Liverpool title charge inspired by consistent brilliance of Van Dijk

The halfway point of the Premier League campaign dovetails nicely with Christmas so the time has come to provide a little festive cheer by handing out some imaginary mid-season awards, writes Darren Norris

Liverpool title charge inspired by consistent brilliance of Van Dijk

The halfway point of the Premier League campaign dovetails nicely with Christmas so the time has come to provide a little festive cheer by handing out some imaginary mid-season awards, writes Darren Norris

Best player award goes to...

Chelsea’s Eden Hazard started the season in scintillating form before a slight dip after a brief injury lay-off but is back in the groove again. And, though they hit some significant turbulence in the last week, Manchester City have had a host of top performers, none better than the evergreen David Silva.

However, the main story of the season so far is Liverpool’s defensive improvement. At this point last year, Jurgen Klopp’s men had conceded 23 goals for a goal difference of +18. This season the defence has been breached just seven times, and never more than once in a single game.

As mad as it sounds, goalkeeper Alisson Becker, acquired for the not inconsiderable sum of €72.5m, looks a bargain but the main man responsible for Liverpool’s new-found defensive stability is Virgil van Dijk.

Like Alisson, the imposing Dutchman didn’t come cheap, costing Liverpool £75m (€83.2m) last January. But, again like Alisson, Van Dijk has proven a superb recruit. The 27-year-old has everything you want from a modern centre-half: pace, power, positional sense, and the ability to pass out from the back.

When it comes to individual awards, attacking players invariably get the plaudits but there has no more influential player than Van Dijk over the course of the first of the first half of the season.

Best goal award goes to...

No shortage of contenders going right back to the opening month of the season when Jean Michael Seri’s thunderbolt from 25 yards put Fulham on their way to a 4-2 victory over Burnley.

In September, Daniel Sturridge put his name in the mix with a stunning last-gasp equaliser against Chelsea to preserve Liverpool’s unbeaten start.

Last month saw another beauty, Junior Hoilett curling home a sumptuous winner as Cardiff came from behind to beat Wolves 2-1. A late contender for this prize emerged last weekend when a rocket from Andros Townsend helped Crystal Palace to a shock 3-2 win at Manchester City.

All four strikes were moments of sublime individual brilliance but the goal that stands out as this season’s best to date was Aaron Ramsey’s backheel again Fulham in October, a superb piece of skill that came at the end of a glorious team move.

It began in the Arsenal box, Hector Bellerin finding Ramsey in the right-back position, who then found Alex Lacazette. The French striker’s return pass was a little short but Ramsey improvised, flicking the ball over the closing Fulham defender. Lacazette then passed the ball into the Fulham half where the marauding Bellerin flicked it towards Ramsey.

The Welshman headed it to Henrikh Mkhitaryan who immediately played in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. His first-time cross was a little behind Ramsey but he improvised brilliantly, his clever back heel rolling perfectly into the corner. Glorious.

Worst miss award goes to...

Two misses stand out, the first of which in West Ham’s goalless draw at home to Chelsea in September. Just 13 minutes remained when Robert Snodgrass found Andriy Yarmokenko with a peach of a cross but, just six yards out from a gaping goal, the Ukrainian somehow headed wide when it was easier to score.

Contender number two came from Turf Moor last month when Matt Ritchie somehow fired wide from just two yards out in Newcastle’s 2-1 win over Burnley, a staggering miss that beggared belief.

They’re hard to split but Yarmokenko’s miss was slightly more glaring.

Best save award goes to...

Alisson Becker’s importance to the Liverpool cause has already been mentioned and he illustrated why with a crucial intervention against Everton. A typically tense Merseyside derby will be remembered for a goalkeeping gaffe from Jordan Pickford that gifted Divock Origi a stoppage-time winner but Alisson’s earlier contribution was no less important.

After 20 minutes, it seemed as though Andre Gomes just had to score when picked out by Theo Walcott three yards from goal but Alisson showed tremendous agility to keep the midfielder’s header out.

The clearance of the season came in the immediate aftermath, Joe Gomez sliding in to stop Gomes’ rebound from crossing the line. If Liverpool do go on and win a first league title since 1990, that sequence of play will be remembered as one of the key moments.

Best team display award goes to…

Sometimes recency bias can cloud the judgement but it’s hard to look beyond Tottenham’s 6-2 at Everton last Sunday.

Trailing 1-0, Spurs got a break when Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s header was harshly ruled out but they didn’t half make the most of their reprieve.

Three goals in a blistering 15 minute spell left them 3-1 up at the interval and they added three more after the break, the pick of which was goal number six when Harry Kane finished an outstanding team move with a typically clinical team goal.

Best individual display award goes to…

Mesut Ozil: Was at his mesmeric best in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Leicester City.
Mesut Ozil: Was at his mesmeric best in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Leicester City.

To say Mesut Ozil divides opinion would be an understatement but when the Arsenal playmaker’s on it, he really is a sight to behold. He was certainly on a going night when Arsenal hosted Leicester in October, turning in a virtuoso display against the Foxes.

A typically classy cushioned volley brought Arsenal level on the stroke of half-time before Ozil went into overdrive after the interval. First, his sumptuous ball carved Leicester apart to allow Hector Bellerin tee up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a tap-in. The best move was still to come though. An audacious flick in midfield started it, then came a brilliant step-over before a final selfless pass gifted Aubameyang another simple finish.

