Team of the Week
December 26 was a superb day for the 'keeping fraternity with goals at a premium and wonder saves being produced at nearly every ground. Honourable mentions go to Shay Given, Jussi Jaaskelainen and Heurelho Gomes but Joe Hart trumped them all with a performance of real endeavour and resilience to prevent Chelsea scoring for the first time in 34 games. Hart underlined his international credentials with a string of fine saves and even finished the game with a bandaged head, a la Terry Butcher, after an aerial clash with Salomon Kalou. Heroic stuff.
But every superhero needs a sidekick, and the Robin to Hart's Batman on Saturday was Birmingham defender Roger Johnson who produced another classy display in what has been a tremendous debut season in the Premier League. Faced with the might of Didier Drogba, Johnson was a tower of strength and his most eye-catching contribution came in the final minutes when he headed off the line. An outside contender for a World Cup spot?
Doing his best Roger Johnson impression at the other end was Chelsea defender John Terry. The England skipper has attracted negative headlines of late but there was no chance of him affording the Birmingham strikers the freedom of the St Andrews pitch as he stood strong in the face of a spirited performance from the home side. One block with his head to deny Christian Benitez was particularly impressive.
Cesc Fabregas may have stolen the headlines with his impressive cameo but Arsenal's leading man for the majority of the 3-0 win over Aston Villa was Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgian caught the eye early in the season with a prolific streak but Sunday's game demonstrated his real value to Arsenal. Vermaelen fought valiantly with Emile Heskey and helped snuff out a Villa side that are dangerous on the break. One superb tackle to deny Heskey was particularly well received by the home supporters in North London
He may only have been on the field for 27 minutes but Cesc Fabregas tore Aston Villa apart at Emirates Stadium in a 3-0 win for his side. Exiled to the bench due to a hamstring concern, Fabregas came on after 57 minutes and immediately gave his side poise and direction. Scoring with a tremendous free-kick and a neat finish, Fabregas injured himself when netting the second and was taken off to a standing ovation after 84 minutes having turned the game decisively in Arsenal's favour.
Roberto Mancini enjoyed a fruitful start to his Manchester City career with a 2-0 win over Stoke City and central to that victory was the stirring performance of Gareth Barry in midfield. Helping contain the visitors, Barry also had an influential game in the final third and it was his header that teed up Carlos Tevez to score an acrobatic second. A sliding challenge to deny James Beattie late on was typical of his industrious performance and will surely have made him an early favourite of the new manager.
Like Barry, Scott Parker may not have scored in West Ham's important 2-0 win over Portsmouth but it was his energy and drive in midfield that provided the platform for victory. Creating golden chances for both Jack Collison and Valon Behrami, Parker was an irrepressible figure and West Ham's only concern will be keeping hold of him when the transfer window opens in January. Manager Gianfranco Zola said he felt "lucky" to have Parker in his team after moving out of the relegation zone with three points.
Rafa Benitez made a pointed comment regarding Steven Gerrard's form in midweek and his gentle prod produced immediate results in a 2-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers. Gerrard looked much improved and thumped home a header from Emiliano Insua's cross for only his fifth goal of the season. Liverpool will need more of the same from their captain if they are to avoid slipping out of the top four this season.
He may have scored four of his five goals for West Ham from the penalty spot, but Alessandro Diamanti is fast becoming something of a talisman for Zola's side. On target again from 12 yards, his third goal in successive games, the Italian tormented Portsmouth at Upton Park and performed equally well in a central role or when forced to move out wide following the early loss of Mark Noble due to injury. Deadly from the spot, West Ham will hope Diamanti can display his prowess on a more regular basis if they are to move away from trouble.
With his loan move to Burnley due to expire imminently, David Nugent picked the perfect time to prove to Owen Coyle he is worth further investment when scoring his side's goal in a 1-1 draw with Bolton at Turf Moor. Nugent claimed the equaliser when heading in from Wade Elliot's cross and was only denied a glut of goals by the impressive Jussi Jaaskelainen as he saw a number of chances saved. Coyle admitted after the game he could sign Nugent on a permanent deal. Job done.
Continuing a fine run of form that has made a mockery of claims he belongs in the 'non-scoring striker' category that Emile Heskey has represented with such distinction, Carlos Tevez was a constant threat to the Stoke defence and played a part in both Manchester City goals. It was his cross that Robinho - who in contrast had a horrible afternoon - scuffed into the path of Martin Petrov and Tevez then added a second with an acrobatic effort, poking the ball past Thomas Sorensen with the toe of his boot. The Argentinian now has six goals in six games and is producing when Robinho and Emmanuel Adebayor appear unable to do so.
Not only is Alex McLeish our Manager of the Weekend, but the Birmingham boss is a leading contender for the Manager of the Year award as well after a quite brilliant first half of the season. A 0-0 draw against Chelsea on Boxing Day extended his side's unbeaten streak to ten games and leaves them eighth in the table at the halfway stage of the season. It is a mark of their rapid development that the result was met with no more than a ripple of surprise.