Stoke looking half decent
Andy Schooler picks out his best bets from the Premier League specials markets, and backs Stoke to go well.
But he's less keen on the chances of West Brom, who look for another season of struggle and look set to finish below Crystal Palace once again.
When it comes to the Premier League campaign I always like to focus in on a team who I feel will do better than the bookies expect. This year that side is Stoke. Mark Hughes' first season in charge of the Potters proved to be a real success as Stoke finished inside the top half for the first time since their return to the top flight.
To immediately trump what Tony Pulis achieved at the Britannia was no mean feat and they look well positioned to at least repeat that effort in the coming season.
Hughes' business in the transfer market last season was impressive with Austrian Marko Arnautovic proving a shrewd signing, while in January the addition of Peter Odemwingie was excellent.
The Nigerian is too often remembered for his maverick drive to QPR on deadline day a few years ago but the fact is he's a proven performer on the pitch and will doubtless chip in with goals for his team again this season.
This summer Hughes has already managed to attract Bojan Krkic from Barcelona. The one-time teen prodigy may not have developed as well as many hoped but he's got serious talent and looks a gamble with little downside. If he flops, Hughes can fall back on the likes of Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters, not to mention Odemwingie, up front.
At the back, Robert Huth's return from a long-term injury will strengthen the Potters at the back in front of one of the league's top keepers in Asmir Begovic.
Midfield new boy Steve Sidwell also adds to the squad. He was one of the better performers in an admittedly-poor Fulham side last season and knows where the goal is too. Plenty of Stoke's success has been built on a strong home record - last season they lost just three times at the Britannia and beat the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. A crowd which sees everything - and I mean everything - through red-and-white tinted glasses may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no doubt it boosts the team's chances on the pitch.
Stoke were ninth last season and 13/8 for another top-half finish. That looks too big to me and well worth taking given the general poor standard of the bottom half of the Premier League. I wouldn't put anyone off backing them in the 'without the big seven' market either but for a recommendation I strongly fancy them to make the top 10 at the smaller price.
If Stoke are my fancies to shine this season, then West Brom are the team I'm more than happy to oppose. Sorry if I sound like a broken record - this time last year I was suggesting them as a great bet for the drop only for them to stay alive by the skin of their teeth in 17th - but things haven't been right at The Hawthorns for some time and summer changes only seem to have plastered over the cracks.
First of all they appointed a manager, Alan Irvine, unproven at this level. Well respected for his work alongside David Moyes and at Everton's academy, Irvine did take Preston to the play-offs in League One but also oversaw relegation at Sheffield Wednesday when the club was admittedly in a crisis period.
However, even if you give Irvine the benefit of the doubt, it's a big ask stepping up to this level, especially when the squad you are inheriting is not particularly good. The 2012/13 goals of Peter Odemwingie and Romelu Lukaku were not replaced last term and in a bid to solve that problem a lot of money (£10million) has been thrown at Brown Ideye, a player deemed not good enough for Nigeria's World Cup squad. That's some gamble given we know how first-time Premier League players can take a while to bed in. Just look at how Roberto Soldado, a proven goalscorer in La Liga, struggled at Spurs last season. Ideye, I should point out, arrives from Dynamo Kiev in the Ukrainian league.
Joleon Lescott could be a decent bit of business at the back but it's a long time since he looked the solid defender he was at Everton. I just don't see West Brom improving a great deal at all on last season and with that in mind, they look worth taking on where possible.
Much has already been written about how Tony Pulis turned Crystal Palace around last season.
After starting with four points from 11 games, Palace took 41 from 27 after that. By the end of the season they were six places and nine points clear of West Brom. Brede Hangeland looks a decent capture on a free at the back, while Fraizer Campbell has been picked up on the cheap from Cardiff.
He hasn't been the most reliable source of goals but if Pulis can get the best out of him, he'll be a good addition. The midfield remains the same but it also contains the real stars of last season's success - Yannick Bolasie, Mile Jedinak and Jason Puncheon. Palace may not finish 11th again this season but they should still have enough to beat the Baggies over 38 games.
With the three promoted sides facing tough seasons and Hull having the extra distraction of Europa League football, Palace look the team to back here.