The dust has settled after an enthralling Manchester Derby with United staking their claim to recapture their title. The 3-2 scoreline only tells part of the story of a dramatic, incident-filled match settled by Robin van Persie's injury-time winner (with help from a two-and-a-half man wall, thanks to Samir Nasri). After losing both fixtures against City last season, Sir Alex Ferguson found the proper starting XI and system to beat his cross-town rival. Let's be clear, very little separated the two sides in Sunday's encounter but where Sir Alex got it right, Roberto Mancini failed.
It was an unnecessary risk starting the unreliable Mario Balotelli over Carlos Tevez. The speed and decisiveness of Tevez always causes United fits. And the Argentine striker has shown superior form this campaign. Balotelli's sub-par form was evident Sunday, missing a sitter early in the match, which could have forced United out of their counter-attacking approach and opening up the game for the home side. And after losing Vincent Kompany to injury, Mancini's decision to play Kolo Toure over Joleon Lescott remains a head-scratcher. Toure labours and is prone to mistakes, and was too slow reacting on Wayne Rooney's second of the game.
Reports of dysfunction have re-emerged inside City's locker-room. With combustible personalities and fragile egos aplenty, City desperately needs a swift response this weekend against Newcastle. Knocked out of the Champions League and now six points off the pace in the Premier League, it's easy to see things absolutely go sour at City. That's the pessimist perspective. Truly, as high as United are this week, and as low as many are about the state of affairs at the Etihad, matters are far from settled. Both teams are flawed. City still has the most talent in the league and will be in the fight to retain their Championship until the end.
It's the calm before the storm in league play, when the fixture list once again comes fast and furious over the holiday season. Here are your latest TSN Premier League Power Rankings:
1) Manchester United (13W-0D-3L, last week: 1) - The best Manchester United display of the season came at the best possible time. They were always going to have shaky moments against a quality side like City. But the way United battled, limited chances and masterfully executed the counter-attack was impressive. Sir Alex Ferguson was content on giving up possession early in exchange for a structured system, keeping shape and limiting mistakes. The back four was solid, with Rio Ferdinand turning back the clock as a pillar of strength. With Nemanja Vidic on the verge of returning, and the backline finally healthy, the team's biggest weakness can turn into strength. Any top United side is strong down the wings. The returning Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young were as effective going forward as tracking back. The team must maintain width for them to operate at their best. And Man of the Match, Wayne Rooney is hitting stride. Rooney is beginning to take advantage of the space created by Robin van Persie. RvP requires so much attention, it gives Rooney the freedom to attack from deeper positions and take advantage of what's given to him. Lookout: it looks like United are ready to go on one of their incredible mid-season runs.
2) Manchester City (9-6-1, last week: 2) - City's incredible 37 match unbeaten streak at home came to an end. And although there may be some panic around the Etihad, perspective is needed. Very little separates the two Manchester teams. It's fair to say City is stronger in the middle of the park, as well as in depth in attack. Formation and personnel at the back continue to be a concern. Fitness concerns surrounding Vincent Kompany adds another level of worry. As does a series of sub-par performances from goalkeeper Joe Hart. But the biggest problem may be Roberto Mancini being his own worst enemy, over-managing his team. Selection remains an issue. As does alienating important players in the team. It's all been of his own doing. Mancini's nonchalant attitude toward exit rumours and enabling nonsense to persist inside his own locker-room is worrisome. Cut out the detrimental conduct within this team and they can beat anyone.
3) Everton (6-8-2, last week: 4) - A last minute comeback led by Steven Pineaar and Nikica Jelavic earned Everton their first win in a month. It looks like David Moyes has navigated his way through a series of injury and suspensions, with the Toffees consistently picking up points along the way. After years of struggling out of the gate, Everton are in prime position to make a serious run at a Champions League spot. Despite rumours of the other, BPL Player of the Month, Maroune Fellaini has reiterated his desire to stay at the club. The only sure way of ensuring a long-term stay is winning and playing in top competitions. This Everton team is good enough to do just that … at least for this season.
4) Chelsea (8-5-3, last week: 5) - With a 3-1 victory at the Stadium of Light, Chelsea have now defeated Sunderland in 15 of their 16 meetings. So what do we take from their latest victory? First off, Fernando Torres can score, but when he scores, it's against poor teams. Second, David Luiz can play a defensive midfield position when called upon. And finally, for those with short-term memories, Rafa Benitez actually can win games in the Premier League. And by the way, Juan Mata is putting together one heck of a season (six goals, six assists). Chelsea is now off at the World Club Championship hoping for no devastating injury like Barcelona with David Villa last year.
