It’s great to be penning my first column for Marathonbet, especially during a Premier League season like the one unfolding right now. I have more than 200 Premier League appearances but have never seen anything quite like Leicester’s rise to the top.
When I got promoted with Ipswich in 2000 we finished fifth at the end of the campaign and people were shocked with what we achieved that year. We qualified for Europe and played Inter Milan, even beating them at Portman Road. But for a team that was bottom at this stage last season to be leading the league in the manner Leicester are is an unbelievable turnaround.
It’s not as if they’ve changed the squad around much either. They’ve not gone out and bought 10 different players – it’s for the majority the same side, although Kante in midfield has made a big difference. They’re playing with such energy and enjoyment. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a good team spirit, like we had at Ipswich.
Team spirit is partly created by the manager but it’s mostly achieved in the dressing room and having the right type of characters. It’s about pulling people into line when they need it. If anyone’s getting too big for their boots, they’re shot back down again. When you’ve been together for years you know each other well and in Leicester’s case it’s paying off.
In terms of who’s going to win the league, there was a brilliant line from Tony Gale on Sky at the weekend who said: “Leicester can be four points clear with a game to go and they still might not win the league!”
I’m always trying to find a reason why they can’t but when you look at where they are now and consider the fact they’ve only lost twice, with 13 games left to go with no distractions, there’s lots of reasons why you can make them favourites.
But they’ve not been here before. How do they react when there are six, five or four games left and they’re five points clear? The pressure and spotlight will be firmly on them. In lots of ways they’ve gone under the radar but they didn’t expect it themselves. I think they seem shocked at their own performances. After Man City they almost looked like ‘we’ve gone and done it again’.
They’re enjoying the run they’re on and I don’t think there’s a harder working team in the Premier League. Sometimes you see sides stick 10 men behind the ball and say ‘come on then, break us down’ but Leicester go for it from the first minute and play like reputation counts for nothing.
There’s been lots of standout candidates for player of the season. Ozil at Arsenal has been fantastic and from Leicester’s point of view Vardy has stolen the headlines. One or two have gone relatively unnoticed though, like Drinkwater and Kante, but Mahrez is the first player to get double figures in goals and assists this season so he’d be my shout.
At the tail-end of the league I think Aston Villa are an obvious call to go down. At this stage last season Leicester had 17 points and survived. Villa have 16 -but I don’t think history will repeat itself. They’re struggling and aren’t likely to get out of it.
I think Norwich will go down also and then it’s a tough call between Sunderland and Newcastle. Sam Allardyce has never been relegated but I think Sunderland might be a step too far. I’ve been impressed with their new signings and Khazri looks a decent player but I think there’s a massive reliance on Defoe up top.
Looking ahead to this weekend, here is my first set of Premier League predictions:
Sunderland v Manchester United
United have been in good form and turned things around a bit lately, but they’ve let silly points slip away in the last few games – including at Chelsea. But I still fancy them to be too strong for Sunderland and I reckon they’ll edge out Allardyce’s men. PREDICTION: 1-2
Bournemouth v Stoke
I had a spell at Bournemouth in my early career and could never have imagined back then they’d be where they are now.They sold me in 1997 out of necessity really because they had no money. I remember being sent outside the ground with buckets trying to raise money and had to speak to 4,000 fans at the Winter Garden as captain because we were close to going out of business. But the community got together and helped create the brilliant story we have today.
Eddie Howe was at the club when I was there and he’s a great character. He’s done a fantastic job – but it’s not like they haven’t spent money. He’s been backed and got some great players including Afobe, but he lost a lot of players at the start of the season. I think they have enough to stay up now, they have enough goals in them. PREDICTION: 1-1
Manchester City v Tottenham
City haven’t beaten a team in the top six and when I read that I was a bit surprised. Watching them against Leicester, they lacked energy and got out-run. Yaya Toure gets bypassed too easily when they play a flat four in midfield and I’m not convinced about them at centre-half with Kompany out the team. The full-backs also tend to get too high up the pitch.
Spurs have been solid and with Harry Kane in the ranks I think they can win the league – if he stays fit. If he’s out the team I wonder who’s going to play there. I know Son is there but he’s not an out-and-out goalscorer like Kane. I think Spurs will beat City on Sunday. PREDICTION: 1-2
Chelsea v Newcastle
I know Newcastle had a good result at the weekend and they’ve got a great player in Jonjo Shelvey, who I played with at Charlton. Chelsea have shown signs of improvement although their home form has been a bit erratic. They’re unbeaten under Hiddink and their last-minute goal against Manchester United last week goes to show they have some character to them. They also nabbed a last-minute goal against Everton so they’re turning it round. Chelsea will have too much for Newcastle here. PREDICTION: 2-0
Arsenal v Leicester
I keep writing Leicester off and fancied Man City to beat them at the weekend, but the Foxes demolished them. This is such a big game for Arsenal – more so than Leicester to be honest. The pressure is on Arsene Wenger and his side and they might edge it. PREDICTION: 2-1
Norwich v West Ham
West Ham got through Tuesday’s FA Cup tie with Liverpool despite making five or six changes, so they should be reasonably refreshed. Payet is top draw and I hope despite the interest from China he sticks around. I think the Hammers will nick this. PREDICTION: 1-2
Aston Villa v Liverpool
I’ve found Liverpool hard to predict this season. Results-wise even a comfortable three points against Sunderland last week became a problem. I think a draw is on the cards. PREDICTION: 1-1
Crystal Palace v Watford
Like Stoke, these two teams are in a sticky spell at the moment and look to be running out of steam. Palace look the likeliest candidates for a win here. PREDICTION: 2-1
Everton v West Brom
Everton will win this reasonably comfortably. PREDICTION: 2-0
Swansea v Southampton
Swansea have had a bit of a resurgence of late but Fraser-Forster has been in blinding form. I think he’s saved something like 16 shots without conceding. I fancy draw here. PREDICTION: 1-1