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Half-time report - Top of the class

Class, it is often asserted, is permanent, while form may be temporary.

Nonetheless, there are players at every club who, no matter classy, will be hoping to maintain their stellar level of performance for the rest of the campaign. They are the players leading the way for the end-of-season awards at their respective clubs. They are:

Manchester United: Nemanja Vidic

He started the season the subject of debates as to which category of Sir Alex Ferguson's buys he fell into, but Nemanja Vidic has emerged as the most redoubtable and important member of the Manchester United rearguard.

Seemingly chiselled from rock, he is their most dominant defender since Jaap Stam and, as he has the added benefit of making Rio Ferdinand more dependable, invaluable.

Perhaps not since Steve Bruce, too, have United had a centre back capable of making such an impression at set-pieces at either end.

While Cristiano Ronaldo's has been the more ostentatious contribution to United's season, Vidic's may be the most significant.

Chelsea: Michael Essien

Rewind five months and Michael Essien's place appeared in serious threat. Now he approaches the New Year as the only player to have appeared in every minute of every game for Chelsea; it is the sort of statistic that suggests he is indispensable.

So, too, do his performances. Possessing the power to dominate, his forcefulness in the tackle has been evident but, for those who witnessed a wonderful goal against Arsenal, so has his quality.

Essien has also excelled as an emergency, but marauding right back; were he not so capable in midfield, he could solve Chelsea's problem position there.

Liverpool: Dirk Kuyt

In itself, the choice of the Dutchman is an indictment of others. At Anfield - or, more pertinently, away from Anfield - no Liverpool player has displayed the required consistency to mount a title challenge.

Kuyt comes closest, even if it is not reflected by his goal tally.

Though yet to prove as prolific as had been hoped, nonetheless the attack is constructed around him and indicates his varied attributes - enabling him to be either the target man or a forceful runner in the channels - have found approval with Rafael Benitez.

Arsenal: Gilberto Silva

He is as understated as ever, but there is greater acknowledgement of his quiet influence.

Gilberto Silva has deputised for Thierry Henry as both captain and penalty-taker, but he is also developing a fine line in rescue missions, as the equalisers against Aston Villa and Portsmouth that have preserved Arsenal's unbeaten record at the Emirates Stadium indicate.

And the bigger the game, the better the Brazilian has performed: besides his brace in the North London derby, he was outstanding at both Manchester United and Chelsea. The merits of such an excellent reading of the game are becoming more apparent.

Bolton: Jussi Jaaskelainen

Much of what Sam Allardyce says can be disputed but when he bracketed Jussi Jaaskelainen with Petr Cech as the best goalkeeper in the Premiership, there should be little argument.

Saving two penalties in a derby victory at Blackburn should rank as the highlight of his season, but there are plenty of contenders; most recently, his saves brought Bolton an undeserved victory at Aston Villa.

On the debit side, there is only Colin Kazim-Richards' improbable equaliser for Sheffield United; nonetheless, the Finn might, as Allardyce suggested, earn Bolton 12 points this season.

Portsmouth: Linvoy Primus

If Harry Redknapp's summer signings David James, Sol Campbell and Kanu are the more obvious candidates, there are none more deserving than Linvoy Primus.

As his manager has admitted, Redknapp has admitted he hardly expect Primus to figure in Portsmouth's promotion-winning side four seasons ago and, after an influx of defenders in 2006, it would have been logical if the former Barnet player had been the man sidelined.

Instead, he was paired with Campbell, a team-mate two decades ago in youth football, to form the most unexpected entry for the Premiership's best central defensive duo.

Tottenham: Ledley King

The link between their captain's availability and their results can be easily established. Tottenham's sluggish start to the season is explained by Ledley King's injury-enforced absence.

His return was pivotal to a lengthy improved run in both the Premiership and the cup competitions, bringing assurance and acceleration to the defence.

And while squad rotation remains on Martin Jol's agenda it is significant that two of the few exempted from it are the central defensive partnership of King and Michael Dawson.

Reading: Kevin Doyle

The best £78,000 Steve Coppell ever spent. Reading's seamless adjustment to the top flight has been epitomised by their leading goalscorer.

Kevin Doyle possesses the pace to make an impact; indeed, he was swift enough to score the fastest goal of the season at Sheffield United.

At one stage, he was the Premiership's joint top scorer and now conservative estimates of his value are around £6 million.

Aston Villa: Gareth Barry

Aston Villa's master of all trades, Gareth Barry's emphatic penalties and long-range shooting have made him their top scorer.

Willing to leave Villa Park in the summer, he has been rejuvenated, despite lacking a fixed starting position. But, equally accomplished at left back or in the midfield, he is living up to his considerable potential.

The clamour for an England recall has never been stronger, and rightly so.

