Alex Keble predicts what the final furlong of the Premier League season will bring, tipping West Ham to get top six and Fulham to go down...
"There is no reason to believe the Hammers will run out of steam; even top four is not out of the question."
When the Premier League returns this weekend we well and truly enter the business end of the season: there are nine rounds of action remaining, and while Manchester City have all-but sealed the title the top four, top six, and relegation battles are looking tight.
We are very much in 'cup finals' territory for those chasing European action or fighting against the drop, with as many as 13 of the 20 Premier League clubs involved.
Here, we take a look at some of Betfair's most interesting outright betting options for the final weeks of the Premier League season, tipping the likes of West Ham, Leicester City, and Newcastle United to be among the biggest winners.
West Ham are third favourites behind Liverpool (1/4) and Tottenham (4/7), but David Moyes' side only needs to finish above one of these two to make the top six - and their form shows no sign of dipping.
Moyes' tactical approach is well-suited to pandemic football: not only can West Ham calmly play their game without a potentially toxic London Stadium crowd, but their emphasis on a solid defence and cautious counter-attacking football means they side-step the fitness issues that have plagued other clubs.
With Jesse Lingard gearing up at just the right moment, with West Ham boasting an (almost) clean bill of health, and without any European football to distract them, they should be able to take advantage of a relatively easy set of games. There is no reason to believe the Hammers will run out of steam; even top four is not out of the question.
That means one of Liverpool or Spurs will miss out on top six, and despite Liverpool still being in European competition Jose Mourinho's team is most likely to drop into seventh. None of the problems that have characterised their 2021 have gone away, and it seems highly unlikely that Mourinho can galvanise this team to bounce back from the defeat to Dinamo Zagreb and finish the campaign strongly.
Mourinho has overseen a disastrous last few months. From throwing players under the bus in press conferences to playing achingly dull football that lacks clear attacking direction, his management of Spurs this season has all the hallmarks of a classic Mourinho crisis. Quite frankly, they aren't even close to the nadir yet, and a 2-0 win against an out-of-form Aston Villa should not be seen as a turning point.
His defensive and improvisational strategy does not suit the drifting rhythms of Covid football, leading to jaded players nervously retreating into their own half. It seems inevitable Spurs will drop plenty more points over the last two months of the season.
What's more, Liverpool are starting to get players back from injury and look increasingly comfortable with their new centre-back partnership of Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak. Jurgen Klopp will surely make up the two-point deficit on Spurs.
This one is a straight race between Leicester City and Manchester United (8/15), who are odds-on favourites but may just slip up over the final few games of the campaign. But first, let's consider Leicester.
Some still worry Brendan Rodgers' side will fall apart as they did towards the end of 2019/20, yet there is no evidence of this. Last year the collapse started in January, whereas here we are in March and there is no sign of problems - primarily because Rodgers has learnt valuable lessons from that disappointment. He is now quick to change formation when results turn sour, taking a proactive approach after being burned the previous season.
That flexibility has kept opponents on their toes, the latest being an unexpected switch to 3-4-1-2 that has seen Leicester pick up seven points from three games despite missing James Maddison and Harvey Barnes. Once those two return from injury Leicester will be even stronger, suggesting they will sprint over the finishing line this year.
The 3-1 victory over Man Utd in the FA Cup semi-final was a powerful symbolic moment, too. Rodgers proved his Leicester team are worthy opponents, and the shift in confidence for both sides could prove decisive in the race for second.
Man Utd have looked a bit leggy in Premier League games lately, and with important Europa League games coming up Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is likely to rest some of his first 11. Leicester have the advantage.
Pep Guardiola's third Premier League title will be sewn up in the next few weeks, and one could argue it is the best achievement of his career to date. Many assumed this Man City team were at the end of an era, and as recently as Autumn last year the title looked beyond them, but Guardiola showed his genius by observing the pandemic's impact on Premier League tactics and dramatically adjusting his style.
City have gone for a calmer style of possession football this season, easing off the press and focusing on increased ball retention through central midfield. This has manifested largely in a redeployment of his full-backs, who between them can configure into numerous different shapes - central midfield, overlapping, underlapping - to switch up the Man City formation from game to game. Nobody has been able to work them out.
There is little reason to believe Spurs will be able to stop them in the EFL Cup final in April, so if they can beat Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final City will surely complete the English treble. Guardiola's side have won 25 of the last 26 games in all competitions. Who would bet against them?
The doom and gloom around St. James' Park contrasts sharply with the optimism at Craven Cottage, where plucky Fulham are gaining admirers by the week. But our appreciation for Scott Parker, and our weary feelings towards Steve Bruce, perhaps clouds our judgement of the relegation battle. It certainly seems strange that Newcastle, two points above Fulham with a game in hand, are slight favourites at 10/11 to go down.
What should concern Fulham supporters is that Bruce is likely to be sacked before the end of the campaign, and with so much attacking quality in the Newcastle squad it seems probable they will benefit from a new-manager bounce. Just imagine how quickly Eddie Howe could get a song out of the likes of Ryan Fraser, Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin, and the Longstaff brothers.
Fulham and Newcastle are due to play each other on the final day of the season, and given Newcastle's current advantage it seems very unlikely Fulham will be more than three points clear of the Magpies by then. In other words, even if a managerial change came just one game before the end of the season, Newcastle would probably still survive.