Best football bets for 2014
Nic Doggett and James Dixon join Sky Bet Traders Paul Lowery, Jamie Munro and Stuart Dallimore to examine the best bets in all four divisions at the halfway stage.
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Title: Manchester City 6/5
Nic Doggett: Manuel Pellegrini's side didn't start the season that smoothly (only two wins from their first four games) but their strength at home has given them real momentum in the title chase.
They've won five of their last six Premier League matches, including two away from home, and Saturday's win at Fulham was proof that they can cope with the loss of Sergio Aguero due to injury.
Six other players have now scored three or more goals this season and the side has the backbone of Premier League winners.
Eight of the 11 who played in that famous game against QPR two seasons ago also started City's opening game of this season; this squad knows how to win the Premier League.
Whilst rival managers Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho appear more worried about using mind games to focus on other teams, Pellegrini has just been getting on with his job.
"Eight of the 11 who played against QPR in the famous 3-2 victory which sealed the Premier League title in 2011/12, also started Man City's first game of this season"
Pellegrini has a few injuries going into a busy Christmas period, however he has the money to strengthen his squad in January.
It's also a squad that has coped with injuries already - they only conceded four goals in the six games that captain Vincent Kompany was absent - and if they can reinforce their defence in the New Year then they could soon be clear at the top.
Relegation: Cardiff City 5/2
ND: The Bluebirds are a club in crisis at present and it appears to be a situation that they have brought on themselves - or rather Chairman Vincent Tan has.
First came the universally unpopular decision to change their shirts from blue to "lucky red", a move which coincidentally has resulted in them losing eight of their 17 matches.
Now Tan is keen to replace manager Malky Mackay, the man who guided the Welsh side into the top flight for the first time in 51 years.
The Malaysian reportedly sent Mackay an email after their win over West Brom telling him to "resign or be sacked".
At the moment their home form (they have taken 12 of their 17 points at home) is keeping their head above water but they have only one win in their last seven games.
Mackay is under great pressure to resign but is refusing to be forced out by Tan, the man who appointed Alisher Apsalyamov - a friend of his son - as head of recruitment in October.
In another comedy twist, Apsalyamov has been forced to quit due to work permit issues, and now is the time to back Cardiff for the drop before they sink any lower and the price goes completely.
TRADER'S VIEW: Paul Lowery
Manchester Utd Current Price 16/1, Pre Season 5/2
Manchester City Current Price 6/5, Pre Season 9/4
Liverpool Current Price 5/1, Pre Season 25/1
Best Realistic Results: Arsenal, Chelsea
Recommended Value at this stage: Cardiff relegation
Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester Utd were pretty much inseparable in the pre-season but City have emerged as the clear favourites with one of the best goal returns at this stage of the season in Premiership history.
The surprise packages have been Arsenal and Liverpool, who are both now odds on to finish inside the top four, at the expense of reeling Manchester Utd.
The Red Devils have struggled under new manager David Moyes and are now 5/4 to make the Champions League places.
At the bottom of the table Tony Pulis has seemingly revived Crystal Palace which has bunched up the runners in the relegation/stay up betting.
With the recent turmoil at Cardiff surrounding owner Vincent Tan it would not surprise me to see Cardiff get sucked into the relegation places and at a current price of 5/2 they could offer value in that market.
Title: Queens Park Rangers 11/10
James Dixon: Despite an indifferent run of form at the moment, the R's are blessed with possibly the strongest squad in the history of the second tier in the English game, with the best still to come from Harry Redknapp's men.
With surprise-package Burnley leading the table at Christmas, the Loftus Road outfit will be forced to push hard in the coming months to create a bit of distance between themselves and the chasing pack.
"Queens Park Rangers have won eight of their 11 home games at Loftus Road this season, conceding just three goals in the process"
As well as this, Redknapp continues to build on an already impressive squad and with its unrivalled depth, QPR will look to excel in the busy festive period.
Boasting an excellent array of attacking players Rangers have yet to discover their real goal scoring touch. However, with top-scorer Charlie Austin and a number of forwards with Premier League experience in the fold, there's no doubt they will be able to break free from the shackles.
The experience running through the side will pay dividends come the crunch games towards the end of the season and Redknapp is well accustomed to holding his nerve in the business end of a campaign to grind out the required results.
Promotion: Derby County 6/4
Derby's blistering form has turned the Rams from mid-table mediocrity into genuine title contenders following the arrival of Steve McClaren.
Since losing to QPR at the start of November, Derby have powered to seven-straight wins - amassing 19 goals in the process.
McClaren by his own admittance was aware that his predecessor, Nigel Clough, had assembled a strong squad, but it is the former England manager who has galvanised the existing players while adding a few shrewd touches.
Key to Derby's success is the work rate of the side which has become increasingly apparent under McClaren. Excelling in his current role under the new boss is top prospect Will Hughes who adds the perfect amount artistry to the industry surrounding him.
Maintaining the current run will be no easy task for the Rams, but McClaren is keeping the club focused.
He said: "I don't want to dampen expectations, I want there to be a buzz because that's what fans want but in the dressing room and the training ground, it's business as normal."
