Alex Keble takes a look at the five key outright markets in the Premier League, predicting Liverpool and Mohamed Salah to be big winners...
"The return of supporters to Anfield gives them a secret weapon, and the possibility of returning to that unstoppable form of 2019/20."
The second international break of the season is a good time to assess the 2021/22 Premier League season so far and predict how things will pan out in May. Summer is over, that's for sure, and as we approach the autumn/winter grind with one manager already out the door it's safe to say we are no longer at the beginning of the campaign but rather right in the thick of it.
Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City are already the top three and it looks set to stay that way, their mini-league of games consistently showing us this will be one of the great title races between arguably three of the best teams we have ever seen in the competition.
Things are less certain further down, with the rest of the European places and the relegation spots very much up for grabs. Here's a look at the five biggest outright bets for this season's Premier League:
Anfield crowd gives Liverpool slight advantage
There is very little between the big three. Chelsea have made an outstanding start to the season and although their 3-4-3 is beginning to look a little stale Thomas Tuchel is the sort of tinkerer who will continue to reinvent this team over the course of the year. He has incredible squad depth at his disposal, suggesting several incarnations of Chelsea will reveal themselves before May.
That gives them a strong chance of maintaining their form and finishing on 90+ points this season, but the same can be said of Manchester City. A stutter at the start of the campaign pointed to potential problems defending in the transition, and a softness through midfield that we saw in the 2019/20 season returning. However, their hugely impressive performances against Chelsea and Liverpool over the past week have quashed that.
All three favourites have already dropped points against non-Big Six sides, and it is these games that will utlimately decide a title race that could see Chelsea, Man City, and Liverpool all hit 90 points. Chelsea's tendency to occasionally slip into slow sideways passing and City's occasional passivity against fast breaks is a cause for concern, while Liverpool are conceding a lot more goals than in years gone by.
Nevertheless it is Jurgen Klopp's team with the slight advantage. The return of supporters to Anfield gives them a secret weapon, and the possibility of returning to that unstoppable form of 2019/20. They will pick up pace as the year goes on, grinding down the smaller sides and, ultimately, showing greater consistency than their rivals.
Back some outsiders to sneak into the top six
The positivity surrounding Arsenal's revival has dampened somewhat following a 0-0 draw at Brighton, and yet Mikel Arteta's slow revolution is starting to take shape. Having signed the right players to get his Guardiola-esque football off the ground (Aaron Ramsdale's and Ben White's distribution; Takehiro Tomiyasu's tactical understanding; Martin Odegaard's progressive passing), we can anticipate a much stronger season from Arsenal.
Drawing to Brighton isn't a bad result, anyway. Graham Potter's side have added goals to their brilliant football and are a decent outside bet to sneak into the top six 5.59/2, although ultimately their lack of a proven goalscorer may prove costly again. There is certainly space for them, with Tottenham Hotspur continuing to look lost under Nuno Espirito Santo, who is unlikely to last the season. Crisis in north London points to missing out on sixth.
Everton, Aston Villa, Leicester City, and West Ham all have a chance here. West Ham will probably fall away due to their European participation, Leicester have started badly, and Everton's underlying numbers suggest their start isn't built on particularly strong foundations. Villa, with Leon Bailey and Emiliano Buendia still to be integrated, are the best outside bet.
Norwich, Newcastle, and Burnley already look adrift
The current bottom three will probably stay there. Norwich are clearly going down, having picked up just one point from seven games and showing no signs of being able to improve their leaky defence. There isn't much more to say about them.
Newcastle United are caught between systems, Steve Bruce's defensive instincts having been semi-abandoned for a more attacking approach that simply leaves them too open. Soon enough confidence will dip terminally, and in a relatively stong year in the bottom half of the table the Magpies need more than what their jaded manager can offer.
Burnley typically recover from slow starts, but this year it's hard to see who will replace them in the bottom three. Southampton have already shown their grit against Man City and Chelsea; Leeds and Wolves are starting to find form; and Watford will become more organised under Claudio Ranieri.
On-fire Salah to pick up multiple gongs
The PFA Player of the Year, given out before the end of the season, is likely to be given to someone playing for a title challenger - which rules out two of the five favourites, Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes. Kevin de Bruyne has started a little slowly and his injury issues continue to be a concern, while a team like Man City tend to share responsibilty too much to get individual awards; Phil Foden and Jack Grealish may steal the limelight.
That most likely leaves Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah, one of whom will proably win both player of the year and the golden boot. Lukaku should come close - should hit 20-25 goals and show himself to be the missing piece of the puzzle for Chelsea - but Salah looks unstoppable this season.
An on-fire Salah is the best player in the world. His sensational goal against Man City on Sunday maybe gives us a little bit of recency bias, and yet the Egyptian is already the Premier League's joint top goalscorer. Should Liverpool go on to win the league, Salah will no doubt be the poster boy of their success.
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