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Handing out Premier League's midterm grades

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

Santa Claus brings nothing more than a pile of uncertainty for English Premier League clubs this Christmas. With the league choked at top and bottom, no one wants to end up as the festive turkeys.

The title is still wide open as the midway point of the campaign approaches, with the usual suspects of Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all firmly in the hunt.

Yet there has still been room for a few surprises, such as the emergence of preseason relegation favorites Hull City and Aston Villa's bold attempt to crack the Big Four hegemony.

Yahoo! Sports takes a look at how the teams have stacked up so far and evaluates their chances for the second half of the season.

1. Liverpool. Could 2009 be the year that the Anfield giant finally ends a league title drought that has lasted for nearly two decades? Only one defeat bodes well, as does a rock solid defense that has only let in 12 goals so far. This is a team full of confidence, both at home and in Europe. The season could end up as a resounding success or with nothing to show for it, but Rafa Benitez has done exactly what he had to do by the turn of the year – put Liverpool in contention. Grade: A

2. Chelsea. The Blues are starting to resemble the former prom queen who has seen better days. Sure, second place and an unbeaten away record is a solid enough platform. However, head coach Big Phil Scolari has increasingly shown signs of frustration, and reports suggesting owner Roman Abramovich has been credit-crunched could restrict winter spending. Nicolas Anelka is scoring for fun and the defense is a fortress, but Scolari's men will have to rise in big games against their title rivals if they are to secure the trophy. Grade: B-minus

3. Aston Villa. Martin O'Neill likes to credit his "special group of players" with Villa's success this season, which sees the Birmingham club with a legitimate shot at qualifying for next year's Champions League. In reality, it has just as much to do with O'Neill, a special breed of manager who is finally tapping Villa's long-suppressed potential. Owner Randy Lerner also deserves credit for the way he has backed O'Neill in the transfer market, but keeping hold of Ashley Young in January is imperative. Grade: A

4. Manchester United. Seven points back with two games in hand, world club champions – all without hardly breaking a sweat. United has been far from its mighty best at times this season, but there will certainly be no panic at Old Trafford, where a repeat of the EPL-Champions League double is not beyond reason. Expect another chapter in the Cristiano Ronaldo-Real Madrid saga but don't be surprised to see United hunt down Liverpool and Chelsea as the season wears on. Grade: B-minus

5. Arsenal. Serious problems are abound at the Emirates Stadium. Boardroom unrest is casting a shadow over the club and things are no better on the field. Arsene Wenger is under more pressure than at any time in his reign and Cesc Fabregas could be out for three months with knee ligament damage. Strength in depth should ensure a top-four finish, but Aston Villa is putting up a strong challenge. Gunners fans are rightly nervous. Grade: D

6. Hull City. Tasting life in the Premier League for the first time ever, Hull's chances of finishing anywhere but bottom of the EPL seemed as remote as George Bush attending a shoe convention in downtown Baghdad. Talismanic Brazilian Geovanni has pulled the strings with a series of breathtaking goals and assists, as Hull has deployed a brand of soccer rarely seen from a newly promoted side by attacking with two strikers away from home. Maybe it won't last, but already Hull has added color and unpredictability to the season and deserves huge credit. Grade: A-plus

7. Everton. No strikers? No problem. David Moyes has been without a single first-choice forward for the past two weeks, yet Everton still marches on steadily. Puzzlingly mediocre home form has been offset by six away wins, and when James Vaughan and Louis Saha return to fitness, the club will like its chances of securing a UEFA Cup place in the second half of the campaign. Grade: B

8. Fulham. They can't win away from home, but it doesn't matter. Roy Hodgson's team is on course to pick up enough points at Craven Cottage to ensure there are no late headaches. Jimmy Bullard and Danny Murphy oversee one of the hardest working midfields in the league, and there is some genuine room for optimism. Grade: B-plus

9. Bolton Wanderers. A nice little run of five wins in eight games has lifted Bolton to a comfortable mid-table position, where it will probably remain for most of the season. Swedish striker Johan Elmander is settling in nicely and should contribute enough goals to keep the team clear of any danger. Grade: B

10. Portsmouth. Losing Harry Redknapp was a bitter blow, but even a patchy recent run shouldn't take the gloss off a decent start. New boss Tony Adams will have some concerns over consistency. He will be keen to replace Real Madrid-bound Lassana Diarra as a matter of urgency. Grade: B-minus

11. Wigan Athletic. Emile Heskey and Amir Zaki have caused opposing defenses all kinds of trouble and will be sure to attract interest from bigger clubs during the January transfer window. Wigan seems to have found a happy place under Steve Bruce and should be consistent enough to be immune to danger of the drop. Grade: B

12. Newcastle United. A few good results and suddenly Joe Kinnear's appointment doesn't look quite so ridiculous. So much so, that the veteran manager is in charge until the end of the season. Progress will always be stunted until owner Mike Ashley can offload his stake, an option that is becoming increasingly unlikely as fiscal factors grip England. Michael Owen won't be around for much longer, but Newcastle is growing in belief and should finish in the top half. Grade: C-minus

13. Sunderland. Roy Keane's sudden walkout appeared to leave the Black Cats mired in crisis just a couple of weeks ago. But then Ricky Sbragia (Ricky who?) engineered two straight wins with eight goals scored and lifted hopes again. Plenty of money was spent on this squad last summer. It just needs the right man at the helm. Grade: B-minus

14. Middlesbrough. No wins in six games and all of a sudden Middlesbrough looks genuinely vulnerable. Stewart Downing and Tuncay Sanli look likely to move on to greener pastures, so Boro could face a tricky fight for survival in the closing months. Grade: B-minus

15. Stoke City. Life in the EPL is tough for newcomers. Stoke can be reasonably satisfied with its start and is halfway toward survival if it can continue to chip away at building a solid points tally. Home wins against Arsenal, Villa and Tottenham have been the highlights, along with Rory Delap's remarkable throw-ins that are more effective than corner kicks. But a lack of depth could haunt them at the business end of the season. Grade: B

16. Tottenham. The Spurs have had such a Jekyll-and-Hyde season that an accurate rating is hard to evaluate. Two points from eight games was an atrocious start that doomed Juande Ramos, but Harry Redknapp has led a stirring and immediate revival. Only one point separates Tottenham from the relegation zone. Make no mistake, though, it is on the way up. Grade: B

17. West Ham. Underperforming, embarrassing and having little chance of achieving their goals – and that's just the owners of West Ham. The Hammers will be held back for as long as Icelandic businessman Bjorgulfur Gudmundsson demands an extortionate amount of money for his stricken club. Relegation would be no shock. Grade: D

18. Manchester City. Does it take time for a new manager and new players to settle in? Yes. Is there any way a squad featuring Robinho, Elano, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stephen Ireland and Micah Richards should be in the bottom three? No way. City's spending power, backed by a mighty Arab oil consortium, is frightening. What is more scary for City supporters, though, is a woeful six-game winless run that has put boss Mark Hughes in danger of the sack. Grade: D-minus

19. Blackburn Rovers. Sam Allardyce has come in to try to sort out the mess left behind by Paul Ince. Yet questions remain as to whether there are enough quality players in the squad to survive. Their one world-class player, Roque Santa Cruz, looks likely to leave next month, and Rovers could have trouble convincing potential replacements that their future is bright. Grade: D

20. West Bromwich Albion. As expected, they're just not good enough. Albion will pick up a few wins in the second half, yet it is hard to see it making a real run at staying up. The reality is that this is a team too strong for the Championship but clearly too weak for the top flight. Grade: C