Soccer

Sportsmail's experts discuss the return of the Premier League

Golden Boots and Bruce to diamond Dias and Dyche! The Premier League circus is back in town so Sportsmail’s experts CHRIS SUTTON, MICAH RICHARDS and MARTIN KEOWN discuss all things titles, relegation and which managers fear the return of fans

  • Premier League is back with a bang this weekend after the international break
  • Arsenal take on champions Liverpool while Leicester host Manchester City
  • But as teams enter the final stretch of the season, there’s much to be discussed
  • Sportsmail’s experts discuss the top-four race, relegation and the Golden Boot

The Premier League is back with a bang this weekend following the final international break before this summer’s Euros. 

The campaign is now entering the business end of the season but there’s still plenty left to play for in these final few months. 

Sportsmail’s experts CHRIS SUTTON, MICAH RICHARDS and MARTIN KEOWN talk all things Premier League as the top-flight circus returns to our television screens. 

The Premier League is back with a bang this weekend and there’s a lot to play for

CHRIS SUTTON: I can’t see the top four changing. It would be the biggest collapse since Devon Loch at the 1956 Grand National for City to lose their lead from here.

Manchester United and Leicester in second and third have a healthy points cushion. The big question is: can Chelsea hold on to fourth place? They’re the ones trying to stay ahead of the chasing pack right now.

MARTIN KEOWN: Agreed. When we went into lockdown in March last year, Leicester were eight points clear inside the top four, then they ended up finishing fifth. But they’ve learned their lesson.

Brendan Rodgers is making good decisions in terms of tactics and personnel. They’ve convinced me they’re top-four material. Chelsea have to hold off the competition but they’ve only conceded twice in the Premier League since Thomas Tuchel walked in. I can see the top four staying the same.

Thomas Tuchel has done wonders for Chelsea defensively since he arrived at the club

CHRIS: Defensively, Chelsea are in a good place. They could just do with doing more in attack. They are yet to score three goals in a game under Tuchel. That’ll come with time, I’m certain of it.

MICAH RICHARDS: At the start of the season I said City would be champions with Liverpool, United and Chelsea following them home. Three of four looked nailed on.

Liverpool have had a terrible time but something inside me says they are not out of it. It only takes Chelsea to lose on a weekend when Liverpool win and suddenly the gap is two points.

Maybe it’s just too late for the Reds, for whom Europe is now the priority, and they will be pipped by Chelsea and Leicester.

Can City do the Quadruple? If not, who wins the other pots?

MICAH: City will never have a better chance. Robert Lewandowski being out for four weeks makes the Champions League look a little bit more achievable. I expect City to win the FA Cup, as well as the League.

The Carabao Cup is intriguing. I tipped Spurs to win it last September and anything can happen in a one-off game against a Jose Mourinho team. He will be going all out to bring a trophy to Tottenham so that will be tough.

Europe is the holy grail for City. If they get past Dortmund and face a Bayern team without Lewandowski, it will be on for them. If Lewandowski returns, Bayern remain the ones to beat.

Our experts agree that is it very possible that Manchester City can do the Quadruple this year

MARTIN: It’s very possible. Pep Guardiola has made 94 changes to his starting XIs for Premier League matches this season. No manager has made more, yet City are flying at the top of the table.

He’s got that strength in depth on his side and such is City’s lead, they can afford to lose some games and still be crowned champions. What a schedule ahead:

April 14: Champions League second leg against Borussia Dortmund. April 17: FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea. April 21: Premier League trip to Aston Villa. April 25: Carabao Cup final against Tottenham. Can City do the Quadruple? They can, but I just have a feeling Jose Mourinho might be the one to throw a spanner in the works in that League Cup final against Spurs.

However, a Jose Mourinho-masterclass in the Carabao Cup final will scupper City’s plans

CHRIS: I don’t think the Quadruple can be done. Maybe two, maybe three, but not four. This is an exceptional team but even they would struggle to do a clean sweep.

Anything can happen in knockout football. They’ve got a good chance of winning the League Cup, even if it is against a Mourinho side who got the better of them earlier this season.

So there’s the Double. If they beat Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-finals, they should end up winning the whole competition. So there’s the Treble. In the Champions League, though, my money is on Bayern Munich.

Who goes down with Sheffield Utd and West Brom? Who’s going up? 

MICAH: Good question! Fulham — just. The international break came at the right time for Newcastle, to take the negativity away for a couple of weeks. If Callum Wilson returns to fitness soon, he will score the goals to keep them up.

MARTIN: We’re all looking to the final day’s fixtures on May 23 and thinking how huge Fulham versus Newcastle at Craven Cottage will be. But the week before, Newcastle face Sheffield United and that could represent their golden ticket to safety.

Steve Bruce’s side have a hard run-in but that’s the game to win. They should see that as a chance to make up for what happened in the reverse fixture and bag three pivotal points.

Micah’s right, Wilson has been directly involved in 54 per cent of Newcastle’s league goals, so getting him back will be huge.

CHRIS: Newcastle’s fate is in their own hands and, like Micah, I can see them escaping at Fulham’s expense — just. Scott Parker’s side play nice football but they haven’t kicked on in the way they would have wanted.

Fulham are being tipped to go down to the Championship despite their recent successes

MICAH: As for promotion, Norwich have got the title sealed. Watford will join them after their outstanding run and I’m going to throw a wildcard in here: Barnsley to come up via the play-offs. I love Brentford and admire Swansea but Barnsley have got momentum.

CHRIS: The three coming up from the Championship, in my opinion, will be: Norwich and Watford in the automatic promotion places, and for once I agree with Micah: Barnsley in the play-offs!

They have caught so many by surprise. Barnsley boss Valerien Ismael was on the same coaching course as Norwich’s Daniel Farke and I hope we see them both in the Premier League next season.

