Football: Premiership half-term report

Football: Villa top of the class, Arsenal can do better, Manchester United must improve, Forest try on dunce's hat
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Arsenal

ARSENE WENGER'S attempts to write off his team before anyone else does would be more convincing if had not been 13 points behind Manchester United this time last year and still done the Double.

After a spluttering first half of the season, in which the Champions' League challenge was undermined by injuries and (largely unnecessarily) suspensions, Sunday's performance against Leeds was a reminder of what can be achieved.

Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira looked a formidable force again at the heart of the team, while Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars seemed at last to have shrugged off the lethargy that has dogged them since the World Cup.

Doubts still surround the reserve strength, and allowing Ian Wright to leave last summer still looks a bad error. Another Champions' League place may depend on keeping a more settled side and greater discipline.

Star pupil: Emmanuel Petit.

Can do better: Dennis Bergkamp.

Aston Villa

BACK ON top of the Premiership following Monday's narrow victory at Charlton, Villa's season has to be seen as a glowing tribute to John Gregory's management skills.

Considerable scepticism followed his appointment as Brian Little's successor last February, but Villa's record under his charge has been outstanding - 27 points from 11 Premiership matches last season, 36 from 18 during the current campaign.

Even the loss of Dwight Yorke has failed to disturb Villa's progress, the blow cushioned by the arrival of Paul Merson and Dion Dublin who, along with Alan Thompson, represent Gregory's three major buys.

If there is a doubt over Villa's championship credentials, it lies in their results so far against the other main contenders. Although they produced a storming comeback from 2-0 down to beat , previous matches against Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool yielded only one point in total.

Star pupil: Gareth Barry.

Can do better: Stan Collymore.

Blackburn Rovers

ROVERS HAVE already tried on the dunce's cap this term and, although now third from bottom, performances need to improve considerably if last- in-class is to be avoided come May.

Under Roy Hodgson, Rovers were looking to escape a visit from the Premiership's inspectors for failing clubs, but Brian Kidd - a great believer in lots of homework - has begun his first senior school headship with a victory and two draws.

The boy in the new blue blazer is Keith Gillespie, a pounds 2.3m Newcastle graduate whose task is to provide under-achiever Kevin Davies, the sporadic Chris Sutton and the hard-working Nathan Blake with multiple choices in front of goal. The defence need to improve their maths and realise that a large goals against column equals relegation.

Kidd has to work on attendance levels. Players marked "absent" through injury or suspension (40 yellow and four red cards already) are a too familiar register entry.

Star pupil: Tim Sherwood.

Can do better: Kevin Davies.

Charlton Athletic

WHEN CHARLTON topped the Premiership after two games, the local newspaper produced a cut-out-and-keep League table. The possibility that it may be the only thing to remember the season by has grown stronger in recent weeks as Alan Curbishley's braves have slipped closer to the sort of position most people had predicted.

Amid all the talk of a difficult start, getting South-ampton for the second game proved a wonderful boost for the team, the crowd and (after a 5-0 win) the goal difference. Drawing at places like Newcastle, , Liverpool and Tottenham confirmed the side's fighting qualities, but an inability to pick up points from winnable home games meant they could not afford the recent run of away defeats.

Failure to finish off some often impressive approach play has been a prime cause, with Clive Mendonca's unexpected lack of goals adding to the alarm. A new striker is a necessity.

Star pupil: Mark Kinsella. Can do better: Clive Mendonca.

Chelsea

REMAINING UNBEATEN since the opening day of the season at Coventry has given Chelsea an excellent chance of landing their first championship since Ron Greenwood was centre-half in 1955. Greenwood, whose all-English West Ham side won the FA Cup and Cup-Winners' Cup a decade later, might regret that not a single goal has been scored by an Englishman, but that is the route foreign coaches tend to take.

Only Manchester United can rival the depth of Gianluca Vialli's squad, which has not suffered from the loss of Brian Laudrup and Pierluigi Casiraghi - bringing in Bjarne Goldbaek for only pounds 500,000 from Copenhagen as soon as Laudrup went home to Denmark was a clever stroke.

As long as Vialli understands the club's passion to win the title, and is prepared to sacrifice other competitions to do it if necessary, Chelsea may be able to take advantage of United's obsession with the European Cup.

