Premier League run-in: Will Leicester win title, meltdown for Wenger?
Football is rather keen on learning things these days and, if this season has taught us anything, it is that predictions aren't worth the web-space they're printed on. Fortunately, the Premier League has a few unshakeable late-season habits ...
A season-defining barnstormer
The top-four gatecrashers -- and the residual glamour of underachievers like Chelsea and Manchester United -- make for more than enough potential for some memorable encounters in the season's final stretch. The Manchester derby at the end of March will give City fans rather more jitters than their United counterparts and, three weeks later, there's something about Tottenham vs Manchester United that reliably screams "entertaining".
The month of May, though, is where the season comes to a satisfying crunch. Tottenham travel to Stamford Bridge in a startling reversal of traditional end-of-season roles, while Manchester City's clash with Arsenal looks, as things stand, likely to be an unofficial title eliminator.
Beyond all that lies a fascinating story in the making on the final day. Claudio Ranieri, 12 years after leaving Chelsea with Champions League football and an owner ready to bankroll a revolution, could rock up at his old employers with the league title in his grasp or, at least, within reach. Even the hypothetical scenario feels surreal, let alone the sight of Leicester captain Wes Morgan thrusting the Premier League trophy to the sky at a perplexed Stamford Bridge.
Player of the Year will be a new face
A glance at the last five winners of the annual vote for Player of the Year (Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale, Robin van Persie, Luis Suarez and Eden Hazard) suggests A-listers should dominate. Leicester's headline-grabbing pair of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, plus a 29-year-old Dimitri Payet, are a startlingly left-field trio of contenders, with only Mesut Ozil lending the possible shortlist an ostensibly elite feel.
Much like Leicester themselves, this could be a one-off event, before the established powers find a heavily funded response.
Young Player of the Year will have a bright future
For all of football's stories of unfulfilled promise, the Young Player of the Year award has been a trusty barometer of rising stars. Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Cecs Fabregas, Bale and Hazard all capitalised on their early stardom to claim the prize, leaving only Tottenham's Kyle Walker as something approaching an anomaly.
This year's prospective shortlist may not disappoint either. Ross Barkley's proverbial locker has finally been stocked with some final product, while Anthony Martial's composure is remarkable for someone who became the most expensive teenager in football history in September. But the standout contender lies at the heart of Mauricio Pochettino's relentless Tottenham side. Dele Alli has handled the step up from League One with embarrassing ease -- and a touch of arrogance -- this season, and will surely head to France for Euro 2016 with the official approval of his peers.
Jamie Vardy will run out of goalscoring steam
After 15 goals in his first 17 games this season, Vardy has scored four times since Christmas. Even if Leicester's collective charge holds firm, the Premier League Golden Boot could demonstrate some regression to the mean. For lurking ominously behind 19-goal Vardy are Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero.
Aguero, with 9 goals in as many games, is seemingly over the niggling injuries that hampered both his and Manchester City's season and, crucially, has the Premier League pedigree to top the goalscoring charts again.
Claudio Ranieri will be the Manager of the Year
The Italian, so personable and media-friendly that he flirts with self-parody, is about as cast-iron a certainty for Manager of the Year as it gets.
Whether he secures the title or not, the fact remains that the odds, history and finances were against him getting anywhere near the top of the table. That he's done so without ruffling a single feather -- of referees, fans or fellow managers -- will be to his eternal credit in an era when the Premier League takes itself too seriously.
Relegation will feel like a good clearout for the Premier League
The sighs of resignation from their fans speaks volumes -- Aston Villa and Newcastle are waiting to be put out of their Premier League misery. Villa were doomed long ago, and manager Remi Garde abandoned the entry-level fighting talk soon after. Newcastle, in many other ways, also seem beyond help. No matter which desperate manager replaces the permanently beleaguered Steve McClaren, any attempted escape act will need rather more stomach for the fight than the squad can muster between them.
It's perhaps a pity that a third club will be tainted by association of joining the chaotic pair in relegation, but the chances are it will be Norwich. They are a unique breed of relegation fodder -- condemned to bounce between Championship and Premier League, in a hopeless shuttle-run of paydays and parachute payments.
A post-match managerial meltdown for the ages
The 1990s remain the Premier League's most emotional decade, mainly thanks to Kevin Keegan slumping over advertising hoardings after 4-3 defeats or Ron Atkinson throwing headphones at Sky Sports production assistants. This season's set of managers are generally a mild-mannered bunch, but the pressure rises once the clocks go forward for spring and the business end of the season readies itself for one final push.
Manuel Pellegrini, a man who looks wearied by the banality of post-match interviews at the best of times, is perfectly placed for some parting shots, but perhaps isn't the man to deliver them. Louis van Gaal's stockpile of soundbites were used up in the first half of the season and he surely peaked too early with his touchline pantomime against Arsenal at Old Trafford.
That leaves Arsene Wenger, with a decade of shattered title-race dreams under his belt, to finally snap. His fragile team are likely to give him enough opportunities to let the professorial mask slip in the final weeks of the season, and his patience with Arsenal's sheer Arsenalness can only hold out so long.
Leicester's momentum will take them the distance
Perhaps even if they run out of steam in the final straight, Claudio Ranieri's tireless, unified set of players have set the benchmark for Premier League overachievement. "Doing a Leicester" -- in a rather different way than "doing a Leeds" -- will take its rightful place in the football lexicon in the process.
But where do they go from there?
Just as it seems unlikely that Ranieri would embark on a summer spending spree to transform them into Champions League material, so too does the idea that their squad could be unwillingly broken up. Mahrez and N'Golo Kante, both turning 25 toward the end of this season, are their most attractive and bankable assets, but Vardy's late-blooming career makes him a questionable target for a notionally bigger club.
As soon as Season One of Leicester's sensational Premier League docu-drama ends, and the five-star reviews are written, the second coming will be a fascinating one.
Adam Hurrey is a London-based football writer and author of the book "Football Clichés".