MARTIN: I agree that Norwich and Watford will finish the job. Then I’d like to see my old club Reading promoted from the play-offs but the competition is fierce. Yes, Barnsley have enjoyed an extraordinary run — winning nine of 11 — since troubling Chelsea in the FA Cup in February.

Brentford are the Championship’s top scorers and will want to make amends for losing in the play-off final last season. But I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll see Steve Cooper’s Swansea in the Premier League next season.

Who is in the running for your Player of the Year?

CHRIS: You could take your pick from City’s roster of stars. Ilkay Gundogan has to be a contender for the way he’s stepped up this season, and so does John Stones for his renaissance. 

But Ruben Dias is the primary reason why City have the best defence in the Premier League, and that is why they’re about to win their third title in four years.

MARTIN: We’re in agreement here, Chris. Dias has been the biggest defensive improvement for City. He cost them £65million but has been worth it. The importance of a good defence has been outlined by Liverpool’s Premier League plight this season. 

Sutton insists Ilkay Gundogan has to be a contender for the Player of the Year award

However, Ruben Dias has been a defensive revelation for City since arriving last summer

Gundogan has been a revelation but I feel City could have found ways to win games with someone else. They couldn’t have kept a league-high 15 clean sheets without Dias.

MICAH: Having written a column a few weeks ago saying it had to be Bruno Fernandes, I’m not changing my mind. 

He’s had an outstanding year and, believe me, United’s fortunes would look very different if they didn’t have this Portuguese maestro in their team. 

Who is in the running for your Manager of the Year award?

MARTIN: There are a few contenders. Dean Smith, for the way he’s got Aston Villa fighting for a top-half finish after surviving by a point last season.

Brendan Rodgers, for how Leicester are battling with the big boys and holding their own. Even Sean Dyche, for leading Burnley to the verge of safety despite their non-existent transfer budget.

But Guardiola deserves this gong above everyone else. Never underestimate how lucky we are to have him in the League.



Dyche (left), Guardiola (middle) and Smith (right) all deserve the Manager of the Year gong

CHRIS: Yep, Guardiola, all day long. City are about to win the Premier League after coping without a centre forward for large parts of this campaign. 

If Tottenham lost you-know-who for months, for example, I suspect they’d seriously struggle. But Guardiola’s use of a false nine and his rotational system has made them an unstoppable force in England. He’s been the best manager.

MICAH: Yeah, it would be nonsense if Guardiola won a Quadruple and didn’t get it. If, for some reason, City don’t finish with several pieces of silverware and Leicester win the FA Cup, as well as qualifying for the Champions League, I’d give it to Brendan Rodgers. I admire what he has done. Leicester are progressing every year.

Who’s heading for the Flop of the Year?

MICAH: Sadly, it’s a toss-up between two Chelsea players — Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. I could not have been more complimentary about Werner when he signed last summer and I was expecting massive things from him, after watching him for RB Leipzig in the Champions League.

It just hasn’t happened for him but the same is also true of Havertz. I hope both of them learn from this difficult season and come back to show their true potential.

CHRIS: I’m going to have to hand this unwanted title to Liverpool Football Club as a whole. Players have underperformed, Jurgen Klopp’s spark hasn’t been the same, and the hierarchy had their chance to cover for the defensive injuries by bringing in reinforcements but didn’t.

It’s a collective responsibility. These are the League champions who aren’t going to make the Champions League unless they go on a remarkable run. That constitutes a ‘flop’ of a campaign in my book.


Chelsea’s German duo Timo Werner (left) and Kai Havertz (right) have struggled this season

MARTIN: But what if Liverpool go on to win the Champions League, Chris? That wouldn’t make this a ‘flop’ of the season. Not in the slightest.

I think it’s hard to look beyond Sheffield United. They have lost 23 of their 29 games and are dropping out of the top division with a whimper, despite finishing ninth last season.

Chris Wilder, the man who took them from League One to the Premier League, has lost his job. This campaign couldn’t have gone much worse for that club. 

Who will win the Golden Boot?

MARTIN: Harry Kane. He’s a consistent performer and driven player. The only problem would be if he picked up an injury — which every England fan hopes doesn’t happen, of course!

MICAH: I agree. Kane. I know Mohamed Salah will be shooting from his own penalty box if he has a chance of getting it — I played with him for Fiorentina and know how much he loves scoring! — but Kane will edge it.

CHRIS: Kane and Salah won’t like it, because they’d want it all to themselves, but I think they’ll end up sharing the award. Kane will continue to bang in goals and get all of us England fans excited ahead of Euro 2020.

Salah will be challenged by his manager to spearhead a late push for the Premier League’s top four. It isn’t all bad if you end up sharing the award, though, Harry and Mo — I had to split mine three ways with Dion Dublin and Michael Owen in 1997-98!

Will any managers be fearing fans’ return?

MICAH: Ha! For many reasons, it will be Steve Bruce and Newcastle.

CHRIS: Yes, I think we can all agree Bruce might be a tad apprehensive about fans returning. They’d support the players, I’m sure, but he’s the manager who would attract the most negativity in the League.

I’m also wondering whether a few Tottenham fans might take their first opportunity to let Jose Mourinho know what they think of his overly-cautious style of play.

MARTIN: It is an unusual predicament that Bruce is facing. He definitely won’t want Fulham fans at Craven Cottage on that final day if there is anything riding on the result. He might even prefer St James’ Park remains empty, as you say, Chris!

It is important the Premier League ensure fans are allowed in stadiums for the final TWO rounds of fixtures. It cannot just be for the final day, because that wouldn’t be fair on clubs who miss out.

Steve Bruce will not want to see Newcastle fans to St James’ Park with their current results

Our experts were talking to Dominic King and Kieran Gill




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