James Lawton: The Premier League's top 12 of 2012
1 Robin van Persie
Published 03/01/2013 | 05:00
It was a requirement of the 29-year-old Dutchman that could hardly have been more explicit. However you looked at it, the demand was for more than an extraordinary finishing touch.
No one could have delivered more perfectly, more intuitively. When Alex Ferguson signed him at the end of a season through which he virtually carried Arsenal into another appearance in the Champions League, Van Persie knew that rarely had so much responsibility been heaped on a single player.
Manchester United, frustrated in their attempts to reinvent their midfield and stiffen their defence, needed a point of certainty. With the 16 goals that have sent him soaring past the Premier League century mark, Van Persie has provided it with a quite seamless assurance.
The first of his two goals that helped maintain United's seven-point lead at Wigan this week was a masterpiece of nerve and judgment, another statement of astonishing poise.
2 Luis Suarez
Kenny Dalglish's unswerving defence of this controversial figure through that deeply scarring racism affair cost him much credibility. But if many believed the former Liverpool manager was in error in the wider moral argument, his judgment that he was protecting an extraordinary asset has long since been vindicated.
Suarez, with his notorious diving and a disciplinary record that has brought dismay in three countries, may not be easy to love. But the range of his talent, and his utterly consistent application, has been one of the wonders of the season.
3 Juan Mata
If Rafa Benitez should just happen to outlive a reception of unprecedented hostility at Stamford Bridge, his debt to his compatriot Mata will surely be enormous. While Benitez has trumpeted his attempts to re-caste Chelsea tactically, Mata has supplied the oxygen of sustained and often brilliant creativity and execution.
Much has been made of the need to resurrect the old touch of Fernando Torres. A little more attention, perhaps, should go into the nurturing of the Mata of the here and now.
4 Gareth Bale
The Welshman's progress has been striking for some years now but there is a point in the lives of great players when they have to move into another dimension. The most recent evidence suggests that the Tottenham virtuoso is indeed taking to a new level his control of stunning gifts.
Estimates of his value have reached as high as £55m – and with a noticeable decline in mirthful reactions. His tendency to dive, spectacularly, is for some a smudge on a brilliant horizon, but it is unlikely to deter a single suitor.
5 Sergio Aguero
Like the indefatigable Suarez at Liverpool, Arguero has become the heart of the franchise. He has also managed to do it without a raft of edgy complications.
Champions Manchester City are a club which craves the underpinning of consistent performance from its hugely expensive workforce. However, they do not lack a brilliant example. Good-heartedness, as well as superb talent, glows in Diego Maradona's son-in-law.
6 Moussa Dembele
City had Yaya Toure when they carried off the title and it could just be that if Tottenham, with players like Bale and Aaron Lennon touching new levels of confidence, do move into a position of serious contention, the big man from Belgium could well play a similar role. With the departure of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, the fear was that Spurs would become only a shell of mislaid ambition. Dembele has the presence, the strength and the talent to dispatch such doubts.
7 Vincent Kompany
Manchester City's captain has this season sometimes failed to match the splendour he displayed in his team's title-winning run but where would they be without his radar-like reading of an attacking threat? He remains the consummate defender at a time when the vital art has never been in such disrepair in the English game.
If, for a second straight campaign, City do close again on United they will be much in debt to the unifying contribution of their captain and the resilient goalkeeper Joe Hart.
8 Marouane Fellaini
Admirers of Everton's extraordinary attempt to succeed on a violently uneven playing field were thrown into mourning when Fellaini head-butted Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross and earned a three-match ban.
His absence from the pivotal, gut-check collision with Chelsea was widely seen as a decisive reason for Everton's defeat in a game in which they were frequently the dominant force.
At £15m, Fellaini, who has both pledged his loyalty to Everton whatever offers fly through the transfer window and a new dedication to impeccable behaviour, is the number one exhibit in manager David Moyes' superb effort to achieve competitiveness on the football breadline. He may yet be the central character in a most remarkable story.
Michu is not only the bargain of the season but also a running, biting rebuke to such assorted football luminaries as Andre Villas-Boas, Sam Allardyce and Paul Lambert.
The managers of Spurs, West Ham and Aston Villa all had the chance to steal this natural-born goalscorer from a hard-up corner of Spanish football. Now they can only sigh with each new eruption from the man who is so regularly delighting his Swansea manager Michael Laudrup.
The great Danish player cannot be sure that Michu will last. He may sometimes consider the possibility that the storm will pass. But then he looks at that wonderful fluency in front of goal. It is the most potent re-assurance.
10 Frank Lampard
At 34, English football's most consistent warhorse is supposed to be superfluous to the needs of Chelsea. It is a conclusion that he mocked in the most impressive victory of the Benitez revival, the 2-1 win at Everton.
Lampard scored the goals while reminding us of his relentless record as a midfielder with a genius for finding the most vital ground in front of goal. He also made the point that some players retain their relevance long beyond their allotted time. Lampard surely announced himself, at least, as a free transfer of beguiling value.
11 Santi Cazorla
In what many still insist, despite the re-animation of Theo Walcott and some promising results, are the ruins of the Arsenal tradition, the chunky little man who once rejected Real Madrid has come to represent precious value at £18m.
Cazorla's achievement has been to maintain a link with the Arsenal who once pushed the boundaries of creative possibilities. He may never achieve the influence of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry or Cesc Fabregas, but Cazorla plays with a wit and a flair which reminds even the most disaffected fans of how it used to be. In all the circumstances this surely represents excellent value for the money Arsenal have been so reluctant to spend.
12 Dimitar Berbatov
His heaviest critics will say that the languid brilliance of the Bulgarian is now in a much appropriate setting. At Old Trafford he was so often seen as a brilliant talent resistant to the harsh demands of the highest ambition.
But at Craven Cottage he performs for Fulham with an easy, almost timeless grace. The charge is that he is being lauded in a place detached from the heaviest pressure which can come to a player of such talent. It may be so. However, this doesn't diminish the pleasure of watching an artist at work.