Aaron Ramsey and Eden Hazard feature in the Football Express News Premier League team of the week.
The two titans at the top of the Premier League both dropped points as the pressure at the business end of the season continues to mount.
Aston Villa scored four in the first-half to send shockwaves across English football and Sunderland’s boardroom with the subsequent departure of Gus Poyet. The battle for fourth place took yet another twist with vital wins for Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, all three separated by just three points.
The Football Express team of the week adopts the classic 4-4-2 formation.
Goalkeeper: Fraser Forster (Southampton)
Following the Saint’s 1-1 draw, Forster seemed pleased with the final result and with his own performance: “it’s nice to make saves and do my job.” Currently, Joe Hart’s understudy for the national team, Forster produced another fantastic performance between the sticks. His return to the Premier League has been a smooth transition from being relatively untested during his time with Celtic to arguably the best league in the world. Standing at 6 ft 7, he was instrumental as Southampton picked up a point from the home of the league leaders with a number of instinctive saves in the second half that saw him deny the likes of Eden Hazard and Loïc Rémy from finding a winner.
Right-back: Leandro Bacuna (Aston Villa)
Showed Aston Villa’s newfound attacking intent from right-back, bombing forward at will. Usually deployed further afield, Tim Sherwood later admitted that the coaching team had to teach Bacuna how to play in defence with the aid of videos. With Ron Vlaar, Philippe Senderos, Nathan Baker, Aly Cissokho, Kieran Richardson all injured and Alan Hutton suspended, Bacuna stepped up to the plate with two assists and displayed great tactical awareness for a new position.
Centre-back: Chris Smalling (Manchester United)
Often criticised for his distribution with the ball and rashness off it, Smalling put in one of his best performances in a red shirt, particularly in the first-half. The former Maidstone man used his pace to deal with Tottenham’s runners in behind and nullified the danger posed by the often irrepressible Harry Kane, who was forced to feed on scraps. Can the 25 year-old solve Manchester United’s defensive woes?Only time will tell, but the arrival of a big money centre-half still looks imminent.
Centre-back: Jason Shackell (Burnley)
Burnley fans and Sean Dyche would have known that defensive resilience would be key in their bid to beat the drop, and they proved they had fighting spirit in abundance in their 1-0 win over Manchester City. Dyche has rarely rotated all season long and Shackell has been an ever present at the back for Burnley, marshaling his back four. The captain made a number of crucial blocks inside the area, including a fine challenge to deny Edin Džeko in the first half, as Burnley stood tall despite 22 attempts on their goal.
Left-back: Joel Ward (Crystal Palace)
Alan Pardew certainly looks a happier man since leaving Newcastle to takeover at Crystal Palace and his sides’ first-half performance added to the feel good factor around Selhurst Park. One player who has improved considerably of late has been Joel ward, who combined extremely well with Wilfried Zaha down the right-hand side of the Palace attack. Ward got his first goal for the Eagles in the topflight and his celebration suggests he does not score many which is no surprise as the win over QPR was the first time this season the fullback hit more than one shot in a league game. He will have to perform an Azpilicueta job at left-back to make the starting XI, a position he has played before numerous times this season.
Right-midfield: Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
With the league leaders struggling to reach the standards set prior to the Christmas break, a number of players have seen their form dip, but not the 24 year-old magician in Chelsea’s midfield. The creative spark in Mourinho’s midfield, Hazard oozes class with his remarkable close control, acceleration off the mark and ability to beat a man. Was involved in the build-up for Diego Costa’s eighteenth goal of the season and was unlucky to be denied in the second-half by the magnificent Forster. Chelsea took the game to Southampton in the second-half as they pushed for a winner and Hazard was at the heart of their attacking play.
Centre-midfield: Michael Carrick (Manchester United)
It would be an understatement to say Louis van Gaal’s side have missed the presence of Michael Carrick in midfield, just ask any United fan. The red devils have often been too ponderous and sluggish in possession this season, but looked more like their best with a stylish 3-0 win over fourth-place rivals Tottenham. Carrick’s composure on the ball saw him make a sublime through ball for Marouane Fellaini to open the scoring, whilst also getting on the score sheet too with a well-placed header against his former club.
Centre-midfield: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)
Following a lengthy spell on the sidelines, the Welshman looked reinvigorated with a tireless display in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over West Ham. Ramsey epitomised Arsenal’s recent excellent form in the league with a dogged display in both attack and defence. Useful in possession and a driving force in the middle of the park, Ramsey was at hand to finish a neat one-two with Olivier Giroud to cap a marvelous performance from the Gunners.
Left-midfield: Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace)
One criticism against the bustling wide-man has been his end product in the final third, however the Congolese international responded with great aplomb with two assists in Palace’s 3-1 win over London rivals QPR. Pitted against the inexperienced Furlong, Bolasie put in an electric performance. First outpacing the young full-back and firing a dangerous ball into the box which Zaha squeezed in, before setting McArthur for Palace’s second. The robust winger was a pleasure to watch with his remarkable skills and direct style of play… well not for Furlong who came off after just 45 minutes.
Striker: Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)
Definitely seems to be benefiting from Sherwood’s direct, attacking style of play, alongside fellow front-man Benteke. Sunderland simply could not cope with his pace on the counterattack that saw the fleet footed forward net a delightful double with either foot in the first-half. Agbonlahor’s sheer speed meant he was a threat throughout the game, looking to run in behind, and was unlucky not to complete his hat-trick in the second half.
Striker: Christian Benteke (Aston Villa)
The powerful Belgian has endured his worst season to date in England but has showed signs of returning to the form that saw him linked with a number of sides in the top-half. Previously lacking fitness and service from his teammates, Benteke’s physicality and technique, coupled with Agbonlahor’s pace proved too much for the Sunderland defence. His goal-scoring exploits may prove vital in Villa’s bid to remain in the top flight. Two goals in the first-half will provide him with a much needed confidence boost.