Football: PREMIERSHIP HALF-TERM REPORT

With the League campaign having reached the half-way point, Independent writers assess the performances of the 20 teams so far, while Football Correspondent Glenn Moore offers a finishing order come May
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1st MAN UNITED

Teddy Sheringham's penalties are dreadful and Ryan Giggs' crosses can suggest he has donned the wrong highly sponsored boots, but we are talking degrees of perfection here. Not since Liverpool in the Seventies and Eighties has a team looked so comfortable with their ability.

Nine points better off than they were this time last season, Alex Ferguson's assertion that the Premiership does not start until January 1 is ringing a little hollow as everyone else thinks the race is all but over by Christmas. To paraphrase the United manager, it will take a collapse of Devon Loch proportions to stop them now.

The key to the team is not so much their attacking threat, although heaven knows they have enough, but their solidity. When do Denis Irwin, Henning Berg, the Nevilles and Nicky Butt have bad matches? Hardly ever and they hold things together when the party pieces up front do not come off. Titles are won with 1-0 wins against Southampton.

Star pupil: Peter Schmeichel.

Must do better: How?

2nd Chelsea

In another year the ground will be finished, the team are even closer. Both already tantalise with potential. Ken Bates deserves credit for the ground - though he could not resist his unnecessary attack on Matthew Harding - and Ruud Gullit for the team, notably how he has instilled the squad system in a club of stars.

They may have lost too many games to win the league, usually with flat away days, but they are a cup threat in Europe and at home. The side are attractive to watch but have displayed the necessary edge when ruffled.

Among the highly priced imports some young talent has been given its chance with Nick Crittenden the sixth English teenager to play under Gullit.

The FA Cup meeting with Manchester United is a titanic game. Chelsea are well capable of beating United over one match, had Gustavo Poyet not been injured they would push them close over the long haul too.

Star pupil: Dan Petrescu.

Must do better: Until November Zola, De Goey and Le Saux under par, but all now in form.

3rd Blackburn

Not many managers could sell pounds 13m worth of defenders and end up with a better team, but Roy Hodgson has managed it and Blackburn have every reason for optimism in 1998. "We feel we are going to win every time we go the pitch," Stuart Ripley says.

They usually do, too, thanks to solidity rather than extravagant flair and it will take a talented side to finish above them this season. Unfortunately for Hodgson a very good team hold a four-point advantage that is unlikely to be eroded.

The only criticism you can level at Hodgson is that he might have bought too hastily because he has brought seven players to Ewood and only Stephane Henchoz turns out regularly for the first team. It takes a strong personality to realise your errors, however, and the new manager is certainly that.

Second place in the Premiership is within their capabilities and, who knows, the FA Cup. Just the former would make it a splendid return for a manager in his first season.

Star pupil: Stuart Ripley.

Must do better: Garry Flitcroft.

4th Liverpool

Most teams, with the arguable exception of Manchester United, are invariably two players short of where they want to be. By signing Paul Ince and Karlheinz Riedle, Liverpool must have thought they had found the missing links. It has proved an exercise in self-delusion, for it left the weaknesses in goal and in central defence unaddressed.

Ince has failed, in any case, to have quite the anticipated impact; the Kop awaits more meaningful signs of his commitment than theatrically kissing the badge. With his suspension, running parallel to a ban on Robbie Fowler and home humiliations by Barnsley and United, it was not surprising that Roy Evans' job was again the subject of dark speculation.

Consistency remains elusive; one cannot help but wonder what Steve McManaman might be achieving under Messrs Ferguson and Kidd. Still, Evans' move for Brad Friedel shows an awareness of the problems, and Michael Owen's impact, at barely 18, has been a real bonus.

Star pupils: Michael Owen, Jamie Redknapp.

Must do better: David James, Paul Ince.

5th ARSENAL

When they took up temporary tenure of the Premiership's top flat in early autumn it was fashionable to see Arsenal as Manchester United's most serious challengers. Ian Wright was setting records, Dennis Bergkamp setting new standards and Arsene Wenger's remodelled side setting the division alight.

As the nights grew longer, however, so did Arsenal's sick list and the disciplinary points tally, and in November les poulets came home to roost. A seriously under-strength first-team squad was rudely exposed by the absences of Bergkamp, Vieira and Petit - while the ever-perverse Ian Wright managed to go missing despite remaining in the side. Now, even with the significant absentees back, the north Londoners have failed to re-establish their early momentum.

