Aymeric Laporte.
Much of the close season has been wasted on a failed flirtation with Lionel Messi, and it has probably taken City’s eyes off the players they actually need.
Nine league defeats despite scoring 102 goals suggests the defence is the area that requires more work, and Kalidou Koulibaly would be a huge recruit should a deal be done with Napoli.
On their day, City are still the best team around, with Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings as only he can and Phil Foden looking primed to step in for the departed David Silva.
Yet key men like Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero aren’t getting any younger and there are enough reasons to oppose them at 5/6.
For all of Chelsea’s transfer dealings and Manchester United’s progress, it would be a surprise if one of the top pair from the last two years don’t get their hands on the trophy, and at the odds Liverpool surely have to be the bet.
Some of their fans are quietly unhappy with a lack of transfer activity, and an apparent lack of desire to shake up the squad, and Jurgen Klopp has asked a lot of his players to maintain the intensity and excellence of the last two seasons while rarely letting their standards drop.
In a strange sense, however, the Reds might come in fresher than most of their rivals, having bowed out of the Champions League before lockdown and having eased off once the title was in the bag.
Klopp’s players all know their roles inside-out, and with Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, and the famous front three of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino as good as it gets at what they do, there is very little reason to suggest they will back off.
The relentless run of last season will surely be impossible to emulate, but neither will Liverpool fall off completely and they look well set to go close to retaining their title.
With various firms, including Sky Bet and Bet365, going 9/4, the champions have to be the bet before a ball is kicked.
Manchester United and Chelsea both finished 33 points adrift of Liverpool last term in third and fourth respectively, and the challenge over last few weeks has been working out how to close that gap, even if neither club will realistically expect to fully bridge it.
The Red Devils are unquestionably making progress under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even if doubts remain about the Norwegian’s ability to take them back to the heights enjoyed under Alex Ferguson.
They were excellent either side of lockdown, playing some electric attacking football with Bruno Fernandes pulling the strings and Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial really impressing.
A lack of squad depth – and Solskjaer’s absence of faith in his back-up players – was evident as the first team toiled towards the end of the season and as a result failed to get some tangible rewards on the board in either the FA Cup or the Europa League.
Donny van de Beek’s arrival from Ajax will add quality to the midfield area and also allow Fernandes a rest on occasion, but United are three or four players short of a sustained title challenge.
Of course, a dominant centre-back to play alongside Harry Maguire, a left-back and another attacker – Jadon Sancho is still the preferred option – might arrive before the window closes to give them a more rounded look, but as it stands it is hard to fancy United at 16/1.
By contrast, Chelsea have got their business done in ruthless fashion and if anyone is to get amongst the top two it must surely be them.
Frank Lampard has made up for lost time in the transfer market, spending big and often over the last few months.
Germany midfielder Kai Havertz has the look of a superstar in the making, while Timo Werner could be the reliable goalscorer the Stamford Bridge faithful have been yearning for.
Ben Chilwell will bring proven Premier League class at left-back, and Hakim Ziyech provides competition in wide areas, with Willian moving across London to Arsenal.
The best signing of the lot, however, could prove to be Thiago Silva on a free transfer from PSG.
The veteran Brazilian won’t play every week, but the wisdom and cynicism he can pass on to the like of Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen may just be priceless.
Lampard was forced to blood youngsters last term with a transfer ban in place, and as a result he
has a wealth of options at his disposal.
Again, it is probably asking too much to expect them to get into the title mix this year, even if the 12/1 quoted by Bet Victor would make you think twice.
Therefore, the best idea as far as Chelsea are concerned is to back them at 2/1 with Sky Bet in the ‘without Liverpool and Man City’ market.
They look to have more about them than United, or indeed London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, who both improved towards the end of the season but perhaps not enough to break up the top four as it stands.
I’m still not convinced Jose Mourinho is the right fit for Spurs and he hasn’t been able to wave the chequebook around as much as he’d like.
The progress being made by Mikel Arteta at the Emirates Stadium appears more sustainable, with the FA Cup success giving confidence and a feelgood factor back to the club.
Gabriel could prove the strong centre-back the Gunners have been crying out for, while Willian is a brilliant signing on a free transfer.
Yet the best business Arteta could possibly pull off is agreeing a new contract with captain and talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The striker gives his side a cutting edge that could make them top four contenders.
Having said that, as it stands ahead of a rather unpredictable season, things might just stay the same in that regard, and at the very top of the table as well.
Liverpool to win Premier League, 9/4 (Bet365, Sky Bet)
Liverpool/Manchester City straight forecast, 7/2 (Bet365)
Chelsea, without Liverpool and Man City, 2/1 (Sky Bet)
Liverpool/Man City/Chelsea/Man United, top four in that order, 20/1 (Sky Bet)
Top Gunn Aubameyang can shoot to Golden Boot
JAMIE Vardy landed this column a big winner by taking home the Golden Boot last season with 23 goals, having been tipped at 20/1 before a ball was kicked.
The Leicester talisman got home by a single strike from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Danny Ings, and it is the Arsenal skipper who will take all the beating this time around.
Mo Salah goes to post as marginal favourite at 5/1, and with 73 goals in his three campaigns at Anfield, it is not hard to see why.
But he has slowed down slightly year on year and is worth opposing, while the same is true of Harry Kane (6/1) and Sergio Aguero (7/1), both of whom have phenomenal records but tend to miss a few games every season through injury.
