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Dec 24, 2009

The Premier League's Christmas crackers

Titles are not won at Christmas, as plenty of managers have reiterated over the years, but if they were, who would be walking away with the Player of the Year award at their respective clubs?

• Hubbard: Flops of the season so far

Arsenal: Thomas Vermaelen

The fine form of Cesc Fabregas in midfield may be taken for granted, but given Arsenal's defensive difficulties in recent seasons, Thomas Vermaelen's dependability represents a welcome improvement. The £10 million centre-back initially caught the eye with his goal-scoring prowess, but his calm defending is of greater significance. Arsene Wenger's judgment of centre-backs has been questioned but, on this occasion, he was spot on.

Aston Villa: James Milner

In Richard Dunne, Villa have a candidate for the title of the signing of the season, but even he has been overshadowed by a man they bought 12 months before. Whether on the right wing or, more recently, the centre of midfield, James Milner has provided some increasingly accomplished performances. A long-range strike against Sunderland may represent the highlight of his campaign, but his consistency has been the most significant factor for Villa.

Birmingham City: Roger Johnson

There is a case for Lee Bowyer, who has belatedly rediscovered his goal-scoring touch, or for Barry Ferguson, who has confounded many expectations south of the border with his effectiveness. But Roger Johnson has been outstanding in the heart of the defence. Like Scott Dann, another recruited from the Championship, he has taken no time to acclimatise to the higher league. Since an auspicious debut at Old Trafford in August, his aerial ability and reliability have been apparent throughout Birmingham's rise.

Blackburn: David Dunn

The image of Blackburn as an overly direct team can be true. Yet on the occasions when David Dunn is fit, which are all too infrequent for Rovers' liking, they are capable of creativity. His renaissance has brought reminders of the excellence he produced in his first spell at Ewood Park, while he has produced a calibre of finishing that appears beyond Blackburn's strikers. Indeed, the combined efforts of Sam Allardyce's quartet is less than Dunn's contribution.

Bolton: Gary Cahill

Few centre-halves are capable of scoring from outside the penalty area. But in that, as much else, Gary Cahill is emerging as an exception. A long-range goal against Manchester City, like an overhead kick he scored in the Second City derby in his Aston Villa days, was a sign that he is a centre-back with genuine ability on the ball. Add in some classy defensive displays and it is easy to see why Fabio Capello has called up Cahill and why he has been mentioned increasingly often in connection with moves elsewhere.

Burnley: Brian Jensen

The Beast of Turf Moor sounds like a fictional character. There are one or two Premier League strikers who wish he was. While Brian Jensen - long nicknamed "the Beast" - has conceded more goals than any other top-flight keeper, Burnley's defensive record would be considerably worse but for him. The penalty save to deny Michael Carrick in the victory over Manchester United may represent the highlight, but there are plenty of other examples of defiance from the imposing shot-stopper.

Chelsea: Didier Drogba

Not so much Chelsea's player of the season as the footballer of the year so far, Didier Drogba began 2009 in internal exile after falling out of favour with Luiz Felipe Scolari and ends it as the most devastating forward in the Premier League. Carlo Ancelotti, like Jose Mourinho before him, seems to know how to harness Drogba so his destructive tendencies result in damage to opposing defences rather than his own side. If only he could find a way of ending the Ivorian's fondness for amateur dramatics.

Everton: Louis Saha

"King Louis," as his team-mates have nicknamed him, can appear the type of sickly monarch who requires a regent. This season, however, an almost fully-fit Saha has illustrated why his talents have tempted both Manchester United and France. Two-footed, quick and able in the air, his return of ten goals in just 12 Premier League starts shows how prolific he can be, even in a struggling side. And there are times this season when an Everton injury crisis has involved an element of novelty: Saha has not been sidelined.

Fulham: Aaron Hughes

Fulham don't always attract much attention, but just look at that defensive record: just 17 goals conceded, as many as Manchester United and fewer than Arsenal and Liverpool. A consistent back four merits much of the praise but while the towering Brede Hangeland is the most prominent figure, his more unobtrusive sidekick is equally effective. With his brand of quiet consistency, Aaron Hughes rather epitomises Roy Hodgson's team.

Hull: Anthony Gardner

There are ways of measuring Anthony Gardner's importance to the Hull cause. He has been a common denominator in each of Hull's three clean sheets this season, but was absent when diabolical defending meant they shipped four goals at Sunderland and six at Liverpool. As important, too, is the influence of a reliable centre-back on the rest of what can be an error-prone rearguard.

