The chaos and unpredictability that was the first half of this season was a lot of fun while it lasted but sadly it feels like some semblance of order has been restored in the Premier League.
Manchester City look nailed-on to win a fifth crown having rediscovered their relentless rhythm of old, while at the foot of the table Sheffield United, West Brom and Fulham languish considerably adrift of the rest. Together, they have won the same number of games as Newcastle. Together, they have scored just one more goal than Manchester United. They appear to be down.
Which leaves only a fascinating top four battle offering up any uncertainty and there is certainly plenty of that, with ten teams realistically challenging for just three spots.
But wait, maybe we’re jumping the gun a little here; maybe we’re over-compensating with absolutes after several months of being in the dark as to what’s going to happen from one week to the next.
Because since when did we condemn teams to the drop with a vast swathe of the season still to play? Have we learned nothing from the ‘great escapes’ of the past or, less dramatically, the gradual improvement of sides seemingly in freefall who begin to pick up points and claw back a deficit?
A change in fortunes has happened so often in previous campaigns yet common consensus is over-riding common sense and telling us that the Blades, Baggies, and Cottagers are definitely doomed.
And with odds duly reflecting this, now is the time to take full advantage.
Fulham finding their feet
Starting with Fulham who have clearly turned a corner in the last couple of months, an outcome of their manager showing tactical flexibility. In hindsight, a failure to do this was Norwich’s downfall last term.
Fulham’s season to date can be neatly split in two with eight defeats from their first 11 games becoming eight draws earned in their more recent 11. After being far too open while still on a promotion high, Scott Parker’s men are now hard to beat.
This is reflected in the goals against column. In those initial 11 games a goal was conceded on average every 47 minutes and any team would struggle fighting against such a tide. In the last 11 games that figure has shot up to 99 minutes.
If only Parker could find a reliable and prolific match-winner then they would really be in business.
Bobby Decordova-Reid is doing himself proud on seven goals – the joint second-best individual haul from anyone in the bottom six – but oh for a Mitrovic type, or ideally Aleksander Mitrovic himself to start finding the net with regularity.
Because if a goal-scorer can emerge, ensuring three points over one, examples are out there that prove the eight-point gap between Fulham and Burnley can soon be whittled away.
In 2018/19 Newcastle were in the bottom three at this stage of the season but pulled clear, finishing in 13th after picking up 1.7 PPG from their remaining fixtures.
Swansea meanwhile staged two recoveries, the most impressive being a stress-free run-in after finding themselves rock bottom at this juncture.
The Cottagers are 15/8 to stay up this season. This is a tempting price given the probability of at least one team in the bottom half nose-diving in the coming months.
Have the Saints stopped marching on?
Southampton are a whopping 66/1 to go down and for good reason.
Under Ralph Hasenhuttl the South Coast side have become a cohesive unit with goals in their armoury and that’s why as recently as mid-December they were legitimately challenging for a top four spot.
It should not be under-estimated however how immensely damaging their recent 9-0 hammering at the hands of Manchester United might prove to be, nor should their five-game losing streak be over-looked either.
The last occasion Hasenhuttl’s side were humiliated by nine goals they responded admirably, turning their season around and eventually finishing in mid-table but it would be naïve to assume the same fortitude can be unearthed now. And if it negatively impacts on them that might be substantial.
Ultimately, what will probably keep the Saints safe is the quality at their disposal and the sizable 14-point gap between themselves and Fulham. Yet if the disparity is chipped away it’s worth bearing in mind that they meet towards the season’s end. And by then both teams might have contrasting psychological make-ups.
What also counts against Southampton is their inability to hold onto leads. With a propensity to score first and an equal propensity to then concede that makes them a great shout for the in-play market as they face Wolves this Sunday.
Newcastle are a very odd team that are hard to pin down. On the one hand Steve Bruce’s side have a forward in Callum Wilson who has out-scored Mane, Lacazette and Rashford this season and as the cliché goes, a prolific scorer is a priceless commodity who typically wards off relegation.
They have also pulled off some fine results, winning at West Ham and Everton and holding Liverpool to a score-less draw.
Yet they can routinely be devoid of any attacking threat as illustrated by a woeful recent run that gained them just two points from a possible 27. At the back meanwhile there are undeniable problems – Newcastle have already conceded more than Bournemouth and Watford at this stage last season with both teams eventually relegated.
It’s that losing streak that most stands out though. For any one of Fulham, West Brom or Sheffield United to drag themselves to safety it will require a rival to suffer a sustained dip. The Magpies – who must travel to Craven Cottage on the final day – are the most likely to do this.
Steve Bruce’s men are 3/1 to suffer their third relegation in the Premier League era.
Burnley are well-drilled but toothless
It’s almost taken for granted these days that Sean Dyche’s Burnley will be well organized with resilience in abundance. This has been evidenced so far by some impressive away victories and clean sheets in 30.4% of their games.
Up front however – an area that has never been particularly potent at the best of times – there are concerns.
The Clarets’ leading scorer is Chris Wood with a meagre four while more tellingly only West Brom have taken on less shots across the campaign. Fulham have 63 more to their name.
Can Dyche’s troops continue to eke out 1-0 wins and 0-0 stalemates in the coming months to compensate for their lack of firepower? With such a slender squad that is doubtful.
It is often said that it’s against the teams around you where a season is won or lost but for the Lancashire side the reverse may be true. Coming up soon is a testing four-game block v Spurs, Arsenal, Everton and Leicester and this might be a window of opportunity for Fulham to haul back some points. It’s worth noting too that the teams have yet to meet meaning there is a potential six-point swing up for grabs.
The Clarets are 9/2 to drop this term, ending an impressive run of five years in the top-flight