Premier League: Predicting the End-of-Season Table
Predictions in football are a mug's game. Dare to publish how you think a set of fixtures will turn out and you are opening yourself up for all kinds of criticism, let alone your thoughts on an entire season.
With just over half of the Premier League season left, there are plenty of issues still up in the air.
Manchester City's lead at the top is not what it was, while no one is cut adrift at the bottom of the table as is so often the case.
Still, it's fun taking a stab at how this thrilling season will finish, so here are my predictions for the final placings for all 20 teams in this season's Premier League.
20. Wigan Athletic
The Latics can be such an enigma. Roberto Martinez has admirably stuck to his philosophy of trying to play neat, passing football of the type that has been mastered in his homeland.
When it works, they have shown they can shock even the biggest teams. However, when it doesn't, they can look a shamble of a team, especially in defence.
Now it wouldn't be so bad if they had a reliable supply of goals, but they don't.
They are the lowest scorers in the division at the moment, and when you see that Franco di Santo and Jordi Gomez are their joint-top scorers with four each, it's not hard to see why.
Sadly, it looks like Wigan's luck will run out this season.
19. Bolton Wanderers
Bolton started the New Year at the bottom of the table courtesy of their 1-1 draw with Wolves, the first time they had shared the points all season.
Sitting at the foot of the table on January 1 is an almost cast-iron guarantee of relegation, and it is difficult to know how the Trotters are going to dig their way out of the hole they have been mired in all season.
The Trotters have lost a whopping 14 games already, and the likely loss of defender Gary Cahill to Chelsea will only weaken them further, following the long-term injuries to Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-Yong.
18. Queens Park Rangers
Many were optimistic at the start of the season that this could be the year that all three promoted sides stay up.
Of the three sides who came up from the Championship last season, it is the team that did so as champions who look the least likely to survive the drop.
The Rs are another side who have struggled for goals—only veteran forward Heidar Helguson has scored more than two in the league—and the glut of signings made on deadline day gives them the look of a group of journeymen rather than a cohesive unit.
There is quality scattered throughout the side, but Neil Warnock will be genuinely concerned that his second season as a Premier League manager is going to end the same way as the first did with Sheffield United: in relegation.
17. Blackburn Rovers
Yes, they are bottom of the table as things stand. Yes, they have only won three league matches all season. Yes, they are berated every week by their own fans, who want the manager and the owners out.
But there is something about Blackburn that gives hope of the 1995 champions avoiding relegation, not least the fact that their haul of 29 goals is more than any other side in the bottom half of the table.
Having seen them play on several occasions this season, they look as though they have enough going forward to just about make up for their severe defensive frailties, something which will be greatly aided by the impending return of Ryan Nelsen.
It may be in spite of Steve Kean's management rather than because of it, but the Rovers have a better chance of staying up than many would admit.
16. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Even though they have only won four matches in the league so far this season, the Wolves very rarely give anyone an easy game, especially at Molineux.
Sadly, no team gets extra points for effort, and it looks as though Mick McCarthy's side is destined for another hairy end to the season.
Their fixture at Wigan on the final day could be the crucially-timed fixture that ends up ensuring their survival. They had better hope that eight-goal top scorer Steven Fletcher stays fit for the second half of the season.
15. Norwich City
The Canaries currently sit ninth in the table, an exceptional achievement considering this team was in the third tier of English football two years ago.
However, they have yet to keep a clean sheet in the league. They may not be the same sort of gung-ho attacking side that Blackpool were, but that sort of defensive record will still have manager Paul Lambert pulling his hair out.
His fear will be that, now every team has played his, they will be better equipped to deal with the goal threat of Grant Holt, Steve Morison and Anthony Pilkington. Norwich should still have enough to stay up, but the second half of their campaign may be a bumpy ride.
14. Swansea City
Several teams have won promotion to the Premier League and tried to stay up playing the same style of attractive football that got them up. West Brom under Tony Mowbray and Blackpool last season spring to mind.
But Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers has built his team on the template of pass and possession football laid down by Roberto Martinez. This is continued by immediate predecessor Paulo Sousa, who has taken that up into the top flight with aplomb.
They may not score many goals but their ability throughout the team to keep the ball, especially at home, means they have one of the best defensive records outside of the top six, and that should be enough to see them avoid any worries on the final day.
