Soccer

Wheeler: United remains ahead of City atop Power Rankings

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Gareth Wheeler
12/21/2012 12:55:37 AM
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First off, Happy Holidays to you and yours. We have much to be thankful for in our lives; whether its family, friends, love, or health – this is the time of year to reflect on the good and celebrate with those around us. Wishing you all a safe and joyous holiday season.

The festive season is also a hectic time in the Barclays Premier League. Three matches between now and the New Year for each club (two for Arsenal and West Ham) is an all-important stretch in an ultra-competitive Premier League. Only six points separate third and 11th. And just three points separate 14th and 18th in the table. While many clubs campaign for financial fair play, parity in the quality of players in the league is as tight as it has been in recent years. What separates most teams in the league is squad depth. And at this time of year, when injury, suspensions and fatigue catch up with thin rosters, separation in the table will become more pronounced.
 
Here are your latest TSN Premier League Power Rankings:
 
1) Manchester United (14W-0D-3L, last week: 1) – It was all rather easy for United in a 3-1 home win over Sunderland. In fairness, the scoreline should have been double, at least. Robin van Persie scored his league best 12th of the season, and assisted on Wayne Rooney's fifth goal in his last three matches. Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill said post-match van Persie's Manchester United's Lionel Messi. Sir Alex Ferguson preferred comparing RvP to the great Eric Cantona, pointing to the age pedigree of the star striker coming to the club and paying immediate dividends. Van Persie's individual ability speaks for itself. But it's how Rooney and the other United players are learning to play off the centre forward that's most impressive. Kudos to the underappreciated Michael Carrick with another standout match. Carrick has completed the highest percentage of forward passes in the league. A mouth-watering Champions League tie with Real Madrid shouldn't distract. Ferguson knows how to get the most out of his side, especially at and around the New Year. And a now healthy back four makes the team even stronger heading into 2013.  Next up: at Swansea
 
2) Manchester City (10-6-1, last week: 2) – City bounced back after a turbulent fortnight with a 3-1 win at Newcastle. The star of the match was newly crowned African Player of the Year, Yaya Toure. The City midfielder showed why is may be the most important player in the Premier League, playing an incredible through-ball to start the movement for Aguero's opener. Toure added a goal later, highlighting how much he will be missed while away for over a month at the African Cup of Nations. Newcastle had their chances, but goalkeeper Joe Hart returned to form with a solid performance. Injuries continue to creep into the side, with Captain Vincent Kompany likely to miss the festive period (hamstring) and Samir Nasri ruled out for two weeks (groin). Roberto Mancini left Mario Balotelli out altogether at Newcastle; a stern message to the temperamental striker. At some point, someone will have to make the decision whether the club is better off without the distraction of Balotelli. For me, Balotelli isn't worth the inconsistency and immaturity he brings. Note to Mancini: City is undefeated in matches Carlos Tevez and Aguero start together. Next up: Reading
 
3) Tottenham Hotspur (9-2-6, last week: 5) – Stylish Spurs were anything but in a 1-0 home win over Swansea. And for a change, Tottenham was able to hold on to a lead. Defender Jan Vertonghen scored for Spurs and has proven to be good value since his summer move from Ajax. It was an important win for Spurs against a tough side. And the North London club now sits in 4th place in the table. Gareth Bale (hamstring) has returned to training for Spurs and his return is right around the corner. Next up: Stoke City
 
4) Everton (6-9-2, last week: 3) – No surprise really, at the Britannia, with Everton and Stoke City playing to a 1-1 draw. Everton and Stoke each have league high nine draws on the season. The talking point had little to do with the result, rather BPL Player of the Month for November, Marouane Fellaini's head-butt on Ryan Shawcross that went unnoticed by the match-official. Fellaini received supplemental discipline mid-week, a three-match ban for his moment of madness. The Belgian International plays with emotion, but there is no excusing this latest transgression. The Toffee's will be up against it over the busy Christmas fixture list without their best, and most influential player. And David Moyes is also without Phil Neville (knee), Kevin Mirallas (hamstring) and Tony Hibbert (calf) for a lengthy period. Thankfully. The first two matches are winnable against a banged up West Ham and at home to Wigan. Next up: at West Ham
 
5) Chelsea (8-5-3, last week: 4) – Chelsea did not play, with the team away at the World Club Championship in Japan, where the Blues lost to Corinthians of Brazil in the final. 48 hours later, Chelsea returned to home soil to defeat Leeds United 5-1 in the Capital One Cup. Whiles overseas, Frank Lampard publicly stated Chelsea have not had discussions to retain his services beyond this season. The 34-year old is destined to move on, despite still being a productive squad member. It's the cutthroat nature of the business. But also speaks to the fleeting, flavour of the month nature at Chelsea FC. The club is quick to move on and make changes, en masse. In comparison, Manchester United has had the same manager since 1986 and finds roles for club members Ryan Giggs (39) and Paul Scholes (38) at advanced stages in their careers. Make your own conclusions. Next up: Aston Villa
 
