LIVERPOOL TOPPED the Premier League table at Christmas last year but, a year on, the mood at Anfield is a complete contrast.
Jurgen Klopp’s side enjoy a 13-point lead over reigning champions Manchester City and their lead looks unassailable regardless of any mishaps that may lie in wait.
The list of star performers in red is extensive but Sadio Mane is in the form of his life, Virgil Van Dijk remains imperious, and Trent Alexander-Arnold continues to grow as the division’s premier full-back.
The Reds’ greatest challengers are Leicester City and Brendan Rodgers, supported by Kolo Toure, has successfully blended the Foxes’ band of seasoned campaigners, bright academy prospects, and astute signings.
Those that say the current vintage surpasses the surprise title winners of 2016 are probably right and Leicester at least look like a top four club here to stay.
And what of Manchester City? Their performances and fortunes have suffered in Aymeric Laporte’s prolonged absence and it is valid to question if this is another a team beyond its peak, even if Raheem Sterling and co. are capable of the sublime.
Those three are about as far as the title challengers go.
Chelsea currently sit in fourth and have excited at times under Frank Lampard, although it often feels as if the admittedly superb performances from youth academy graduates such as Tammy Abraham bail out a team with a soft underbelly.
Now that the Blues’ transfer ban has been lifted, we await the impact it will have on the project Lampard has overseen with uncharacteristic patience from all at Stamford Bridge.
Below Chelsea are Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United, who while capable of giving the so-called bigger names a bloody nose, too often fall short. It is not good enough for a team with such grand aspirations.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, however, may be the best man marker in the Premier League.
Next are Wolves, whose remarkable season began in July. That Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have maintained their level in the league is all but without precedent for a club of Wolves’ status.
On to Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham – a sentence that still inspires an element of disbelief in your correspondent. Results have taken a turn for the better since the Portuguese’s appointment, much like the form of Dele Alli, and the top four seems more likely than it did when Mauricio Pochettino was still at the helm.
Below those seven names sits a band of teams who seem to make up the Premier League’s accordion-like midtable. A win here or a loss there sees teams move up and down from week to week.
Let us, however, continue with Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United. The Blades’ exploits are a result of adroit coaching and marshalling of limited resources. Should they maintain their level into the New Year, there is a real case for United to be lauded as the success story of the season.
If Brighton played with overlapping fullbacks then similar things might be said about Graham Potter’s Brighton, who have switched their style in admirable fashion and look to have shrugged off their relegation woes of last season.
Equally, Steve Bruce and Newcastle have enjoyed a surprisingly happy relationship. Bruce underwhelmed most fans when appointed and any concerns that the club may have hit a glass ceiling with their affable manager are just the tip of the iceberg.
Which brings us to Arsenal. Freddie Ljungberg has taken temporary charge but even master marksman such as captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cannot mask the serious challenges that the interim head coach faces.
The Gunners should not, given their resources, be juking it out with the teams that surround them.
Crystal Palace are typical of the sides who have troubled the Gunners this season. Roy Hodgson’s charges currently sit in midtable and look fairly secure. In several ways their situation resembles that of Burnley, who sit three places lower: two unremarkable teams blessed with savvy coaches who fashion sides with enough wit and drive to do the necessary.
The style at Bournemouth is different, for the most part, but the fluctuating form of Eddie Howe’s charges, which is exacerbated by having to draw his players from a wafer-thin squad, suggest that midtable is their rightful place in the pecking order.
Still, these teams could be West Ham or Everton, who underwhelm despite the largess continually flaunted at both.
Mauricio Pellegrini is another bad result from the sack at the London Stadium, although Everton have already pulled the trigger on Marco Silva. Everton are looking up with a degree of optimism again now Duncan Ferguson has returned as caretaker manager.
There is hope for the league’s remaining quartet, however slim.
Aston Villa and Norwich are newly promoted and their committed performances may not be enough to save them, although the quality of talents such as Villa’s Jack Grealish might.
It is not quite the same at Southampton, who descended into Premier League ignominy in being shot down 9-0 at home by Leicester in October. The Saints betray the look of a once promising team stuck in a downward spiral. That said, even their survival cannot be ruled out given the lack of quality around them.
You would not, however, plead such a case for Watford, who in appointing Nigel Pearson are on their third manager of the campaign. With the Hornets bottom at Christmas and seven points from safety, Pearson’s task is not enviable.