Players of the season... so far
As the season reaches its half-way point, some players in the Premier League can reflect upon their efforts thus far with satisfaction. With nothing set in stone, currently leading the way at their respective clubs and potentially on course for the Player of the Year awards are:
Arsenal: Alexander Hleb
Cesc who? Admittedly Cesc Fabregas' dominance, particularly during three months of non-stop scoring, makes the Spaniard the outstanding candidate to be named Footballer of the Year. But Alexander Hleb has been as influential in Arsenal's transformation from elegant outsiders to league leaders. His reinvention as the bridge between attack has enabled a player previously derided for being lightweight and anonymous to emerge as a crucial creative influence. Operating largely in the final third, the quality of his passing - he had a 98% success rate against Aston Villa - has made Hleb a revelation.
Manchester United: Nemanja Vidic
As ever, Cristiano Ronaldo has provided the more eye-catching contributions, and it is hard to argue with the Portuguese's recent run of 15 goals in 15 games. Yet the records United have set have been largely defensive and only six Premier League goals have been conceded when Nemanja Vidic is present. The fearsome Serb's ability to intimidate opponents is one reason, his habit of conjuring the best from the often infuriating Rio Ferdinand another. Messrs Rooney and Ronaldo excepted, he is United's most important player.
Chelsea: Ricardo Carvalho
Chelsea hold their comparatively lofty league position in spite of the failure, sometimes because of injury, of their blue-chip players to operate at their optimum level for the entirety of the campaign. But while the debate tends to centre on whether Didier Drogba or John Terry is their key player, both results and his performances suggest it is Ricardo Carvalho. He has only managed seven Premier League appearances this season, but Chelsea won the first six of them, with the assurance of the confident Carvalho in the centre of defence a major factor.
Manchester City: Elano
Partly for the finesse of his free kicks, but partly because Elano has enabled a particularly rapid transformation of Manchester City's style of play and, in turn, the mindset of their supporters from perennial pessimism to uncharacteristic optimism. The Brazilian has become the fulcrum of an attack who, not so long ago, were the butt of many a joke. In the process, he has made the City of Manchester Stadium the preferred escape route from Ukraine, with Nery Castillo set to join him. Yet it is the range of his passing and the quality of his finishing that earns Elano this vote as Sven-Goran Eriksson's outstanding performer.
Liverpool: Steven Gerrard
Javier Mascherano has displayed most consistency while Fernando Torres is the greatest cause for optimism, but an in-form Steven Gerrard remains Rafa Benitez's trump card. Equipped with a ravenous appetite to dominate, Gerrard has spent much of the last two months overpowering opponents, employing both his physical and footballing superiority to devastating effect. Scoring in seven consecutive games - the sort of statistic that eludes most strikers during their careers - is one indication of his excellence, but others abound.
Portsmouth: Sulley Muntari
Singling out any one individual from a side that have exceeded expectations so dramatically is unfair on others, from the workhorse-turned-goalscorer Benjani to the excellent defensive triumvirate of David James, Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin. Yet Portsmouth's improved form, especially away from home, has been based on a midfield that bristles with menace and instigates counter-attacks by combining athleticism with ability. Both have been evident from the physical Ghanaian Sulley Muntari, whose talent was showcased in his spectacular brace at Villa Park.
Everton: Lee Carsley
In a team whose improvement stems from their greater attacking arsenal, it may seem contradictory to select a defensive midfielder, but Lee Carsley's unselfish contributions have allowed Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar to surge forwards. Carsley's merits - positional discipline, safe and steady passing and a willingness to graft for the cause - are not flashy, but he has provided the balance required in the centre of the pitch as well a dramatic late strike against Birmingham to convert a draw into a victory.
Aston Villa: Ashley Young
Martin O'Neill's decision to commit £9.6million on Ashley Young was greeted by a soundtrack of sneers. Now it isn't being questioned. Along with Gabriel Agbonlahor, Young is at the forefront of an emerging generation of energetic talent at Villa Park, making it a tortuous arena for slow defenders to visit. Sheer speed has been allied with a quality of crossing that means Young ranks near the top of the assists charts and, while more goals are required, he has been among the most dangerous wingers of the season so far.
Blackburn: Roque Santa Cruz
If it may appear logical that a former forward becomes an excellent judge of a striker, it is rarely that simple. Yet Mark Hughes has excelled in recruiting scorers, with Roque Santa Cruz excelling as Benni McCarthy and Craig Bellamy have done before him. The Paraguayan's aptitude for English football - and, in particular, for the steady stream of crosses that David Bentley and co. can supply - was immediately apparent and the surprise is that his goals have not delivered more success. Few players will score five in two games, as Santa Cruz recently did, and lose both matches.
