The Cutter dons its mortar board and dishes out the half-term grades…


Dalglish’s ‘buy British’ policy had an almost quient, nostalgic air about it as he attempted to take Liverpool back to basics and instil the home-grown tenets that once made his club so formidable. He essentially signed a third of this summer’s GB Olympic side (Carroll, Adam, Downing and Henderson) but so far the strategy has quite patently not worked out as he’d hoped. Carroll has proven to be a costly square peg who is out of kilter with the pacy pass and move being played around him; he slows things down like James Corden in a boyband. Henderson has struggled to stake any impact or influence on games whilst Downing enjoyed a bright start but has mainly flattered to deceive, having had more shots without scoring (43) than any other Prem player this season.

Indeed wayward finishing seems to be the leitmotif of Liverpool’s season which is a concern for a club who splashed out £50m on a new strike-force last January.

The past six months has been one of frustration for Reds as they witness chance after chance go astray. Perhaps this is harsh – and it’s certainly a touch simplistic – but if King Kenny had plumped for a Darren Bent, or even looked abroad to Cavani, instead of hauling a lump of coal from the North-East, then Liverpool could contending for a title at present.

Key Man – Luis Suarez. Magic and madness in equal moderation. Liverpool finally have their talisman to take the pressure off Gerrard. Now if only they could find the next Rush/Fowler/Owen.

Key moment/game – The home draw with Norwich in October revealed that their long-standing habit of dropping points at home has not been eradicated.

Grade – B+

Manchester City

For several months it seemed that the end-of-season DVD would be a box-set as City went on a goal-scoring haul that smashed several top flight records. Delirious blues began singing ‘We’ll score when we want’ which wasn’t strictly true – there was an average gap of 24 minutes in between each one to be precise. In the opening fifteen games alone an astonishing 45 goals were racked up but it wasn’t just the strike-rate that amazed but the quality and domination of the performances. Some of the post-match possession stats – against sides of the calibre of Spurs and United on their own turf – were equally mind-blowing.

Last season qualification for the Champion’s League was Mancini’s sole objective and to that end he made his side difficult to breach. The general perception – rightly or wrongly – was that City was a side studded with quality but who were weighed down by the concrete overcoat of their manager’s nurtured caution. Typical Italian; grab a goal then shut up shop. This term however Bobby Mancini has displayed another type of national stereotype entirely. His team zoom around on scooters, sans helmet, saying ‘ciao’ a lot and liberally pinching the arse of opposing defences. For a long while City supporters were in dreamland even if the learning curves of Europe jolted them back to reality every few games.

It couldn’t last and it hasn’t though, at the time of writing this prior to tonight’s Liverpool encounter, City have won nine from nine at home and are sitting proudly atop the Premier League.

Key man – David Silva. Merlin cast the spells.

Key moment/game – The 6-1 Old Trafford routing was fantastia but it was the hard-fought 3-2 win at Loftus Road that truly silenced the ‘typical City’ doomsayers.

Grade – A+

Manchester United

Their noisy neighbours have been sensational. Manchester United have not. City have broken goal-scoring records. United have not. Mancini’s midfield includes the guile of Barry, the power-play of Yaya Toure, and the impish genius of Silva. Ferguson’s engine room is staffed by Anderson.

Yet as a new year is beckoned in both clubs are perched side by side at the top of the table with an astonishing combined haul of ninety points with only the slightest of goal differences separating them.

If last season’s title success with what was a fairly ordinary team (certainly by their standards) demonstrated beyond any doubt that the dark Lord is this country’s greatest ever manager then this year has taken his status to new unchartered heights.

Just how the hell does old baconface do it? Through sheer obdurate will he continues to haul, cajole, and intimidate whatever side he puts out; not since the era of Clough’s early pomp has a team so completely embodied their manager’s personality on the pitch to the point of ghostly possession.

Ferguson is a man driven by grudge and agenda and there can be no better proof than in his team’s meek surrender in Europe and the Carling Cup where their true limitations were exposed in tournaments not directly involved with his personal obsession of preventing City from ruling the roost. No matter how glorious the football or how devastating the scorelines City don’t just have nineteen teams to overcome if they wish to secure their first title for forty-four years; they have an old stubborn man in a grey overcoat who borders on a freak of nature.