Star pupil: Gianfranco Zola. Can do better: Dennis Wise.

Coventry City

AFTER GETTING a sniff of Uefa Cup qualification last season, Coventry's record so far has been a massive disappointment to a board who have not been frightened to spend. Yet the quality of their football has not declined by much, which just goes to show how narrow is the difference between success and failure and why manager Gordon Strachan was so wary last season of looking beyond survival.

Losing top scorer Dion Dublin to Villa came as a body blow, but the combination of Noel Whelan and Darren Huckerby, supplied from the wing by Stephen Froggatt, remains a potent attack, and Gary McAllister is back to provide class in midfield.

The underrated Roland Nilsson continues to impress at right wing-back. None the less, after only three wins in the last 12 Premiership matches, alarm bells will be ringing for Strachan, who may live to regret not courting the vacancy at Leeds with a little more vigour.

Star pupil: Roland Nilsson.

Can do better: Darren Huckerby.

Derby County

FOR A while last season, Jim Smith's side looked irresistible, full of pace and intricate movement, a triple strike force of Dean Sturridge, Paulo Wanchope and Francesco Baiano making for many an exhilarating spectacle.

This season it is not really happening for them. Sturridge blows hot and cold and Baiano, formerly such a slippery opponent, is a pale shadow of last season's fans' favourite. Meanwhile, Wanchope's unpredictable eccentricities have not been quite so effective.

The arrival of Stefan Schnoor, Horatio Carbonari and Spencer Prior has brought added stability at the back, accounting for a record of only four defeats so far, but nine draws reflect the lack of a consistent cutting edge, a problem Smith needs to resolve soon if Derby are to improve on last season's ninth place. None the less, only three seasons after moving up from the Nationwide, their future in the top flight looks secure.

Star pupil: Rory Delap.

Can do better: Francesco Baiano.

Everton

WHERE DO you start? Which is precisely the dilemma facing Bill Kenwright and any consortium wishing to buy the club off Peter Johnson. Years of mismanagement have reduced a great club into a disjointed and unhappy mess. The prospects? A struggle against relegation.

The problem facing Kenwright is money because Johnson will want at least pounds 50m for his majority shareholding and when you take the club's debts and urgent future spending on the team into account the figure is close to double that. For a man who hoped to purchase the club for pounds 5m five years ago, it is a huge financial leap.

If that does not paint an optimistic picture, it is positively brilliant compared to watching the team.

John Collins and Don Hutchison have been astute buys but someone who can score has to be added or bright prospects like Danny Cadamarteri and Michael Ball will become disillusioned.

Star pupil: Dave Watson. Can do better: Nick Barmby.

Leeds United

FUNNY THING, managership. Three months ago Leeds supporters were mortified George Graham preferred White Hart Lane to Elland Road; now the outcry would be deafening if he returned to displace David O'Leary.

The sorcerer's apprentice has picked up the wand and converted a functional and hard-to-beat team into one that has accelerated the improvement and can now genuinely thrill. The team is too inexperienced to be a consistent title challenger this season, but in two years' time? How O'Leary spends the money and nurtures his young players will answer that question.

The Martyn-Radebe-Batty-Hasselbaink spine is rock solid but another striker is urgently needed and more creativity and pace in midfield and greater strength in depth would not go amiss. The exciting thing is that Jonathon Woodgate, Stephen McPhail, Lee Bowyer, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith already look good enough for the Premiership.

Star pupil: Lucas Radebe. Can do better: Clyde Wijnhard.

Leicester City

MARTIN O'NEILL continues to make silk purses from sows' ears, turning out a team that frequently appears greater than the sum of its parts. Could anyone else have rescued the career of Tony Cottee? After his drawn-out rejection of the chance to manage Leeds, one tends to conclude that the environment is one in which he thrives, engaged on the one hand in internal political warfare, on the other in defying the odds on the field, though he must be credited with being honourable, too,

having pledged never to walk out on a contract.

This season, respectably high in the Premiership and eyeing up Wembley again in the Worthington Cup, Leicester have much to be happy about, although the time will surely come when the temptation to sell Emile Heskey grows too large to resist.

What is more, Neil Lennon and Muzzy Izzet, the key components of O'Neill's industrious midfield, are also attracting covetous glances. Star pupil: Neil Lennon.