For all his summer activity Wenger has not replaced ageing full-backs, and few recent purchases appear ready to push for first-team places, which only makes the sale of Paul Merson all the more questionable.

Star pupil: Bergkamp.

Must do better: Wright and Overmars.

6th Newcastle Utd

Just like last season, when they thrashed Manchester United 5- 0 in October, Newcastle look to have peaked prematurely once again. The September beating of Barcelona already seems a distant memory. The conquerors of the Catalans have been playing true to their present station: a middle order Premiership team.

The absence of Alan Shearer has had much to do with the middling state of affairs at St James' Park. Since Faustino Asprilla's stomach injury, and subsequent struggle to regain match fitness, Newcastle have played like a team without a focal point. Their defence has looked less suspect when the inspirational Stuart Pearce and the assured Alessandro Pistone have been fit to play; Newcastle's form dipped markedly when both were out injured.

A fit Shearer and a late charge like last season's will be required to put the Magpies in the frame for a Uefa Cup place.

Star pupil: Alessandro Pistone.

Must do better: Jon Dahl Tomasson.

7th Leeds United

The transformation of Leeds has taken everyone, perhaps including George Graham, by surprise. The manager's determination to offload the high-earning low achievers he inherited from Howard Wilkinson - initially seen as vindictiveness - has been vindicated.

Suddenly it was Graham's team and one which, despite the evidence of Stamford Bridge, actually tries to win games rather than making 0-0 their sole aim. While Nigel Martyn has been patchy in goal by last season's standards, the rejeuvenation of Rod Wallace and a midfield no longer staffed by defenders have more than compensated. The Australian teenager Harry Kewell has been a real find, too, his mobility helping dangerous counter- attacking options.

Graham knows, however, that spirit and organisation can take them only so far. To become genuine contenders, they still need two or three "special players", as he puts it. But the arrival of highly paid stars could jeopardise present camaraderie.

Star pupils: Lucas Radebe, Harry Kewell.

Must do better: David Robertson.

8th Derby County

Generally formidable at their new home, often feeble away, Derby's overall performance to date must nevertheless have exceeded expectations. For such a polyglot team, brimming with Estonians and Scots, Costa Ricans and Croats, Danes and Jamaicans, they have gelled surprisingly quickly.

Moreover, they have maintained upward mobility (it is only 18 months since a surprising promotion) despite being without defensive linchpin Igor Stimac for long periods. Although the strikers, Paolo Wanchope and Dean Sturridge, have done well, one wickedly unpredictable and the other with pace to burn, the pivotal figure has been Francesco Baiano.

Many clubs use a clever, mobile forward in "the hole". Few perform there as well as Baiano, Jim Smith's recruit from Fiorentina. With Leicester's resilience, especially when defending a lead away, they would be a fair bet for Europe, but then their East Midlands rivals do not have their panache.

Star pupils: Paolo Wanchope, Francesco Baiano.

Must do better: Darryl Powell, Jonathan Hunt.

9th West Ham Utd

Happy at home, hopeless away, West Ham's wildly erratic form mirrors that of Leeds' last season. It is a dilemma Harry Redknapp must resolve if the Hammers are to achieve a finish in the top half of the Premiership, which has become a realistic goal for them.

Fortress Upton Park certainly possesses in John Hartson and Paul Kitson - shrewd purchases both - fearsome forward power while the club's back line of the precocious Rio Ferdinand, Ian Pearce and David Unsworth - the youngest in the elite - is steadily growing in stature.

Eyal Berkovitch is the player who makes the Hammers tick, however, and the little Israeli's purchase from Southampton in the close season shows that Redknapp now has a shrewd eye for a bargain. Yet the nagging doubt remains that West Ham need another couple of additions to the squad before they can travel in style.

Star pupils: Hartson and Berkovitch.

Must do better: Steve Lomas.

10th Aston Villa

Puzzlingly, there have been two Villas so far: the team who have turned on the passion and the patience as required en route to the last eight of the Uefa Cup; and the pallid bunch who effectively blew their championship chances by losing the first four matches.

Europe, and perhaps the FA Cup, will keep interest alive, but after successive top-five finishes, Doug Ellis, Brian Little and a record number of season- ticket holders expected more. For all the manager's loyalty towards his pounds 10.5m front players, the problem lies with Stan Collymore and Savo Milosevic. A single loose cannon would be one too many at Old Trafford, yet Villa have two and have had to deploy Dwight Yorke out of position to accommodate them.

