Just like it says on the tin, I have compiled a short list of those players who consistently perform but yet rarely, if ever, get the praise their excellence deserves. For every Rooney, Drogba and Gerrard, there are plenty of other players wondering why they are not mentioned in the same breath as those who we consider the world’s elite.
10. Stiliyan Petrov
Since moving from Celtic in 2006, the Bulgarian skipper has been the heartbeat of an Aston Villa side that has seen both good and bad days. Whilst the more ‘glamorous’ likes of Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, James Milner and Gareth Barry have moved on to pastures new, Petrov remains part of the furniture at Villa Park with his composure on the ball keeping things ticking over in midfield. The 32-year-old starts attacks from deep with his excellent passing range and his ability to score crucial goals was highlighted last weekend as he scored from distance against Everton, and, more famously, in 2008 when he scored an outrageous half-volley from the centre-circle against Derby County.
9. Lucas Leiva
Once upon a time, Lucas was something of a laughing stock, as he seemed to have incredible difficulty adjusting to the turbo-charged pace of the Premier League. I certainly was one of his many ‘haters,’ and saw Benitez’s persistence in playing him as one of the reasons Liverpool dropped out of the top four, which consequently led to the Spaniard’s sacking. In the last 12 months or so, however, under the influence of Kop legend, Kenny Dalglish, the Brazilian midfielder has really come out of his shell and finally established himself as a top player. Lucas has developed into a fine holding player, equally capable of getting stuck in and doing the dirty work as he is shooting from distance or producing a bit of Brazilian magic on the ball. Undoubtedly one of the most improved players in recent years, the biggest compliment you can pay him is that even with the influx of midfielders that joined Anfield in the summer (for hefty price tags, lest we forget), Lucas is still one of the first names on the Liverpool teamsheet.
8. Mario Balotelli
I appreciate this is a, shall we say, unorthodox inclusion, but as far as I’m concerned, Balotelli is underrated as a footballer. Not by himself of course, as he arrogantly claimed he’d never heard of Jack Wilshere and that the great Lionel Messi was the only player more talented than himself. Rightly so, the Italian was ridiculed for his comments but time and again he has shown glimpses of his potential to be a truly world-class player. With pace, power, skill and a ruthless streak in front of goal (10 goals in his debut season is no tragedy), Balotelli is just about the perfect modern day footballer. Unfortunately, his blatant ability is overshadowed by his woeful attitude and petulance on the pitch that so often seems him pick up both yellow and red cards and become the pantomime villain in the media. Jose Mourinho called him “unmanageable” which suggests nobody will be able to tame the maverick forward, but should they perform that impossible task, I have no doubt Balotelli will show what an incredible player he is and that perhaps one day, he can put himself in the same bracket as the world’s elite.
Since joining Manchester United in 2007, many would agree that the Brazilian has not done anything horrifically wrong during that time, but equally has not stamped his authority as hoped when joining as a promising teenager. Being given an extended run in the side seems to have done Anderson the world of good as he has put in classy performance after classy performance. Through Ferguson’s nurturing programme, which saw him initially deployed as a combative midfielder rather than the creative attacker he was at Porto, the 23-year-old has developed into a very complete box-to-box player; equally capable of winning the ball deep in his own half as he is tucking the ball away at the other end. A virtuoso display against, an albeit highly depleted, Arsenal may well be the turning point for Anderson, who is rapidly becoming one of the most consistent players in the league, but is dwelling in the shadows of his peers that are currently receiving rave reviews.
6. Branislav Ivanovic
With John Terry somehow seemingly universally regarded as the greatest defender of his generation, and with the introduction of the exciting David Luiz, Ivanovic’s remarkably solid performances often slip under the radar; quite simply because he isn’t English and doesn’t have ridiculous hair. The Serbian was something of an unknown quantity when joining Chelsea in 2008 but his versatility has been an invaluable asset as he helped his side to a famous double in 2010. Being named in the team of the year meant the 27-year-old got some well deserved praise but I still don’t think many appreciate just how good a player he is. With nine goals to his name since moving to the Premier League, Ivanovic is evidently as much of an attacking threat as he is reliable defensively, meaning he has emerged as an exceptional, yet criminally underrated, all-round player.
