Why Leicester and Villa could get top four

Manchester City’s thumping 4-1 win at Anfield has surely sealed the Premier League title for Pep Guardiola’s side. They are five points top with a game in hand, but more importantly are the only team playing with consistency or coherence through the pandemic – which is reflected in the fact they are now 1/25 to lift their third title in four years.

Fortunately there are plenty of other intriguing story lines developing in the Premier League despite the title (and relegation) already being over.

The race for European spots looks set to go right to the final day, with every team down to 11th capable of putting a run together.

Do not be fooled by the fact the league table has begun to fall back into a normal pattern recently, with the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal rising while the early-season dark horses falter. Things should become chaotic and unexpected again when European matches resume next week, because from this weekend onwards all of those clubs with only domestic football to contend with are back on a weekly schedule.

The likes of Leicester City, West Ham, Aston Villa, and Everton can get back to training properly during the week, resting and reworking on tactics ahead of weekend games. That should give them a major advantage over the traditional powerhouses.

Here’s a look at three interesting Premier League markets – and why the ‘smaller’ clubs can cause major disruptions in the months ahead:

Winners w/o Man City

There is value to be found in this market, because currently the bookies seem pretty confident that either Manchester United (1/1) or Liverpool (15/8) will take the runner-up spot this season. Certainly there is reason to believe that the strongest teams will simply rise to the top, especially in a pandemic-hit campaign defined by vague, wafting matches in which the team with the better players tends to win the moments.

Man Utd are the best example of this; they continue to lack an obvious tactical identity or the sort of intricate details you would expect from a top team, and yet the exhausting effects of the 2020/21 calendar has made their individualism a major advantage.

But the Champions League is coming back, and once attention turns to other tournaments (including the FA Cup) then league form may take a hit, especially when United’s and Liverpool’s opponents start getting full weeks to prepare for games against them. What’s more, it is possible that motivation will become a factor now the title is beyond them.

Leicester, at 13/2, could certainly put a run together through the spring. They are two points behind Man Utd currently, and have managed to maintain pace despite below-par recent form from Jamie Vardy. If he improves, then Brendan Rodgers can secure second. Even Chelsea, at 6/1, have a chance given the great strides already made by new manager Thomas Tuchel.

Bredan Rodgers, Leicester manager.jpg

Top Four

Incredibly, Chelsea are just one point off the top four less than a month after they looked to be disappearing into mid-table. That says a lot about just how quickly the story can change this season, and so, for now, there isn’t much value in backing them to qualify for the Champions League at 5/6, or any of the other three main contenders for that matter.

However, there is a 7/1 bet that can be placed on a team who will break into the top four if they win their games in hand: Aston Villa.

Dean Smith’s side have been phenomenal this season and remain under the radar only because they have played fewer games than the rest of the top ten. Villa have been remarkably consistent, capable of defending deep and playing adventurously, while some excellent summer signings have taken some of the burden off Jack Grealish.

The strength and resilience of their first 11 has been striking, and with the welcome return of playing just once a week Smith ought to be able to minimise rotation. That means a dominant back five, a top-four standard midfield, and a Grealish-led attack taking the game to each of their opponents. There isn’t a team in the division that Villa cannot beat; if they can get a run together, then top four is not out of the question.

Top Six

Backing Chelsea and Villa to be within the top six doesn’t leave any room for the likes of Everton or West Ham, both priced at 8/5 for a top-six finish, but the unpredictability of the league table this season means it is worth a smaller wager on one of these two regardless.

Just don’t back Tottenham (priced at 10/11).

There is a growing sense that the club is mired in another Jose Mourinho collapse, albeit a slow-motion one following the 2-0 victory over a lifeless West Brom last weekend. With supporters raging against the dull football, and with far too much reliance on Harry Kane, Tottenham – who face a gruelling Europa League schedule from next week – are not in a good place.

Things are likely to get worse before they get better, which puts West Ham and Everton in an advantageous position. David Moyes’ side have been superb this season, although ultimately a lack of firepower could leave them in Villa’s and Everton’s trail. It is worth remembering that the Hammers are likely to be below both clubs in the table once all games in hand have been played.

Everton, however, are still within touching distance of a top-six finish despite some patchy results recently. There is more to come from Lucas Digne, Richarlison, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, all three of whom are due an upturn in form before the season is up.