One fears it will all end in tears (or at Molineux) for the strangely lethargic Collymore, but a backbone of players like Mark Bosnich, Gareth Southgate, Steve Staunton, Mark Draper and the underrated Ian Taylor should ensure they finish nearer the top than the bottom.

Star pupils: Steve Staunton, Ian Taylor.

Must do better: Stan Collymore.

11th Wimbledon

This time last year they were 20-odd games unbeaten and dreaming of Wembley and Europe. They are still performing creditably, especially in comparison to such alleged giants as Everton and Spurs, but there is now a shadow over the club.

The Norwegian investment, and further rumours of a move to Dublin, have left manager Joe Kinnear uncertain of his position and the fans fearful of the future. At least there now appears a dialogue with Merton Council but much is shrouded in doubt. One wonders if Kinnear is keeping an eye on events at White Hart Lane.

On the pitch injuries, and the loss of Oyvind Leonhardsen, have weakened the side but the emergence of Carl Cort has provided a counter-balance. Robbie Earle has been pre-occupied with Jamaica but, with a World Cup in his sights, may recover his best form to give the club a timely lift.

Star pupil: Carl Cort.

Must do better: Robbie Earle.

12th Tottenham

Jurgen is back and, suddenly, there is a rosy hue over White Hart Lane. One man maketh not a team but Tottenham have better players than their position indicates and Klinsmann should be the catalyst to steer them away from relegation. It is not just his quality as his application which should be influential.

In 1977 Tottenham's team included Glenn Hoddle, Steve Perryman and Pat Jennings but they were not too good to go down. Neither, unless they are prepared to marry perspiration with inspiration, are the present side.

Darren Anderton's return from injury is also important as Christian Gross attempts to reverse the tendency to fall away in the second half through intensive training. Klinsmann's preparedness to work on his game should set the right example. If David Ginola is prepared to follow suit the early belief that he may be part of the solution, not the problem, should be justified.

Star pupils: Sol Campbell, David Ginola.

Must do better: Everyone else.

13th Leicester city

The fixture computer dealt Leicester such an arduous start (their first four games were against members of last season's top five) that they could easily have been bottom come autumn. Instead they were looking down on many more expensively constructed sides as Martin O'Neill recited his mantra: "That's another three points towards avoiding relegation."

Despite a lack of genuine quality they remain the division's hardest- working team. Few others would have equalised in stoppage time as they did against Crystal Palace this month. Of course it is not all graft: Matt Elliott, barely a year after graduating from Oxford, is the most rugged and refined of centre-backs, while Muzzy Izzet is blossoming into a midfielder with quick feet and a sharp brain.

But there have been signs of late that a rather one-dimensional style has been rumbled. And how long before O'Neill, the brightest manager of his generation, tires of the bargain basement and takes on a Tottenham or an Everton?

Star pupils: Matt Elliott, Muzzy Izzet.

Must do better: Steve Claridge, Rob Savage.

14th Southampton

While a good season for Southampton is one in which they avoid relegation, their manager Dave Jones arrived in the summer with higher expectations. The half-term situation sees both Saints and Jones making slow progress.

An injury crisis, combined with some typically abysmal defending, saw Saints at the bottom after two months, but some inspired, even brave, purchases by the budget-restrained Jones (of Carlton Palmer and David Hirst) paid off and a late autumn rally appeared to signal a renaissance at The Dell.

But while Palmer and Hirst added experience to a side with powerful attacking potential (Kevin Davies and Egil Ostenstad), too often the distracted natures of some (Matt Le Tissier) and incompetence of several others (most of the defenders) have cost the Saints dear. If signs of a tighter back four turn into a more tangible impenetrability, the annual spring struggle may yet be avoided.

Star pupils: Kevin Davies, Paul Jones .

Must do better: Matt Le Tissier.

15th Crystal Palace

Considering they were everyone's favourites for relegation, Palace will be more than satisfied with 13th place at this stage. Earning promotion via the play-offs meant that Steve Coppell had less time to strengthen his squad in the summer than other Premiership managers. The rebuilding work has continued through the season and has not been helped by several injuries.

Neil Shipperley, who initially lost his place, has surprised many with his good form of late, but Palace have lacked penetration in attack when Bruce Dyer has been injured. Coppell will also be hoping that his Italians, Attilio Lombardo and Michele Padovano, recover fitness quickly.

Well organised at the back, Palace have defended well as a team and have been at their best when counter-attacking. Eighteen of their 21 points have been won in away matches - only Chelsea have earned more from their travels - but with 11 of their last 19 matches at Selhurst Park the key to survival will be their home form.