Relegation: Millwall 100/30
Following a poor defeat to fellow strugglers Middlesbrough, Millwall have shown themselves to be real candidates for the drop this season.
Having scraped to safety in the last campaign under Kenny Jackett the Lions face a similar task under the stewardship of Steve Lomas this time around.
The loss of Jackett could prove to be the difference and with Lomas in just his first season in the Sky Bet Championship, his lack of experience at this level was always going to come under question, with the fans yet to be won over by his appointment.
Millwall will face a massive test of their credentials to stay in the league in the coming month with a number of important games against opposition in and around the relegation zone.
Currently the club has the third worst goal difference in the league and with Lion's strikers unable to score enough goals to pick up the positive results needed the New Den faithful are in for another anxious finish.
TRADER'S VIEW: Paul Lowery
Leeds Current Price 33/1, Pre Season 20/1
Watford Current Price 80/1, Pre Season 14/1
Best Realistic Results: Burnley, Derby, Leicester
Recommended Value at this stage: Doncaster Relegation
QPR are still the short priced favourites for the Championship but punters looking for value elsewhere will look at surging Derby.
The Rams were dark horses before the season and under new manager Steve McClaren they are a popular bet at current odds of 11/2.
As far as Sky Bet's liabilities we want to avoid a miraculous Watford fight back. The hornets were exceedingly well backed during the summer but have flattered to deceive and face an uphill struggle going into January.
Also due to our close links with Leeds Utd they are the worst result in our outright book and are poised for a promotion push during the latter half of the campaign, although they will surely have to bring in some help for Ross McCormack, whose goals are somewhat carrying the team at the minute.
The bottom of the table is just as competitive as the top, and despite punters and bookmakers rating Doncaster as one of the weakest teams in the league they can still be backed at odds against to be relegated.
Title: Peterborough 10/1
ND: They may be five points off the summit but the Posh have only won one less game than the three sides above them in the league and Darren Ferguson's side are still yet to hit full-stride.
They have only scored 12 goals in 10 home games, compared to 26 at this stage when they were last in League One back in the 2010/11 season.
A points haul of 79 points saw them in the play-offs that year, but Chairman Daragh MacAnthony has his sights set firmly on the top spot.
"Peterborough United have only scored 12 goals in 10 home games at London Road this season, compared to 26 at this stage last year"
After a 3-2 defeat to Brentford last month, the controversial MacAnthony said: "My patience is thin with this pathetic run we are on.
"Our players need to stop talking a good game, then choking. Go and perform like men!"
With that poor run now behind them (they are unbeaten in their last five games in all competitions) it looks like has he has got his Twitter wish.
The Cambridgeshire side have enough capital to not only hold onto hot property striker Britt Assombalonga, but also to add another forward to the squad in the January transfer window.
Promotion: Bradford 12/1
ND: The Bantams took 18 points from their final nine games when gaining promotion from League Two last season and Phil Parkinson's men look overpriced to repeat the achievement.
Bradford have the third-highest average attendance in the league (only Wolves and Sheffiled Utd have more) and the home fans have been rewarded so far; only three teams have scored more home goals this season.
At the moment they are drawing too many away from Valley Parade but it's worth noting that was the case during last season as well.
They are only five points off the play-off at this stage despite only taking 9 points from their last 11 games which is encouraging, and the chance to freshen up their striking line in January should provide a timely fillip.
Veteran Andy Gray scored at Peterborough at the weekend but is one of several players that the club are looking to offload.
Nahki Wells is one of the hottest properties in the league and the club rejected seven-figures offers for the 14-goal striker earlier in the season; a statement of their intent.
They are out of both the JP Trophy and FA Cup and, with five of their next seven games being at home, they can concentrate on getting their league form back on track.
Relegation: Stevenage 5/4
ND: Only one side has won less home games than Stevenage this season (bottom club Bristol City) and that must be a worry as Graham Westley's sides have traditionally been strong on their own patch.
At this stage last season they were in seventh position but a drastic slide down the table in the second half of the year saw them finish in 18th, just six points above the drop.
Stevenage's problem this season has been scoring goals; they have only scored 10 at home in 10 games, the second-lowest in the league.
"Only bottom club Bristol City have won less games at home in League One than Graham Westley's Stevenage"
Apart from Francois Zoko who has five, no other player at the club has scored more than three league goals this season and that must be a worry.
After their 3-1 defeat to Shrewsbury last month, Westley said: "The appetite of the side hasn't been where it was."
Westley's sides have relied on high intensity, work-rate and commitment, but with a poor home record and attendances struggling (second-lowest in the league and down on last season), the club in 19th place look a good bet to go down.
TRADER'S VIEW: Jamie Munro
Brentford Current Price 7/2, Pre Season 14/1
Best Realistic Results: Leyton Orient, Peterborough
Recommended Value at this stage: Rotherham Promotion
The first half of the season has been all about Leyton Orient. They started the season as 33/1 outsiders but had a storming start as they posted the longest unbeaten run in the country.
