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Not a vintage season but United’s goal power could surprise Europe

As the Barclays Premier League reaches the halfway stage footballwriters.co.uk asked the Daily Mirror’s Chief Football Writer MARTIN LIPTON for his views on the season so far.

As the Barclays Premier League season reaches the halfway mark, how would you assess 2012/13 so far?
It’s been quite entertaining and enjoyable, but I also think the standard of the top teams is a long way behind what it was in 2008 and 2009 which for me was the high watermark in English football for the quality of players available. We still have some fantastic footballers, though, it’s been a pleasure to watch Juan Mata grow as a player at Chelsea this season, we’ve seen some terrific performances by Luis Suarez who’s as good as anyone in the world as an out-and-out striker and Robin van Persie’s been great for Manchester United. There’s some outstanding home-grown talent, too. Gareth Bale is brilliant on the ball, really exciting, but generally the overall standard has dropped.

Five years ago England was the dominant force in the Champions League…
Yes, the only teams who could beat the English teams were the English teams. Liverpool beat Arsenal, Chelsea beat Liverpool, United beat Chelsea…we don’t have that standard at the moment.

Do you see an English club winning the Champions League this season?
I didn’t see one winning it last season. You would never discount it because football can be a strange beast, but I think there are five or six teams better than Arsenal or United though United will always have a chance because they can score goals. In Rooney, particularly van Persie, Hernandez and Welkbeck they have lot of goals. I don’t think they are as good as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich and maybe not as good as Juventus or Shakhtar Donetsk. But if Vidic returns properly fit, if Jones and Smalling can add something…plus if Carrick continues to play as he is at the moment then United will have a chance against anyone.

Chelsea won the Champions League last season playing in a way that would be alien to United…
United aren’t built that way, they play a different style of football. However, if they beat Real in the last 16, the confidence boost it would give them will be huge and then teams can develop a momentum of their own. At half-time during the tie against Napoli [last February when the score was 1-1 with Napoli winning the first leg of the last 16 tie 3-1] there is no way you would have predicted Chelsea would even be in the final. They were lucky not to lose by five or six in Naples.

At the start of the season most people would probably have said the title would be a three horse race involving the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea, but Chelsea’s defeat by Queens Park Rangers makes it very difficult for them now…
To be fair, I thought it was a two horse race, just a question of which Manchester club came out top. That’s still the case. Chelsea would have to win probably 16 of their remaining 18 games, lose one and draw the other [to get 87 points]. In those games they’d have to beat United and City away which is unlikely. United have a massive advantage because they can afford to lose three [more] matches and still win the title. The unusual thing about United is they have drawn only one game.

So it’s United to win the Barclays Premier League title then…
I still think City could win it. They don’t have the distraction of the Champions League, they have a very strong squad with the capacity to spend silly money if they choose to over the next few weeks.

Who’s been your surprise package?
West Bromwich Albion have been my team of the season so far. Steve Clarke has done exceptionally well. Claudio Yacob’s been an excellent signing, I like Youssouf Mulumbu, Romelu Lukaku, on loan from Chelsea, has flourished this season and looks like a mini-Drogba. Shane Long does an outstanding job, James Morrison and Chris Brunt are playing well and Jonas Olsson’s been terrific.

Ben Foster’s been as good as any goalkeeper…
I know Roy Hodgson is desperate to persuade him to come back into England contention because after Joe Hart, Foster is, without question, the best English goalkeeper. We really need him to be available to play for England again.

England’s start to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers has been solid – wins in Moldova and at home to San Marino, a draw in Poland and at home to Ukraine…
The theory that we have only about 20 players has been disproved because Roy has used 44 and that doesn’t include Chris Smalling who would certainly be among the top 30 players. I think Jack Wilshere, now he’s fully fit, will make a difference, the development of Theo Walcott has been a positive, Danny Welbeck scores more goals for England than he does for United and has looked really good in an England shirt…arguably England’s Player of the Year for 2012. We’re not a top four team and haven’t been for a long time. Realistically we’re a top eight side as we showed at Euro 2012 where we were unbeaten. Given the circumstances England did better than par for the course.

Can England qualify automatically? The nine group winners go through to Brazil with the eight best runners-up playing off for the remaining four places…
The game in Montenegro in March is key. If England win in Podgorica then they will be set up because three of the last four games are at Wembley where you’d expect them to win – then the other match in Ukraine (in September) wouldn’t matter. If we lose in Montenegro then it may mean going through the playoffs. I’d be surprised if England’s weren’t in the top two and I think they’ll probably win the group. They haven’t lost yet which is a positive.

Team England seems to have a spirit that was possibly been missing in one or two finals before Euro 2012…
It is clear we have a set of England players who want to play with each other, which has not always been the case, they want to play for the manager, which has not always been the case, and are keen to play for the shirt which has not always been the case. That gives you a decent starting position.

Can Robin van Persie be voted the Footballer of the Year for the second successive time?
There will be a huge lobby for van Persie and rightly so. There will be strong support for Luis Suarez despite what you might think of him occasionally. He’s behaved himself pretty well this season, more sinned against than a sinner as has another candidate, Gareth Bale. Both he and Suarez have been cautioned [for diving] on reputation which is unfortunate.

There has been much discussion about referees and the Respect programme…
I wish it actually meant something. I think a lot of referees across the country were let down by Mike Dean [with the Sir Alex Ferguson controversy]. Dean probably thought he handled it properly, he may have even convinced himself there was no rage from Ferguson but it sure didn’t look that way. The fact Ferguson then took it out on an assistant referee and the fourth official said it all. The bottom line was, to allow Jonny Evans’ own-goal was a correct decision.

Referees will inevitably be singled out for blame, usually by the losing manager…
It’s easy to criticise them, but there are a couple of referees who are no longer fit for purpose in the Barclays Premier League.

Who are?
Mark Halsey and Chris Foy. They should be given their pension books at the end of the season. Both are past their sell-by date. Referees will always make mistakes, but when they keep on making bad mistakes…

Do you think the forensic examination of match officials by television is unfair?
It’s ridiculous. We shouldn’t slaughter assistant referees for being two inches wrong and most of the times they are correct. But if a player is obviously offside, like Lukaku was when he scored [for West Bromwich] against Fulham it’s different. He was almost on his own inside the six-yard box.

Major hopes for 2013?
I’d love the title race to go to the wire again though we can’ t expect it to be decided by the last kick in the last game like last season. I’d like to go into the last month of the season with nothing settled at both ends of the table. Probably more than anything, I’d like to be writing about football rather than issues within the game that overshadowed the game so much in 2012.

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