By Ravi Ubha
The last four teams to lead the Premier League at Christmas went on to win the title.
Liverpool fans hope the streak continues. No one expected the Reds to top the standings in late December, but there the fading giants were, ahead of current powerhouse Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. The Liverpool faithful will be further encouraged by Thursday's showing at Manchester City -- even following a defeat that allowed Arsenal to return to the summit. Liverpool bossed proceedings and merited all three points, not just one.
One man, Luis Suarez, can take the majority of credit for the upsurge, and if Liverpool is to end its league drought dating to 1990, he must his maintain his hot streak. Nearing the halfway mark, Suarez is the league's most impressive performer, but he's not alone in deserving praise -- or criticism.
Most valuable player: Luis Suarez, Liverpool
It was high, albeit predictable, acclaim: Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard this week labeled Suarez the world's best footballer on current form.
Rodgers and Gerrard are tied to Liverpool, as manager and revered captain, respectively, so the compliment aimed at the Uruguayan can hardly be classified a surprise. No one, however, can quibble with the pair's assessment.
Despite missing the first six games of the season for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic -- those who had sympathy for the Serbian could have a little less given his negligent boot to the face of Mesut Ozil on Monday -- Suarez remains on pace to shatter the Premier League's record for goals in a campaign. He is also tied for fifth in assists.
Not as quantifiable is Suarez's outstanding work rate. Suarez's indiscretions cost him in player of the year voting last season -- boy-next-door Gareth Bale prospered instead -- but even his detractors wouldn't be able to shun the forward if he comes close to keeping up his pace. If Liverpool's title challenge fades, no matter.
Suarez, without adding to his goal tally, shone against City, the probable Premier League champion come May. He chased lost causes alone up front; manufactured chances from nothing; set up a sitter for Raheem Sterling; should have won a penalty for having his shirt pulled; made City captain Vincent Kompany look like a schoolboy with his quick turn; and seconds later his pass with perfect weight played in Sterling.
Another hard-working South American striker, Sergio Aguero, follows Suarez in the MVP order.
Biggest flop: Joe Hart, Manchester City
History has shown that top goalkeeping prospects in Britain don't always blossom.
David Marshall regressed from potential Celtic legend to Norwich City, Ben Foster appears destined to forever excel at clubs only die-hards take a fervent interest in, and Scott Carson sought the pastures of Turkey in an attempt to resurrect his career, no doubt scarred by that rainy night at Wembley. He now features in England's second tier.
This is thus an important spell for Joe Hart. He could do no wrong in the infancy of his tenure at Manchester City, displacing one of the most consistent keepers in the history of the Premier League, Shay Given. His showing against Borussia Dortmund last season in the Champions League had some calling him -- prematurely -- the finest goalkeeper around.
But he began to exhibit cracks, and Hart's poor displays this season justifiably led Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini to bench the England No. 1.
Keepers should be judged on decision-making rather than the ability to produce highlight-reel saves -- Ali Al Habsi's reflexes, for instance, are almost unmatched, but the No. 2 behind Carson for Wigan can't be trusted on crosses and free kicks -- and Hart's gaffe at Chelsea proved to be the climax of his woe. He's now getting a second chance, although Pellegrini must be contemplating other options, if only for next season. Iker Casillas, anyone?
Tottenham pair Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela are worth consideration for this particular award, though are spared due to making the move to England from different leagues. Lamela, too, is merely 21. They've failed to adjust as well as Aguero's often strike partner, Alvaro Negredo.
Most pleasant surprise: Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal
In this, the season of merriment, merely the perennially gloomy wouldn't be chuffed for Ramsey.
Only advances in technology prevented Ramsey's career from being over after he fractured his tibia and fibula three years ago at Stoke City. Had the sickening incident occurred 10 years ago, forget about a return. Ramsey endured a difficult season last year, but due to a combination of stubbornness and belief, Arsene Wenger stuck with the Welshman.
Ramsey, not Frank Lampard or Gerrard (yes, they're aging), leads midfielders from the UK in scoring, and he continues to deliver assists. Arsenal's encounter against Chelsea on Monday didn't make for great viewing for Ramsey's backers, but in mediocrity he nonetheless conjured a moment of magic -- setting up Olivier Giroud for an opportunity the increasingly wasteful Frenchman should have converted.
Ramsey's performances countered those of teammate Jack Wilshere, another young Englishman whose stock has dipped. Unfortunately for Wilshere, his cigarette smoking and use of the middle finger exceeded man-of-the-match outings.
Best bargain: Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal
It was a partnership made in Arsenal heaven: Wenger needed a defensive midfielder (the cheaper, the better, of course) and Flamini needed playing time after an unfruitful five-year stint at AC Milan. The Gunners got the Frenchman back on a free transfer, the impetus for a reunion.
Not since Flamini departed in 2008 -- the Frenchman, Cesc Fabregas and Aleksandr Hleb formed a dynamic midfield trio back then -- has Arsenal fielded a talented ball winner with bite. It took Flamini all of a minute to do more yelling and organizing than any Arsenal player in years. He is a leader. (For all his class and the hefty price tag, Ozil hardly seems to be the sort to rally the troops.)
Southampton defender Dejan Lovren was a bargain, too, at a reported £8.5 million ($14 million). The Croatian has steadied a once leaky Southampton defense, with the exciting Saints conceding the joint-second fewest goals in the division.
Top loan signing: Romelu Lukaku, Everton
One of the world's most accomplished managers, Chelsea's Jose Mourinho erred when he let Lukaku, 20, join Everton on loan. The move puzzled for several reasons: Lukaku sizzled on loan for West Bromwich Albion; Chelsea desired to infuse youth into the lineup; and if Mourinho was unsure about the Belgian, he could call his old pal, Steve Clarke, for guidance. Clarke hailed Lukaku last season.
Mourinho enjoyed success in his initial stay at Chelsea with a similar type of striker, Didier Drogba. Lukaku has scored eight league goals under another Iberian boss (and one universally liked, unlike Mourinho), Roberto Martinez.
Mourinho left Demba Ba stranded -- a lack of starts is no way to instill confidence -- Samuel Eto'o has flopped (not a surprise since he's 32 and coasted for two years in Russia) and Fernando Torres' indifferent ways ensue. Lukaku's Premier League goals away from home in 2013 amount to seven; the same number for all Chelsea strikers total ... zero.
You got that one wrong, Jose, and I haven't even mentioned Juan Mata. The inevitable phrase emanating from England is that the Blues are still in contention, in spite of not impressing. With both Mata and Lukaku in the team, though, Chelsea might have benefited from a hefty advantage at the top by now.
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London-based Ravi Ubha's work has appeared on ESPN.com and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.