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Dec 24, 2012

Premier League - top of the class

As the season reaches its half-way point, ESPN takes a look at which players have been outstanding in their field at each club.

Arsenal: Santi Cazorla

Sometimes good things do come to those who wait. Arsene Wenger tried to sign Santi Cazorla in 2011. Twelve months later, Malaga's financial position had deteriorated and the Arsenal manager was able to pick up the playmaker for a lesser fee. The silky Spaniard is a one-man rebuttal of the theory Arsenal cannot sign top footballers. He is also displaying more of an eye for goal than they may have envisaged when signing him; a hat-trick at Reading was particularly timely, when pressure was mounting on Wenger, and he scored in both of Arsenal's best wins this season, against Liverpool and Tottenham.

Aston Villa: Christian Benteke

Seemingly overpriced and certainly raw, Christian Benteke did not get a rapturous reception upon his arrival at Aston Villa. He was plunged into controversy when Paul Lambert preferred him to the proven Darren Bent. Now it very evident why the Scot favoured the power and promise of the Belgian. His two-goal demolition job of Liverpool was particularly eye-catching but perhaps the pivotal moment of Benteke's campaign came against Manchester United: first by running the channels and then with the unselfishness to set up his accomplice Andreas Weimann for a goal. It was not something Bent was likely to have done.

Chelsea: Juan Mata

If Chelsea's pre-season plan was to make a Spaniard more prolific, it has worked. Yet while the focus was on Fernando Torres, Juan Mata has upstaged his compatriot. The arrival of likeminded talents, in Oscar and Eden Hazard, has suited him but Mata has been the classiest of the creators. A purple patch in September and October, when he scored six goals and recorded as many assists in the space of five games, was remarkable but in keeping with a fine season.

Everton: Marouane Fellaini

Admittedly, Marouane Fellaini's first half of the season would have been rather better had he not head-butted Ryan Shawcross, incurred a three-match ban and damaged Everton's prospects of securing Champions League football. Nevertheless, this has been a breakthrough campaign for the big Belgian. He set the tone in the first game, bullying Manchester United - entirely legally - and scoring the winning goal. Seven others have followed and it is testament to Fellaini's excellence that Tim Cahill has not been missed.

Fulham: Dimitar Berbatov

The maestro plays the game his own way and abides by his own rules. At Fulham and in Martin Jol, Dimitar Berbatov has found a club and a manager who do not just tolerate his idiosyncratic approach but indulge him. He may possess the best touch of any player in the country. Permitted to stroll around as a No. 10, the Bulgarian has illuminated virtually every game he has played in.

Liverpool: Luis Suarez

Many a team plays with a solitary striker but very clubs have just the one. When Liverpool's failure to sign another on transfer deadline day was compounded by Fabio Borini's injury, the already sizeable burden on Luis Suarez's shoulders became huge. He responded superbly. A forward criticised for missing too many chances last season has been a fixture on the top scorers' leaderboard and, as ever with Suarez, he has contributed much more than simply goals.

Manchester City: Pablo Zabaleta

In a strange season for Manchester City, few of the top talents have played at their peak consistently. Pablo Zabaleta, however, is a chasing, scrapping guarantee of 100% commitment. The Argentine was probably the best player on the pitch in the stalemate at Chelsea, reinforcing his reputation for performing when it matters most, and has ensured Micah Richards' absence for the majority of the campaign has not mattered. His drilled equaliser in the Manchester derby, capping a City comeback and when Zabaleta was wearing the captain's armband, seemed to sum up a spirited performer; cruelly for him, it was not enough to earn a point and, a disconsolate figure slumped by the far post, he provided another abiding image when United scored their last-minute winner.

Manchester United: Robin van Persie

If there was a sense of surprise about the consistency and quality of Robin van Persie's exploits last season, now they simply seem normal. Perhaps that is because Van Persie is now surrounded by a higher calibre of team-mate, perhaps because he was the outstanding footballer in England when he arrived at Manchester United for £24 million. Either way, he has kept on delivering. It is not merely the quantity or the quality of his goals, but the significance: the hat-trick in the comeback against Southampton, the cool penalty to defeat Liverpool, the opener against Arsenal and, above all, the injury-time winner against Manchester City.

Newcastle: Demba Ba

If Demba Ba's start to the season feels familiar, it is because it is. He was prolific in the autumn of 2011 as well. The difference is that then Ba's goals were taking Newcastle into the upper reaches of the table whereas now they are preventing their position becoming still more precarious. He has scored in all four of the Magpies' league wins and, after sacrificing himself for Papiss Cisse in the second half of last season, restored his status as the club's premier striker.

