A busy week in the Premier League proved to be another unpredictable, topsy-turvy fixture list where flaws in all teams continued to be exposed. For all the excitement, goals, and moments of contention the league has produced through 15 weeks, it's all been very scattered and the quality has been far from top notch.
This weekend's Manchester derby is the most highly anticipated match of the season to date. But it's impossible to say with any conviction which side is favoured heading into Sunday's clash of the titans.
Here are your latest TSN Premier League Power Rankings:
1) Manchester United (12-0-3, last week: 2) – Top spot in the Power Rankings is up for grabs in this Sunday's Manchester Derby. United gets top spot for the time being with a three-point cushion atop the table. But it's hardly secure. United is a weak top team. Absolutely flawed. Shockingly poor defending, especially of set-pieces almost cost them points against a very poor Reading side, and continues to be a liability to a team with more than enough in attack. It all simply needs to be better defensively. Nemanja Vidic is training and should return in the coming weeks. A shock return Sunday looks to be asking too much of the team Captain. Although who would have guessed Paul Scholes dramatic return out of retirement in last years fixture. Injuries have really ruined any kind of consistency in the side. Nani, Valencia, and Anderson are all on the shelf, taking away width and attacking minded players in the midfield. Will just doing enough not to lose be enough at the Etihad?
2) Manchester City (9W-6D-0L, last week: 1) – Strange to say it, a loss this weekend against Manchester United and Roberto Mancini's job could be in jeopardy. That's what my gut says. My head says otherwise. Crashing out of Champions League without a victory is embarrassing. And a loss this weekend would test the character of the squad where there are plenty of questions. But it's important to remember City is the only unbeaten team in the Premier League and have remained so while not being at their best. David Silva (hamstring) missing out against United would be a huge loss. It puts more responsibility on Yaya Toure to push forward and create. Toure is a notorious United killer. And will be able to take advantage of a weak United centre-midfield. City is unbeaten in 37 straight home matches and will be favoured on Sunday.
3) Tottenham Hotspur (8-2-5, last week: 6) – And here comes Spurs. Three impressive wins in a week and Spurs find themselves right back in the thick of the competition for a Champions League spot. The only bad news was losing Gareth Bale (hamstring) for a couple weeks. The return of Mousa Dembele softens the blow. The talented centre-midfielder is among the best at his position in the league. And Jermain Defoe remains deadly in front of goal, upping his talent to nine for the league season. A tough test at Goodison Park lay ahead on Sunday.
4) Everton (5-8-2, last week: 5) – Another week, another draw for Everton. In fact, that's three 1-1 draws in a row. Everton played a near perfect away match at the Etihad, only to be scorned by simulation by Edin Dzeko, earning City a penalty, converted by Carlos Tevez. The unbeaten streak is even more impressive considering Everton continues to pick up points without Kevin Mirallas (hamstring). The duo of Steven Pineaar and Leighton Baines continue to be the top left-sided tandem in the league. A visit from Spurs on Sunday ends an incredibly difficult run.
5) Chelsea (7-5-3, last week: 4) – Sometimes a good manager simply doesn't fit the team at his disposal. Rafa Benitez at Chelsea is case and point. The thought process behind hiring a defensive, no-nonsense manager to coach a team of highly skilled tacticians was ludicrous from the get-go. Wednesday's convincing Champions League win does nothing to prove otherwise. Chelsea now hits a soft part of their schedule, allowing Benitez some time to figure out how to best use his squad. He also has less than a month before the transfer window opens; a time they should be focused on bringing a proper, experienced option upfront to spell Fernando Torres. It seems they will leave 19-year old Romelu Lukaku at West Brom to gain further experience.
6) West Bromwich Albion (8-2-5, last week: 3) – Consecutive losses for West Brom will do little to dampen the spirits at the club. They remain tied for third in the table on 26 points, and funds are reportedly available for Steve Clarke to strengthen his squad in the transfer window. Interestingly, the losses came against a supremely talented Swansea side and an always-tough physical visit to Stoke. Even more interestingly, their were no Englishmen in Clarke's starting XI on the weekend; a rarity for a club traditionally finding itself mid-table. A trip to the Emirates Saturday will be another test of where this side finds itself against the so-called top teams in the league.
