x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A season's fleeting greetings in the Premier League

Richard Jolly looks at the best and the worst of the English Premier League season as the competition approaches the half-way point.

Manchester United's striker Robin van Persie.
Manchester United's striker Robin van Persie.

Richard Jolly looks at the best and the worst of the English Premier League season as the competition approaches the half-way point.

Best player: Robin van Persie

His club has changed but little else has. Van Persie has maintained his magnificent form from last season, slotting in seamlessly at Manchester United after his £24 million (Dh142.5m) move from Arsenal.

His knack of scoring vital goals remains; it is just that whereas those goals took the Gunners into a Uefa Champions League spot, they now might make United champions again. Indeed, his winner against Manchester City earlier this month may prove the pivotal goal of the season.

Best signing: Michu

There were reasons to believe that the Spaniard was a bargain when Swansea City signed him. He had just finished as the top-scoring midfielder in the Primera Liga with Rayo Vallecano.

And yet he is proving even more prolific in the Premier League, leading the scoring charts after Sunday's equalising goal against Manchester United and, at £2 million (Dh11.85m), serving as an indictment of the managers in the English game who are reluctant to look abroad for signings.

Worst signing: Park Ji-sung

During his successful seven-year spell at Manchester United, Park's great strength was his stamina.

This, it seemed, was a footballer who not merely could run all day but would, willingly and frequently. And yet his final year at Old Trafford suggested his legs were going.

Mark Hughes ignored the warnings, signed him in the summer for Queens Park Rangers and compounded their problems by appointing a captain whose performances indicated he did not deserve a place in the team.

The chances are that when Park is fully fit, Harry Redknapp will prefer Ryan Nelsen's more obvious brand of leadership.

Best manager: Chris Hughton

Norwich City had overachieved last season in finishing 12th.

They then lost their highly rated manager, Paul Lambert, over the summer and were defeated 5-0 in their first game under Chris Hughton, leaving many observers of the league fearing the worst for the club.

When they only took three points from their opening seven matches, those concerns seemed certain to be realised. Norwich were going down.

But then came proof of the merits of Hughton's understated approach, his ability to organise and galvanise his teams.

They went 10 games unbeaten, their best run in the top flight since the 1980s, before Saturday's defeat to West Bromwich Albion.

Worst manager: Mark Hughes

With four Uefa Champions League winners, several players who had been first-team regulars for elite clubs, with extensive expenditure and a large wage bill, much was expected of Queens Park Rangers, not least by themselves.

They responded by losing 5-0 at home on the opening day, to Swansea, and taking four points from their opening 13 games.

After a shameful capitulation to fellow strugglers Southampton at Loftus Road in November, Hughes was dismissed, his reputation lying in ruins.

Best game: Man City 2 Man U 3

Individually and when paired, the Manchester rivals set high standards for drama last season. Topping that, it seemed, would be an impossible task.

Yet, on an afternoon of extraordinary drama earlier this month, they did.

United swept into a 2-0 lead, Wayne Rooney scoring both to become their record derby scorer.

City surged back in a second half of incessant attacking, Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta drawing them level.

And just when momentum appeared theirs, Van Persie, courtesy of a deflected injury-time free kick, altered the balance of power in the city.

Worst game: Chelsea 0 Man City 0

Perhaps it was the worst for the atmosphere, with Rafa Benitez booed on the pitch for his first game at Stamford Bridge after taking over as interim coach and subjected to some vitriolic chants. It was also something of a non-event of a football match.

We have been spoilt as many meetings of the top sides have been action packed and full of goals. This was the opposite, a completely uneventful encounter.

Best goal: Andreas Weimann

It was not so much the finish, fine as it was, struck across and past Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal. It was not even the result, as impressive as Aston Villa's 3-1 win at Anfield was. It was partly the slick passing move that preceded the goal as Villa built from the back before Barry Bannan fed Christian Benteke, leading to a combination of the strikers.

The Belgian darted clear on the right and then, without looking, brilliantly back-heeled the ball at least 20 metres into Weimann's path. It was the product of an intuitive understanding.

Worst call: Sacking Roberto Di Matteo

Chelsea have struggled for the approval of neutrals for much of Roman Abramovich's reign.

Too rich and too arrogant for many, they finally earned some goodwill for their spirited, superb Champions League-winning campaign last season and the fine football of a rebranded side this season.

Then, at the first hint of problems, the popular, dignified Roberto Di Matteo was dismissed. As his successor, Benitez, could not win the Club World Cup final in Japan. It is a decision that has not reaped an immediate reward while it also turned the Chelsea fans against the club.

Best defence: Stoke City

Such praise as Stoke City receive tends to be given in a grudging fashion.

Their methods work but their style of play means very few plaudits are directed at Tony Pulis and his players.

Yet in a season when many a top team has struggled to defend, the unheralded club have excelled with their obduracy.

They have conceded only three times at the Britannia Stadium, and one of them was an own goal. Their defensive record is not merely superior to those of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, it is in another league altogether.

Team of 2012

Petr Cech (Chelsea); Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Winston Reid (West Ham United), Ryan Shawcross (Stoke), Leighton Baines (Everton); Claudio Yacob (West Brom); Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), Marouane Fellaini (Everton), Michu (Swansea), Juan Mata (Chelsea); Robin van Persie (Manchester United).