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 Friday, 10 January, 2003, 16:46 GMT
Who will be player of the year?
Alan Shearer celebrates a goal for Newcastle
Will Shearer be celebrating come May?

As Alan Shearer is named as December's Barclaycard Player of the Month, the battle for the end-of-season trophy is really hotting up.

Previous PFA Players of the Year
2002: Ruud van Nistelrooy
2001: Teddy Sheringham
2000: Roy Keane
1999: David Ginola
1998: Dennis Bergkamp
So far, the monthly winners read: Sylvain Wiltord (August), Thierry Henry (September), Gianfranco Zola (October) and James Beattie (November).

Of those names, Wiltord's form since the balmy days of late summer has not been good enough to keep him in the frame.

The others are very much still involved - but will any of them get the nod come April?

The decision may almost have been made already. Voting for the PFA awards takes place in the weeks after Christmas and closes shortly afterwards.

Thierry Henry chases a bouncing ball
Henry took the honours in September
In practical terms this means that a player who has performed at a consistently high level for the first half of the season stands an excellent chance of winning.

Last year's winner, Ruud van Nistelrooy, timed his bid perfectly - his run of 14 goals in 10 games, including a record-breaking eight-in-a-row in the Premiership, came either side of Christmas Day.

In previous years some of the winners were either injured for the final months of the season (Dennis Bergkamp, 1998) or faded away in the second half of the season (Les Ferdinand, 1996).

But their form before the New Year had been enough to carry them home.

Spectacular form

Established Premiership stars also tend to get the nod over young players still making their way.

Historically it has been extremely rare for a player under the age of 25 to win, which means that Beattie may have to wait for another day.

By contrast a star coming towards the end of their career stands an excellent chance - as Teddy Sheringham (35 in 2001), David Ginola (32 in 1999) and Paul McGrath (34 in 1993) can testify.

Gianfranco Zola celebrates a goal for Chelsea
Zola has turned back time in the twilight of his career
This last fact will give heart to both Shearer (32) and Zola (36).

Of the two, Shearer's form has so far been more spectacular - witness his stunning goal against Everton - although Zola's Indian summer has been just as impressive.

For those easily impressed by statistics, Shearer has notched up two big benchmarks: his 100th goal for Newcastle in the Premiership, and his 300th career goal.

Henry cannot be counted out either. The sheer quality of some of his goals - apologies to Spurs fans for reminding them of his solo effort at Highbury - has been more than enough to keep him in the running.

And that hat-trick against Roma was a thing of wonder.

Are there any other candidates who could break through? The main surprise at present is the absence of a player from Manchester United.

United players have triumphed in six of the last 13 years - a far better record than any other club.

But which United player deserves to be in with a shout this year? Most of their stars have spent significant periods of the season out injured.

Van Nistelrooy is not in the same golden form as 12 months ago, Roy Keane has barely played, David Beckham has missed too many games and Ryan Giggs is going through a crisis of confidence.

All of which means that the smart money must remain on the old boys - Shearer and Zola.

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10 Jan 03 | Football
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