Ozil’s a special talent; the only problem is he only rarely displays the full repertoire of his outrageous gifts.

Best match award goes to...

The North London Derby is seldom dull and Tottenham’s visit to bitter rivals Arsenal at the start of the month was anything but boring.

Arsenal have been notoriously slow starters under Unai Emery — last Saturday’s 3-1 win over Burnley was the first Premier League game they led under the Spaniard — but they came out fighting against Spurs, taking an early lead through an Aubameyang penalty.

However, it was Spurs who led against the run of play at the break after an Eric Dier header brought them level before Harry Kane’s penalty made it 2-1.

A wounded Arsenal roared back after the interval, Aubameyang equalising with a brilliant strike before a deflected effort from Alexandre Lacazette made it 3-2. Lucas Torreira put the icing on the cake with a killer fourth before Jan Vertonghen’s dismissal compounded Spurs’ misery.

Worst match award goes to...

There were obviously worse games but given the pre-match hype and the formidable offensive quality of both Manchester City and Liverpool, their scoreless draw at Anfield in October was a real damp squib.

Last season’s corresponding clash was a belter, Liverpool winning 4-3 but this was a tense affair that never got going. An awful missed penalty from Riyad Mahrez four minutes from the end summed up a turgid affair.

Best comeback award goes to…

The Jose Mourinho-Manchester United marriage was always going to end in tears and the inevitable came to pass a week before Christmas.

The end could have happened two months earlier were it not for a comeback that evoked memories of the way things used to be under Alex Ferguson.

On October 6, Mourinho awoke to news that he would be sacked regardless of the result of a home clash against winless Newcastle. When the Magpies raced into a 2-0 lead in the opening 10 minutes, the end, it appeared, was nigh.

However, an exquisite free-kick from Juan Mata 20 minutes from the end sparked a stunning comeback, Anthony Martial equalising before a stoppage-time goal from the much maligned Alexis Sanchez gave Mourinho a temporary stay of execution.

Best newcomer award goes to...

James Maddison has made a sparkling start to life in the Premier League after joining Leicester from Norwich for £20m (€22.2m) in the summer, scoring five times, while 21-year-old midfielder David Brooks has really caught the eye since joining Bournemouth from Sheffield United for £10m (€11.1m).

Like Maddison, Brooks already has five Premier League goals to his name and looks a star in the making.

Matteo Guendouzi has also impressed but the standout new recruit has to be the Frenchman’s Arsenal team-mate Lucas Torreira. Gunners fans have been craving a top-class midfield enforcer since Patrick Vieira’s departure 13 years ago. The wait is over.

Most disappointing signing award goes to...

Two stand out. Naby Keita has yet to illustrate what all the hype is about following his £48m (€53.2m) move to Liverpool from RB Leipzig while Manchester United midfielder Fred looks a long way short of a £52m (€57.7m) footballer.

The sense is there’s better to come from Keita but the evidence to date suggests Fred simply isn’t a Man United player.

Best manager award goes to…

PLENTY TO SMILE ABOUT: Mauricio Pochettino has overcome adversity to guide Spurs into a title-challenging position. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA
PLENTY TO SMILE ABOUT: Mauricio Pochettino has overcome adversity to guide Spurs into a title-challenging position. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA

It may seem harsh to overlook a manager whose side are unbeaten this season but Jurgen Klopp has benefitted from some expensively- acquired — if well-chosen — reinforcements over the last 12 months.

In contrast, Mauricio Pochettino didn’t have a dime to spend over the summer and delays in finishing the new White Hart Lane mean Spurs continue to play their ‘home’ games at Wembley.

However, Pochettino has shrugged off those considerable obstacles to guide Spurs into a position where their fans can dare to dream of a first title success since 1961.

Under Pochettino, Spurs play good football, develop young players, and win games. No wonder Manchester United reportedly want him to be Jose Mourinho’s long-term successor.

Biggest meltdown award goes to…

It’s hard to believe that less than three weeks ago, there was talk of Manchester City emulating Arsenal’s Invincibles by going through an entire Premier League campaign without losing.

However, a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea shed City of their air of invincibility and though they recovered to beat Everton 3-1, a shock 3-2 home defeat at Crystal Palace last weekend and 2-1 reverse at Leicester on St Stephen’s Day means Pep Guardiola’s men have slipped from first to third and now trail leaders Liverpool by seven points.

Next Thursday’s home game against Jurgen Klopp’s men already has the look of a must-win game for the stuttering champions.

The best of the Irish award goes to...

IRISH PRIDE: Ireland full-back Matt Doherty has emerged as a key player for newly-promoted Wolves. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
IRISH PRIDE: Ireland full-back Matt Doherty has emerged as a key player for newly-promoted Wolves. Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The limited number of Irish players plying their trade in the Premier League has long been a concern and it’s a problem that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. That’s why Matt Doherty’s exploits with Wolves have been so welcome. The right-back has been a key component of a swashbuckling Wolves side who have taken the Premier League by storm this season. Doherty gets forward at every conceivable opportunity and his brilliant crossing and eye for goal have made an invaluable member of this Wolves team.

And, while he may have not yet committed to the Ireland cause, Declan Rice deserves an honourable mention too.

The midfielder has established himself as a key member of Manuel Pellegrini’s West Ham side and his assured passing and sound positional sense make it easy to see why new Ireland manager Mick McCarthy is so desperate to get the 19-year-old on board.

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