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    Neil Clark
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    We're only a few games away from the half-way point of the football season, so it seems a good time to check how our pre-season Sputnik Intelligent Punter's Guide predictions are working out and take stock of what has happened so far.

    Let's kick off with the Premiership. Our predicted champions, Man City are sitting pretty, two points clear at the top with their unbeaten record still intact. One of the biggest tests they face all season ironically comes this weekend, with an away trip to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea need to bounce back after two recent defeats and they could cause a surprise, but even if they do win, it's likely to be only a hiccup on City‘s march towards another title.

    I tipped Liverpool to be runners-up and Jurgen Klopp's men are currently in second place, two points off the lead, and still unbeaten. The Reds may not have been quite as ‘sexy' as last year, but they are showing great resilience in winning games against lesser opposition when they're not hitting top gear. They are the only realistic title rivals to City and it would be good for football if they hang in there.

    READ MORE: Sputnik Intelligent Punter's Guide to the New Football Season (Part Two)

    I also said that Arsenal, at 25-1 made some each-way appeal, and the Gunners are currently fifth, close-up with Chelsea and Spurs, and playing some scintillating football under Unai Emery.

    The less said about Man Utd the better. I predicted they would be top four challengers but they are only eighth, with Mourinho‘s ‘third season‘ syndrome appearing to strike again. Can Jose last the season out? If so, it's likely to be his last, unless there's an amazing turnaround and he goes on to win the Champions League.

    Two teams who have defied expectations are Bournemouth and Watford. I couldn't see Bournemouth being relegated as some pundits were predicting in August, but I must admit it was hard to imagine them lying sixth in early December with 23 points on the board. Their South coast rivals Brighton have improved again from last season,, with their strong home form now being augmented by better away performances, while Leicester has rallied well after the tragic death of their talismanic owner. I tipped the Foxes for the bottom half, but that now looks unlikely.

    Crystal Palace has been a big disappointment, with just 11 goals from 15 games, but they may be in for a better second half of the season, while the extent of Burnley's demise has been surprising. I had them down for the 'bottom half' as it was clear they would regress, but there is a very real danger that unless they recover some of their old defensive solidity, Sean Dyche's side will be relegated. Comparisons with the fate of Ipswich in 2001/2 spring readily to mind.

    Three of the four teams I had marked down for 'relegated' or 'relegation struggle' occupy three of the bottom five places (Cardiff, Huddersfield and Southampton), with only Watford surpassing expectations. The one team who I couldn't see doing so badly was Fulham. However, with that shrewd old cookie Claudio Ranieri at the helm, it's reasonable to expect a gradual second-half of the season climb away from relegation zone.

    READ MORE: Football: Can Claudio Ranieri Work His Magic at Fulham?

    Moving on to the quite gloriously competitive Championship, the surprise packet has been Norwich, who currently sit on top of the top after a great recent run.

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

    The Canaries were 25-1 at the start and even bigger than that after losing three of their first five games! As I predicted in August, their East Anglian rivals Ipswich have been really struggling and are now adrift in bottom place. Rotherham have done better than expected but the Millers are still just two points clear of the relegation zone, while my comments on Swansea 'not being great value at 12-1' have been borne out as they are only in mid-table. That said, the points spread in the Championship is so small, a whole host of teams currently languishing in mid, or lower-mid table can still realistically hope to make the playoffs. Aston Villa, who've been banging the goals in of late under new management are one side you can see having a very good second half of the season.

    Meanwhile in Scotland, what an exciting SPL season it's been so far! Hearts, the early leaders looking so impressive, then Celtic striding clear, and now, Kilmarnock- the country's oldest professional club, sitting proudly at the summit. Just four points separate the top four, though Celtic, who are currently third, do have two games in hand of Killie. All neutrals will be hoping that Steve Clarke's team can last the course and give the ‘Auld Firm' a proper run for their money.  The last time Kilmarnock won the title? 1965. Their next match? Celtic away. It‘s a tough one, but they have drawn the fixture for the last two seasons.

    RACING: HIGHLAND LODGE COULD BE THE ONE FOR THE BECHER CHASE AT AINTREE

    We've still got four months to wait for the Grand National, but for those who love to see horses flying over the famous Aintree fences, have got a real treat in store this weekend with two races over the National course. You could say that the Grade 3 Becher Chase, run over 3m2f on Saturday and due off at 1.30pm is the mid-winter Grand National, run over a shorter trip, but usually on much more testing ground.

    What makes this race unusual from a trends point of view is the average age of winners. Since 2010 we've had winners aged 12, 13 and even 14! Experience counts for so much over the unique National fences and so it makes sense to focus on horses that have good course form. Ultragold has won two Tophams and given the red-hot form of the Colin Tizzard stable has to make the short-list but he has gone up quite a bit in the weights and his stamina for the trip on soft ground is unproven. Last year's winner Blaklion is another obvious contender, but he is 5lbs higher in the weights this time around.  Vieux Lion Rouge, the winner in 2016 should be there-or-thereabouts but he is still 4lbs higher. One who does have the requisite experience and looks reasonably weighted is the 12-year-old Highland Lodge. He won the Becher in 2015 at odds of 20-1 off a mark of  132, was only headed on the post in the 2016 renewal off 137 and was third (and only headed at the last) off a mark of 138 last year. He's racing off 135 now and at 18-1 looks a cracking each-way bet. Another outsider worth considering is 25-1 shot Regal Flow, a Midlands National winner who is only carrying 10st 6lbs and will love the ground.

    Last week we managed to get another two correct scorelines, both featuring the Premiership's top two.

    Let's try and at least match that this week!

    FOOTBALL SCORELINE PREDICTIONS

    FRIDAY NIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP

    WBA 2 ASTON VILLA 2

     

    EPL

    ARSENAL 3 HUDDERSFIELD 0

    BOURNEMOUTH 2 LIVERPOOL 2

    BURNLEY 1 BRIGHTON 1

    CARDIFF 2 SOUTHAMPTON 2

    CHELSEA 2 MAN CITY 1

    LEICESTER 1 TOTTENHAM 1

    MAN UTD 2 FULHAM 1

    WEST HAM 2 CRYSTAL PALACE 1

    NEWCASTLE 0 WOLVES 0

    EVERTON 2 WATFORD 0

     

    SPL

    ABERDEEN 1 ST JOHNSTONE 1

    CELTIC 1 KILMARNOCK 1

    HAMILTON 1 HIBERNIAN 1

    HEARTS 2 MOTHERWELL 1

    LIVINGSTON 2 ST MIRREN 0

    DUNDEE 0 RANGERS 2

    The views and opinions expressed by the contributor do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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    predictions, football, English Premiership
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