5) Tottenham Hotspur (8-2-6, last week: 3) - Spurs were just a minute away from an impressive away win at Goodison Park, as late goals continue to kill them. 25 goals conceded are the most in the top-half of the table. It's not entirely unexpected with a young back-line and a team that's dealt with injuries to key squad members. A mouth-watering match-up against Swansea City is up next. Style marks don't earn points, but expect Spurs to be up for the match.
6) West Bromwich Albion (8-2-6, last week: 6) - West Brom's first lethargic performance of the season came in a 2-0 loss at the Emirates. Referee Mike Jones didn't do them any favours, first calling a penalty after a clear dive by Santi Cazorla. And in the second half, pointing to the spot again after Goran Popov was clearly fouled earlier, turning over possession. Decisions didn't go their way, but West Brom did little to threaten. That's three losses in a row for West Brom. A visit from injury depleted West Ham looks to be the perfect cure for what ails.
7) Arsenal (6-6-4, last week: 9) - If this were the Capital One Cup Power Rankings, Arsenal would have sunk to the bottom. A strong Arsenal squad lost against League Two Bradford City mid-week, further complicating an already tense situation at the Emirates. Its clear a change in leadership is needed in the team. Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal since 1996 and has done wonderful things at the club. But the trophy haul has run dry. And top players have continually left the club without adequately being replaced. Turning a profit is one thing. But Arsenal supporters deserve better on the field. Investing in quality, proven players is essential to compliment the commitment to development at the club. There isn't a proper balance under Wenger. And the team is suffering. The League Cup loss has taken the spotlight off Santi Cazorla has the exploits of his dive against West Brom. Simulation as such is an embarrassment to the game. If Wenger weren't under so much heat, a benching would send a message to the player and beyond behaviour as such is not acceptable.
8) Swansea City (6-5-5, last week: 7) - Swansea's comeback effort fell short in the Match of the Weekend, a 4-3 home loss to Norwich City. Down 3-0 at the half, the Swans valiantly fought back. Michu continues to be a driving force and now alone atop the Premier League scoring list (12). Consistency in defending is of particular worry, especially with matches against the high-powered attacks of Spurs and Manchester United ahead in their next two. But there's no question, the patience and quality in possession will keep Swansea in matches and part of the conversation in the top half of the table.
9) Stoke City (5-8-3, last week: 10) - A 0-0 final at Villa Park was the most predictable result of the weekend. Stoke City are the top defensive team in the Premier League, conceding 12 through 16 matches. And even more amazing, four of the 12 were conceded at Old Trafford. The Potters defensive record is even more impressive at home, conceding only twice. Ryan Shawcross is the inspirational leader at the back. But its Tony Pulis defensively sound 4-5-1 system with clear roles and responsibilities for a physically dominant group of players, often times more resembling rugby players than footballers.
10) Liverpool (5-7-4, last week: 11) - A statement victory for Liverpool minus top performer Luis Suarez in a 3-2 win at West Ham. A win without your top player can do wonders for confidence. Wins have been hard to come by for Brendan Rodgers, despite his squad looking better week after week. There's now some talk of Liverpool pushing for a top four finish. Liverpool is just four points back of a Champions League spot and don't play a team inside in the top eight in the Premier League in their next five matches. The opportunity is certainly there to climb the table.
11) Norwich City (5-7-4, last week: 12) - The Canaries are absolutely flying with a nine match unbeaten streak; the longest current unbeaten streak in the Premier League. For a team that struggles to score goals, Norwich was clinical putting four past Swansea. Three of the four goals at the Liberty came off set pieces. Give credit to the manager for superior execution. And although they still boast an unimpressive goal differential of -7 on the season, the team is doing enough to pick up points. The unbeaten streak has every chance of continuing as Wigan pays a visit to Carrow Road on Saturday.
12) West Ham United (6-4-6, last week: 8) - The Hammers failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity welcoming a Liverpool side without top goal-scorer Luis Suarez. The team wasn't the same after losing top player Mohamed Diame to a hamstring injury. And the news has got worse, with Diame set to miss up to three months after tearing his hamstring. Sam Allardyce will have to work his magic, grinding out results minus Diame and Andy Carroll. Squad depth isn't something teams coming off promotion have the luxury. But the Hammers did so well out of the gate they've given themselves a sufficient cushion.
