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Surprises and disappointments from the EPL's first half

By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Over the course of any English Premier League season, there are bound to be teams and players that overachieve and catch us by surprise, while others fall well below our expectations and leave us wondering how they came up short.

So with the current English Premier League campaign having just concluded its busy festive period, as well as inching past the halfway point, it's time to take a look at the players and teams who are making the most noise, in both a positive and negative way.

SURPRISES:

BOLTON

Bolton failed to finish higher than 13th in the league over the past three seasons, but manager Owen Coyle's men find themselves in seventh place entering the weekend.

Much of the club's success can be attributed to the strike partnership of Johan Elmander and Kevin Davies, who have combined for 16 goals and eight assists through 22 games, while midfielders Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-Yong have both blossomed under Coyle this season.

The club has lost just once in 11 games at the Reebok Stadium this season, but their away form, which includes just two wins in 11 games, must improve if a place in Europe is to become a reality.

Wanderers have played some very attractive soccer this season, and even if they fall short of European qualification, Coyle has this team going in the right direction.

DIMITAR BERBATOV
Dimitar Berbatov sits atop the scoring leaders in the Premiership this season with 14 goals in 17 league games.


Manchester United paid over $45 million for the Bulgarian in 2008, and although the early returns were less than positive, the 29-year-old is finally starting to discover the form he showed at Tottenham to warrant such a hefty price tag.

Berbatov tallied 26 goals in his first two seasons at Old Trafford, but he sits atop the scoring leaders in the Premiership this season with 14 goals in 17 league games, including a hat trick against Liverpool in a 3-2 win that no doubt helped to endear him to the Old Trafford faithful as well as a five-goal outburst against Blackburn in November.

The contributions of Berbatov have been even more important with Wayne Rooney struggling for fitness and form as Rooney has notched just two goals in league play this season.

United has yet to really hit top form, but the club has done enough to grind out results with Berbatov carrying the scoring load for the league leaders.

GARETH BALE

The 21-year-old Welshman showed glimpses of brilliance last season, but no one could have predicted the kind of season he is having for Harry Redknapp's Tottenham side.

Bale has been absolutely spectacular in his role on the left wing with 11 goals in all competitions, including a stunning hat trick against Inter Milan in a Champions League match.

Along with summer-signing Rafael Van der Vaart, Bale has been a big reason why Tottenham advanced to the knockout round of the Champions League and why the club currently resides in fourth place in the league table.

Bale has become one of the hottest young properties in all of Europe, and it's easy to see why as he continues to give opposing right backs nightmares with his pace, dribbling ability, and pinpoint crosses.

If Bale is able duplicate that form over the remainder of the season, Tottenham could find itself back in the Champions League again next season.

SAMIR NASRI

Arsenal's top two goalscorers from last season, Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin, have combined for just seven goals so far this campaign, which you would think would signal trouble for the Gunners.

However, Arsenal finds itself in the thick of the title race as 2011 begins due in large part to the play of Nasri.

The 23-year-old scored eight goals in league play during his first two seasons with the north London side, but he has already eclipsed that total with nine goals to lead the team this season.

Fabregas has battled injuries and Arshavin has struggled to find consistency, but Nasri's play, along with that of summer-signing Marouane Chamakh, has kept the high-powered Arsenal attack humming along.

SUNDERLAND

Sunderland gained promotion to the Premiership prior to the 2008-09 season, and went on to finish in 16th and 13th place, respectively, over the past two seasons.

But Steve Bruce has his Black Cats poised for a breakout year this season with only five defeats in the team's first 22 games, good for a spot in the top six.

The attacking trio of Darren Bent, Asamoah Gyan and on-loan Danny Welbeck has combined for 20 of Sunderland's 25 goals this season, with Jordan Henderson and Lee Cattermole both supplying plenty of quality in midfield.

The Sunderland defense has been hit by injuries throughout the season, but the steady play of Nedum Onuoha and Phil Bardsley among others has helped the team cope.