Can do better: Graham Fenton.

Liverpool

LOOK UP last year's report and merely change the date. Liverpool were potential trying to become substance at the end of 1997 and 12 months on they are further away from their target. The failure to buy a centre- half has gone beyond a mystery and is approaching a scandal, contributing more than anything to Roy Evans' departure. Excuses are not enough, money has to be spent, and there would be worse buys than Matt Elliott.

The full-backs are fallible, Paul Ince is a fading force and Steve McManaman should stop saying he wants to stay with the club and sign a contract. Either that or he should be put up for sale.

The irritating thing about Liverpool is they are tantalisingly close to being a very good side. They have the best two young strikers in the Premiership, Jamie Carragher and Jamie Redknapp could become an exciting core and Patrik Berger can sometimes look world class.

Star pupil: Michael Owen. Can do better: Oyvind Leonhardsen, Jason McAteer, David James.

Manchester united

AS THE National Lottery puts it, maybe... just maybe. Qualification for the knockout phase of the European Cup was a minimum requirement and United are sufficiently well placed to make a fifth Premiership title in seven years a possibility, yet there are more buts surrounding United than for many seasons.

Most focus on the defence, which is shipping goals at an alarming rate. Jaap Stam is a commanding centre-half in search of a partner, Gary Neville is out of position and his brother Phil is having a crisis of confidence, so the sooner Ronny Johnsen and David May are properly fit the better.

Further forward the problem is an embarrassment of riches. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would walk into any team that did not also have Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, while Nicky Butt must wonder what he has to do to get a regular place.

The fundamental problem is a lack of height, which could undermine ambitions at home and abroad.

Star pupil: Andy Cole.

Can do better: Ryan Giggs.

Middlesbrough

AS MIDDLESBROUGH prepared to return to the top flight, it was suggested in these pages that the key to their fate would be Paul Gascoigne - if his world fell apart, so could Boro's.

It is a measure of the significant progress Middlesbrough have made that the travails of their shaven-headed midfielder have been merely incidental in the first half of the season. Boro have not just continued on their impressive, upwardly mobile course; they now have the bonus of the other side of the Gazza coin, a slimline, influential Gascoigne.

They are also promisingly placed to challenge for their first appearance in Europe, if not their first title. They are unbeaten in 11 matches, have won at Old Trafford for the first time in 68 years and have 30 points in the bag already.

Two years ago, at the same stage of their last Premiership campaign, they had 15. Middlesbrough, this time, are twice as good.

Star pupil: Andy Townsend.

Can do better: Mikkel Beck.

Newcastle United

TWO POINTS worse off than they were going into their half-way match last season, when they needed to win their final home game to avert the threat of relegation, Newcastle continue to look not so much a team as a collection of individuals. That collection is changing, with David Batty and Keith Gillespie in pastures new and Ruud Gullit starting to land his transfer targets. Newcastle could be on the up after Christmas.

Steve Howey's return to fitness and form has given Gullit's team a markedly more assured defensive look. They still remain short of creative nous in midfield and, despite some encouraging signs from Stephen Glass and Nolberto Solano, could do with two orthodox wingers to service Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer.

United could also do with a little stability off the field. A major shareholder is looking to sell out and a manager commuting from a foreign country is not a recipe for long-term success.

Star pupil: Steve Howey.

Can do better: Andreas Andersson.

Nottingham Forest

WITHOUT A win since August, Forest look doomed to follow the recent tradition of promoted Nationwide clubs failing to make the Premiership grade. Pierre van Hooijdonk's three-month strike certainly did not help matters, but equally to blame is the lack of investment over which the maverick Dutchman made his regrettable stand.

Having arrived to fanfares last year, the new owners have cleared Forest's debts but left them to fend in the Premiership with a First Division team. Few managers have a better record with under-funded clubs than Dave Bassett, but he has enjoyed only limited spending power and not used it noticeably well. Neil Shipperley and Dougie Freedman in place of Van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell, for example, could hardly be described as like for like. If a buyer can be found for Van Hooijdonk, and the incoming cash used to good effect, there may still be a chance of survival, but even then only a slim one.

Star pupil: Thierry Bonalair.

