Premier League predictions: How will Chelsea and Leicester fare
The collapse of champions Chelsea and the sight of Leicester City bucking all trends to top the table illustrates the unpredictability that has been the Premier League's hallmark this season.
Newly promoted Watford's rise to seventh place under manager Quique Flores and Bournemouth's victories over Chelsea and Manchester United in their last two games have made this term a tale of the unexpected.
And with no-one grabbing the title race by the scruff of of the neck, it seems impossible to predict the unpredictable. So here goes...
Who will win the Premier League?
Chelsea were my pre-season picks - and no-one can surely have predicted the alarming decline that has left them a point off the relegation zone in 16th place after Monday's 2-1 loss at Leicester City.
Just seven months on from winning his third title at Chelsea, then putting his name to a new four-year contract, Jose Mourinho is left fighting for his job, pleading to stay on and put right what has gone wrong.
So no title for Chelsea this season and despite being the undisputed team of the season in the opening months of the campaign, it is too much of a stretch to imagine Claudio Ranieri's Leicester upsetting all odds and winning the league.
|What a difference a year makes...|
|Chelsea (after 16 games)||2014-15||1st||12||3||1||39|
|Leicester (after 16 games)||2014-15||20th||2||4||10||10|
This leaves the title, realistically, as a battle between Manchester City, twice champions in recent seasons, and Arsenal, as they chase their first Premier League crown since 2004.
With City showing inconsistency, Arsenal and boss Arsene Wenger will never have a better chance to relieve the pressure and criticism that has built up in those barren Premier League years. If the Gunners do not win the league this season, it will be a desperate missed opportunity.
The question is can they be trusted when the pressure is on?
History suggests they can be fragile at those pinch points while City, if they can get Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and David Silva up and running for long periods, should surely have enough.
The heart says Wenger's principles will finally prevail. The head says City will (and should) possess enough quality to win their third Premier League title in the past five seasons.
In 23 previous Premier League terms, the team that has been top after 16 games has finished on top 14 times. What will history say this season? Leicester will want to find out.
Champions: Manchester City
Will Leicester make the top four?
Ranieri's side are the story of the Premier League season so far - in tandem with the history-making feats of striker Jamie Vardy after he set a new record of scoring in 11 straight Premier League games.
And here it is time to enter the confessional and add an apology at the same time. I felt Ranieri's appointment was a poor one and would result in Leicester's relegation. I could not have been more wrong.
Even their most ardent fan will be pushed to predict a title win, but this team has shown enough to suggest it is enjoying the ride and is on board for the long haul.
If reality suggests Leicester will not end up as champions, despite the best start to a top-flight season in their 131-year history, can they maintain their excellence long enough to claim an unlikely Champions League place?
Again, and this is not a slight on Leicester, they face a hard battle to do so.
|In Leicester's hands|
|No team with 35 points or higher after the first 16 games of a Premier League season has finished outside the top four.|
The two players who Ranieri describes as "the pinnacle of the iceberg", Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, must avoid injury - and the January predators have already been told to keep away - while the Italian must decide whether to rotate his squad and make additions in January.
"The Tinkerman" of old has shredded the reputation earned in his Chelsea days, making just 13 Premier League changes this season, the same as that other surprise package, Watford.
Leicester play with such an intense, high-energy style that may tell on them later in the season and this is where the added depth of the likes of Tottenham, or even Liverpool and Everton, may come into play.
So it is with a heavy heart that the prediction is for Leicester City to finish outside the top four - but right in contention for the European places, which would still rank as a magnificent achievement.
Top four: Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham.
Where will Chelsea finish?
Not anywhere near the top four or arguably even the top 10 on any of the evidence presented this season - and it is hard to see them beating Paris St-Germain in the Champions League if they remain mired in such mediocrity.
Whether Mourinho survives deep into the season is another matter, while all logic says the talent in the squad must surely start giving performances in line with their ability sooner or later.
The joke about who was the last team to win the title one season then get relegated the next will raise a few belly laughs, but it is unlikely Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich will be amused.
Chelsea have two home games coming up against Sunderland and Watford but Stamford Bridge is no longer a guarantee and they are followed by visits to Manchester United and Crystal Palace. Who would back them with confidence there?
There have been 96 Premier League teams who have gained 15 points or fewer from their opening 16 games. Fifty ended up being relegated and the average position of those 96 teams was 17th, with only two finishing in the top half - Palace last season (10th) and Fulham (8th in 2010-11).
Chelsea still have to visit Arsenal and Liverpool and the old aura has gone. They might scrape into the top 10 at a push but you would not predict European football next season with any assurance. A shocking fall from grace.
Who will be relegated?
Aston Villa look like they will be taking one of those places with the appointment of Remi Garde to replace Tim Sherwood the catalyst for a flop rather than a bounce.
Years of flirting with relegation look like becoming a full-blown embrace. The team have no goals, no confidence and six points from 16 games. A pathetic return as Villa are locked on course to pay the price for years of mediocrity.
Norwich City also look in trouble, despite battling draws at home to Arsenal and Everton recently. The Canaries have superb support but a lack of Premier League quality could be their undoing.
Newcastle United's revival with wins at home to Liverpool and away to Spurs has lifted the spirits on Tyneside but a home defeat by Watford has got the alarm bells ringing at Sunderland.
Sam Allardyce is an expert in this sort of situation but as the likes of Bournemouth become more accomplished, so the Black Cats look in even more danger.
Relegated: Aston Villa, Sunderland and Norwich City - with apologies to Watford and Leicester City, who I predicted would go down in August.
Who will finish top scorer?
The usual suspect is Manchester City's Sergio Aguero - but injuries this season have allowed Leicester City's Vardy and Everton's Romelu Lukaku to lead the way with 15 and 12 Premier League goals respectively.
Vardy's pace and movement have been allied to composure as a finisher, while 22-year-old Lukaku is now making Chelsea and Mourinho regret parting with him in a £28m deal in summer 2014. He is a potent mixture of power, pace and huge potential.
The Leicester striker is getting chances every game, helped by the brilliant Riyad Mahrez, while Lukaku is being served goals on a plate by the precocious Gerard Deulofeu.
If Vardy can stay fit and Leicester's momentum continues, he can continue his golden run to be top scorer - but Lukaku will run him close.
Top scorer: Jamie Vardy
Who will go furthest in the Champions League?
Manchester City - then it is a question of just how far Manuel Pellegrini's side can go in the Champions League, a tournament that has tormented them.
Topping their group finally gave them a favourable last-16 draw against Dynamo Kiev, while Arsenal and Chelsea suffered a tougher fate as they were paired with Barcelona and PSG.
On current form, despite Arsenal's excellence on occasions this season, it is impossible to make a compelling case for either of the London sides to go through.
Manchester City will make the last eight - and may well be last men standing in the Champions League as far as England's elite is concerned.