Key man – Nani. Young has been inconsistent, Valencia is found out by the top-class full-backs and Rooney is prone to getting bogged down in personal battles. United time and again look to their Portugese trickster to provide the necessary flair to unlock packed defences.

Key moment/game – The 6-1 humiliation. In hindsight perhaps a straightforward 1-0 victory would have been better for City and seen their hated foes go gently into the night.

Grade – A

Newcastle United

Nobody could have predicted Newcastle’s magnificent start not least after their tumultuous close season that saw captain Kevin Nolan choosing to drop down a league rather than stay at a club deemed to be in crisis. Key figure Barton followed soon after and Alan Pardew’s squad appeared noticeably short on quality. In some quarters a relegation fight was predicted.

Pardew’s strategy to cope with such traumas was straight from the managerial textbook but it was the way he did it that impressed. He created a siege mentality at the club – a communal determination to prove the doubters wrong – and in doing so drew out unexpected commanding performances from players generally considered sub-par. Simpson, for a time, was the Premier League’s best full-back. Coloccini became a colossus. Most startling of all Demba Ba – picked from the bargain shelf to replace Andy Carroll – looked like a world-class front man.

Not all of the plaudits should go to Pardew however. A sizable portion of the acclaim deserves to be accredited to the unlikely source of Alan Carr’s dad Graham. It was he who recommended the purchase of Lille schemer Yohan Cabaye, a player who has become the new darling of the Toon with a string of fine displays in the centre of the park.

Newcastle will miss the finishing of Ba as he heads to the African Nations Cup but they’re compensated greatly with the return of Tiote and the continuing recovery of Ben Arfa. No longer are the doubters talking of relegation but can the Magpies confound the critics even further by gaining a top six spot? Probably not going on their recent mini-slump but it would take a brave man to write them off completely in future.

Key manDemba Ba. Andy who?

Key moment/game – The confident half-smile of Pardew’s following their early victory over Sunderland revealed that here was a man who was revelling in the drama.

Grade – A-

Norwich City

Though the Canaries are all about slick passing and delightful football their best bit of business over the summer was bringing in an old-fashioned grafting target man in Steve Morison. The Welshman harries and bustles and provides a first line of defence for a side that inevitably has come under siege at times this term. He has now found his feet at this level – and crucially started to score goals – and has done so in conjunction with the return to form and fire of Grant Holt. Rarely will they be employed as a pairing but to have two fit and hungry strikers vying for a first team spot bodes extremely well for the East Anglians.

Paul Lambert also wisely bolstered the heart of his young enterprising team with the muscle of Bradley Johnson and Norwich now have an encouraging mix of strength and flair that has seen them establish themselves well in their return to the Prem.

Most pertinently of all – the City 5-1 mauling aside – they have not been outclassed or turned over yet with half the season gone.

Key man – Paul Lambert. Talk of him succeeding Ferguson at Old Trafford shows the esteem in which he’s held in football.

Key moment/game – The 2-1 away win at Bolton in September. Their first three points noticeably settled the Canaries and led to a superb string of performances that elevated them to mid-table.

Grade – A-



The Hoops were already the best equipped of the three promoted sides to handle the Prem but once Tony Fernandes bought out the Multi-Billionaire Skinflints it further bolstered their potential. A couple of shrewd buys in Barton and Shaun Wright-Philips gave the midfield a quality glean though the rest of the summer recruits were akin to a last-minute dash around the shops before they closed. This January the players they require (primarily two top notch centre-backs and a proven goal-scorer) won’t be available so Warnock will settle for a couple of loan deals and it is only next summer that we’ll see just where the west London sides’ ambitions truly lie. For now it is all about top flight survival and QPR deserve huge credit for bouncing back immediately from their opening day disaster at home to Bolton. That result alone could have sunk clubs with lesser spirit.

Key man – Joseph Anthony Barton. Has the fight, experience and quality to ensure there’s no nerve-wracking six-pointers come May.

Key moment/game – The takeover in late August has meant the club can now compete in all areas.

Grade – B+