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 By Ian Darke

As the Premier League run-in begins, London and Manchester are in focus

With Leicester still leading the Premier League, attention is drawn to the battle between some of the biggest clubs in London and Manchester. Ian Darke runs the rule over some of the most compelling storylines and also names his team of the season so far.

West Ham's Dmitri Payet, a French international who was born on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, has illuminated the Premier League with his dancing dazzling footwork this season. He is already the East End of London's biggest cult hero since Paolo Di Canio.

Midweek results increased the chance of Payet playing in the Champions League with the Hammers next season, their first in the Olympic Stadium.

Slaven Bilic's team are, remarkably, only one point outside the top four after they put a dent in Tottenham's title hopes with a vibrant display on Wednesday. The manager says such talk is "just a dream" but, in this most unpredictable of seasons, it could easily become reality.

The Hammers served notice on the opening day that they might be a threat with a 2-0 win at Arsenal. Bilic was not frightened to pitch 16-year-old Reece Oxford into the midfield fray that day and the Croatian manager has continued to look sure-footed in his first season as a Premier League boss.

Arsenal, meanwhile, are currently unravelling and somehow managed to lose at home to a Swansea team fighting the drop and which included several of their B-list players.

Gunners fans are lighting up the switchboards on radio phone-ins and the whole debate about whether manager Arsene Wenger is past it will be revisited for the umpteenth time.

With the title there for the taking this year, the inquest will be more heated than usual should Arsenal fail. The North London derby against Tottenham on Saturday looks the most significant for some time and the losers will be left on rocky terrain.

Tottenham, who look to have a meaner streak this season, must be slight favourites to prevail against a Gunners team that will be without goalkeeper Petr Cech and defender Laurent Koscielny.

Manchester City have dropped to fourth place in the Premier League table.
Manchester City have lost their last three Premier League games.

Manchester City are now 10 points adrift of the top and surely out of contention after their strangely insipid efforts at Liverpool. It was their eighth league defeat of the season, and no team has won the title carrying so many losses. Manuel Pellegrini's team remain a frustrating enigma.

With a suddenly revitalised Manchester United moving level with fourth-placed City and the Manchester derby looming on Mar. 20, there is at least a threat than Pep Guardiola could have signed for a club that will not be in the Champions League next season. Now there's a thought to start a few alarm bells ringing at the Etihad.

While we wait to see how these fascinating plots unfold, it's time perhaps to debate who, along with Monsieur Payet, are the players of the season so far.

Such discussions are sure to start a storm of invective from the tribal legions on social media, but here is this commentators' best XI.

In goal, David De Gea of Manchester United gets the nod ahead of Stoke's fast-improving Jack Butland, who might soon be pushing Joe Hart for the England jersey.

Arsenal's pacy Hector Bellerin has taken the eye at right-back and the signing of the reliable and solid Toby Alderweireld has been a key component in Tottenham's title tilt. Chris Smalling has been one of the few success stories at Old Trafford, while Charlie Daniels of Bournemouth has perhaps been the pick of a good crop of left-backs.

West Ham's consistently excellent skipper Mark Noble, previously regarded as just a good journeyman, has moved up a level this year and might also be on the fringe of an England call up. Likewise, Leicester's Danny Drinkwater is in Roy Hodgson's thoughts, though just misses out in this mythical team to the perpetual motion that is N'Golo Kante of Leicester.

Ahead of them is his teammate Riyad Mahrez, graceful and brilliant, who walks into the team on the right with Payet's artistry on the left and Willian, a diamond even amid Chelsea's autumn dross, in the No. 10 role.

Which just leaves a striker. Sergio Aguero is surely the most dangerous in the land but, like Man City, has blown a little hot and cold this season. Romelu Lukaku's 22 goals in all competitions for Everton also put him in the frame.

Darke PL best XI NEW
Ian Darke's Premier League team of the season so far.

But the vote has to go to a player nobody was talking about before this season: Leicester's Jamie Vardy. He has 19 league goals in total and scoring in a record 11 successive games was just astonishing.

Are these the most gifted 11 players in the Premier League? No, but we are talking about form this season.

Incidentally, beyond this group my substitutes would be Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester), Lukaku, Drinkwater, Virgil van Dijk (Southampton), Nacho Monreal (Arsenal), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) and Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City).

Feel free to disagree!

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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