Competitive football makes it long-awaited return this Friday. For fans of the Premier League, an extra week remains between them and the start of a new season. As tends to be the norm these days, the upcoming season is shaping up to be more competitive than its predecessor. Last season's disparity between the top seven and the rest of the league is showing no signs of evaporating, but that's not to say that the league is becoming more predictable. In such a climate, it is not always easy to make a genuinely bold prediction, but here are ten that attempt to do just that:
Burnley win more points on the road than at Turf Moor
Burnley experienced something of a 'Jekyll and Hyde' campaign last season. Of the forty points amassed, only seven came away from home, meaning a remarkable 82.5% of their points were won at Turf Moor. However, the high point of their home form (a six-game unbeaten run) overlapped with a run of only a single win in their final six home games. Does this suggest that teams have worked out how to conquer the Turf Moor fortress? Possibly. What is more likely is that such an over-reliance on home form alone is unlikely to be enough for Burnley to survive a second season and that could well lead to a more adventurous mindset from the Clarets on their travels.
Rooney flops, Sandro shines
Despite several good additions to their squad, it is the homecoming of Wayne Rooney that is arguably the most intriguing signing by Everton. At 31 years old, can England's all-time record goalscorer still do a job at the highest level? He's done little to suggest so in a mediocre Manchester United squad in the last few years. Sentimentality should be applauded, but it rarely translates into success, particularly when there is a vacuum as big as the one left by Romelu Lukaku needing to be filled. Fortunately for Everton, they are already onto a winner with the signing of Sandro Ramirez (an absolute steal in today's market at £5.25 million). The former Barcelona prospect joins on the back of an impressive Under-21 Championship and joins with little pressure on his shoulders given his minimal transfer fee and the focus on Rooney's return. All that could set the Spaniard up to take the Premier League by storm.
For so long, football on the South-Coast has been dominated by Southampton and Portsmouth. The ongoing rise of Bournemouth looks set to change that, especially given the fact that it was only a goal difference of five that prevented Bournemouth finishing above Southampton - a far cry from the twenty-one points separating the two the season before. Since then, Bournemouth have bolstered their squad significantly whilst question marks again remain over the future of key players and yet another managerial change at Southampton. Whereas the latter will need to halt the stagnation experienced under Claude Puel, the Cherries are only looking up and are in a prime position to consolidate their place in the top half of the table.
credit Daily Mail
Wagner beats Klopp
Many supporters welcomed Huddersfield's Play-Off success and a lot of that is owed to the mastermind behind it: David Wagner. Through a blend of charisma and gegenpressing, Wagner has transformed the Terriers into a formidable underdog. Like Blackpool and Burnley before them, they are more than capable of producing a couple of upsets and how poetic it would be if one of those upsets came at the expense of the man Wagner is so often compared with. From their Borussia Dortmund links to their implementation of the gegenpressing system, the similarities with Jurgen Klopp are glaringly obvious. Yet, there is a good reason why Huddersfield could shock Liverpool this season. Liverpool's shaky defence struggle with pressure and have frequently demonstrated a susceptibility against underdogs. Those factors bode well for Huddersfield and victory might just see Wagner complete his emergence from Klopp's shadow.
Newcastle finish in the top half
Whether you regard this as a bold prediction or not depends on how you view Newcastle. If you regard them as a something of a 'sleeping giant', it is likely you believe a top ten finish is a very real possibility. In truth, it is. There are three positions in the top ten that could reasonably be filled by any one of nine teams. Newcastle are one of those teams, but the facts remain that they are a newly promoted side with arguably a weaker squad at their disposable than they are accustomed to. Dwight Gayle still has his doubters at this level and there is still the feeling that the club need to do more to strengthen before the transfer window closes. Yet, in Rafa Benitez they have a man who possesses both the admiration of the temperamental Toon army and a proven track record in the Premier League. That combination could see Benitez get the best out of his players and, with it, a top ten finish.
Palace relegate Brighton/Brighton relegate Palace
Brighton's promotion has long been on the horizon and it means they are set to renew their rivalry with Crystal Palace for the first time in the Premier League. Naturally, it is the standout fixture for both sides, but it is one that could carry even greater significance when the two clash at Selhurst Park on 14th April. At this stage, it seems more likely that it will be Brighton in a relegation struggle come April, but Palace - like so many before them - might struggle to transition from the pragmatism of Allardyce to the attack-minded philosophy of Frank de Boer. With only four games left after the two meet in April, the winner could deal a fatal blow to the survival hopes of the other.
Craig Shakespeare wins the 'sack race'
Craig Shakespeare is currently 9/1 (Sky Bet) to be the first manager sacked with only Mark Hughes, Rafa Benitez and Slaven Bilic ahead of him. On the surface, Shakespeare's position at Leicester should not be in doubt. He successfully kept a sinking ship afloat in rocky waters, won maximum points in his first five Premier League games and has the backing of the majority of supporters. However, for all of last season's 'heroics' in the Champions League, Leicester only won two of their eight league games after their initial five-game winning run. Time will tell if Shakespeare is up to the job, but, for a team who turned so quickly on their title-winning manager, his position seems fragile at best.
Stoke go winless until October again
Last season was a forgettable one for Stoke and I mean that in a literal sense. Plagued by a slow start, they struggled to gain any real momentum and quickly settled for middle-table mediocrity. Mark Hughes is under pressure, but the loss of the influential Marko Arnautovic and Jon Walters could have a knock-on effect well into the new season. Within the opening two months of the season, Stoke face Everton (A), Arsenal (H), Manchester United (H) and Chelsea (H). Combined with that, face tricky games away to West Brom and Newcastle as well as a home tie against Southampton to close out September. It is certainly one of the harder openings to a season. That's not to say they won't pick up any points, but that maiden win of the season could once again elude the Potters until October.
Lukaku outscores Kane
Until Harry Kane scored seven goals in the last two games of the 2016/17 campaign, Romelu Lukaku was leading the goal-scoring charts. Kane's performance against Leicester and Hull in those two games sealed a second consecutive Golden Boot, despite the striker missing close to two months of the season. Whereas twenty-five points separated Kane's Tottenham and Lukaku's Everton, there were only four goals between them. With a better quality of players around him this season, Lukaku has the potential to outscore Kane for the first time and, given Kane's barren run in August, the Belgian has three games to throw down the gauntlet.
Chicharito stays injury-free
This more hopeful than bold. For a team with as bad luck with strikers as West Ham, you would be forgiven for thinking Javier Hernandez was a marked man. Is it too much to ask that Hernandez does not join Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll as a mainstay in the treatment room? Or that he does not pick up a lengthy injury on the opening day of the season like Andre Ayew? That cycle has to be broken sometime...
What do you make of these predictions? Let us know in the comments below!