Can do better: Pierre van Hooijdonk.

Sheffield Wednesday

THE HEAD (as in case) boy has been absent and a permanent expulsion is looming if he does not turn up soon. The irony is that Wednesday's results have been far better in Paolo Di Canio's absence than they were when the mercurial Italian was proving he is one of the most skilful players in the Premiership.

The reasons are varied. Danny Wilson appeared more unsettled than was expected after his move down the A61 from Barnsley and took time to impress his methods, although he was not helped by absences due to injury.

Di Canio's absence has given Benito Carbone an extended run. The theory was that two Italians made the team too lightweight and the former was usually preferred to his compatriot, which meant Carbone played only intermittently. The difference that selection has made can be seen in his delightful goals and approach play.

Too strong to go down, Wednesday could be an outside bet for the FA Cup.

Star pupil: Des Walker.

Can do better: Paolo Di Canio.

Southampton

UNTIL LAST season, when Dave Jones led Southampton to a finishing position of 12th, the Saints had followed a fairly consistent seasonal path - poor start, minor autumn rally, poor Christmas, scrappy spring and safety come May - for nearly a decade.

This year they're back in the mire and showing few signs yet of getting out. A welter of summer changes (Kevin Davies out, Mark Hughes, Stuart Ripley, David Howells, Hassan Kachloul all in) are partly responsible, as is the need for a couple of defenders and a proven attacker.

Throw injury problems into the mix (last Saturday saw 14 players under treatment) and it's not too hard to see why Southampton are struggling. They have several experienced relegation scrappers (Matt Le Tissier chief among them) and young promise, especially striker James Beattie. They'll need both to perform consistently to stay up.

Star pupil: James Beattie.

Can do better: Take your pick, starting with Hughes.

Tottenham Hotspur

SINCE SUCCEEDING the hapless (some said hopeless) Christian Gross, George Graham has done enough to convince most Tottenham followers that it was worth biting the anti- bullet. The possibility of fusing 's traditional discipline with Spurs' self-expression is a fascinating one, and David Ginola's subsequent efforts have suggested that Graham can pull it off.

He has not rushed off to market, restricting himself so far to strengthening the club's weakest position by the protracted signing of Ipswich's useful full-back Mauricio Taricco. Allan Nielsen, like Ginola, is clearly prepared to put himself out for the manager and is the team's most improved player, ahead of Steffen Iversen (now unfortunately injured).

Winning the Worthington Cup, as Spurs should, to guarantee a return into Europe, would ease any lingering discomfort over "the man".

Star pupil: David Ginola. Can do better: Ian Walker.

West Ham United

STEADY PROGRESS culminated in breathless calls for an oxygen tent as West Ham's adventurers reached the uncharted heights of second place at the end of last month. Subsequent defeats at Leeds and Middlesbrough have brought everyone back down to earth.

Generally the defence has been solid, with Ian Pearce and Rio Ferdinand excellent in front of the impressive Shaka Hislop. The midfield has shone brightly on occasions, but John Hartson's return of three goals in 15 games means that the renewed partnership with Ian Wright has not taken off.

Hartson's spat with Eyal Berkovic was one of several worrying events off the field, often poorly handled; others included the sale of Andy Impey to Leicester behind the back of manager Harry Redknapp, who has now admitted how difficult it will be to keep Ferdinand at the club. An important few months coming up.

Star pupil: Frank Lampard.

Can do better: John Hartson.

Wimbledon

THREE-NIL down in 27 minutes at West Ham early in September, Joe Kinnear's side proceeded to serve notice that the old Wimbledon spirit is still alive. The home team were overwhelmed, the game was won 4-3 and those who thought that relegation was on the cards at last were forced to seek out other, less indomitable, candidates.

Wimbledon have been in the top half of the table almost ever since, outgunned only by Manchester United (5-1) and Chelsea (3-0), taking revenge on the latter to reach the Worthington Cup semi-final.

The most significant factor has been a return to fitness of the strikers whose absence caused a paucity of goals last spring. Marcus Gayle has been inching back towards the form of two seasons ago and Jason Euell has benefited from a new midfield role.

If the long term is always imponderable, short-term prospects are bright again. Star pupil: Michael Hughes. Can do better: Carl Leaburn.

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