Former Tottenham manager Martin Jol's return to the Premier League with Fulham has not exactly been the most electrifying second coming, at least until his team's dramatic comeback victory over Arsenal on Monday.
In that victory, the Cottagers had centre-forward Bobby Zamora appear to shrug off his injury problems, loss of form and the reported disagreements with his manager, while big-money summer-signing Bryan Ruiz also appears to finally be adjusting to life in English football.
After the dizzying heights achieved under Roy Hodgson and the stability given to them by Mark Hughes' one season on the job, Fulham look to be reverting to type, with mid-table mediocrity very much the order of the day. Which, for a small club in its first season under a new manager, is not a bad thing.
12. West Bromwich Albion
Speaking of Hodgson and mid-table, it looks to be of one of those under the management of the other for West Brom this season.
While Peter Odemwingie has so far failed to replicate the strike rate of virtually a goal every other game which served the Baggies so well last season, the addition of Ireland centre-forward Shane Long has taken some of the goal-scoring burden off the Nigerian and also added an extra dimension to the team going forward, helping them defend from the front.
Hodgson's game plan of solid organisation and every player knowing their specific role has now been fully embedded at the Hawthorns, and it should be more than enough to see them safe for another year.
Every season is a struggle for David Moyes in charge of the financially-stricken Everton, but every season he is able to exceed expectations by not only keeping the club away from the wrong end of the table but also seeing them finish in or at least within touching distance of the European places.
This season looks as though it will be more of a challenge than normal, however. Moyes has had to field an unprecedented number of youth players throughout the campaign, often to the detriment of results.
The short-term loan of Landon Donovan for a second time is a rare and welcome injection of creative quality in a workmanlike Toffees team that is never likely to flirt with danger but looks set to take a year of punching above its weight quite as much as usual.
10. Aston Villa
The appointment of Alex McLeish as Villa manager was a controversial one last summer, not only because the Scotsman came directly from crosstown rivals Birmingham City—who ended last season relegated—but also because of his reputation for dour tactics.
To a certain extent, Villa fans' fears have been realised. Their team has hardly got the Holte End roaring this season.
But the addition of goalkeeper Shay Given—who is expected to return from injury later this month—and the goals of Darren Bent should see the Claret-and-Blues grind their way through a transitional campaign without the late-season slump which did for the Blues last term.
The predicted bounce on Wearside brought on by Martin O'Neill's appointment as manager in place of the sacked Steve Bruce is in full effect.
Since the avuncular Northern Irishman took over at the Stadium of Light, the Black Cats have won four and lost only one of his six games in charge.
O'Neill has coaxed the kind of performances from summer signings such as Sebastian Larsson, David Vaughan and Craig Gardner that Bruce was not able to and should easily allay any fears over Sunderland's Premier League status.
8. Newcastle United
After their excellent start to the season which saw them unbeaten in their first 11 games, a spate of injuries put paid to most people's of Newcastle still being in the hunt of a Champions League place come Spring.
Still, after a torrid December, the sensational and thoroughly-deserved 3-0 home win over Manchester United shows that the Magpies still have more than enough about them to be classified as a flash in the pan.
The loss of top performers Demba Ba and Cheik Tiote for the African Cup of Nations is bound to hit them to a certain extent over the next month or so, and Newcastle remain on course for a top-10 finish.
7. Stoke City
The Britannia Stadium may not quite be the fortress it is famed to be this season—only four of Stoke's eight league wins have come at home—but the Potters are now a firmly established Premier League side that no team takes lightly.
Rather than develop the other elements of their game, manager Tony Pulis has built upon the assets that have seen them survive over the past three seasons—namely, power and height in all areas of the pitch and a style of play for which the term "route one" would be complementary—and focused even more on them than ever this season.
Most sides in the Premier League have yet to fully get to grips with Stoke's direct and aggressive style of play, but with Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters both set to end the season with goal tallies well in double figures, the Potters could be set for their first top-10 finish.
This was always going to be a transitional year at Anfield. The first full season for both owners, Fenway Sports Group and manager Kenny Dalglish (second time around, obviously) have seen plenty of big-money additions to carry the expectation of a return to European football.
For all the decent showings of Stewart Downing, Jose Enrique and especially Charlie Adam, it is Luis Suarez who has dominated the club's season thus far, thanks in part perhaps to the sustained injury layoff of captain Steven Gerrard.