6) Arsenal (7-6-4, last week: 7) – The roller coaster season at Arsenal continued, this time on a high, with a resounding 5-2 win at Reading. There's no such thing as taking the competition lightly, coming off a loss to League Two Bradford City in the Capital One Cup. Santi Cazorla showed the talent he is when not diving about the pitch, scoring a hat trick in just an hour. Arsenal was reminded of their defensive frailties conceding twice in five minutes, briefly making a game of it. But the always-lively Theo Walcott sealed the three points. The future remains bright at the Emirates, with the club locking up youngsters Jack Wilshire, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey, and Carl Jenkinson this week. Walcott is a question mark. But regardless he stays or goes, Arsenal must spend on top players and get out of the market of losing their special talent. Remarkably, through it all, the Gunners sit fifth in the table and are very much in the conversation for a Champions League spot. Next up: at Wigan
 
7) Norwich City (6-7-4, last week: 11) – The Canaries are flying sky-high, undefeated in 10 matches. It's an incredible record really, and longest streak in the league. Two months ago, many were set to punch their tickets back down to the Championship. But the team continues to produce. Anthony Pilkington played hero against Wigan with a goal and an assist. The only negative for Canadian soccer fans is Simeon Jackson can't get a game. An opportunity to compete for a spot in the team may come over a busy Christmas schedule. But it's hard to knock any decision Chris Hughton is making. His team has become much more aggressive pressuring the ball and finding goals at important points in games. Next up: at West Brom
 
8) Swansea City (6-5-6, last week: 8) – More was expected from Swansea in what should have been an open match at Spurs. Instead, a cagey game with few chances ensued, with the Swans coming out on the losing end of a 1-0 scoreline. It's hard to knock Swansea, with the team playing well enough to earn a point. And it was the first time the team didn't pick up a point away since October. Michu's 12 goals have been a revelation at the Welsh club. But Michael Laudrup should be aggressive bringing in another targetman in the transfer window. Next up: Manchester United
 
9) Stoke City (5-9-3, last week: 9) – Stoke City picked up another draw in an evenly played match against Everton. Ryan Shawcross, who has been a rock at the back, conceded an unfortunate own-goal in the 1-1 draw. Stoke have now only conceded three goals at home all season, and have not tasted defeat at the Britannia since February. Kenwyne Jones scored his first goal in 16 months, as Stoke continues to struggle to find a nose in front of goal. Still, the Potters defend as tight and aggressive as anyone, and that should be commended. Next up: at Tottenham
 
10) West Bromwich Albion (8-3-6, last week: 6) – West Brom are winless in their last four after a dire 0-0 home draw with West Ham. It was terrible football, lacking cutting edge or any kind of flow. Midfielder Claudio Yacob (hamstring) has been missed desperately. The Argentine is the straw that stirs the drink in the middle of the park. Steve Clarke's team has fallen from 3rd to 7th in the table. More selection trouble for Clarke lay ahead this weekend with Youssouf Mulumbu missing out against Norwich due to suspension. Next up: Norwich City
 
11) West Ham United (6-5-6, last week: 12) – It was an ugly 1-1 at the Hawthorns, but a point Sam Allardyce will take. West Ham's resiliency is impressive, after losing Mohamed Diame through injury. The Hammers need to find goals through their strike options, with Modibo Maiga (2) the only forward to score more than one goal on the season. West Ham get a break over the holidays with their Boxing Day match at Arsenal postponed due to proposed labour action on the London Underground. Next up: Everton
 
12) Aston Villa (4-6-7, last week: 14) – 9-to-1 underdog Aston Villa provided the shock result of the weekend with a 3-1 win at Anfield. Praise rightfully continues to be heaped on manager Paul Lambert, whose commitment to youth and formation has worked wonders. The kids in Aston Villa's backline have stayed remarkably disciplined in their play and formation. But the unquestionable star was Belgian international striker Christian Benteke. The 21-year old scored a brace, with a highlight-reel assist, setting up Andreas Wiemann's goal with a picture perfect backheel. Aston Villa is growing as a team. And what once looked to be a lost season is looking more promising every week. Next up: at Chelsea
 
