12 bold predictions for 2018: Wenger moving out, Hazard moving on and England at the World Cup

Seb Stafford-Bloor

1. Manchester City will not go unbeaten

Logically, the stress of the fixture list should eventually catch up with them. City are already a marquee fixture for every club in England, but the longer the current streaks goes on, the more of a trophy victory they’ll become. Brace for “disgusting effort”.

And can’t you just feel it? They won’t lose their record to Manchester United or Chelsea, but almost inevitably to some nondescript side who catches them on short rest after a key Champions League game. Go on, Stoke City.

2. But City will win their first Champions League

The continental superpowers aren’t what they were. Real Madrid look unconvincing, Barcelona slightly unbalanced, and while Bayern Munich and Juventus will be typically obdurate, there’s no outstanding favourite to lift the European Cup.

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By contrast, City look awesome - in the true sense of the word. John Stones will be fit again for the knockout stages and if Pep Guardiola can keep all of his attacking pieces fit, they’re capable of overpowering anybody.

It comes down to this: with Gabriel Jesus, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling all on the pitch at the same time, is there a defence out there who are equipped to cope with threat? Not at the moment.

Talent wise, Paris Saint-Germain are really the only team who can match their quality, but Unai Emery is struggling and the team he has put together isn’t stitched together anything like as well. City would win any potential encounter between the two, Neymar or otherwise, and it would actually be a shock if PSG progressed beyond Cristiano Ronaldo and co. in the Round of 16.

3. Eden Hazard to leave Chelsea

There’s definitely something in the air. At the time of writing, Real Madrid have reportedly approached Hazard and that fits with their long-standing interest.

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What makes it different this time? Well, Hazard is getting older (he turns 27 in January) and, like any player of his standing, he wants to win the Champions League. Chelsea are not among the favourites for this year’s competition and it’s widely believed that Antonio Conte will leave the club at end of this season, leaving them to face another period of managerial flux.

Hazard probably recognises that and, well advised as he is, probably also realises that a Ronaldo-shaped void will someday soon open up at the Santiago Bernabeu. It would involve an awful lot of money, of course, but it does make sense.

4. Demarai Gray will make England’s World Cup squad

What’s not to like about Gray? Direct, skilful and a goalscorer, he’s the kind of ultra-modern attacking component that every team could use. Claude Puel has finally let him off the substitutes’ bench at Leicester and, in response, he seems to be growing game by game.

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He’s an excellent player and perhaps one England don’t really have: Raheem Sterling is a drifting attacking forward, Adam Lallana prefers central areas these days, while Dele Alli is always more effective as a shadow striker. Gray is far more direct than all of them, quicker too, and he could be extremely useful.

There are a couple of variables in play, including the form of other players and Gray’s own fitness, but Gareth Southgate has a natural loyalty to the U21 generation which he coached and the winger is extremely well thought of by everyone at the FA.

5. Philippe Coutinho to join Barcelona

Less a prediction, more a virtual certainty. Coutinho has spent the last few months playing well, but being determined not to smile; he wants to play for Barcelona and he wants everyone to know what a hardship not getting his own way has been.

The Catalan club have moved beyond their summer panic-spend phase and are actually playing extremely well under Ernesto Valverde, but Andres Iniesta isn’t getting any younger and Ivan Rakitic certainly isn’t his long-term successor. Liverpool can expect another knock on the door in the summer and, given the likely fee involved, would be foolish not to at least hear Barcelona out.

6. Unai Emery to exit PSG

Poor Unai, last year’s version of this list had him heading for the sack too. This year, his situation is far worse. It was his employers who sanctioned the vanity signing of Neymar over the summer, plus Kylian Mbappe too, and PSG have been drawn against Real Madrid in the first knockout stage of the Champions League.

What happens next is almost too obvious: Real expose the lack of workrate at the top of their opponents’ formation, PSG tumble out of the competition and an incensed QSI, furious that money alone doesn’t guarantee continental primacy, fire their manager. Possibly into the sun.

Even now, Emery is not in a strong position. The Neymar vs Edinson Cavani melodrama didn’t help the club’s public image and, although they’ll win Ligue 1 at a canter, the recent loss to Strasbourg prompted an angry Nasser Al-Khelaifi to visit his side’s dressing room.

This is only heading one way.

7. Stoke will be relegated

There’s an asterisk to this one: Stoke will be relegated, if they don’t move on from Mark Hughes very soon.