Everton: Joleon Lescott

If a flurry of goals suggested Andrew Johnson was David Moyes' best summer signing, Joleon Lescott's quiet consistency during the striker's subsequent drought would indicate it is actually the former Wolves defender.

While his form has offered the promise of an excellent long-term partnership with Joseph Yobo, each possessing height, speed and timing in the tackle, it is all the more admirable because Lescott has spent much of the campaign as a makeshift left-back.

Though he is right footed, few wingers have exposed him.

Fulham: Moritz Volz

A small squad reduced to the bare bones by injuries: the reality for Chris Coleman is the rhetoric of many of his counterparts. It has meant Moritz Volz, full-back though he is, has spent much of the campaign in midfield and it is to the German's credit that he has acquitted himself commendably.

Though hardly known for his threat in the opposition box, a belated first league goal secured a point at Aston Villa and a foray forward secured the penalty against Middlesbrough.

It may not be his preferred position, but Volz has made the most of his time in midfield.

Wigan: Chris Kirkland

A brief taste of first-team football followed by the inevitable injury: there has been a depressing predictability to Chris Kirkland's career. The pattern has not quite been broken - he sustained concussion at Middlesbrough, for example - but, at the risk of pre-empting another injury, Kirkland is on course to complete a season in the side.

It would be a first, and such is his consistent excellence that, after growing acquainted with the bench at Liverpool, he is an automatic selection for Wigan. Kirkland could yet, as has long been predicted, become England's first choice.

Newcastle: Antoine Sibierski

Amid the lengthy debate about how to replace Alan Shearer, it was little surprise that Antoine Sibierski's name never cropped up. However, one of Glenn Roeder's most maligned signings has taken on the retired Shearer's role as target man.

Though usually deployed as the second striker, his aerial ability has been invaluable for Newcastle and there are signs of burgeoning partnership with Obafemi Martins, especially when the Frenchman supplied the Nigerian with a wonderful pass for his opening goal at Blackburn.

Newcastle have often been criticised for wasting money but Sibierski, a free transfer, looks a rare bargain.

Manchester City: Joey Barton

For Stuart Pearce, the thrashing at Wigan must have been as revealing as it was unpleasant. But while other Manchester City players' attitudes could be questioned, Joey Barton was indefatigable.

Indeed, he has been all season, even if the Blue Mooner attracted the attentions of the FA for a post-match reaction at Goodison Park.

Nonetheless, Barton's driving runs and assured finishing have made him City's top scorer; perhaps only his passing and his reputation have prevented wealthier clubs from bidding for him.

Sheffield United: Keith Gillespie

At Bramall Lane, Keith Gillespie is far from alone in exceeding expectations.

But, in transporting us back to his peak a decade ago, he has also made a huge contribution to Sheffield United's quest for survival. Late wins have become their hallmark and, within a week, Gillespie fashioned two, helping to supply Danny Webber against Watford before volleying in against Charlton himself.

And throughout, he has shown the kind of spirit imbued in Sheffield United.

Blackburn: Tugay

Without Steven Reid and, at times, Robbie Savage, Blackburn's senior citizen has assumed greater importance in the midfield.

Tugay has proved that, even at 36, he is not in decline. He still has a wonderful passing range and his capacity to strike beautifully clean long-range shots was evident in memorable goals against Basle and Tottenham.

When he eventually leaves, how will Blackburn replace him?

Middlesbrough: Jonathan Woodgate

Back in his home town, Jonathan Woodgate brings a veneer of class to his defensive duties and renders it all the more frustrating that injuries sideline him so often.

He was perhaps at his best away at Arsenal, where his timing in the tackle and reading of the game were perfect.

Without Woodgate, Middlesbrough's plight would be still more desperate.

West Ham: Hayden Mullins

Reliability personified in a team who have been far too unreliable, Hayden Mullins looks like seeing off the challenge of Javier Mascherano.

It was something few anticipated but Alan Curbishley seems in agreement with Alan Pardew in preferring the unselfish Londoner.

And, for a team embroiled in a relegation struggle, Mullins' two winning goals - against Blackburn and Sheffield United - could prove vital

Charlton: Andy Reid

His only rival was Scott Carson, and both represent two of Charlton's few hopes for survival.

Andy Reid may look an unlikely athlete, but he ranks as much Iain Dowie's best buy and, for much of this season, their only source of creativity.

Neither a conventional winger nor a typical midfield playmaker, Reid nonetheless has a wonderful left foot, and it has been responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the majority of Charlton goals since his return to fitness.

Watford: Ben Foster

Top of a shortlist that was just that, Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to loan Ben Foster to Watford for a second successive season has ensured he has got plenty of practice.

Three clean sheets have followed for Foster; indeed, Watford do not have the defensive record of a team doomed to relegation.

But there is little doubt their Premiership position would be still more precarious without Foster.


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