Team of the Weekend, Sept. 20-21
After each round of Premier League fixtures, ESPN FC brings you its Team of the Weekend. Our panel of experts carefully selects 11 star performers along with a manager.
Do you agree or disagree? You can have your say on those picked or overlooked in the comments section at the foot of the article or on Twitter using the hashtag #TOTW. Plus, tune in to Monday's "ESPN FC" (ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. ET) for further reaction.
Goalkeeper: Three different choices from our three experts for the No. 1 spot this week. Steve Nicol plumps for Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny, whose fine stop from Aston Villa's Ciaran Clark preceded the three goals in 3 minutes, 12 seconds that saw the Gunners ease to victory at Villa Park. Paul Mariner goes for Sunderland's Vito Mannone at Turf Moor -- "on top form; kept Burnley at bay." Gab Marcotti opts for Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois for his "huge stop from [Sergio] Aguero" against Manchester City at the Etihad, adding in wonderment: "A guy that big shouldn't be able to get down that quick." But let's go with Nicol on this one: Villa had been the team on top at the point when Szczesny showed his reflexes to repel Clark's header, and had Paul Lambert's Villans -- unbeaten at that point -- gone ahead, who knows what might have happened? He also redeemed himself when his poor kick gave Fabian Delph an opening, pushing the midfielder's long-range effort past the post.
Right-back: He may be only 25 years old, but Ritchie De Laet has been around a fair few clubs, not least of them Manchester United. Loan spells at Preston, Sheffield United, Portsmouth and Norwich followed before the Belgian decided it was time to find a new permanent home. He found it at Leicester City, where regular first-team football has seen his consistency soar. In the roller-coaster 5-3 win against old club United at the King Power Stadium, he produced a superb display, winning tackles, keeping his cool in tough situations and coming forward to great effect. His every tenacious challenge was cheered to the echo, but nowhere near as much as the rampaging run and pass that set up Jamie Vardy to make it 4-3. Here's Marcotti on that contribution: "Sets up a goal, stares down the opposition on his flank, never stops believing."
Central defence: Big entertainer Big Sam Allardyce would no doubt be delighted that, for all the enterprising football that sent Liverpool to a third defeat in five Premier League games, one of the best performers in claret and blue was a defender. It's easily lost among the excitement of an opening that saw Allardyce's men two up before 10 minutes had gone, but Liverpool had a lot of possession -- and one of the reasons they didn't make more of it was Winston Reid, who started the scoring ball rolling when he knocked home a James Tomkins header after two minutes. After that, it was back to no-nonsense defensive business for Reid as Liverpool became increasingly frustrated, unable to carve ways through for all their time on the ball and being forced to try their luck from distance. Marcotti was impressed by "not just the goal, but the way he led a back four under pressure."
Central defence: He appears in Teams of the Weekend on a regular basis, and there's a good reason for that: Vincent Kompany is, quite simply, a class act. In a tight and tense affair against Premier League leaders Chelsea at the Etihad, the Belgium international "marshalled his back line superbly well," according to Mariner, breaking up attacks and using the ball typically constructively as he tried to get the champions back onto the attack. He continued to do exactly that, only more so, after City had been reduced to 10 men by the send-off of Pablo Zabaleta on 66 minutes. Nicol is also quick to send plaudits Kompany's way, and he's equally keen to make sure that a fine performance from his central defensive colleague Eliaquim Mangala doesn't go unsung. "What a formidable partnership," he says.
Left-back: In the words (almost) of the old music-hall song, it would appear that Ryan Bertrand does like to be beside the seaside. Then again, life at Southampton at the moment is so much sunnier than anyone would have predicted a few short weeks ago: The Saints, despite a summer of sales that seemed to have flattened them, lie second in the Premier League after notching another win, this time at Swansea. On-loan Chelsea man Bertrand was an assured individual in an all-around assured team performance, doing his defensive work well and using his speed to augment Southampton's increasingly effective counterattacks. Mariner enjoyed watching him and explains: "He's enjoying life on the south coast, has pace, loves to get forward, and is a constant threat from wide areas."
Midfield: We can safely say that, in recent months, more brickbats than bouquets have come Mesut Ozil's way. The Germany international has been accused of disappearing from too many games, seen by some critics as a peripheral figure who rarely justifies Arsenal's huge layout on him. Well think again, critics: Playing in his more favoured central role, Ozil was terrific in the win at Villa. A coolly taken strike sparked the first-half goal frenzy that ended the game as a contest before half-time, and he was constantly in the thick of things, demanding the ball and setting up Danny Welbeck for his first Gunners goal. His dazzling contribution caught all three pairs of our expert eyes: Marcotti praises him for a "bounce-back performance," Mariner says he was "back in his best position in the No. 10 role," and Nicol feels he "showed us all what he is capable of." And you can't say fairer than that.