Suarez may be one of the most exciting places to watch this season, but the fact is that only Stoke have scored fewer goals in the top flight than Liverpool.
The Uruguayan's eight-match suspension means that Liverpool will be heavily reliant on the misfiring Andy Carroll for the near future, and such a handicap will probably see them lose ground on the rest of the top six.
Last season, finishing fourth in the table and having to qualify for the Champions League through a playoff was seen as a setback. This term, it would be a blessed relief.
The Gunners looked like they had overcome their disastrous start to the season, but the recent injury problems and defeat at Fulham showed they still maintain many of the same problems when it comes to the depth of their squad.
While the likes of Gervinho and Mikel Arteta have fit in well since joining the club in the summer, the same cannot be said for defenders Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos, who continue to look vulnerable at crucial moments.
Talk of any side being a one-man team is usually wide of the mark, but Arsenal's over-reliance of Robin van Persie to score goals will be even more pronounced when Gervinho goes off to the African Cup of Nations.
Without the spending power or the willingness to make a handful of January signings, the Champions League could be missing Arsenal next season, which would be a sad loss for the competition.
No one ever said it was going to be easy for Chelsea this season. A new young manager and an ageing squad is rarely the ideal combination, but Andre Villas-Boas has already been through the mill since taking over at Stamford Bridge.
The Blues have already lost five games in the league this season. They lost nine in the whole of last term as they finished second in the table, enough to see double-winning manager Carlo Ancelotti sacked.
Fernando Torres is still not the man Roman Abramovich paid £50 million for, Didier Drogba is headed off to Africa and may not come back at all while Nicolas Anelka had already flown the nest for China.
With defenders John Terry and David Luiz still struggling to come to terms with the team's new style of play, Chelsea look a side that has another couple of defeats such as the ones against QPR and Aston Villa in them before the campaign is through.
Some astute purchases in January should help them see off the challenge of Arsenal, but catching Tottenham will be far more of a challenge.
3. Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs have looked irresistible for much of this season, and the very fact people are still talking about them as title contenders in January is a real mark of progress for the Londoners.
Stopping Luka Modric from leaving for Chelsea in the summer was just as key as the signings of Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor, if not more so. Even when first-teamers have been injured, the depth of their squad has for the most part seen them troubled by any absences.
If they win their game in hand against Everton next week, they will be level on points with second-placed Manchester United. More importantly, they will be eight points above Chelsea.
Despite such a lofty position, many Tottenham supporters will still be looking down the table at the clubs below them than up at the anticipated title-chasers, but whereas Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool are all in various degrees of transition, the Spurs are very much on an upward trajectory.
2. Manchester United
Back-to-back defeats either side of the New Year—in addition to their embarrassing Champions League exit at the group stage—have given United an air of vulnerability they have not had in nigh on a decade, since the days of Eric Djemba-Djemba.
The loss of Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher, and to a lesser extent the retirement of Paul Scholes, are blows that would affect any team, and they have all conspired to weaken United this season.
But it is worth remembering that last season after 20 matches they were a point worse off than they are now and yet went on to win a record 19th league title.
Such a fate looks beyond them this season, which is only partially their own making, but there is no substitute for experience.
So many members of United's squad view being in such a position as par for the course when you play for a club of such stature, and the season run-in will surely see an improvement in Alex Ferguson's side that will at least see them keep pace with their bitter local rivals if not quite usurp them.
1. Manchester City
It seemed inevitable that one day City would march their way to the top as soon as Sheikh Mansour began throwing his money around back in 2008, but few could have imagined the change in the team's style over one single summer.
As if the full blossoming of David Silva, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli were not enough on their own, the additions of Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri helped turn last season's stultifying grinders into a relentless scoring machine.
Landmark results such as the 5-1 win at Tottenham and the iconic 6-1 drubbing of United at Old Trafford were both only worth the same number of points as drab wins by the odd goal, but it confirmed the status of Roberto Mancini's side as the team to beat.
City were fortunate in as much as their mid-season wobble happened at around the same time as United's, but right now they look better equipped for the title run-in than the defending champions, even with the impending loss of key midfielder Yaya Toure and his brother Kolo for the African Cup of Nations.
There is still a long way to go as City continue to navigate uncharted waters for them in the Premier League era, but there is a depth of both quality and belief in Roberto Mancini's well-rotated squad that has an aura of champions.