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Mar 17, 2011

Star performers twinkle but don't shine

In the great unofficial argument between La Liga and the Premier League, the accusation is that Spain's is a two-team division and that British is best because of the greater competitiveness. At its most reductionist, that line of criticism can be streamlined still further: Spain's is a two-player league, with Messrs Messi and Ronaldo blinding observers to others. It is unfair, not least to David Villa, Andres Iniesta and Xavi, but the prolific superstars in Spain mean their Player of the Year awards can double up as a dress rehearsal for the Ballon d'Or. And while Barcelona are in the ascendant, one of the goal-a-game men is the obvious winner.

The English honours, on the other hand, have no such obvious destination. Over the course of the season, there is no outstanding candidate, no one who, on performances alone, is equipped to be the poster boy for the Premier League. The benefit is that it reflects the added unpredictability of a division where the best sides are more fallible and the strugglers more spirited. If anyone can beat anyone, as is sometimes said, it would be apt if a player such as Charlie Adam or Scott Parker, either of whom could end the campaign a Championship player, emerged with silverware.

It may be an era of greater democracy, but one conclusion is that there is a void, created by the absence of a captivating, coruscating talent. It may be a temporary phenomenon. The shortlist for last season's PFA Player of the Year award featured four glittering stars - Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Carlos Tevez and Cesc Fabregas - and, had it been compiled later, could easily have been extended to include the deserving duo of Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda.

Now the picture is more complicated. That 20 or 30 players could be considered indicates that no one has stood out. At the half-way stage, leading candidates included Samir Nasri, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart, but injuries have impeded the two Tottenham players, who have mustered just three goals in 2011 between them. Arsenal's Nasri has endured a run of ten games without scoring, much his longest of the season.

Go back still further and the earlier frontrunners came from Stamford Bridge. But, after a startling start to the season, Drogba and Malouda have faded to an extent where neither can be guaranteed of his place in Carlo Ancelotti's team.

Yet they set the tone for the season. Others have sparkled sporadically; sometimes, there are legitimate reasons why excellence has not been season-long. At 37 and 36 respectively, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were always going to spend spells on the sidelines. Raul Meireles has been unstoppable at times under Kenny Dalglish, but he was underwhelming while Roy Hodgson managed Liverpool. Robin van Persie missed much of the first half of the campaign before scoring 13 goals in 11 games. Fabregas, too, has been impeded by injury. Andy Carroll's form for Newcastle dictates that he deserves a mention but he has played 16 minutes of league football in 2011.

His predecessor in Liverpool's No. 9 shirt, Fernando Torres, ranks alongside Rooney among the major disappointments of the year. It is somehow symbolic, though, that the latter could end up having scored its finest goal, that extraordinary overhead kick.

Elsewhere in the Manchester United attack, Dimitar Berbatov is contriving to be the league's top scorer while being omitted for some of his club's bigger games. Consistency over a campaign is proving elusive. It is a reason why both Tevez and Parker have their advocates; arguably, however, each was even better last year and the Manchester City captain may be running out of steam at the pivotal point. As Blackpool slide down the league the case for Adam is weakened, although not since Neil Redfearn excelled for Barnsley in 1997-98 has a player performed as well in such seemingly unprepossessing circumstances.

Adam's extravagant 60-yard cross-field balls are eye-catching. That works to his advantage, because it is not the English way to favour unassuming passers. Luka Modric and David Silva are two who may suffer on those grounds and, while Jack Wilshere's nationality keeps him in the spotlight, his fate may be challenging Bale for the awards for youthful brilliance.

Which leaves two contenders. With Manchester United in pole position to claim the league title and favourites to win the FA Cup, it would be appropriate if the individual prizes also ended up at Old Trafford. In a season that has not been notable for defiant defending, Nemanja Vidic is a welcome exception. It is not a novel observation, but were he an Arsenal player then Arsene Wenger's side would surely top the table.

This vote, however, would go to Nani. Reliability and trickery can be mutually exclusive, but a tally of nine goals and 13 assists in league games alone shows that the Portuguese is invariably involved. He, more than Berbatov, has taken over from Rooney as the attacking inspiration. His is not an unarguable case. Then again, neither is anyone else's. But that is the point: there is no Messi to dominate, collecting votes at the rate at which he scores goals.

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