7) Swansea City (6-5-4, last week: 9) – Michael Laudrup may be the happiest manager in the Premier League and with good reason. Swansea was victorious at Arsenal for the first time since 1982, and picked up three points in convincing fashion. If it were not for the standout play of goalkeeper Wojctech Szczesny, the victory could have been by more than the 2-0 margin. Spanish midfielder Michu continues to garner the headlines with the brace, putting him on 10 goals for the season, tying him as top goal scorer in the league. But it's the way this team has battled through injury, using its squad depth, remaining disciplined on the ball that's the trademark of this team. Laudrup's praise of his team is well warranted and shouldn't come off as brash. Swansea is not unbeaten in six.
8) West Ham United (6-4-5, last week: 10) – The Hammers were dealt a blow with Andy Carroll being ruled out for eight weeks (knee) before their match against Chelsea. The response was swift; a 3-1 home victory over their London rival. It was a sweet victory for Sam Allardyce over his nemesis Benitiez. West Ham keeps rising to the challenges put before them. They've become a rock at home. And enough can't be said about the play of Kevin Nolan and Mohamed Diame. Instead of finding reasons why not to like West Ham, it's time to recognize what the promoted side does well. They fight, play hard, and play together. And have enough talent to keep them in the top half of the table.
9) Arsenal (5-6-4, last week: 7) – Arsenal's worst start to a Premier League season continues to get worse. Two wins in the least eight league matches, and winless in their last three is not good enough for any Arsenal side. And tenth in the table is downright embarrassing for Arsene Wenger. The saving grace for the manager is progression in Champions League. Without that, and with the uphill climb towards qualifying in next year's competition, it's not going to get any easier for Wenger. There are far too many players not good enough in the squad. Wenger needs to admit this. And the profitable club needs to cut their losses on the mediocre players in the squad and invest in that can make a difference at the Emirates. This weekend's match against West Brom is a big one.
10) Stoke City (5-7-3, last week: 13) – Nothing fancy, but Stoke City has jumped into the top half of the table. Tony Pulis continues to get rave reviews as a defensive genius. And while it might not be pretty, it guarantees the club is good enough to remain in the Premier League despite having little to no talent in attack. An undefeated record at Fortress Britannia will ensure survival. One win in eight away separates them from the big boys. 14 goals through 15 matches; good for 16th in the league. Stoke is playing with fire if they do not improve in attack.
11) Liverpool (4-7-4, last week: 8) – Another mixed bag week for Liverpool – a win, a loss and a tie for a club moving forward in approach but remaining static in the table. The return of Lucas Leiva improves the squad. But relying on a player that's missed the majority of the last 12 months through injury is a reach. Joe Allen will now push forward in attack, but is hardly an acceptable option to alleviate the mounting pressure on Luis Suarez. No other player than Suarez (10) has scored more than one goal this season. This year's Liverpool looks more like a team that can play you close but lacks the quality to win enough games. Only one loss in their last nine league matches is evidence of their competitiveness.
12) Norwich City (4-7-4, last week: 11) – The Canaries are absolutely flying right now. Norwich have equaled their longest Premier League unbeaten run at eight matches, dating back to 1993. In fact, Norwich has won four in a row at Carrow Road. The challenge for Norwich is maintaining this superior form. And the challenge is that much more difficult with first choice goalkeeper John Ruddy (thigh) out for up to three months. Norwich has shown composure and balance from match to match. A difficult fixture list waits over Christmas. And Chris Hughton's squad depth will be challenged.
13) Fulham (4-5-6, last week: 12) – It's all gone sideways for the Cottagers, winless in their last seven. But it hasn't been as ugly as it sounds. The team still plays with attacking purpose and is dangerous in every game. But only four teams have conceded more than Fulham (26). Martin Jol says he won't rule out making a move for want-away AstoN Villa striker Darren Bent in the transfer window. The team would be more prudent investing in a proper holding midfielder or more depth at the back.
