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So, halfway through an intriguing English Premier League season and what is that rustling sound you hear? That's right, it's the noise made by 20 EPL managers as they scramble beneath the tree in search of any overlooked gifts.
With the races for the title, the European spots and the battle to avoid relegation all desperately tight, everyone could use a little help right now, whether it be transfer window signings, players returning from injury or just a bit of festive luck.
As we tend to do at this time of year and with virtually every European league except England's on winter break, we adopt a one-off change in format for our Weekend Review. This week, we take a look at midterm grades for the students in the toughest soccer school of all and evaluate who is going to be top of the class by the end of the season.
1. Chelsea: B. Chelsea fans have yet to take Carlo Ancelotti to their hearts but the irascible Italian head coach has a real shot at winning the EPL trophy in his first attempt. Metronomic home-field dominance not seen since the early days of Jose Mourinho has been restored, and while there has been some inconsistency on the road, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka form arguably the most destructive striking duo in Europe.
2. Manchester United: C-plus. This is a shaky United side that's still capable of magnificent performances, but it doesn't possess the instant spark it enjoyed with Cristiano Ronaldo or the steely eyed ruggedness of the past few seasons. Five defeats at the midway point means Sir Alex Ferguson's grip on the title is loosening. Still, this club can never be discounted.
3. Arsenal: A-minus. His team was considered the most likely of the Big Four to be usurped yet Arsene Wenger seems to be working his latest Arsenal miracle. Slipups from Chelsea and United have given the North London club a sniff of its first title since 2004. Much may depend on the health of the exceptional Cesc Fabregas and whether Wenger can make a couple of key additions to his young squad in the January transfer window.
4. Aston Villa: A. Martin O'Neill is doing it again, sending out a Villa side full of spirit and style on a weekly basis. Emile Heskey has shown surprising strength and character, while James Milner's playmaking role from the center of midfield has made fans forget all about Gareth Barry. Injuries caused a dip in form towards the end of last season, but this incarnation of O'Neill's Villa seems to have more substance about it.
5. Tottenham Hotspur: A-minus. Spurs is suffering its usual dose of schizophrenia, mixing outstanding displays of stylish soccer with a handful of dismal outings. Harry Redknapp doesn't seem to be too bothered by investigations into his tax affairs, while a 9-1 trouncing of Wigan is the highlight of the campaign so far. Jermain Defoe is chasing the EPL's scoring title, yet the defense could use some bolstering.
6. Manchester City: C-plus. Most of the headlines coming out of Manchester's blue half have been negative, with Mark Hughes having been axed last week and replaced by Roberto Mancini. Even so, City is still in the frame to break into the top four despite a series of frustrating draws and plenty of internal strife. Carlos Tevez has been outstanding but action must be taken to solidify a leaky backline.
2. Manchester United
4. Manchester City
5. Aston Villa
7. Tottenham Hotspur
11. Birmingham City
12. Blackburn Rovers
13. West Ham United
14. Bolton Wanderers
15. Wigan Athletic
16. Stoke City
18. Wolverhampton Wanderers
19. Hull City
7. Liverpool: D-minus. The fact that Liverpool remains in seventh after its atrocious season is seen by many as a poor indictment on the EPL. Far too much reliance on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres – and a crisis of confidence that dumped the team out of the Champions League – means the pressure on boss Rafa Benitez is at an all-time high. Alberto Aquilani has been a flop, and American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are unlikely to sanction much January spending.
8. Birmingham City: A. Alex McLeish has woven together a squad brimming with passion and determination and he is reaping the benefits. These are exciting times at St. Andrews, where a tense fight against relegation was feared before the start of the season. There have been many heroes, though reformed bad boy Lee Bowyer has done as much as anyone to take the team to its very respectable tally of 29 points.
9. Fulham: B-plus. The Craven Cottage faithful have a right to feel pretty good right now, with a solid league position and continued involvement in the Europa League. Victories over Liverpool and Manchester United have provided the highlights. However, the real story is the steady building project put together by head coach Roy Hodgson on a limited budget. U.S. star Clint Dempsey has been a major plus.
10. Sunderland: B. The jury is still out on Sunderland, after a superb start to the campaign was followed by the traditional dip in form leading up to Christmas. Kenwyne Jones' performances have seen him linked with several big clubs, while Darren Bent is giving himself a shot at a World Cup place with England.
11. Stoke City: B-plus. Except for an ugly argument between striker James Beattie and head coach Tony Pulis, things are going as well as can be expected at Stoke. With fewer goals conceded than any other team in the bottom half, defensive stability should ensure a respectable finish around mid-table.
12. Blackburn Rovers: C-plus. Limited funds could prevent Sam Allardyce from bringing in the striker his thin squad desperately needs. Rovers are strong enough at home to remain in a safe position but further upward progress is unlikely without new arrivals. Don't be shocked if South African striker Benni McCarthy starts to deliver with the World Cup just months away.
13. Burnley: B-plus. No one expected Burnley to get to the top flight and even fewer figured it could stay there. Turf Moor has been a fortress that no side relishes coming to and it is this home form upon which Burnley has built its platform for a decent campaign. Safety from relegation is still far from assured, but the signs are good, especially if David Nugent's loan can be extended.
