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    Leicester City's Jamie Vardy scores his side's first goal of the game against Newcastle, during the English Premier League soccer match at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, Saturday April 7, 2018

    The Sputnik Intelligent Punter's Guide to the New Football Season (Part One)

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    Neil Clark
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    Less than three weeks after the World Cup final, domestic football returns in England this weekend, with the first round of Football League matches (The Premiership kicks off one week later).

    Last season Wolves, Cardiff and Fulham (via the playoffs), won promotion from the Championship (the second tier of English football), while Barnsley, Burton and Sunderland were relegated. How the division pan out this time- and what are the best bets?

    When it comes to backing teams to finish in the first three, it often pays to look beyond the obvious. Only one market leader (Newcastle, in 2016/7), has won the division in the last fifteen years, while the average odds of the champions in the last decade has been 12.8-1. We've also seen teams priced at 80-1, 40-1, 33-1 (three times) and 25-1 (three times) finish in the top three in the same period. 

    Teams relegated from the Premiership the previous season are usually among the market leaders, but while Newcastle, Burnley and QPR (via the play-offs),  have bounced back at first time of asking, many others have failed. None of the relegated teams made the top three last season, and one of them, Sunderland actually finished bottom. 

    The previous season's play-offs can often prove a good guide. Brighton lost out in 2015-6, but finished second at 16-1 a year later. Fulham lost out in 2016-7 but went up this May.

    Now let's take a closer look at each of the 24 teams and their prospects, in alphabetical order.

    ASTON VILLA  Odds: 12-1

    Lost out in the play-offs last season which is a positive trends-wise, and you could say they're too big a club to stay down for long. Although they've sold players, they should still be there-or-thereabouts with the experienced Steve Bruce, who knows all about getting teams promoted from this level, remaining at the helm.

    Prediction: Promotion short-list.

    BIRMINGHAM CITY Odds: 50-1

    Only avoided the drop by five points last season- the second year running they saved themselves on the final day. Hampered by financial restrictions another season of struggle looks on the cards, and despite late improvement  last time, it could prove to be a case of third time unlucky for the Blues.

    Prediction: Relegated.

    BLACKBURN ROVERS Odds 50-1

    Bounced back at first time of asking, after being relegated the season before, and they finished the campaign very strongly. Should be good enough to stay out of trouble, and may even surprise a few people, but Tony Mowbray's men probably won't have enough to push for the play-offs.  

    Prediction: Mid-table.

    BOLTON WANDERERS Odds 250-1.

    Financial problems off-the-field have cast a giant shadow over the team for a few seasons now and they only escaped relegation last year following a dramatic last-gasp victory in their final match. Another season of struggle looks on the cards.

    Prediction: Relegated.

    BRENTFORD Odds 16-1

    The Bees, who have finished 9th, 10th and 9th the last three seasons, buzzed about on the fringes of the play-off positions for most of last year, and it may be a similar story again this as the squad looks no stronger.  Too good to struggle, but not good enough to go up.

    Prediction: Mid-table.

    BRISTOL CITY  Odds 40-1

    Had a great first half of last season but after their heroics against Man City in the League Cup semi-final they slipped away from the promotion places and this year they may find it difficult to regain momentum, particularly following the departure of top scorer Reid and centre-half Flint. The Robins only picked up three more points in the second half of the season than relegated Barnsley, and that's a worry.

    Prediction: Strugglers.

    DERBY COUNTY Odds 14-1

    They've been there-or-thereabouts the last few seasons, but once again they just came up short, losing out in the play-offs to Fulham. Ex- England star Frank Lampard is now in charge, in his first managerial appointment, and he takes over a very decent squad that should be challenging for promotion.

    Prediction: Play-offs

    HULL CITY Odds 66-1

    They struggled for a long time last season following relegation from the Premiership and only escaped another demotion by eight points.  However, they finished the campaign quite strongly and can build on that improvement under manager Nigel Adkins, who's good at this level. They scored 70 goals last term and could outperform their odds.

    Prediction: Top-half/playoff contenders.

    IPSWICH TOWN Odds  100-1

    The Tractor Boys have been in this division longer than anyone else (since 2002), but having been promotion challengers not so long ago, they seem to be going backwards.  They picked up 35 points in the first half-of-the season but only 25 in the second (with just seven home goals),  and that doesn't bode well for this campaign.

    Prediction: Strugglers. 

    LEEDS UTD Odds 11-1

    It's been impossible to keep up with the managerial changes at Elland Road in the last few years, and given the instability its equally hard to weigh up their chances. Marcelo Bielsa is a  big name managerial appointment and while he is likely to bring improvement on last season's thirteenth place,  there are more solid bets around for promotion.

    Prediction: Top-half.