West Ham: Robert Green
There are reasons enough to distrust Steve McClaren's judgment, but Robert Green has provided more. The major cause of West Ham's injury-hit squad's elevation into mid-table, the goalkeeper has never played better. Three penalty saves would be an achievement for any keeper; that Green had never previously stopped one makes it all the more remarkable. West Ham's defensive record is excellent and, though the explanation appeared to elude McClaren, it is no secret why.
Newcastle: James Milner
The path to popularity at St James' Park is a rather unusual one. Being deployed out of position, left on the bench or taken off all help, together with the essential ingredient of having arrived at Newcastle United before Sam Allardyce. James Milner scores highly on all counts but, in addition, he has performed admirably this season, usually on the left flank and occasionally in his preferred role on the right. It accounts for the high esteem in which Milner is held on Tyneside, though scoring against Sunderland, albeit fortunately, also contributed.
Tottenham: Robbie Keane
When one of the season's worst refereeing decisions handed Robbie Keane an impromptu mid-season break, Tottenham's stand-in captain was threatening to reach Christmas as the Premier League's top scorer. That Keane's contributions, in a struggling side, extend far beyond simply scoring would have rendered it remarkable. Instead, the Irishman, whose quick footwork and impish demonstrations of skill make him much more than an out-and-out goalscorer, is closing in on a century of Tottenham strikes, and averages better than one every other start.
Reading: Stephen Hunt
The idiosyncratic Irishman is fast acquiring cult status at the Madejski. The sort of energetic irritant who annoys opponents - characteristics guaranteed to endear him to his own supporters - Hunt has combined his work ethic with glimpses of quality. The calm penalties converted against Liverpool and Birmingham were indications that Hunt possesses more than mere nuisance value as, when many of his team-mates have struggled to emulate their form last season, he is an exception. A dreadful tackle on Manchester City's Gelson Fernandes is the only blight on his campaign.
Middlesbrough: David Wheater
Insipid defeats, the occasional surprise victory and consistent inconsistency: just the average Middlesbrough season, then. While others' form has mirrored their team's, David Wheater has been an unusually reliable presence in the Boro defence. Jonathan Woodgate's performances have suffered but those of the junior partner in the heart of the defence have not, enabling him to displace Robert Huth and Chris Riggott and force Emanuel Pogatetz to switch to left-back.
Birmingham: Johan Djourou
Steve Bruce gave Birmingham's squad a much-needed makeover in the summer and, while Alex McLeish may yet benefit, he will be parted from the most talented of the newcomers in January. Johan Djourou's return to Arsenal deprives Birmingham of their speediest defender, but his assured displays in the first half of the campaign have enhanced his chances of figuring at the Emirates Stadium, as well as Birmingham's of maintaining their top-flight status.
Bolton: Danny Guthrie
Nicolas Anelka, a scorer in each of their three wins and the likeliest saviour in Bolton's battle for survival, would be a more obvious choice. But Anelka's abilities were already well known whereas Danny Guthrie represents more of revelation. Gary Megson's appointment, and his fondness for combative midfielders, could have counted against a neat passer such as Guthrie, and especially one recruited by Sammy Lee. Instead, the on-loan Liverpool man has ensured that the experienced duo of Gary Speed and Gavin McCann have stayed on the sidelines by forming an effective midfield trio with Ivan Campo and Kevin Nolan. A man-of-the-match performance against Manchester United endeared him to Liverpool and Bolton fans alike.
Sunderland: Kenwyne Jones
If there are ample reasons to suggest that Roy Keane should not be allowed near a chequebook for quite some time, his lavish spending has yielded at least one success. Four goals may appear a modest tally for a £6 million investment, but Kenwyne Jones has spent much of the time operating as a lone strike-force, both battering ram and tireless chaser of causes, lost or otherwise. And without him, the composition of the Sunderland forward line scarcely bears thinking about.
Fulham: Clint Dempsey
As Lawrie Sanchez spent his summer accumulating left wingers, the conclusion could be drawn that he either had forgotten about, or was hoping to cast aside, Clint Dempsey, even though it was the American's winner against Liverpool that effectively earned him the job. Instead the Texan, either operating on the left flank or in attack has rather upstaged Diomansy Kamara by emerging as Fulham's top scorer. In a season of few positives, he represents one.
Wigan: Paul Scharner
The eccentric Austrian, having already rejected the chance to join Steve Bruce at Birmingham, then contrived to irritate his new manager by suggesting Wigan played direct football. No matter, Scharner's place is secure, because Bruce cannot afford to drop the powerful midfielder. His total of three goals is exceeded only by Marcus Bent and, given Wigan's habit of conceding, Scharner could also prove Bruce's best central defender in the second half of the season.
Derby: Matt Oakley
In a side that can be damned with faint praise but attract few genuine compliments, Matt Oakley has not been embarrassed in the Premier League this season. For Derby, that is about as good as it gets, sadly, but their captain has provided a reminder of why he was an effective top-flight performer for the best part of a decade with his neat passing. Two goals is an unexceptional tally, but it nonetheless constitutes one-third of Derby's meagre total.