13) Liverpool (5-7-5, last week: 10) – Another embarrassing result for Liverpool; a 3-1 home loss to a deemed inferior side. A lot of soul-searching needs to happen at the club, where expectations, performance, and reality are far from clear and change from week to week. Liverpool were four points out of a Champions League spot, leading to Brendan Rodgers suggesting the team could make a push for the top-two. It was a foolish suggestion to make. The team is nowhere near good enough, both in approach and quality of players. This entire Rodgers mystique is a little much. And it's difficult to get the read if he can get top players to play for him. He did well with Swansea. We get it. But to suggest he is the next 'Special One' is ridiculous. And for as good a player Luis Suarez is, the player's on-field demeanor is shockingly poor. The constant whining and abuse of the officials and opponent alike distract from his ability. Next up: Fulham
 
14) Fulham (5-5-7, last week: 13) – The Cottagers were exceptionally poor at Loftus Road in a 2-1 loss. Fulham did not have a shot towards goal in the first half against QPR – a team who hadn't won in a record 16 matches in league play. The link-up play between defenders to midfield, and midfield to forwards simply wasn't there. Fulham only have one win away from Craven Cottage on the year. Martin Jol keeps talking up the quality of Dimitar Berbatov, and rightfully so. But he needs better service to capitalize on his potential, and that of the squad. Next up: at Liverpool
 
15) Newcastle United (4-5-8, last week: 15) – A 3-1 home loss to Manchester City leaves Newcastle just two points out of the relegation zone. It's been a terrible season from a team who looked capable of Champions League football building on last season's top form. Defensive breakdowns and an overall lack of fluidity continue to punish Newcastle. Davide Santon standing on the back post on a corner embarrassed himself, swinging and missing an attempt to clear a Javi Garcia header off the line. His error made the score 2-0 City, and Newcastle were out of the match. Alan Pardew will have to spend wisely in the transfer window. Another striker and defensive upgrades are needed to dig themselves out. And Pardew will have to manage a difficult situation with top goal scorer Demba Ba keen to join Arsenal. Next up: Queens Park Rangers
 
16) Southampton (4-3-9, last week: 16) – Southampton did not play last week as they were scheduled to play Chelsea (away at World Club Championship). The Saints will be without top player Adam Lallana (knee) until at least the New Year. Argentine goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga is back in contention after overcoming a shoulder injury. Next up: Sunderland
 
17) Wigan Athletic (4-3-10, last week: 18) – Roberto Martinez is no stranger to the relegation zone. And that's where the Latics find themselves after a 2-1 loss at Norwich. More defensive errors from Wigan; a team decimated by injuries to their back four. And the struggles continue for the usually sure-handed Ali Al-Habsi in goal. Martinez will have to navigate a tricky period with midfield James McCarthy, who is set for a spell on the sidelines after suffering ankle ligament damage at Carrow Road. Basically, anything and everything that can go wrong at Wigan is happening right now. And it's really too bad. When not dealing with injury crisis, the team looks brave and capable of playing well above their current form. Next up: Arsenal
 
18) Sunderland (3-7-7, last week: 17) – Sunderland were never in the match at Old Trafford in a 3-1 loss. It seemed they were resigned to a loss before the opening whistle was blown. The lack of competitiveness is off-putting, coming from a team who has some talent in the team. Yet, the squad looks lost and need upgrades in the back. Injuries have certainly played a part. But requisitre depth is needed to compete; something Sunderland does not have. As long as the likes of Titus Bramble are being called upon, the Black Cats will be in trouble. More is also needed from Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean, and Seb Larsson, who is playing out of position. Next up: at Southampton
 
19) Queens Park Rangers (1-7-9, last week: 19) – Harry Redknapp is still undefeated as manager at QPR. And more importantly, Rangers were victorious in their first match in 17 in a 2-1 over Fulham. The supremely talented Adel Taarabt was unleashed in a more attacking role and scored a brace. Taarabt's second was a sublime solo effort of the highest quality. The Moroccan International is a pleasure to watch on the ball, but ends up being frustrating when results don't follow. If Harry can turn the enigmatic Taarabt into a consistent contributor, much that ails QPR will be solved. There will be a tug-of-war between club and country with the African Cup of Nations on the horizon. Canadian-born David Hoilett has been banished to the bench under Redknapp, preferring a balanced starting XI to sheer talent. Don't look now, but QPR are five points away from safety with a lot of season to go. Next up: at Newcastle
 
20) Reading (1-6-10, last week: 20) – There is no question Reading are the worst team in the Premier League. The Royals are conceding goals at an incredible rate, giving up another five in a 5-2 loss at home to Arsenal on Monday. Reading has given up a league worst 36 goals in 17 matches, including 13 goals in their last four games. It's been talked about in this space all season; not enough talent in the squad has Reading destined to return to the Championship. Next up: at Manchester City

Robin van Persie (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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