Andy Gray reflects on the season so far as the Premier League enters a hectic Christmas period.
Last Updated: 25/01/11 7:11pm
The Premier League table pretty much looks as I would have expected it to look approaching the halfway stage of the season, with the exception of Tottenham.
Four of the big teams are in the top five and of the top four maybe Arsenal have surprised a few by being top heading into the busy Christmas period.
I always thought Blackburn and Portsmouth would be strong this year and they are both having good seasons, so no surprises there for me, but the main surprise has been Tottenham's poor start to the season, although they look like they're getting things together now.
Talking of surprises, looking at Manchester City, with the start that Sven Goran Eriksson has made since his return to club management, I would have to concede that I didn't think they would have started as well as they have.
Whatever people thought about Sven, myself included, as England manager you have to congratulate him on what he's done so far at Eastlands.
Whether he can keep it going will be another thing. It's always easy to keep a team going and keep them motivated when you're winning, it becomes a test when you're not.
The big test for Sven, I believe, lies ahead. Getting knocked out of the Carling Cup by Tottenham was a bad result for them and he will be disappointed with that, but you're always going to be beaten some time at home.
It's how you respond to a defeat that determines how good a team you are - good teams respond well - and Sven will certainly be looking for a response from his team.
Even though Liverpool lost to Manchester United, if they win their game in hand they'll only be seven points behind, so the title is certainly not out of the equation. I just feel that they've left themselves an awful lot to do.
The pressure is now on and they can't afford to slip up again. I feel Rafa Benitez has cost his team again with his rotation policy.
And it's now a tough one for them: can they go on a run until the end of the season to claw back the 10 point gap? I'm not sure they can.
A big question for me is whether Arsenal can last the distance at the top of the league, and we won't know that until around March-April.
What we do know is that they've got a very good squad. The reserves went and beat Blackburn at Ewood Park - one of the hardest fixtures to take on - and Arsene Wenger sent a bunch of kids out there and they beat them in the quarter-final!
Blackburn were bang at it in the second-half, in front of their own fans, pretty much at full strength, and for that Arsenal team to win was fantastic. That suggests that even if they get one or two injuries they still have a group of players there that are able to compete with the best.
They have Lassana Diarra who's complaining that he can't get a game and he was majestic against Blackburn. They have players who have been out for a while like Abou Diaby and RobinvVan Persie who offer fresh legs during the Christmas period.
My one worry about Arsenal is at centre back. When Kolo Toure goes to the African Cup of Nations they may have a problem there. I'm not sure about Philippe Senderos and whether Wenger will buy someone in January I don't know, but that's an area of the pitch that must concern him.
Manchester United have impressed and have shown their strength, both mentally and physically, when responding from their two league defeats to Manchester City and Bolton.
But that's what you expect from champions. You would always expect Manchester United to come flying back as their squad is experienced and very strong and they know what it takes to win the Premier League, of course they do.
They are still the team to beat and I think Sir Alex goes into the Christmas period in a very buoyant mood.
Chelsea have recovered well from their indifferent start to the season and Avram Grant has made a decent start since replacing Jose Mourinho.
But the loss of Didier Drogba, and now John Terry, plus Michael Essien during the African Nations might be too much for them.
But they are running the top two close at the moment, so they are by no means out of the title race.
At the start of the season I thought that Derby, Wigan, Sunderland and Fulham would all struggle and I haven't been proven wrong.
I also wondered about Middlesbrough - if they had enough goals in them - and although they have turned the corner with a great win against Arsenal, I don't think they're out of the woods yet.
Birmingham have been in turmoil, but I fancy them to survive under Alex McLeish.
Bolton will probably get themselves out of it, as will Tottenham - I would be very surprised if either of those two would be in the mix.
And then we have teams like Reading, Newcastle and West Ham are contesting mid-table, which is no real surprise.
Players of the season so far
Cesc Fabregas has made a fabulous start to the season - he has added goals to his game, which have been vital for his team.
He has been the driving force behind Arsenal with some excellent performances.
I have also been impressed with Elano, who is a joy to watch when he's on his game. He has really been a breath of fresh air with his all-round attacking displays for Man City.
And I have enjoyed watching David Bentley this season, who's talent is there for all to see. Also, Cristiano Ronaldo has carried on where he left off last season and is a threat to any defence.
Goal of the season so far
There have been some fantastic long-range goals so far, some real great hits - and Emmanuel Adebayor's goal against Tottenham stands out for me. The way he flicked the ball up and smashed it in on the turn was fantastic.
Game of the season so far
Liverpool v Arsenal was a good game - Wenger's team took the game to the hosts, which not many teams do at Anfield, and probably should have won.
And Spurs v Birmingham was a match that had everything, including a fantastic winning goal in the last minute when Sebastian Larsson smashed it in the top corner.
Those are the two best matches that I have commentated on this season.
Elano would be up there - Sven brought him for a snip really at £8million. He has had a real impact on their impressive displays this season and has scored some fine goals.
Mark Hughes pulled off a coup by signing Roque Santa Cruz and Anderson at Man Utd has also settled into the Premier League pretty well.
I think they've been far too inconsistent this season. I'm not saying that just to put referees down because there are some very good ones in the Premier League - like Mark Clattenburg who is generally good.
Howard Webb I like and Mark Halsey is an excellent referee. But there are two or three others who are too wrapped up in their own importance and are hugely inconsistent. They are the ones who have been involved in controversial decisions this season - it's the same ones all the time.
The FA and the Premier League will tell us that it's getting better but I think the standard is pretty much the same. They are still getting too many big decisions wrong for my liking and my half-term report for referees would be: room for improvement.
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