The current Premier League season was always going to be interesting viewing.
With the heavyweights of Manchester both undergoing high-profile changes of management, Arsenal finally spending big and Chelsea reveling in the return of a “Special One”, the periods of transition that the major clubs in the league are going through have thrown up all sorts of possibilities.
Could a Luis Suarez-inspired Liverpool win the title? Could Everton, under new boss Roberto Martinez, power into the Champions League places? Are Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton able to sneak into the top six and stay there until May?
Indeed, this season, anything can happen.
So far we’ve seen some incredible results. From Liverpool sweeping away Tottenham Hotspur in a 5-0 victory at White Hart Lane, Everton leaving Old Trafford as victors for the first time in 21 years after defeating David Moyes’ Manchester United to league newcomers Cardiff City beating former champions Manchester City in their first match on home soil, the start to the 2013/14 season has been absolutely fascinating.
Now, as the busy festive period draws to a close for another year, the Premier League is beginning to enter the business end of the season, and with as many as six teams conceivably vying for the title and up to eight teams looking to avoid relegation, it is time to take a closer look at the key players who have helped make this the most unpredictable, and ergo entertaining, campaign in recent memory.
Sergio Aguero, Manchester City:
In several years’ time, most fans will instinctively associate Sergio Aguero’s time at Manchester City with his title-winning heroics in the final minute of that scintillating game against QPR in May 2012. What should also be remembered as fondly, however, is the dazzling form in which the Argentina international has started the 2013/14 season.
Having scored 19 goals in both domestic and European campaigns since August, including inspired strikes against the likes of Manchester United, Everton and CSKA Moscow, Aguero’s stellar performances have provided new City manager Manuel Pellegrini a valuable focal point in his attacking third. Unfortunately, a calf strain suffered in the rout of Arsenal at the Etihad in December has left the striker on the injury shelf for the foreseeable future, but the return of Sergio Aguero may just coincide with the emergence of Manchester City as the team to beat.
Adnan Januzaj, Manchester United:
It has been a remarkably tough season for David Moyes and Manchester United thus far. Amongst the dark days of home defeats to the likes of West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle, however, a beacon of light has been the unearthing of the newest starlet of English football, the 18-year-old, Belgian-born midfielder, Adnan Januzaj.
Having first appeared on the Premier League radar as an unused substitute in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game in charge, Januzaj has taken his highly-impressive form for the United reserve team and made his mark on a side very much in a period of transition. A particularly eye-catching display came in the 2-1 victory over bottom-of-the-league Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in October, a game that Moyes’ surprisingly vulnerable team were in real danger of losing before Januzaj’s influence (and, of course, his two goals) turned the tie on its head. Although it is still early days in his development stage as a top-flight player, Januzaj has all the potential in the world.
Mesut Ozil, Arsenal:
Prior to the arrival of Mesut Ozil, Arsenal were enduring a mini-crisis under the watch of Arsene Wenger. A 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season cast a shadow of doubt over the Gunners, and disillusioned fans were once again preparing for another season of under-achievement. As the pressure around the Emirates was starting to build to intolerable levels, the September transfer deadline day changed everything.
Wenger, a notorious scrimper in the transfer market, broke the bank to bring in Ozil from Real Madrid in a deal worth a club-record of £42million, and fans started to believe again. In that respect, Ozil’s signing paid dividends immediately. But, to say that his signing was only effective in improving morale would be doing a disservice to the Germany international’s abilities on the pitch. With Ozil dictating play in the middle of the park, Arsenal were transformed into world-beaters almost overnight, with the staggering victory over Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund at the Westfalenstadion in November showing the world of football that Wenger’s side is formidable once again.
Ross Barkley, Everton:
Very much in the vein of a 16-year-old Wayne Rooney circa 2002, Everton’s midfield stand-out Ross Barkley has exploded onto the scene following a sensational run of performances in the early half of the current Premier League campaign. Liverpool-born Barkley, finally in Everton’s long-term plans following a series of loan spells at Championship clubs Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, has been grabbing attention week after week through a sparkling combination of flair and fundamental strength in the attacking midfielder role.
His ability to single-handedly influence a game this season, on display against Arsenal and Swansea in particular, have earned comparisons to the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Michael Ballack en route to an England call-up during the recent World Cup qualifiers. Happily, the 20-year-old Barkley has shown an admirable amount of maturity amid the hype surrounding him and, as his impressive appearance for his national team against Moldova suggests, not only does new Toffees boss Roberto Martinez have a star in his midst, but so does Roy Hodgson and England, too.
Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool:
When Luis Suarez’s incomprehensible bite on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic earned the forward a 10-match ban at the tail end of last season, many questioned the capabilities of recent signing Daniel Sturridge in terms of leading the Liverpool attack. Used only sparingly at Chelsea prior to his move to Anfield in January, Sturridge had the biggest of shoes to fill following the magnificent displays from the 30-goal Suarez in the previous year. Against the odds, Sturridge went on to start the 2013/14 season in the form of his career thus far, scoring eight times in Liverpool’s first nine league games as the Reds ascended towards the top of the table from the offset.
These goals, including the winner against Manchester United and a last-minute equaliser in the thrilling Merseyside derby away to Everton, showcased a talent that Chelsea had somewhat overlooked for the better part of four years. The much-anticipated return of Suarez in late September saw the emergence of the lethal ‘SAS’ partnership, but an ankle injury sustained in December forced Sturridge out for the remainder of 2013. Unplayable on his day, Daniel Sturridge’s return in 2014 may be the key to Liverpool securing their spot at the top of the Premier League.
Adam Lallana, Southampton:
Southampton captain Adam Lallana, alongside several other members of his team, has been somewhat of a revelation this season. The 25-year-old, a product of the Saints Academy since joining as a 12-year-old in 2000, has been playing some of the best football of his young career since August, with his technical trickery in midfield making the winger a favourite with the St. Mary’s faithful. A gifted reader of the game, Lallana’s ability to spot and place the ball into small pockets of space in the opposing danger area has proven to be the perfect ammunition for the prolific attacking trio of Rickie Lambert, Jay Rodriguez and, as the season has progressed, summer signing Dani Osvaldo.
Lallana’s role in Mauricio Pochettino’s new-look Saints line-up is not purely limited to creator; however, as his crucial strikes against Manchester United and Swansea show that he is able to chip in with his fair share of hitting the net. Naturally, Lallana’s incredible rise has been monitored closely by Roy Hodgson, who invited him to join the England set-up for the recent, albeit disappointing, friendlies against Chile and Germany. Concisely, it is simply no coincidence, with Lallana hitting the form of his career, that Southampton have had their best-ever start to a top-flight season in club history.
Yaya Toure, Manchester City:
A towering presence in amongst a Manchester City midfield absolutely stacked full of talent, Yaya Toure has displayed the type of consist high quality since signing from Barcelona in 2010 that it has become a very difficult task to identify even a single flaw in his play. The Ivory Coast star, highly influential in City’s 2011/12 title-winning season, has imposed his will on his side to such a degree that, in the absence of long-term leader Vincent Kompany, Toure was promoted to the position of captain for a two-month spell between October and December of this year.
In addition to his surging runs forward, as with all world-class players who constantly feel the need to evolve in order to better their game, Toure has added an extra dimension to his attacking play this season: the art of the free-kick. Scoring four times from dead-ball situations already, Toure’s frighteningly accurate free-kicks have helped City earn important points against stubborn teams such as Newcastle and Hull City. Undeniably amongst the best box-to-box midfielders in world football, Yaya Toure’s contribution to Manchester City in the middle of the field is utterly priceless.
Leighton Baines, Everton:
Everton’s resident left-back Leighton Baines has long been earmarked as one of the greatest players of the current generation. Still only 29, Baines has added more justification to that reputation this season, with his inspirational displays at the heart of a much-improved Everton side guiding them to the long sought after top four places as we head into the New Year. Fundamentally sound in defence, Baines’ attacking prowess must not be underestimated, either. One look back at his two exquisite goals in the match against West Ham United in September is enough to gather the evidence needed to proclaim Baines as the best attacking-defender in the Premier League today.
In fact, the only real downside to Baines’ season so far has been the broken toe suffered during the 3-3 thriller against Liverpool, an injury that has ruled him out, at time of writing, for over five weeks. His replacement at left-back, Costa Rica international Bryan Oviedo, has done extremely well indeed, especially considering his late winner at Old Trafford. This begs the question that had at one time only plagued his role in the England squad – can he guarantee a place in the starting line-up, even though he is one of the world’s best? The answer to this question may still be up in the air, but the repeated rumblings of a January move to Manchester United, as a replacement for the allegedly departing Patrice Evra, may be a smart move for one of the most important left-backs in the English game.
Andros Townsend, Tottenham Hotspur:
This season has been a troubling period for Tottenham Hotspur, a side that were considered genuine title-contenders at the start of the campaign following the signings of headline talent such as Paulinho from Corinthians, Erik Lamela from Roma and Roberto Soldado from Valencia. Unfortunately for Spurs, they have struggled to get into first gear and the departure of manager Andre Villas-Boas, whether justified or not, has added an extra layer of unwanted drama to the proceedings at White Hart Lane.
