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CHRIS SUTTON'S VERDICT: Chelsea to win the Premier League and Man United WILL make the top four

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As the Premier League’s hectic winter schedule approaches, everything is still to play for. 

The title race is closer than ever, the managerial merry-go-round is in full swing and a few surprise relegation candidates are nervously looking over their shoulder.

Sportsmail‘s Chris Sutton gives us his predictions on how this exciting season will pan out…

Sportsmail 's Chris Sutton gives us his predictions on how this exciting season will pan out

Sportsmail ‘s Chris Sutton gives us his predictions on how this exciting season will pan out

Who will win the title race?

At the start of the season, I tipped Manchester City to win the Premier League, but that came with an asterisk. It was provided they completed the signing of Harry Kane which, at the time, looked likely.

Now that a third of the season has passed, I’m leaning towards Chelsea, who did sign Romelu Lukaku. But let’s be honest, any one of Chelsea, City and Liverpool could win it.

Those three are on another level to everyone else and I’d be surprised if any of these horses fell out of the race. For the neutral, the prospect of them making this a scrap to the bitter end is exciting.

Even without a striker, City are capable of being crowned champions. Their performance at Chelsea in September was one of complete control. But I sense that this will end up being a special season for Thomas Tuchel and that it will be dark blue ribbons getting tied to that trophy in May.

I sense that this will end up being a special top-flight season for Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea

I sense that this will end up being a special top-flight season for Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea

Will the Africa Cup of Nations derail Liverpool?

It will hurt them, without a doubt. How could losing Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane for a month or so not?

Salah is the Premier League’s best player. He’s the leading scorer and that solo-strike against Manchester City in October deserves to win the 2021-22 goal of the season.

The Africa Cup of Nations starts on January 9. Jurgen Klopp does not know if Salah and Mane will be around to face Chelsea the week before or if they will be jetting off for a pre-AFCON training camp with their respective nations. 

How could losing Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane for a month or so not hurt Liverpool?

How could losing Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane for a month or so not hurt Liverpool?

Worse still, while away, they could pick up injuries or get caught up in the ever-changing Covid restrictions and need to isolate on return.

Other clubs will lose players, too. Chelsea will be without Edouard Mendy and Hakim Ziyech, for example — and let’s not forget they will also have to rearrange a couple of games to accommodate the Club World Cup in February. 

But it is Liverpool who will take the biggest hit. Even a single point lost could prove costly in this race of fine margins.

Who else gets into Europe?

We’ve got the three-horse race and bringing up the rear, although they look like a donkey right now, I’m saying Manchester United will finish fourth.

The fact that Arsenal don’t have Europe this season is a massive advantage for them. Mikel Arteta and his players have got no excuses — no Thursday night games in Baku to hide behind. They’re even on the verge of having Arsene Wenger back at the club, and he knows a thing or two about finishing fourth.

But Ralf Rangnick is a super-manager, a visionary of the game, the godfather of gegenpressing, and I believe United are capable of sneaking into the Champions League places at the expense of fellow European hopefuls Arsenal and West Ham.

I believe that Manchester United are capable of sneaking into the Champions League places

I believe that Manchester United are capable of sneaking into the Champions League places

Will Rafa Benitez be the next boss axed?

I wouldn’t be surprised. Would you? Everton have got Liverpool next and if that game goes as expected at Goodison Park, then Benitez will not be able to escape the fans’ fury.  

Not like on Sunday when he walked down the tunnel at the Brentford Community Stadium instead of facing the music in front of the away end. It’s the supporters who get managers out. 

Boards listen when thousands of their ticket-holders turn on the man in the dugout.

Rafael Benitez's brand of football is a big problem, their play has not been entertaining enough

Rafael Benitez’s brand of football is a big problem, their play has not been entertaining enough

Benitez’s brand of football is a big problem. Everton have averaged around 40 per cent possession this season. 

Maybe he could get away with that at Newcastle while they were trying to survive. But at Everton, who have burned through half a billion in transfer fees in a bid to be competitive, the supporters want more.

Right now, though, they’re in very real danger of being dragged into a relegation battle. Not having Dominic Calvert-Lewin was always going to be a big loss but, even so, the football simply hasn’t been entertaining enough.

How does Antonio Conte fix Spurs?

That Europa Conference League loss to NS Mura was totally embarrassing — one of the worst defeats in Tottenham’s history. 

It underlined the size of Conte’s task. He’s a winner who’s walked into a club with a losing mentality and changing that is going to be his greatest challenge.

Write down the players’ names on a piece of paper and you’d think, ‘, that’s a good squad, that’s a team who can compete for trophies’. But they’re so disjointed that it’s downright sad.

There are characters there who seem so meek. Conte’s got a hell of a job on his hands if he’s to maintain his excellent record as a manager.

Changing Tottenham's losing mentality is going to be Antonio Conte's greatest challenge

Changing Tottenham’s losing mentality is going to be Antonio Conte’s greatest challenge

Are Newcastle headed for the championship?

II don’t think it’s too soon to say Newcastle are entering ‘must win’ territory. They can try to hang on until the January window opens but even that will present its own problems. 

They will get the mercenary mob in, because which big-name talents are going to agree to join the club marooned at the bottom of the Premier League?

Right now, Newcastle have a Championship back line with a couple of talented forwards in Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin. 

I don't think it's too soon to say Newcastle are entering 'must win' territory already this term

I don’t think it’s too soon to say Newcastle are entering ‘must win’ territory already this term

It’s nice having all the money in the world but if the XI you name on a Saturday can’t put in a performance then you’re up a certain creek without a paddle.

Eddie Howe’s players have to be looking at tonight’s game against Norwich as a must win, and the same goes for Burnley on Saturday. 

They can’t get away from the fact that most fans across the country would be laughing if Newcastle go down. That adds to the pressure on Howe.

Who else will be joining them?

Former Norwich striker says his old club will survive. Shock horror! But the hiring of Dean Smith gives them such a chance. 

He’s an excellent coach who’s already extracting good performances. With that in mind, I’ll say they can get themselves out of trouble.

The three clubs who I’ll say are going to drop down to the Championship, with apologies, are Leeds, Newcastle and Brentford. 

But it’s a very open race right now, both at the top of the Premier League and the bottom. Anything can happen.

The hiring of Dean Smith gives Norwich a chance and they can get out of trouble this season

The hiring of Dean Smith gives Norwich a chance and they can get out of trouble this season

MY PREDICTED PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE

1) Chelsea

2) Man City

3) Liverpool

4) Man United

5) Arsenal

6) West Ham

7) Tottenham

8) Leicester

9) Aston Villa

10) Wolves

11) Brighton

12) Crystal Palace

13) Southampton

14) Watford

15) Everton

16) Burnley

17) Norwich

18) Leeds

19) Brentford

20) Newcastle

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