They have been slowing down lately however and are fast being caught by the chasing pack, led by league favourites Wolves (bad pun, sorry). Wolves are the best team in this division for me and are currently only evens to win it. If you fancy Orient to hold on then you can back them at 5/1 but personally I don't recommend it.
If one team is to beat Wolves to the title then we desperately don't want it to be Brentford. They were championed by many as the season began and when they drifted out to 28/1 in October after a bad start, they quickly became the worst result in our book. They haven't looked back since and have charged up the league; Brentford are now only a point off the lead and are priced at 7/2 to win it.
For me the value in this league lies with Rotherham who currently sit in sixth place. They have improved as the season has gone on and are rated highly in match betting each week. They are on an upward trajectory and with Steve Evans last week talking about strengthening his squad in January I expect them to continue their good form and at least make the playoffs. 13/2 on Rotherham to be promoted looks like a good value bet.
Title: Chesterfield 2/1
ND: The Spireites have been accused of buying their way towards the top of the table but the men behind the scene have masterminded their fine start to the season with a more sensible approach to the club's finances.
It also helps that their average crowd is over 6,300, the third highest in the league, and there should be some leeway for improving the squad in January.
"Chesterfield's average attendance this season at the Proact Stadium is 6,332. When the club were last promoted in the 2010/11 season, the average attendance at Saltergate was 6,972"
Manager Paul Cook has his side in good form - they have lost just one game in League Two in their last nine matches - and there is plenty of experience in the squad.
Ritchie Humpreys leads a good team of older professionals but there are exciting youngsters coming through, such as seven-goal striker Armand Gnanduille and Ollie Banks.
Banks won the Young Player of the month for October and the recruit from FC United is really catching the eye.
The 21-year-old said: "I was buzzing when I found out that I'd won; it was up there with the feeling of scoring a goal."
The club went up as champions from League Two in 2011 and there is a real belief at their new home - the Proact Stadium - that history can repeat itself.
Promotion: Newport County 11/4
ND: Justin Edinburgh's side are looking for back-to-back promotions after their Wembley play-off final win last season and it can be done; see Stevenage's rise between 2009 and 2011.
Although Newport aren't attracting many headlines in the press, their current run of form is terrific (unbeaten in their last seven games and have only conceded one goal in their last six).
They are a strong, physical side who have a fantastic home record, but it's worth noting that they won nearly as many games away from home last year.
So far this season they have only won two matches away from Rodney Parade but their win at Portsmouth - infront of 15,295 fans - suggested that they are ready to click into gear on the road.
Main goal threat Chris Zebrowski has been out since the start of November and Conor Washington is not yet firing on all cylinders after injury (and playing at a higher level), however that hasn't halted their progress.
They are sixth in the league (with a game in hand), with the possibility of more investment from Euromillions-winning Chairman Les Scaddle in January, and are not to be underestimated.
As midfielder David Pipe said: "People can take us seriously or not. I don't care. They can think what they want but if they do it's at their own peril because we know we'll give anyone a game."
Relegation: Portsmouth 12/1
ND: Momentum is a powerful thing. Portsmouth have drawn two and won none of their last eight games and even new boss Richie Barker has not been able to halt their slide.
New managers often have a positive effect but a 2-0 home defeat to Newport - who had only previously won once away from home - and a loss at Bristol Rovers, signalled that there are (even more) tough times ahead for Pompey fans.
Relegated from League One last season, the south coast side are currently languishing in 20th position, just two points above the relegation places.
Keeper Trevor Carson has described his side as "just too easy to beat" and whilst attendances at Fratton Park are still strong, big crowds can create even more pressure when things aren't going right.
Stockport dropped from League One to the Skrill Premier North in the space of four seasons; Portsmouth fans should be looking over their shoulder.
TRADER'S VIEW: Stuart Dallimore
Chesterfield Current Price 2/1, pre-season 9/1
Oxford Current Price 9/2, Pre Season 16/1
Scunthorpe Current Price 7/1, Pre Season 12/1
Best Realistic results: Oxford, Fleetwood, Scunthorpe.
Recommended Value at this stage: Cheltenham to be promoted
The pre-season market had Portsmouth as strong favourites across the industry; they've clearly been very disappointing and currently sit nearer the relegation zone than challenging at the top. Unfortunately we were also believers of the Pompey hype so avoided laying them in our outright markets.
Our worst result at the moment is Chesterfield however it wouldn't be a disastrous loss as we've taken quite a balanced amount of business across the book.
In my opinion this is the most competitive of the domestic leagues at the moment, there are quite a few teams who could realistically win it and as a result we're not in too bad of a position as any of the chasing pack (Oxford, Fleetwood and Scunthorpe) would be very good results and some of the more shocking chasers would be excellent.
One team I like a lot at the moment is Cheltenham. There is probably value to be had in backing this team as they look to be getting stronger as the year goes on. Their win at the weekend away to Fleetwood was an excellent result and continued an unbeaten run which has stretched since mid-October.
They're currently 8/1 for promotion; I couldn't put up much of an argument against backing that as they head in to two winnable home games hoping to continue this unbeaten streak into the New Year.