During these times of turbulence, one nuance of positivity has been the growth of 22-year-old Andros Townsend, a right-winger who had previously spent most of his tenure with Spurs out on loan at such clubs as Ipswich Town and Birmingham City. An extremely talented player with an astonishing amount of pace, Townsend’s breakthrough into the Tottenham first team has come at a time when other, more high-profile talents have failed to gel together as was hoped. After a glittering early season that culminated in an outstanding performance for England against Montenegro at Wembley, Townsend’s talent has grown to such a plateau at Tottenham that he now appears to possess the skill to influence a game in a manner that was previously reserved for a certain Gareth Bale.
Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal:
At a certain point in early 2010, the future looked uncertain for Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey. The young midfielder had been on the receiving end of an horrific injury to his right leg in an unfortunate collision with Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross, and the double-fracture of his fibula and tibia had threatened to put an end to an already promising career.
Fast forward to 2013, past loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City and several struggles for form, and Ramsey has re-emerged as a prodigious talent that Arsene Wenger has been shrewdly waiting to unleash. Linking up incredibly well with new arrival Mesut Ozil in the middle, the former Wales captain has sprinted into form since August, a fact that his 12 goals in all competitions (including winners against Borussia Dortmund and Marseille in the Champions League) can attest. A key-player in Arsenal’s charge towards the top of the Premiership table, Aaron Ramsey has finally established himself as a staple of the Gunners’ starting XI and, somewhat unsurprisingly, paper talk has already began regarding a possible move to Spanish giants Real Madrid.
Eden Hazard, Chelsea:
Unlike Arsenal and Liverpool, teams who have grabbed headlines with their relentless ascent towards the top of the league, Chelsea have quietly gone about their business this season, picking up points and climbing the table through ugly wins over the likes of Aston Villa and Crystal Palace. While returning manager Jose Mourinho is characteristically taking the credit and basking in the limelight, it cannot go unmentioned that Eden Hazard, the Blues’ Belgian midfield maestro, has been the one actually pulling the strings on the pitch. With unbelievable poise and skill at his disposal, Hazard is the man that provides that special moment that unlocks the opposition defence and, invariably, ends up with the ball in the net.
His tantalising equaliser against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in late December is a viable example of his quality, and his man-of-the-match showing away to Sunderland is further proof that he can also pull up his sleeves and engage in the uglier side of the game. As influential for the Belgium national side as he is for Chelsea, it’s interesting to note that the 22-year-old Eden Hazard’s best years are still to come, and it would be safe to assume that he will enhance his already sparkling reputation in Brazil in the summer.
Wayne Rooney, Manchester United:
Wayne Rooney’s season could not have gotten off to a more unstable start. After a summer of protracted transfer speculation that linked the Manchester United striker to a variety of clubs including Chelsea, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, Rooney finally settled under new manager David Moyes in August, despite having a troubled history with the former Everton boss. Then, after an encouraging win over Swansea on opening day, the famous blip happened and United slipped to 12th in the league amid home defeats to the likes of West Bromwich Albion.
It is worth noting, however, that while United’s performances were sub-par as a whole, the England international remained a menace in attack, a fact echoed by the way in which the 28-year-old was the only player in red to emerge from the 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City with any credit whatsoever. Rooney’s role as the spearhead of United’s recovery, despite several injury breaks, has been captivating to watch, alongside the stunning goals such as his wonder strike at Hull that have served as the catalyst for his team’s improvement. With Rooney’s strike partner Robin Van Persie expected to return from his groin injury in the coming weeks, last season’s most deadly duo may have enough in them to overcome the odds and carry Manchester United towards a record 21st Premier League title, and first under David Moyes.
Luis Suarez, Liverpool:
Of course, this list would be considered void and incomplete by even the most casual of football fans if it did not include the most widely discussed man in the Premier League, Luis Suarez. The Liverpool striker, as talented on the pitch as he is controversial off it, had many believing he could not live up to his 30-goal heroics from the 2012/13 campaign when the current season got underway. How wrong the sceptics were, as Suarez has managed to continue his magnificent run, scoring 19 goals already – a statistic that is even more impressive considering he missed the first five league games due to the suspension stemming from the Ivanovic/bite scandal.
His return to league action against Sunderland in late September showcased his intent in front of goal, as the Uruguayan netted twice in an emphatic win that lifted Liverpool into second in the table. As if his tally itself was not enough, Suarez turned record-breaker in December with his four-goal domination of Norwich City at Anfield making him the only player in Premier League history to score three successive hat-tricks against the same club. Needless to say, Luis Suarez has helped the Reds on their way to their first serious title challenge since their second place finish in 2008/09, and with his fierce eye for goal, there is a very real possibility of Liverpool going all the way.
Thank you for reading!
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