A goalscorer and goal creator, the Northern Ireland international is by far West Bromwich Albion’s most influential player. Without their skipper’s guile and initiative, The Baggies often look bereft of ideas and a team certain to face relegation. With the 26-year-old at his best, they are a match for any side. Brunt is a typical modern-day footballer, in that he is not only an industrious team player, but he can dribble, execute defence-splitting passes and finish from both inside and outside the box. His set-piece ability, which saw him score several free-kicks, is another terrific asset in his repertoire. With time still on his side, a move to a bigger club may soon be in the offing, because surely a player of Brunt’s quality does not deserve to be in relegation scraps every year.
4. Clint Dempsey
Mention the American’s name to most football fans and they’ll give a nod of acknowledgement as if to say “good player.” The fact of the matter is that he’s better than that; he’s been carrying a pretty average Fulham side for a number of years now. A very complete midfielder, Dempsey is a genuine match winner on his day; as he has proved in the Premier League and on The Cottagers’ European adventure of 2010. With 45 goals since moving to England in 2006, his contribution is crucial so often for club and country. A fierce competitor, who demonstrates both tenacity and creativity in abundance, his versatility makes him a vital player and it truly is a wonder why Dempsey is not playing regularly on the European stage where he belongs.
3. Niko Kranjcar
Here we have a player who is so underrated, not even his manager gives him a fair crack of the whip. Admittedly, finding and nailing down a spot in the Tottenham midfield is a difficult task; ask Jermaine Jenas or Wilson Palacios. The point at hand, though is that the 27-year-old is simply a far better player than said pair, and others at the club. For all Luka Modric’s tidiness on the ball, Kranjcar delivers far more consistent penetration in the final third than his compatriot; scoring only one goal fewer than Modric in half as many appearances for Spurs. His two exceptional European performances aside, the Gareth Bale hype is somewhat unfounded, as the Welsh winger more often than not looks little if at all better than the creative Croatian who so frequently is left kicking his heels on the bench. Even with limited opportunites, Kranjcar always seems to shine when he is picked, scoring goals of both aesthetic beauty and great importance. With 64 caps for his country, he brings a wealth of International experience to the fore, and, like most players in this list, I think Kranjcar certainly deserves to be strutting his stuff on a regular basis at the highest level.
2. Bacary Sagna
It’s a little known fact that if you look up the word ‘consistency’ in the dictionary, there is no written definition, but simply an image of a man with blond braided hair. Well, that should be the case. I don’t think a football fan in the world would knock the full-back’s ability; two appearances in the Premier League Team of the Year prove he’s not as obscure a star as some of the others on the list but that doesn’t stop him being immensely underrated. Playing in an Arsenal side that notoriously leaks goals means Sagna is often written off; put simply if he played for Manchester United he’d be drooled over. Even the greatest of wingers rarely get any change out of the rock-solid defender who is brave, committed and classy all at the same time. For all of Dani Alves, Glen Johnson and Sergio Ramos’ excellence going forward, they desperately lack Sagna’s dogged defensive ability. That’s not to say he’s a slouch further up the pitch. His pace allows him to support the attack and the criticism of his crossing is completely unfounded; simply because Arsenal rarely have bodies in the box to attack the ball. Few full-backs get as many assists as the Frenchman so he must be some sort of asset going forward. As complete an athlete as you’ll see, there simply isn’t a better player in his position anywhere in the world.
When the afro-wearing Belgain became Everton’s record signing in 2008, eyebrows were certainly raised. With no experience in a major league, he was considered a major gamble made by the usually shrewd, David Moyes. After some initial disciplinary records which saw him collect 12 yellow cards in his debut season, Fellaini has really settled into life in the Premier League and has developed into a top quality player. His form at one stage led to his manager describing him as “good as anyone in the league” because of his combination of tenacity, strength and skill that saw him dominate midfield battles on a regular basis. Against Manchester City in 2010, he famously dispossessed Craig Bellamy, not with a crunching tackle but with a little pirouette; a piece of skill that epitomises his all-round game – nobody would expect such a colossal figure to have such nimble footwork. He claims a holding role is his best position but has been used further up the pitch to great effect, scoring a number of vital goals; unsurprisingly many with his head/hair. At just 23 years of age, Fellaini still has the potential to improve further and is expected to move away from cash-strapped over-achievers, Everton in order to prove himself at the top level. He certainly has the talent to do so.
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