Aubameyang doesn’t seem to have any fitness concerns and actually seems to be improving at the age of 31, with the captaincy at Arsenal bringing even more out of him.
He has netted 22 times in each of the last two seasons and with confidence sky-high after his FA Cup final brace, and the Gunners sure to improve on their eighth-place finish, the Gabon international is the man to be on from those at the head of the market at 6/1 with Bet365.
Elsewhere, Sadio Mane has just one fewer goal than Salah over the last two campaigns, and looks to be getting hungrier all the time.
His finishing has improved beyond recognition, and yet he can be backed at three times the price of his Liverpool colleague, at 16/1 with William Hill.
Mane is the most potent member of Liverpool’s famed front three these days and that price makes him an each-way must.
At bigger prices, I can’t help but like the claims of Raul Jimenez and Mason Greenwood, both of whom can be backed at 33/1.
Wolves striker Jimenez is arguably the best out-and-out number nine in the English top flight, with big clubs across Europe reported to be sniffing around.
However, it looks like he’s staying at Molineux and he wouldn’t have to better last season’s 17 goals by too many to get in the place money this term, while the fact he takes penalties is never a negative.
Bruno Fernandes has that job at Manchester United and I was tempted to put him up at 25/1 given the astonishing number of
spot-kicks his team were awarded either side of lockdown.
However, Greenwood is something special and despite his off-field issues with England in Iceland, should be ready to hit the ground running for his club.
Perceived wisdom is that he will lose his starting place should Jadon Sancho join United, but there will be enough games to go around and, on form, Marcus Rashford looks more vulnerable.
Greenwood is a born finisher off either foot, scoring 10 times in the league last season despite only starting 12 games.
He’s going to be a world-beater and is a very interesting each-way play at 33s generally.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, 6/1 (Bet365)
Sadio Mane, e/w, 16/1 (William Hill)
Raul Jimenez, e/w, 33/1 (Bet365)
Mason Greenwood, e/w, 33/1 (General)
Liverpool/Aubameyang, winner/top scorer double, 20/1 (Paddy Power)
Baggies look certainties for the drop
IN each of the last two Premier League seasons, a promoted club has stepped up and taken the English top flight by storm.
Sheffield United’s swashbuckling run to a top half finish came as more of a surprise than Wolves’ success the year before, but the Blades proved that, with a lack of fear and excellent coaching, great things can be achieved.
Leeds United, back at the top table after a 16-year absence, are widely expected to go well under the charismatic Marcelo Bielsa, and it is easy to see why expectations are high, such was the manner with which they swept to the Championship title.
The Elland Road men are actually shorter odds to finish in the top half – 9/4 (Betway) – than they are to be relegated – 4/1 generally – and with a hungry group of players and a wily old fox at the helm, they might hit the top 10.
It promises to be a longer winter for the other promoted clubs, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, who lead the betting on the relegation front.
The Baggies, managed by Slaven Bilic limped over the line for second place in the Championship, winning only three of their last 11 games, and with 17 draws to boot, it’s clear they are missing that bit of craft needed to survive.
They could be this term’s Norwich, who were tipped at 4/1 a year ago to finish bottom and did so by a country mile.
West Brom are 11/10 to go down and 7/2 to finish at the foot of the table and the latter bet is very appealing.
Fulham, meanwhile, came up via the play-offs, and three of the last five clubs to be promoted that way have gone straight back down.
Rookie manager Scott Parker has won admirers for the passing style he has implemented at Craven Cottage, but the fact remains that the bulk of the squad who were relegated 18 months ago are still around and can’t have improved that much.
The Cottagers scored only 64 goals in 46 Championship games last term, with Aleksandar Mitrovic getting 26 of them.
If they are to have any chance of surviving, the Serbian striker needs to catch fire, and while he’s a decent player, I can’t see him troubling the top scorer charts.
They too are 11/10 to take the drop and look a fairly safe bet.
However, if last season showed us anything, clubs that feel established in the top tier aren’t always safe, with Bournemouth and Watford taking the plunge.
This season’s version could be Crystal Palace, who were dreadful post-lockdown, having at one stage set their sights on a top-10 finish.
Roy Hodgson has worked wonders at Selhurst Park, but there is evidence that his message isn’t hitting home as well as it used to, and a change of manager early on would be no surprise.
A lot of clubs are still trying to get their business done, and for Palace the key is keeping Wilfried Zaha.
However, the support cast isn’t the best, and a lack of goals could cost the Eagles, who are a decent shout at 9/4 to finally depart the Premier League.
Aston Villa stayed up by the skin of their teeth and are also very vulnerable, so could be put in as an alternative to Palace in relegation trebles alongside Fulham and West Brom.
Hodgson is a good shout at 13/2 (Sky Bet) to be the next manager to leave his post, with David Moyes also worth backing at 6/1 with 888sport.
West Ham should just have enough quality to survive again, but all is not well, with skipper Mark Noble hitting out at the sale of youngster Grady Diangana.
With unrest behind the scenes, it’s easier to get rid of a manager than the board, and West Ham have sacked Moyes once before.
If the Hammers make a slow start, it could happen again.
West Brom to finish bottom, 7/2 (General)
Crystal Palace to be relegated, 9/4 (Boylesports)
West Brom/Fulham/Crystal Palace relegation treble, 25/1 (Skybet)
West Brom/Fulham/Aston Villa relegation treble, 25/1 (Skybet)