Norwich: Sebastien Bassong

Chris Hughton may have felt improving the defence was the priority upon his appointment at Norwich, but if it was not then, it certainly became more important after his first game ended in a 5-0 defeat to Fulham. So the new manager turned to a familiar face and Sebastien Bassong, with whom he had worked at Newcastle, made a huge difference. A fringe figure at Tottenham, he quickly became a cornerstone of the Canaries' back four. A run of five games where only one goal was conceded was especially impressive, but Bassong has had an impact in both boxes: he also scored on three successive weekends.

QPR: Ryan Nelsen

According to Harry Redknapp, Ryan Nelsen was signed as the fourth-choice central defender. It was just that, in between buying anyone else, Mark Hughes neglected to bring in a first choice of the required quality. And so the supposed understudy soon became indispensable. When Park Ji-sung, a rather strange choice as captain, was sidelined, Nelsen assumed the armband, bringing natural leadership to what has sometimes seemed a desperate cause. For all the money QPR have spent, much rests on a 35-year-old found on a free transfer.

Reading: Jobi McAnuff

He has made few headlines – perhaps he was never going to – but Jobi McAnuff has quietly made more goals than many a more vaunted talent this season. Along with Reading's other set-piece specialist, Nicky Shorey, he has provided a consistently good supply line. He has also troubled defenders in open play, as Manchester United's Rafael da Silva can testify, and has been the unglamorous interloper on leaderboard for most assists in the division.

Southampton: Jason Puncheon

Loaned out three times, exerting a greater impact in the Premier League than he did in League One, Jason Puncheon's Southampton career has a certain illogicality to it. Not that Saints should complain now: the former Barnet winger has emerged as one of their most influential players. He scored in their first league win, against Aston Villa, struck again in a man-of-the-match display in the vital victory over QPR and grabbed the only goal in the relegation six-pointer with Reading while his speed and skill have been features of many a game.

Stoke: Asmir Begovic

Such compliments as Stoke attract still tend to be backhanded, accompanied by veiled references to their style of play. Yet some facets of their play should attract open admiration. Their defensive record has been outstanding, especially at home, and if it is hard to pick between centre-backs Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth and goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, the latter wins this vote. In a season when many a goalkeeper has made high-profile slips, he has been the definition of consistency.

Sunderland: Danny Rose

Steven Fletcher's early-season form made him an obvious candidate but over the first four months of the campaign, another of Martin O'Neill's summer signings has provided more consistency. Left-back had been something of a problem position for Sunderland but Danny Rose, breaking forward to give his side attacking impetus, has been more than just a left-back. At times, he has ranked among the Black Cats' most dangerous players going forward, making it easy to see why many hope they can secure the on-loan Rose's signature on a permanent basis.

Swansea: Michu

On paper, the £2 million signing of an attacking midfielder who had struck 15 times in La Liga last season looked a great deal. On the pitch, it has proved even better. Michu is not merely the bargain of the year but one of the players of the campaign so far and, at the moment, the Premier League's joint top scorer. A superb finisher, he looked immediately at home in the English (and Welsh) game, scoring twice on his debut. Another double, at Emirates Stadium, gave Swansea their best day under Michael Laudrup.

Tottenham: Sandro

If several Chelsea players struggled to meet Andre Villas-Boas' idea of a midfielder last season, their Tottenham counterparts are acquitting themselves better. On the comparatively few occasions when both have been available, Sandro and Mousa Dembele may have been the best central-midfield partnership in the Premier League. While injuries have affected the Belgian, the Brazilian has been the constant in the side. Like Jermain Defoe and Steven Caulker, he is benefiting from Villas-Boas' appointment.

West Brom: Claudio Yacob

Given West Bromwich Albion's fine start to life under Steve Clarke, there are several candidates. But Claudio Yacob appears to epitomise Albion, flourishing in their unexpected opening-day triumph against Liverpool and maintaining his fine form thereafter. Efficient in possession and effective at regaining it, Yacob has formed a fine partnership with Youssouf Mulumbu. With a combined cost of £150,000, they rank among the best defensive midfielders in the division.

West Ham: Mohamed Diame

There was a time when Sam Allardyce used to raid Real Madrid for free transfers. Last summer, he went to Wigan instead, an approach that has been justified by Mohamed Diame's fine form. Allardyce has used the Senegalese's running power to get him charging at opposition defences, an approach that was particularly effective in the Diame-inspired turnaround to defeat Chelsea. But he has excelled throughout and the hamstring injury he sustained against Liverpool was a real blow to West Ham.

Wigan: James McCarthy

It is tempting to wonder if, had Roberto Martinez been appointed Liverpool manager in June, it would be James McCarthy rather than Joe Allen in the heart of the midfield at Anfield. Certainly the Ireland international looks capable of making the step up. A manager with passing principles like Martinez's requires players who are comfortable in possession and McCarthy is particularly assured. Capable of beating a man, he invariably takes the right option.

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