14. Everton: D. Yet again David Moyes' squad is being ravaged by injuries, except that this season the effect has been far more costly. Mikel Arteta's absence has been the most telling, while Landon Donovan is set to arrive on loan in January for a 10-week stint. Moyes is a respected manager and he will be given time. Yet drastic improvement will be expected.
15. Wolverhampton Wanderers: B. So far, spirited effort has been enough to keep Wolves on course for its only target – survival. Danger lies ahead, though, as Mick McCarthy's squad is one of the thinnest and least talented in the league. Jody Craddock has embodied the warrior spirit in central defense, but will it be enough?
16. Wigan Athletic: C. A 9-1 humiliation at Tottenham has not shaken Wigan's conviction and dedication to playing attacking soccer. Honduras international Maynor Figueroa has been a revelation and is wanted by several leading sides – and provided one of the most remarkable moments of the season with a spectacular 60-yard strike against Stoke.
17. West Ham: D-plus. Gianfranco Zola is committed to playing attractive soccer, but as the season wears on, he will need to find a way to make the Hammers tougher to beat. Alessandro Diamanti is a livewire and Scott Parker always gives maximum effort. West Ham still needs to stock its resources in several positions. If it doesn't, a fight against the drop beckons.
18. Bolton: D. Gary Megson is finding life difficult after heavy spending failed to produce the desired results. Megson has tried to put together a well-balanced squad but instead finds himself with one lacking in real quality and becoming painfully predictable. There may be too many weak teams in the EPL for Bolton to be relegated, but the future does not look bright.
19. Hull City: C-minus. This time last year, I was criticized for daring to suggest that Hull, then sixth in the EPL, would finish as low as 11th by the end of the season. In the end, Hull would up 17th after a pathetic end to the campaign and things have not gotten any better. Little in the way of attacking flair and an outmatched defense spells trouble – and ultimately relegation.
20. Portsmouth: D. A club in crisis, a truly woeful team and a sure-fire bet to be relegated. It is going to get worse for Pompey, which just doesn't have the tools to be competitive in this division. More defeats follow, lots of them.
Midseason honor roll
The selection of our Best XI from the first half of the season was a tough one, with several worthy candidates at most positions.
Aston Villa's Brad Friedel shined the brightest among goalkeepers, edging out Chelsea's Petr Cech and Joe Hart of Birmingham. Defensively, Villa duo Carlos Cuellar and Richard Dunne were unlucky to miss out in the center, but the efforts of Chelsea's John Terry and Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen could not be overlooked. Patrice Evra is the sole Manchester United representative, while Stephen Carr's persistence on the right has been a major factor in Birmingham's strong run.
Gunners captain Cesc Fabregas was perhaps the easiest selection as he continues to put together an outstanding campaign, while the remainder of the midfield quartet has all been rock-solid. In attack, it was impossible to look past Chelsea's driving force of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, the partnership that looks likely to lead the club to the EPL title.
The complete Team of the First Half:
• Goalkeeper: Brad Friedel (Aston Villa)
• Defenders: John Terry (Chelsea), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Stephen Carr (Birmingham)
• Midfielders: Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham), James Milner (Aston Villa)
• Forwards: Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea)
• Best player: Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal). Fabregas has been the spark that has ignited the Gunners and he has them in a genuine shot at lifting the title – if he recovers from a hamstring injury.
• Best coach: Martin O'Neill (Aston Villa). O'Neill has always been a superb coach and has an innate ability to get the very best out of his players. There is a sense that this stint at Villa could be his finest work yet and the Midlands club has given itself a real shot at finishing in the top four.
• Best goal: Maynor Figueroa (Wigan Athletic). Move over David Beckham. Figueroa's thunderbolt from within his own half against Stoke wasn't just the goal of the season but also one of the best in EPL history.
• Best game: Manchester City at Manchester United. There are several candidates, but none stick out as much as the Manchester derby on September 20. Three times Man United took the lead, three times Man City pegged the Red Devils back only to have United's Michael Owen squeeze home the winner deep into injury time.
• Biggest upset: Burnley 1, Man United 0. August was not even over, yet already there was a shock result of epic proportions. Burnley, expected to be headed for an instant return to the Championship, stunned the three-time defending EPL champion with a gritty and tenacious display at Turf Moor.
• Best signing: Lee Bowyer (Birmingham City). Bowyer had previously spent part of last season on loan at Birmingham and the club picked him up for nothing when his contract expired. It has proved to be a spectacular piece of business, with the reformed troublemaker injecting life into Alex McLeish's side and lifting Birmingham to the eighth spot. Of last summer's financial maneuvers, Arsenal's acquisition of Thomas Vermaelen and Aston Villa's capture of Richard Dunne have been the most effective.
• Worst signing: Alberto Aquilani (Liverpool). Rafa Benitez has to hold his hands up for this truly terrible piece of business. It's not that Aquilani is a bad player – he's not. It's just that he's not worth anything near $27 million, especially when he turned up at Anfield injured.
- Manchester United
- Aston Villa
- Manchester City
- Cesc Fabregas
- Didier Drogba
- Nicolas Anelka
- Tottenham Hotspur