Star pupil: Andy Roberts.

Must do better: Yitzak Zohar.

16th Everton

Where do you begin to put things right? Howard Kendall is one of the great Everton managers and he does not seem to know and, short of a vast amount of money that does not seem to be forthcoming, the prospects are bleak.

So-so players have been bought instead of true quality, partly because the Les Ferdinands of this world would not touch the perpetually troubled club.

The end product is a midfield which cannot create and a strike-force that cannot score and the team's only redeeming quality is their ability to fight which is admirable in Barnsley, but lamentable for a club of Everton's prestige.

Kendall says there are some good youngsters within Goodison, the most forward of which is Danny Cadamarteri, and the future is bright. But that does not help the present. Alan Hansen famously said you do not win titles with kids; with luck Everton will not get the chance to prove him wrong in the First Division next season.

Star pupil: Gary Speed.

Must do better: Duncan Ferguson.

17th Sheffield Wed

What a difference one man makes. Or does he? On the face of it David has been eclipsed by the Goliath personality of Ron Atkinson but erstwhile manager Pleat always said they would be a different team with a captain and a centre-forward.

Trying to assess Wednesday is like trying to work out whether Pleat was a victim of his own decisions or bad timing. Good or bad, they can move seamlessly between extremes and it is entirely in keeping with their character that they should follow four wins with successive defeats.

Paolo Di Canio is the embodiment of their unpredictability. A lethal goalscorer one moment, an over-elaborate squanderer of possession the next, he both inspires and infuriates. Whether he and Benito Carbone can thrive in the same team is a problem Atkinson has to deal with.

They might win the FA Cup, they could get relegated but you can hardly accuse Wednesday of being boring. No club is when Big Ron is around.

Star pupil: Paolo Di Canio.

Must do better: Paolo Di Canio.

18th Coventry City

Each summer, when others scan the new fixtures to see who they play first, Sky Blues fans instinctively look to the last game. This time, intriguingly, it's Everton away. Notwithstanding an escape act honed to perfection over three decades, there are signs that this really could be the year Coventry take the drop.

Cruelly for Gordon Strachan, injury has robbed him of Gary McAllister's class and leadership just as games with Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal et al are looming. The signing of George Boateng, from Feyenoord, and the return of Noel Whelan should help tide them over until the captain's return, but by February the damage could be done.

Despite having the beleaguered Geoffrey Robinson as a benefactor, a succession of managers at Highfield Road have recruited on the cheap. The acquisition of McAllister, Whelan and Dion Dublin bucked the trend, but they still havetoo many journeymen. Giving Strachan a contract until 2002 was also tempting fate.

Star pupil: Gary McAllister.

Must do better: John Salako.

19th Bolton W'ers

Nothing illustrates the gap between the First Division and the Premiership better than Bolton. Cavaliers last year with 100 League goals, they have become skinflints, scoring and conceding 14 goals, by far the fewest.

Getting walloped week after week two years ago has not allowed players to shed inhibitions, the experience still looms large in their psyche. Safety-first is both their objective and their attitude.

Nevertheless this team of roundheads has its merits, not least Scott Sellars, who recalls the age of the inside-forward. Now approaching the speed of Pat Crerand, he provides an endless supply of imagination from the left flank which, when you watch Newcastle these days, makes it all the more puzzling why Kevin Keegan let him go.

Only if the relegation battle has been won, are we likely to see Bolton fully off the leash. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen.

Star pupil: Scott Sellars.

Must do better: Dean Holdsworth.

20th Barnsley

Be careful with your dreams, they might come true. A century of craving to be in the top division was satisfied last May and reality has trampled the idyll ever since.

Their fans say they resemble Brazil but a better comparison is Wimbledon. Like Joe Kinnear's team they run until they drop, but unlike the masters they have not had the years of practice or the youth production line.

Even so Neil Redfearn has had the sort of 1997 that more renowned midfielders would find impossible to emulate. A strong tackler and astute passer, he scored 19 times last season and eight this time in a struggling team. .

You cannot imagine Barnsley escaping relegation but one result will sustain Oakwell through its disappointment: Liverpool 0, Barnsley 1. You can endure a lot after that.

Star pupil: Neil Redfearn.

Must do better: Gorgi Hristov.

Reports written by Glenn Moore, Phil Shaw, Guy Hodgson, Paul Newman, Matt Tench, Simon Turnbull, Andrew Martin and Nick Harris

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