Hughes’s time in the Potteries has been characterised by good starts and lethargic finishes, but 2017/18 has seen his side limp out of the blocks. Worse, some of his more reliable players have suffered a collective drop in form and his match-winners, despite remaining capable of the occasional flourish, have looked extremely ineffective.

Peter Coates is a patient chairmen but that isn’t always such a good quality. West Ham reacted to their poor start, Everton too, and while those sides have subsequently improved, Stoke continue to circle the drain.

They might be saved by the ineptitude beneath them - Swansea look a hopeless case, Newcastle are obviously understrength - but they are a long way from being too good to go down.  

8. England will get to the World Cup quarter-finals (at least)

Yes, yes, make your jokes. But - wait a minute - England are actually quite good. Not Germany, France or Spain good, but decent nonetheless. Gareth Southgate will take a growing squad to Russia and has been given a relatively easy group.

It’s too early to predict starting line-ups, of course, but the habitual negativity around the team disguises the fact that, in Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and John Stones, England will have four of the best young players at the tournament. Complement that group with Marcus Rashford, Kyle Walker, Eric Dier plus Jordan Pickford and this side looks surprisingly rich in assets.

It’s obviously not fashionable to have any faith in England and, no, they’re not going to win the competition, but (for once) this should go better than expected.

9. Dele Alli will become the most expensive British player ever

Alli is a difficult player to assess. He can be maddeningly frustrating and suffer through long periods of indifferent form, but he’s so obviously extravagantly talented. One day, he’ll move to one of the biggest clubs in Europe and, when he does, it will be for an enormous amount of money.

The 21-year-old is one of the crown jewels at Spurs, but there’s an obvious difference between him and somebody like Harry Kane. Kane has a natural loyalty, but Alli – signed from MK Dons in 2015 – is really just a transient player. A very good one, but transient nonetheless. It stands to reason that a lull in team fortunes is likely to impact one career more than the other.

Rumours continue that he may soon sign with one of football’s super-agents and, not to be cynical, we all know what that means.

10. VAR will be ditched

Most of us wanted it and thought that the game would be improved by video technology.

It turns out that the majority of us were wrong. Occasionally, it has proven useful in correcting critical mistakes, but its more general function has been the creation of slapstick. Endless delays and comedic disruptions to the flow of a game. Refereeing errors are galling and they frustrate and annoy everyone at one point or another, but the alternative is - so far - worse.

FIFA is currently conflicted about its use. Gianni Infantino is keen for technology to be used at the World Cup, but head of refereeing Massimo Busacca is less than enthused and remains unconvinced of its practicality.

Ultimately, the spectacle will triumph: if VAR interferes with the running of the competition - or fans’ enjoyment of it - then expect it to have disappeared into a broom cupboard before the end of the year.

11. The end of the Saturday 3pm TV blackout

A very bold prediction, because this is part of the game’s fabric. The assumed thinking since the 1960s has been that allowing matches to be broadcast live in Britain between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday would have a discouraging effect on match attendance. Truthfully, that’s not really the case - or, at least, there’s no hard evidence to suggest that it’s anything more than a hunch.

The future of broadcasting lies in flexibility - more specifically, the ability to vend digital season tickets in the manner enjoyed by fans of other sports, notably the major American properties. For that to happen, the blackout would have to go.

The next broadcasting contract is set to begin in 2019 and so any major changes would have to occur (or be announced) in 2018. It’s in the Premier League’s financial interest to do this and, as we’ve seen in the past, they usually get what they want.

It would happen gradually, presumably with some kind of compromise, but the next 12 months should mark the beginning of the end.

12. Arsene Wenger will retire from football

Wenger has been trying to finesse his own departure for years now. Had he won the Premier League in either of the past three years, he presumably would have walked off into the sunset with his legacy assured.

Alas, that hasn’t happened: Arsenal have proved too flawed to make a sustained challenge.

Arsenal, to their credit, seem to have recognised the damage done by last season’s contract back-and-forward and have recognised the danger of allowing their club’s future to be dictated by a single semi-autonomous figure.

In response, they have very clearly begun to prepare for life without Wenger: the entire executive structure of the club has been rebuilt and, at the time of writing, some very high-profile directors of football (including Borussia Dortmund’s Michael Zorc) are allegedly being pursued.

Superficially, it looks like the pursuit of modernity and Arsenal’s attempt to fall in line with the rest of Europe’s superclubs. Read between the lines, though, and it seems more dramatic: the conditions are being created for a successor.

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