14) Newcastle United (4-5-6, last week: 15) – No team needed a win more than Newcastle. The 3-0 drubbing laid on Wigan was long overdue. Demba Ba remains the straw that stirs the drink; now up to a tied for Premier League best ten goals on the season. Along with his two goals, Ba picked up a hamstring injury that has left him doubtful for Monday's clash with Fulham. The injury-ravaged side will likely have Hatem Ben Arfa available for selection. Blaming Newcastle's adventure into the Europa League is too easy to explain the team woes. Perhaps this tough stretch will bring some of the egos back down to earth. Newcastle still doesn't have an away win on the year.
15) Aston Villa (3-5-7, last week: 17) – An undefeated 3-game week for Paul Lambert and Aston Villa. Lambert has turned a team short on talent into a resilient, well-organized defensive side. Turning to youth in the side has paid dividends. Villa's only two losses in their last seven games came against the two Manchester sides. Goal scoring remains a concern, with the team only scoring more than one goal in a game twice in league play. Amidst the goal scoring struggles, club record signing Darren Bent wastes away on the bench. Bent will certainly be sold in January. How Lambert spends the funds raised will be critical.
16) Wigan Athletic (4-2-9, last week: 14) – A tough end of the week for Wigan with back-to-back losses, without scoring a goal. Defender Maynor Figueroa was sent off 12 minutes into Wigan's latest defeat; 3-0 at St. James's Park, and will now miss Saturday's home match against QPR. The Latics are now short in defenders due to suspension and injury; bad news for a side who has conceded the second most goals in the league. Defensive frailties continue to haunt a team capable of playing stylish, efficient football. New recruits will be on the way in January, including Honduran International midfielder Roger Espinoza from Sporting Kansas City of MLS.
17) Southampton (3-3-9, last week: 18) – One of the most fun teams to watch in the Premier League, Southampton continues to dig themselves out of their early season hole, just one point away from being out of the relegation zone. Scoring goals hasn't been a problem, and neither has creating chances with the likes of Lambert, Lallana, Ramirez and Puncheon. And the Saints have tightened up defensively, conceding less than a goal a match in their last five. Nigel Adkins has his side playing with confidence. Points are there for the taking as Southampton welcomes defensively challenged Reading to St. Mary's on Saturday.
18) Sunderland (2-7-5, last week: 16) – It's become downright ugly at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland has just one win in there last nine and continue to drop points at an alarming rate. And it doesn't get any easier with Chelsea this weekend, and matches against Manchester United, Manchester City and Spurs before the New Year. And now leading goal-scorer Steven Fletcher has joined the lengthy list of significant injuries, struggling with an ankle injury picked up in the 2-1 loss at Carrow Road.
19) Reading (1-6-7, last week: 19) – The talking point in the seven goal first-half goal-fest in last Saturday's 4-3 loss to Manchester United was the porous defending by the visitors. If you're a Reading supporter, looking in the mirror isn't pretty. For a team relying on superior work-rate and discipline, there wasn't much there, and hasn't been for long stretches of the season. Three consecutive losses is no surprise for a team of anonymous players you wouldn't recognize, even by name. Reading best be getting used to the relegation zone; a place they will most likely reside for the remainder of the season.
20) Queens Park Rangers (0-6-9, last week: 20) – Surprise, surprise. Harry hasn't simply just flown in to save the day. It's been two draws in two matches under Harry. Draws do very little for QPR. Wins are needed at a club who has yet to pick up full points from a match in 15 played, equaling the longest winless streak to start the season in league history. The team has cancelled their Christmas party, not wanting to send the wrong message to their supporters. But there is no sparing fans' of the Super Hoops from the wrath of Scrooge without drastic improvement, starting with their backline. A defensive core anchored by Ryan Nelson and Clint Hill will intimidate few.
Arsenal v West Bromwich Albion from Emirates Stadium airs across the TSN and TEAM Radio Networks Saturday December 8th, with coverage kicking off at 930am ET/630am PT. Also, Manchester City v Manchester United from the Etihad Stadium will air on TSN1050 Toronto Sunday December 9th, at 830am ET, 530am PT.