    MIDDLESBROUGH Odds 9-1

    Lost out in the play-offs last season, and with wily old fox Tony Pulis at the helm and arguably a stronger squad than last year,  the well-organised Teesiders look sure to be among the promotion contenders. 

    Prediction: Promoted. 

    MILLWALL Odds 50-1

    A terrific second half of the season (only promoted Fulham gained more points) saw Neil Harris's men get to within three points of the play-offs. Don't rule out another strong campaign from the Lions and they could be overpriced at their current odds. 

    Prediction: Top-half

    NORWICH CITY Odds 25-1

    Last season was disappointing for the Canaries who never looked like challenging for promotion and it could be a similar story this time round. You can't see them getting involved in serious relegation trouble, but neither are they likely to be consistent enough to push for the play-offs.

    Prediction: Mid-table. 

    NOTTINGHAM FOREST Odds 10-1

    They've spent heavily in the close season and are already being billed as 'The New Wolves'. Manager Aitor Karanka took Middlesbrough up from this division a few years ago, and while Forest fans will be hoping for a repeat, the value about them may have gone. 

    Prediction: Top-half.

    PRESTON NORTH END Odds: 33-1

    The last three seasons they've finished 11th, 11th and 7th and this year, Alex Neil's men won't need to improve much to become serious promotion contenders.  A very solid, dependable unit, they definitely look worth an each-way flutter at current odds.

    Prediction: Play-offs.

    QPR Odds 66-1

    Have been something of a yo-yo club this decade,  between the Premiership and the Championship, but given their latest financial penalties- and a winter transfer window embargo, their primary objective this campaign will be to maintain their current status. New manager Steve McClaren won't find things easy, and it would be no surprise to see the 'Rs' become involved in the relegation battle.

    Prediction: Strugglers. 

    READING Odds 66-1

    Play-off finalists in 2016-7, the Biscuitmen regressed badly last season missing out on relegation by just three points. No team acquired fewer points in the second half of the season and while that doesn't augur well for this campaign, manager Paul Clement, who took over in March, will improve defensive organization.

    Prediction: Strugglers. 

    ROTHERHAM Odds 500-1

    Relegated in 2016-7, promoted in 2017-8 and relegated in 2018-9? The bookies seem to think so,  making the Millers 5-4 for the drop. They finished almost 20 points behind Wigan last season, and lost 15 games. They will have to show significant improvement to survive, but while they aren't total lost causes, it would be a big surprise if they stay up.

    Prediction: Relegated. 

    SHEFFIELD UTD Odds 28-1

    Got off to a great start to last season, when they had the momentum of a newly-promoted club, but the Blades lost their sharpness and gradually slipped away from the play-off positions. Coach Wilder is a shrewd operator though and he's made some interesting signings, so his team should still be competitive.

    Prediction: Mid-table.

    SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY Odds 33-1

    The Owls made the play-offs in 2015-6 and 2016-7 but last season were hit hard by injuries and at one point they looked like relegation contenders. However they finished the season strongly under new coach Luhukay and should fare a lot better this time.

    Prediction: Play-offs.

    STOKE CITY Odds 11-2

    The bookies favourites but only one market leader has won the division in the last 15 years and while it's likely they'll be challenging at the top half of the table, they don't represent great value.

    Prediction: Play-offs.

    SWANSEA Odds 12-1

    A terrible run (no win after March 3rd), left the Swans relegated after seven years in the top flight and it won't be easy for them to bounce back. Lack of goals was a real issue last year and could be again this.  They don't look great value at 12-1. 

    Prediction: Strugglers.    

    WEST BROM Odds 8-1

    New manager Darren Moore almost pulled off 'Mission Impossible' at the end of last season, but the Baggies were relegated from the Premiership having recorded just six wins. Three important players have departed and while the Albion should be more competitive in this lower league, their odds for an instant return don't look over-generous.

    Prediction: Top-half.

    WIGAN Odds 40-1

    Paul Cook's men had a great season, bouncing back as League One champions one year after relegation, and defeating runaway Premiership winners Manchester City 1-0 in an epic FA Cup tie. They've become something of a yo-yo team in recent seasons, but Cook is an excellent manager and his team- who scored 52 away goals last season- could surprise a few people.   

    Prediction: Top-half.

    CONCLUSION: The odds about the trio relegated from the Premiership aren't over-generous given the record of relegated teams in  recent seasons and so it may pay to look elsewhere for some value in the promotion markets. Last season's play-offs could hold the key, with Aston Villa,  Middlesbrough and Derby fancied to mount strong challenges again. Nottingham Forest have invested heavily, and are likely to go well, while at longer odds, Preston, Sheffield Wednesday, Hull and newly-promoted Wigan could be surprise packages. 

    The views and opinion expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Sputnik's position.

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