Grading the Premier League field

Posted by Ian Darke

Lukas Podolski Olivier Giroud celeb ArsenalAllsportWill Arsenal be smiling at the end of the season?

As perhaps the most intriguing Premier League title race gathers pace in 2014, here is my verdict so far this new year.

Arsenal -- The team making the fewest mistakes so far. A reliable defence and a much-improved keeper are the keys because Arsene Wenger's teams will always carve out chances and score goals. Losing Theo Walcott is a big blow, but I don't think the Gunners will fade. Grade so far: A

Aston Villa -- The mysterious loss of form by last season's ace scorer Christian Benteke -- he hasn't scored since September -- is costing them, especially at home. However, they have just about enough quality to stay clear of trouble. C

Cardiff City -- Owner Vincent Tan has made the club a laughing stock and spoiled what should be a wonderful adventure in the top flight. Perhaps he will calm down and let Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pilot the club to safety, but you would fancy them more if they had a striker as good as the former Man United man. C

Chelsea -- Showing distinct signs that Jose Mourinho is starting to shape this team the way he wants them. Powerful, talented and starting to keep clean sheets, they look dangerous. The strikers are still spluttering, but the goals from Hazard, Oscar and Lampard will make up the shortfall. B+

Crystal Palace -- Tony Pulis, never relegated in a long management career, has revived a club that seemed doomed a few weeks ago. Expect a raft of new signings this month to further strengthen the cause. C+

Everton -- Beaten only twice so far, Roberto Martinez has made a triumphant start, adding a coat of paint to the solid team left behind by David Moyes. Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy have all been inspired signings, and Seamus Coleman has taken a major step forward. A-

Fulham -- Despite a shattering 6-0 defeat at Hull, Rene Meulensteen has energised a tired and unbalanced team. But they are erratic, leak goals and face a battle to stay up. D+

Hull City -- Steve Bruce pulled a master stroke in persuading Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore to join from Tottenham. Scoring is a problem, but they look organised and good enough to survive. B

Liverpool -- Vastly improved and playing exciting football, there is a real feel-good factor at Anfield. With Luis Suarez in such extraordinary form, the top-four place they crave is within reach, even if the title may be asking a little too much. B+

Manchester City -- Way too hot to handle at the Etihad, but will occasional off days on the road prove costly? Manuel Pellegrini has won a lot of friends and this is a far happier camp than last year with new signings Fernandinho, Jesus Navas and, especially, Alvaro Negredo all impressing. B+

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Manchester United -- The transition from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes has proved even trickier than most feared. Injuries to Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick have not helped but United are paying the penalty for not strengthening in the summer and are in serious danger of missing the top four. C

Newcastle United -- The "French Connection" is doing them proud: Loic Remy, Yohan Cabaye, Yoan Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy have all starred. A useful team who can beat anyone on their day. Just ask Chelsea. B

Norwich City -- They were hammered 7-0 at Man City and 5-1 at Liverpool, but had the spirit to bounce back and win their next match after both of those defeats. That shows the grit and character which should see them survive, just. C-

Southampton -- Set off like an express train and were third in November but as the assignments got tougher their form has fallen away badly. After just one win in their last nine, the aim now must be a top-10 finish aided by the excellence of Adam Lallana, who should make England's World Cup 23. B-

Stoke City -- Mark Hughes is trying to graft a new, more attractive style on to the Premier League's "ugly ducklings." Progress is slow but a finish somewhere around 13th or 14th would represent a solid effort. C+

Sunderland -- They have beaten Everton, Manchester City, Newcastle and (in the League Cup) Chelsea since Gus Poyet restored sanity after the wild ride under Paolo Di Canio. However, they have probably left themselves too much to do. D+

Swansea City -- Their points return is pretty poor since their League Cup win at Wembley last season, and the Europa League campaign is taking its toll. Surely they have too much quality to go down, but there is danger they could be sucked in. C

Tottenham Hotspur -- Tim Sherwood has been a breath of fresh air, releasing the team from Andre Villas-Boas' tactical straitjacket and retrieving Emanuel Adebayor from the sidelines. Time will tell if the new manager's no-nonsense, keep-it-simple style will prove to be inspired or a little naive for the bigger games. B-

West Bromwich Albion -- After finishing eighth last season, sacking Steve Clarke was harsh, especially with no apparent successor lined up. They miss the goals Lukaku provided last year, but will be OK. C+

West Ham United -- The injuries to Andy Carroll and key defender Winston Reid have seen them struggling badly. Carroll is nearly fit, however, and Sam Allardyce will be busy in January. Bet on him to keep them up. D+

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