Monday 8 October 2007

An Affair, Not A Marriage

As I’ve missed the last three games (for good reasons, honest) and as New York Addick has already provided a comprehensive assessment of our strengths and weaknesses apparent from the first 10 games, I thought I’d focus on how the bookies see things now compared with at the start of the season (which is another way of papering over the fact that my forecast table for the Championship is proving to be complete pants – with the exception of us being in a promotion place and Palace nowhere to be seen).

As for us, we have to be very pleased. We have benefited from avoiding the stronger teams during the first 10 games (only Stoke really and of course we lost that one), which has given what is a completely new team the chance to learn how to play together against relatively weak opposition. I think we will continue to improve and be better placed to take on our main rivals than if we had come up against them early on. We could easily have been in the pack after 10 games – and probably seen that as a reasonable return as the team gels. As it is we look as if we will remain around the top through the season, given our cover for each position and the extra quality that we have compared with the others.

The two obvious reservations are the defence’s inability to keep clean sheets (only three in 10 games) and a failure so far to turn dominance in matches into definite winning positions. It can be said that in only one of our games, home to Leicester, was the outcome all but assured going into the last 10 minutes. Even then, having taken our foot off the gas (for good reason, given the spate of matches then) we would have struggled if they had fluked a goal from somewhere. I get the feeling that this team likes to be on the edge and plays best under pressure rather than being able to steamroller teams aka Watford. As long as the defence is vulnerable to late goals what happened against Barnsley may end up happening too often for comfort.

Anyway, the odds. We started the season at 7/4 (favourites) to get promoted and according to Corrals now have come in to 5/4. The bookies are not noted for outrageous gambles and unsurprisingly Watford now have the shortest odds. They are put at evens having started at 9/4. All the signs are that they will be the division’s bully-boys and it would be surprising were they to fall away. They don’t really play football in a way that you can lose form, so upsets for them would have to be injuries and suspensions.

West Brom have started better than I expected and have shortened from 2-1 at the start to 6/4. I would rather we went up with them than Watford (which in addition to their style of football may have something to do with a schoolboy crush on a distant relative who came from the Birmingham branch of the family which followed the Baggies). But of course we don’t want a three-horse race developing. The best sign that they might fall away could be their away form; they have been beaten three times in five games away and if that continues they won’t stay with the leaders. Failing that, a season-long bout of flu for Kevin Phillips would not go amiss.

There is clear daylight in the bookies eyes between the top three and the rest. There is still the assumption that Wolves will end up in the top six; their odds for promotion are unchanged from the start at 9/4, even though that made them third-favourites to go up before a ball was kicked and they lie seventh now. Stoke have bored their way down to 4/1 from 13/2 and are on for a play-off place according to Corals, along with Southampton, who have drifted from 9/2 from 13/5 and are 14th in the table. So basically the bookies believe that the top three will stay the same and that Wolves and Southampton will pick up.

The surprise for the bookies has been Sheff Utd. They began at 13/5 and have gone out to 5/1 – still short odds for a team only one point above a relegation slot. They, like many before them, overlooked the Robson factor. This has been our big bonus to date as they still have the players to get into the mix.

The bookies’ expectation is that Bristol City, Barnsley and Plymouth will drift away, and that other possible contenders such as Leicester, Cardiff and Ipswich (all now grouped at 8/1) will be also-rans. In reality they are just not taking a punt on one of them being poised to put together a good run. And quite frankly if a team which looked as poor as Leicester is expected to finish in the top 10 we should be confident of holding our current position.

I always had the impression that our years of Premiership outperformance were in part down to the middle-ranked teams (Aston Villa, Tottenham, Everton, Middlesbro etc) often messing things up. With the spate of takeovers and additional money that picture has changed and the top flight is a much more competitive league than it was just a few years ago. Equally rumoured takeovers for Southampton, Coventry and changes that haven’t worked well to date (Leicester, Wolves) suggest to me that we have the opportunity to take advantage of others’ mistakes. Let’s hope so, because although I’m enjoying life in this division I still want it to be an affair rather than a marriage.

For the record Palace have gone out to 11/1 for promotion from 11/2 at the start. Just how the bookies had them as more likely to go up than Stoke, Coventry, Cardiff etc is beyond me. After all, they haven’t even sacked their manager ….