13) Fulham (5-5-6, last week: 13) - The Cottagers ended a five-hour goalless drought in a 2-1 win Monday over Newcastle. The win was Fulham's first since October 20th. It's been a difficult run for Martin Jol, but the team now enters a soft stretch in their schedule where wins will be expected. The play of Dimitar Berbatov has been outstanding. Even when not scoring goals, Berbatov is a constant threat and facilitates everything in attack. Jol's side seem comfortable playing three in attack, allowing him to get away with playing industrial centre-midfielders who lack offensive creativity.
14) Aston Villa (3-6-7, last week: 15) - Villa are now unbeaten in four after a scoreless draw with Stoke City. Darren Bent returned from exile to make an appearance as a substitute, only to do a hamstring midweek in their Capital One Cup victory over Norwich. Villa continues to struggle in front of goal. But patience in Paul Lambert's approach, particularly with young players in the squad is paying off. The key word with Villa will be competitive. And right now, they are a competitive, hard working, well-organized bunch. In other words, the team is taking the form of their manager, which is a massive positive.
15) Newcastle United (4-5-7, last week: 14) - Another match, another sub-par performance and result for the struggling Magpies. Alan Pardew has relied on a weakened side, more times than not, through injuries and suspension. Pardew is unimpressed with players he's given an opportunity is determined to be active in the transfer window. Newcastle need to remain patient, as the team is still alive in the Europa League and have the quality to move in BPL play. Manchester City pays a visit Saturday, and Manchester United two weeks from now. It doesn't get any easier.
16) Southampton (4-3-9, last week: 17) - The Saints kept pace with a ever-growing list of teams on the cusp of the relegation zone with a 1-0 win over Reading. And another decent defensive display from an increasing impressive side. The bad news: top player Adam Lallana damaged knee ligaments against Reading and will miss the next three weeks. The loss of Lallana is devastating heading into the busy holiday fixture list. Southampton were handed a break with no game this weekend with Chelsea away at the World Club Championship. A December 22nd showdown against Sunderland at St. Mary's will be crucial.
17) Sunderland (3-7-6, last week: 18) - A loss and a win in three days saw the Black Cats move into, then come out of the relegation zone. Sunderland was thoroughly beat by Chelsea Saturday, before bouncing back against Reading. It's all become rather desperate at the Stadium of Light, with many questioning whether Martin O'Neill is the right man of the job. O'Neill is no stranger to pulling a team from the depths towards survival. But his team has been decidedly poor this season. Upcoming matches against both Manchester teams in the next two weeks do not make his job any easier.
18) Wigan Athletic (4-3-9, last week: 16) - Undermanned Wigan struggled to a draw with bottom-feeder QPR. Roberto Martinez deployed three at the back, with David Jones as makeshift defender in the backline. Wigan concedes far too many cheap goals. But much can be blamed on an injury crisis. Gary Caldwell (hamstring), Antolin Alcaraz (groin) and Ivan Ramis (hamstring) all remain out. It's all been challenging to a team that has shown flashes of being far better.
19) Queens Park Rangers (0-7-9, last week: 20) - Make it three consecutive draws under Harry Redknapp, as QPR continues to pick up points. With no wins yet on their season resume, QPR became the first team to go 16 matches to start a season without finding victory in Premier League history. Redknapp says his team must win a game or two before January to justify any potential spending in the transfer window. Fulham, West Brom and Liverpool at home, and Newcastle away are ahead before January. A win wouldn't surprise in that stretch. But more needs to be done to cut out the basic mistakes that continue to plague the team.
20) Reading (1-6-9, last week: 19) - Lack of talent and a tough stretch of games have caught up to Reading. Let's be honest; they have no household names of the like, and will continue to struggle. They may be above QPR in the standings, but certainly not in quality. It's a matter of time Reading ends up at the bottom of the table. Sad really. But if you don't invest in quality when making the jump to the Premier League, more times than not, you go straight back down.
Manchester United v Sunderland from Old Trafford airs across the TSN and TEAM Radio Networks Saturday December 15th, with coverage kicking off at 9:30am et/6:30am pt.