Premier League Team of the Weekend, Dec. 20-21
After each round of Premier League fixtures, ESPN FC brings you its Team of the Weekend. Our panel of experts carefully select 11 star performers along with a manager.
Do you agree or disagree? You can have your say on those picked or overlooked in the comments section at the foot of the article or on Twitter using the hashtag #TOTW. Plus, tune in to Monday's "ESPN FC" (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) for more reaction.
Goalkeeper: Here we go again. There are a hat trick of candidates to don the gloves for us this week: Sunderland's Costel Pantilimon (chosen by Gab Marcotti), Aston Villa's Brad Guzan (Paul Mariner) and West Ham's Adrian (Steve Nicol). The Hammers' stopper made a couple of cracking saves in the 2-0 win over Leicester, while Pantilimon was kept fairly busy at St James' Park -- his save from Ayoze Perez the highlight in another Sunderland clean sheet on Tyneside. But Guzan's is the busiest report card, after Manchester United put his net under pressure in the second half at Villa Park. The American made several notable saves, from Robin van Persie, Juan Mata and James Wilson, and was a commanding presence inside his own box.
Right-back: He's everyone's favourite right-back (unless you reside in the red half of Manchester, of course), and Pablo Zabaleta underlined why on Saturday. For a time in the first half he was City's chief attacking threat; foraging down the right flank and almost netting a carbon copy of his goal away at Sunderland. It was no surprise City's opener came from his endeavour, as he burst into the area in trademark fashion before teeing up David Silva early in the second half. Marcotti calls Zabaleta the "most involved full-back in the Premier League," while Mariner tags him "Mr Consistency."
Centre-back: In front of Guzan, Villa's back line was marshalled expertly by the promising-looking pairing of Ron Vlaar and Jores Okore. We all know about the Dutchman's ability, but alongside him, Okore is slowly finding his feet at Premier League level. After missing pretty much the entire 2013-14 campaign through injury, he has featured in six matches this season, during which time Villa have conceded five goals. They may have succumbed to Falcao's header on Saturday as they drew 1-1 with Manchester United, but Okore looked accomplished and calm in the cauldron of competition, and made a vital clearance from a goal-bound Michael Carrick header late in the game. Nicol was suitably impressed.
Centre-back: Nicol also plumps for Maya Yoshida, but our other two pundits have opted for his central defensive partner at Southampton: Jose Fonte. After a terrible run of five straight defeats, Ronald Koeman's men got back to winning ways after a comprehensive dismantling of an out-of-sorts Everton team. After scoring just two goals in their previous five, netting three on Saturday will no doubt have pleased the boss, including the opener that Fonte had a hand in, as he coerced Romelu Lukaku to put through his own net. But with the Portuguese back to his imperious best, a return to stingy form in defence and a clean sheet will have Koeman even happier. He edges out Mariner's shout of West Ham's Winston Reid.
Left-back: The Hammers will have representation in this TOTW instalment, though, in the shape of Aaron Cresswell. Marcotti is the first to raise the prospect of an England call-up for the former Ipswich Town defender, who has adapted to life in the Premier League with the minimum of fuss. After notching his first goal for the club in the recent win over Newcastle, the 25-year-old offered another encouraging display in the victory over Leicester, involved just as much in an attacking sense as a defensive one. As Gab says, Cresswell is a "modern, attacking full-back" and a very promising one, indeed.
Midfield: "Yaya Toure, for just being Yaya." There's very little to add to Nicol's brief summary as to why Manchester City's talisman should be in our Team of the Weekend. With attacking numbers depleted, Toure was required to step up, and alongside the impressive David Silva, was a constant source of invention in the final third against a plucky Palace outfit. Toure's full range of passing -- including a cheeky "no-look" effort -- was in evidence, as was his coolness in the area as he lashed home a third that Marcotti salutes as "an absolute belter." Mariner thinks Toure is edging back to his imperious best.
Midfield: Which moniker do you prefer to describe David Silva -- "Merlin" or "The Artist"? Gab and Paul might disagree on his label, but both agree on his prowess, as demonstrated with a clinical brace in a 3-0 win against Crystal Palace. With Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic all missing, Silva provided the cutting edge, just as it seemed Palace's deep line might be able to hold out. As Mariner remarks: "It's just a pleasure to watch Silva play." Nicol says he is a "manager's dream."
Midfield: Finally, a Premier League afternoon that offered some insight as to why Tottenham splashed out 30 million pounds on Erik Lamela. The Argentine looked a threat all afternoon long during the narrow 2-1 defeat of Burnley, quite apart from his outstanding winning goal -- an arrow-like strike into the far corner from range. Marcotti and Mariner both offer qualified praise after the 22-year-old's first goal in 25 top-flight matches: "He may never turn the corner, but if he does, look out," said Marcotti, while Mariner added, "Lamela is starting to show his true game."
Midfield: "They must hate me round here," said Adam Johnson, after he scored for the third season running at St James' Park. As understatements go, that's a rather large one. There's something about Newcastle's home that the winger likes, and just as it seemed a first goalless draw in the Premier League era between these two famous old foes was inevitable, up he popped to slam home from inside the area and make amends for a glaring earlier miss and earn a nomination from Nicol. This was a fourth successive Sunderland win over the Toon -- the first time that has happened in the history of the fixture.
Striker: "Nobody in this league makes more of his ability than Charlie Austin does. Nobody. Blue-collar hat trick hero." That's a pretty neat summary of Austin's powers from Marcotti. Harry Redknapp was purring over his No. 9 on Saturday night, and well he might, for the former Poole Town striker is keeping Queens Park Rangers afloat pretty much on his own at present. Rangers were staring into the abyss at 2-0 down but Austin hauled them out of it with a performance that allied industry to finesse. A penalty area predator, Mariner thinks he is more Mercedes than Austin (that's a car gag) while Nicol made it a simple choice to pick him.
Striker: In the race to partner Austin up front, Olivier Giroud is put forward by Marcotti after the Frenchman grabbed his third goal in a week at Anfield, while Andy Carroll is Mariner's suggestion, but I've opted for Nicol's choice of Christian Benteke. He deserves a place on the basis of Steve's testimony alone: "Benteke's got the strength of Samson and the touch of an angel." I'm not arguing on either count, especially after the Belgian's brilliant goal -- a fierce left-footed strike into the top corner past the Premier League goalkeeper of the season, David De Gea. And when the chips were down, Benteke was back in his own box defending and winning header after header.
Manager: Wins for Sunderland over Newcastle are clearly becoming old hat now, because Gus Poyet doesn't even get a look in for our Manager of the Weekend spot. Brendan Rodgers does, though, put forward by Marcotti for coaxing a fine display out of Liverpool (even if Gab acknowledges their defending is still wretched). But our other two pundits have plumped for Harry Redknapp, whose QPR side battled back against the Baggies to register a fifth home win of the campaign. Here's Mariner to tell you why: "Harry was under huge pressure from all quarters but got the lads back on track after going two down early on to West Brom. What a coaching job."