Sport Soccer

Saturday 16 December 2017

Jose's experience gives United edge

Keep your eye on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who have brought in a few new players — such as Sadio Mane. Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Keep your eye on Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who have brought in a few new players — such as Sadio Mane. Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Paul Wilson

Dubliner and Sunderland supporter Niall MacSweeney has a suggestion: "It would be great if you could predict from one to 20 the finishing places in the new season's Premier League," he writes. "Always good fun to compare with my own and others."

It might pass for fun in your house, Mr MacSweeney, the long winter evenings must fly by, though presumably when you get something spectacularly wrong, like tipping Chelsea for the title and Leicester for relegation - guilty on both charges here - you have the luxury of keeping the incriminating evidence to yourself. No one else need know.

Football correspondents, on the other hand, have their laughably inaccurate predictions splashed all over the newspapers and, these days, around the world via websites and the tittering of social media. There was a time not long ago when what you suggested in August was mere fish and chip wrapping by September and completely forgotten by Christmas, save for the odd sad person who would send you a clipping in May he had been keeping under his bed for nine months for just such a purpose. But now the Nostradamus game has changed utterly.

For a start, the Premier League has become much more competitive and unpredictable. We can all agree on that, even before the eye-popping events of last season. Then there is the annoying fact that these previews have to be written almost a month before the transfer window closes, with every chance of key players being bought or sold to upset the most careful calculations.

Finally, there is the consideration that anything committed to the internet becomes immortal, unkillable, imperishable. Ill-considered opinions no longer die a quiet and lonely death, but take on a life of their own. With a couple of keystrokes, whole articles can be instantly relaunched and sent on their travels again, finding entirely new audiences among below-the-line commentators who happily add a few snorts of derision of their own to speed them on their way.

Even now, years after the event, I am continually reminded of the time I noted Steve Kean was doing well to keep playing morale high at Blackburn Rovers when the new owners were floundering and the fans were in open revolt, going as far as to suggest that if he managed to avoid relegation in such circumstances (he didn't), he ought to be recognised in the end-of-season awards. Every so often, apropos of almost anything, some discussion thread will be interrupted by a poster providing a link to the article and a comment along the lines of: this writer knows nothing about football, he voted for Steve Kean as manager of the year. But let's not complain. Let's give Mr MacSweeney his fun instead and throw a few more boomerangs in fortune's direction. There are probably a couple of reasons why he would like to see a full rundown.

First, the big guessing game this summer is where to put Leicester in such a list. Champions again? Unlikely. But as we all know, it was unlikely last time. Relegation material? Doubtful. Mid-table security seems most probable, an outcome that would have been joyously welcomed 12 months ago, though despite the steep learning curve that coming to terms with the Champions League will represent, at the time of writing Leicester have kept the bulk of their squad, their manager and their sense of adventure, so it remains possible they could do a little better than that. A Europa League finish may be attainable.

Second, our correspondent is probably fed up of his own club being glossed over at this time of year and would like something a bit more specific than "will stay up narrowly". So how about 16th place, Mr MacSweeney? David Moyes is probably as sound a bet as Sam Allardyce at making teams hard to beat; it is when tasked with going beyond that he has tended to come unstuck. Also, it was possibly revealing that his opening remarks to Sunderland supporters paid tribute to Allardyce for the fantastic job he had done in keeping the club up.

Hard to disagree, though Sunderland supporters would have preferred to hear something a little more upbeat, perhaps the suggestion that with the players at the club, they should never have been in such trouble. Fanciful, of course, but fans would still have liked to hear it. Moyes has also talked about bargain-hunting in the Everton mode, so top-10 dreams on Wearside may have to go on hold for a few more seasons yet.

The fight for top-four places promises to be more bonkers than ever, though most bookmakers seem to agree the two treble-winning coaches installed in Manchester will take the top two places.

They might, but keep your eye on Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, who have brought in a few new players - such as Sadio Mane (left) - for the German's first full season and, very much like Leicester last time, have no European distractions. Liverpool could be this season's gatecrashers - their rather pallid eighth place last season was due in part to reaching two finals and giving the Europa League their all - although for the same reasons, so could Manchester United.

Assuming Jose Mourinho can find a diplomatic way to shove the Europa League on to a back burner - not that diplomacy and the erstwhile special one are often seen hand in hand - United too can give themselves a clear run at the league this season. The boldness of their spending indicates they intend to hit the ground running, and though Manchester City have also been splashing out, for this season Pep Guardiola is the new kid in town. Mourinho is the one with Premier League experience, the one with English titles in the bag, and coupled with the lack of Champions League commitments, that could give United the advantage.

When City commence their Champions League fixtures, assuming they make it through their qualifying ties, Guardiola will be under quite a lot of pressure to put up a good show. Even though they reached the last four last season, City have long imagined Guardiola to be the coach to take them to the next level in Europe. They would like him to win domestic titles as well and he quite possibly will, though it may be a mistake to expect everything to come together in his first season in a new country.

The final top-four place should go to London. Exactly where in London is a more vexed question. Chelsea still have a strong squad, a smart new manager and no European commitments, though Arsenal have money to spend, finished second last season, and never seem to miss out on the Champions League. One cannot keep playing safe in these matters, August predictions are all about sticking your neck out, and the feeling here is Chelsea will be back, Arsenal will be pushed out and Tottenham and West Ham will not quite manage to hit the heights of last season.

At risk of sticking my neck out further than is wise, the bottom of the table looks set to be less fluid this season. Hull are already in all sorts of trouble with no manager, no budget for new players and seemingly no hope, and unless Burnley strengthen very quickly, it appears they too are ready for another single-season visit to the top flight.

Of the three promoted teams, Middlesbrough seem to be the only ones with plans to extend their stay, and while it remains possible all three promoted clubs will go straight back down, it is more fun to posit a more established side sliding down the table. In various ways, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Swansea, Sunderland and even Southampton may be considered at risk, but Watford look most vulnerable, particularly if they fail to hang on to their goalscorers. Sorry Hornets fans, but if it is any consolation, vulnerable was exactly the word used here about Leicester 12 months ago. See you on the open-top bus.

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