Midfield: "He has turned the counterattack into a precision art," Marcotti says. Whom could he be talking about? Eden Hazard, that's who -- and Chelsea's twinkle-toed Belgium international gave another high-quality demonstration of his mastery of the art against City at the Etihad. With matters locked at 0-0, cue Hazard -- a link-up with Diego Costa, a sizzling low cross that took City's defenders and goalkeeper Joe Hart out of the picture and a tap-in for Andre Schurrle, steaming in at the far post. "Involved in the break, the interplay and the cross to the back stick," says Mariner, while Nicol also has a word or two for Frank Lampard, the Chelsea legend whose first goal for City ensured that honours ended even. Lampard refused to celebrate after denying his old club, with Nicol calling his late volleyed equaliser "a moment about which fans can say: 'I was there.'" He could even have had a winner, too.
Midfield: Hands up: Who remembers the outrageous scooped Karel Poborsky lob that put the Czech Republic through to the Euro '96 semifinals one sunny day at Villa Park? Well, if you don't remember it, Angel Di Maria's stunning effort in Manchester United's defeat at Leicester is a decent point of comparison. The Argentina international was irrepressible during United's better spells, times when they looked able to create danger at will before everything fell to pieces at the other end of the pitch. Di Maria exchanged passes with Rooney and saw Kasper Schmeichel off his line. And that was enough: One sublime touch later, the ball was looping over the helpless keeper and into his net. Pure class -- although by the time Di Maria made way for Juan Mata after 76 minutes, his good work was well on the way to being undone. "If only he had stayed on the field for 90 minutes, who knows what the outcome would have been?" Mariner says. "He scored a goal-of-the-season candidate." Nicol is straight to the point, asking: "How can he not be in your team?"
Midfield: "Alan Pardew could have been gone without this powerhouse performance," Nicol says, and he's not exaggerating. No, we're not talking about Papiss Cisse (more on him later) -- we're talking about Newcastle midfielder Cheick Tiote, a player who, when he does this sort of thing, looks back to be the sort of driving force he was during his early days on Tyneside. Form and consistency may have slipped a bit since then, but as Newcastle battled back from the 2-0 home deficit against Hull that had seemed likely to end the manager's reign, nobody did more than Tiote to lift their spirits, belief and tempo. He was everywhere, popping up to win the ball left, right and centre and never giving his Tigers counterparts a moment of respite. All this and an assist, too: He threaded the pass from which Cisse got the revival started. Mariner is fulsome in his praise: "When Newcastle needed a big game from him, he delivered. He was magnificent."
Striker: Back in the days when he was a workaday Crystal Palace midfielder, Pardew was known by the Eagle Eye fan zine (not altogether without tongue in cheek) as "Supa Al." Newcastle fans don't exactly think Pardew's Supa at the moment, but perhaps he might be quietly reserving a similar sort of word to describe Papiss Cisse. With the Magpies boss appearing to be making the transition from under fire to out of the door as Hull took that lead at St James' Park, Pardew brought on striker Cisse. Cue a Newcastle revival as dramatic as it had appeared unlikely: With 73 minutes gone, he pulled one back, and with three minutes to go, he belted in a knockdown to change the mutinous mood completely. (Well, for now.) Newcastle had a point; Pardew still has a job. "What a comeback," Nicol says, while Mariner adds: "Two goals at the right time for Alan Pardew." He can say that again.
Striker: Talk to Leicester fans about striker Jamie Vardy and they'll give you the most glowing of reports -- especially given the way in which he has turned his Foxes career around. After arriving from Fleetwood in 2012, Vardy started brightly but lost form and confidence badly. But he stuck with it and, a year later, grabbed 16 goals as Leicester were promoted to the Premier League. His skyrocketing belief got even higher against Manchester United, when his performance offered everything a struggling defence doesn't want to have to cope with: direct running, strength and assurance on the ball. His brilliant cross on the run set up Leonardo Ulloa to bring Leicester back to 2-1; he won the contentious penalty from which they came back to 3-2; he produced a fine finish to put them 4-3 in front; and he won the (non-contentious) penalty from which they wrapped it up. Marcotti has a film script in mind: "Four years ago, he was playing for an amateur side called Stocksbridge Park Steels. Now, he's scoring and setting up goals against Manchester United. Disney-type stuff."
Manager: No doubt whatsoever about the identity of this weekend's boss -- step forward, Nigel Pearson, who, quietly and without fuss or fanfare, has assembled an excellent, well-balanced team at Leicester and has shown that he is unafraid to take the game to anyone in the top division after their promotion from the Championship. Our three wise men are in no doubt about this one after the epic win over United: "He has instilled an incredible grit and determination in his side," says Nicol, while Mariner hails "a dream start for him in the Premier League." Marcotti adds: "When your men are capable of scoring four goals and coming back to win 5-3 against a side that last let a two-goal lead slip 30 years ago, you as the manager deserve praise." Leicester are now sixth -- and Pearson deserves every bit of the praise that is coming his way.