Liverpool: Fernando Torres

Underachievement has been all too common at Anfield, but there is one notable exception. Fernando Torres has improved upon his remarkable scoring record in England. With 11 in 12 Premier League starts, his form inevitably prompts the question of what he might have achieved had he been fit throughout the campaign. As it is, Torres remains a strong candidate to finish top scorer in the division.

Manchester City: Craig Bellamy

Dismissed for diving, scoring two equalisers in the Manchester derby before getting in an altercation with a fan and keeping the most expensive player in Premier League history out of the team: just another uneventful season in the quiet career of Craig Bellamy, then. The cheapest of the five strikers in the City squad could have also been ranked the lowest. Instead, he has become indispensable, reinventing himself as a goal-scoring left winger. Despite being 30 and despite a litany of injuries, he retains a turn of pace and a direct running style that can embarrass almost any defender. None did more to keep Mark Hughes in a job.

Manchester United: Ryan Giggs Longevity has brought a reward for Ryan Giggs almost two decades into his Manchester United career. If some of the many accolades are attributed to sentimentality, however, they should not be. Giggs' appearances may be rationed these days, but he retains his ability to determine even the biggest games. The early-season fixtures against Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City were three such, and the Welshman had a hat-trick of assists amid the derby drama. Few can beat a full-back for pace and skill; still fewer can do it at 36.

Portsmouth: Jamie O'Hara

Despite the team being rooted to the bottom of the league for virtually the entire season, Portsmouth have several contenders: Younes Kaboul, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Jamie O'Hara have all taken significant steps forward this season. The latter gets this vote for galvanising Portsmouth with a blend of determination and decent distribution from his midfield berth. Pompey's survival hinges, among other things, on being able to renew O'Hara's loan from Tottenham.

Stoke City: Ryan Shawcross

There is a school of thought that the only way players go when they leave Manchester United is down. Ryan Shawcross may be the exception to the rule, not least because of the occasional rumours that Sir Alex Ferguson has thought about buying him back. Shawcross' solidity is one of the reasons Stoke boast an enviable defensive record in the Premier League. His partnership with Abdoulaye Faye is among the more reliable around.

Sunderland: Andy Reid

A one-man advertisement for slimming, Andy Reid's contributions have been weightier since the midfielder became thinner. The quality of his left foot has rarely been in doubt and Sunderland's strikers can certainly vouch for the calibre of his crosses, but Reid's greater ability to cover the ground has made him indispensable for Steve Bruce. Giovanni Trapattoni is not a fan, but ever greater numbers of others are.

Tottenham: Aaron Lennon

Tottenham's outstanding player last season, Aaron Lennon may be headed for an individual double come the end-of-season awards in the current campaign. The criticism that used to be levelled against him - that his remarkable pace was not accompanied by an end product - should be banished: Lennon figures prominently on the assist charts and has been a supplier of consistently fine crosses. Jermain Defoe, in particular, has grounds to be grateful.

West Ham: Scott Parker

While West Ham's season has been undistinguished, the same cannot be said for Scott Parker's. Snapping into tackles with the relish that has brought a flurry of yellow cards and breaking forward with menace, the midfielder has been a candidate for man of the match most times he has taken the field. While others' form has faltered as the Hammers' problems have intensified, Parker has prospered in adversity. And that is normally the sign of a player to admire.

Wigan: Hugo Rodallega

Wigan's wins have tended to come against teams above them in the table, but they all have one thing in common: Hugo Rodallega has scored. Beginning with an outstanding opening-day strike at Aston Villa, the Colombian has been quick to prove his potency, either in attack or from the left wing. While chairman Dave Whelan said Steve Bruce left Wigan with "a few dodgy signings", in Rodallega, he left them their likeliest way of staying in the division for another year.

Wolves: Jody Craddock

The odds on a top-flight fixture being played to an aural backdrop of "Walking in a Craddock wonderland" must have been high. Indeed, 34-year-old Jody Craddock could have been pensioned off when Wolves won promotion to the Premier League. Instead, the central defender, who is scarcely noted for contributing in the opposing penalty area, has spent much of the campaign as Wolves' improbable top scorer. Factor in his dependable defending and his unlikely status as a crowd favourite has been belatedly earned.

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