Bruce's men have been involved in plenty of close games, with 16 of their 22 matches being decided by a goal or less, but they showed what they are capable of with a 3-0 win at Chelsea that has to go down as one of the most surprising results of the season.

DISAPPOINTMENTS:

CARLTON COLE

Cole gave West Ham fans plenty of hope for a big season this year with 22 goals in the past two seasons combined.

However, the 27-year-old has failed to deliver so far this campaign, scoring just three goals in 22 games for a team that sits on the bottom of the league table entering the weekend.

The Hammers are one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league, with few quality scoring options outside of Cole and Frederic Piquionne.

Cole appears to be in a better run of form lately having started four of West Ham's last seven games, including a two-goal effort in a 3-1 win over Fulham.

But if the club wants to avoid relegation, and manager Avram Grant wants to keep his job, Cole had better turn the corner and live up to his potential.

CHELSEA

When Chelsea began the season with five wins in five games by a combined score of 21-1, many experts were ready to award the title to the defending champions in September.

But what a difference a few months can make as the Blues sit in fifth place in the standings entering the weekend, nine points back of leaders Manchester United with one more game played.

Since that scintillating start, Frank Lampard has missed a significant amount of time through injury, while Didier Drogba revealed in November that he had malaria and has not performed close to his abilities since.

Things have gotten so bad at Chelsea that manager Carlo Ancelotti, who guided the club to a league and FA Cup double last season, revealed recently that he would not have been shocked if he was fired during a dismal run of form that has seen the club win just one of its last nine games in the league.

Chelsea still has the kind of talent to turn things around this season, but any hopes the club may has of retaining the title are rapidly disappearing with each poor result.

EVERTON

The question around Goodison Park in recent years has been whether or not Everton will find its way into the top four any time soon.

But this season the top four has already been ruled out, with the Toffees sitting in 11th place, 11 points back of fourth-place Tottenham.

Manager David Moyes has done a fantastic job at Everton since joining the club in 2002, but he has a real job on his hands over the second half of the season if the club wants to finish anywhere near its customary top-six spot.

The Toffees have shown their quality this season in wins over Manchester City and Tottenham, while also earning draws with Manchester United and Chelsea.

But losses to Stoke City, West Bromwich, Aston Villa and Blackburn underscore the club's problems with consistency.

Making things even more difficult for Moyes and Everton is the fact that leading scorer Tim Cahill might not return to the club until February because he is away on international duty with Australia at the Asian Cup.

FERNANDO TORRES

No player better epitomizes Liverpool's fall from grace than Torres, who took the league by storm with 24 goals in his first season but has struggled to hit those heights since.

After finishing seventh last season, the club fired manager Rafael Benitez and replaced him with Roy Hodgson, who was also let go last week in favor of Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish on an interim basis.

Ironically, Dalglish is one of the greatest strikers in the history of the club, and he will do himself a huge favor if he can help Torres rediscover his form.

The Spaniard played little part in Spain's World Cup win this past summer because of injuries and poor form, and it has carried over into this season as the former Atletico Madrid star has tallied only six goals in 19 games this season.

Scoring has been an issue for the Reds almost all season, with the club finding the net only 24 times in 20 games.

So if Liverpool is to return to its lofty status as one of the elite teams in England, Torres must be firing on all cylinders.

GERARD HOULLIER

Martin O'Neill guided Aston Villa to three straight sixth-place finishes before he was replaced by Houllier prior to the start of the season.

And the results have been disastrous with Villa languishing in the relegation zone having won just five of 21 league matches this season.

A rash of injuries hasn't helped, but the Frenchman's team selection has come under heavy scrutiny with the boss preferring inexperienced young talent like Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan and Ciaran Clark to more established veterans like Nigel Reo-Coker, Stephen Ireland and Robert Pires.

Developing young talent is an important aspect of any manager's job, but avoiding the drop zone should come first and foremost.

Houllier is flirting with disaster as calls for his job grow increasingly louder, which should leave him little choice but to go with the players who have been there before.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com.

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