40. John Obi Mikel (Chelsea/Nigeria) – The start of the 2011/12 season saw then-Chelsea manager Andre-Villa Boas dropping Mikel in favour of former Barcelona starlet, Oriol Romeu, with various transfer stations even reporting that the Nigerian was seeking a transfer away from the Stamford Bridge. However, as the season panned out, Mikel eventually regained his first-team spot and the player’s high-octane defensive performance in the Champions League tie against FC Barcelona last year virtually dazzled his name in the Chelsea folklore. Since his breathtaking display against the Catalans, Mikel has seen a slight drop in his output for the Blues this season but his ability to sit deep in the team’s own half, break down plays and originate attacks from the deep still make the 25-year-old the ideal man to sit in Rafael Benitez’s midfield.
39. Jamel Saihi (Montpellier HSC/Tunisia) – In the age of Cashicos and Oil Firm Derbys, Montpellier’s league-winning campaign in 2011/12 was startlingly refreshing. MHSC built championship team around a loyal core of local academicians; among them Belhanda, Yanga-Mbiwa, Cabella and Jamel Saihi. Unlike the first three, Saihi doesn’t possess the gloss and varnish to attract the tabloid headlines. Saihi plays the under-appreciated role in an under-appreciated league, but ask any supporter of La Paillade and they’ll quickly highlight how instrumental the Tunisian is to MHSC’s success. Saihi is the motor oil to Nicollin’s sports car: He does not proudly rev, nor is he admired or envied; but take him out of the squad and friction will cause a quick yet sure collapse. Saihi is just as important for Tunisia and he will be counted on to dictate matters in midfield come January.
38. Ryad Boudebouz (FC Sochaux/Algeria) – If 2011 was a break-out year for Ryad Boudebouz, 2012 has been his sophomore slump. After failing to qualify for the Europa League, Sochaux looked an uninspired side. Their attacking impetus: Maiga, Martin and Boudebouz all lobbied for moves to more prestigious sides. Manager Mecha Bazdarevic failed to motivate or find solutions and Sochaux barely survived the jaws of relegation. Martin and Maiga both got their moves in the summer, but Marseille failed to acquire the services of Ryad Boudebouz. A matured Boudebouz took to the pitch in August. One that no longer ran off of inspiration and whim. He’s assumed a burdensome position in the middle of the park and churned out admirable performances. Boudebouz has trimmed the excess flair and increased work ethic in his repertoire. But it’s difficult to see how he would progress in 2013 unless he does find a step up at a different club.
37. Seydou Keita (Dallan Aerbin/Mali) – With Mahamadou Diarra recovering from injury, Fredi Kanoute retired and Momo Sissoko focusing on club football, the responsibility was firmly on Keita to wear the sandals of experience in a youthful Mali side at the 2012 Cup of Nations. Keita showed the poise and guile in possession that has become synonymous with the tika-taka of the epoch of Spanish football. Composed, calm and intelligent, he was the metronomic heartbeat of the Mali side as they finished third, imprinting the tournament with Barca DNA as he treated the ball like a cold plate of jollof rice that needed to be warmed up via being cherished.
36. Bruno Ecuele Manga (FC Lorient/Gabon) – When Arsenal signed Laurent Koscielny from FC Lorient, the move was touted ‘typical Wenger’. Unproven talent from a lesser French club who may, or may not, come good. Lorient took ‘typical Wenger’ to another level. Gourcuff signed Bruno Manga from SCO Angers based on potential, which saw a risky move pay dividends. The Gabonese colossus immediately made an impact leading Ligue 1 in clearances and tackles. 2012 saw Manga travel to the motherland for the ACN2012. Gabon were successful hosts, proceeding to the quarter-finals. The Lorient defender turned in solid displays which saw his value rise. The rest of the year hasn’t been kind to Bruno Manga. A knee injury saw him rupture both medial and cruciate ligaments and will rule him out until March.
35. Max Gradel (St Etienne/Ivory Coast) – The St Etienne winger went to the 2012 Cup of Nations on the periphery of the Ivory Coast starting XI, but by the end of the tournament he was, behind Didier Drogba, Les Elephants’ best performer from an attacking perspective. With Abdul Kader Keita and Salomon Kalou misfiring, he has earned himself a starting berth, giving new coach Sabri Lamouchi another option in the wide positions where they have lacked depth. Blessed with incredible pace and the ability to play on either wing, he resolutely cemented his place in the starting XI in the 1-1 draw versus Russia in August with a headed equaliser to cap off a good performance.
34. Emmanuel Adebayor (Tottenham Hotspur/Togo) – Adebayor started the apocalypse year in impressive form, scoring for Tottenham Hotspurs against the likes Newcastle United, Arsenal and Fulham, among others. The 28-year-old was an instrumental part of the club’s bid to secure a top-four finish and the season as Spurs’ top scorer. During the summer transfer window, Adebayor signed a permanent deal with the North London outfit. However, since then, he has struggled to exert the desired impact at White Hart Lane. He led Togo to Afcon qualification but has been involved in a supposed impasse with the country’s football association. Adebayor, nonetheless, is still a key part of AVB’s Champions League plans and after a topsy-turvy year, one can surely expect to see the best of the former Arsenal star in 2013.
33. Kolo Toure (Man City/Ivory Coast) – A heart-breaking but encouraging start to the year as he was an ever-present in an Ivorian defence that didn’t concede a solitary goal throughout Afcon 2012, yet lost in the final on penalties. He survived an uncertain summer which was rife with speculation of his departure away from Eastlands, occasional autumn forays in the team displaying the inevitable signs of terminal decline. The Ivorian has ended the year well, however, with injury to Vincent Kompany reinforcing him back into the starting XI. His reintroduction has not only tightened the defence that coach Roberto Mancini places such a heavy emphasis on, but produced his best football for a long time.
32. Foued Kadir (Valenciennes FC/Algeria) – Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny are only two of an array of late bloomers from France’s Ligue 2. And while both Giroud and Koscielny have finally found the credit they have long deserved, Foued Kadir-another late bloomer- remains severely underrated. The lanky midfielder almost left the frosty pitches in the north to become a police officer during the formative years of his career. Quick steps of progression followed Kadir’s Ligue 1 inauguration at Valenciennes. In a matter of months he made his international debut and played in all 3 matches at the 2010 World Cup. The injection of confidence served as platform for Kadir to progress. He quickly cemented himself as a reliable offensive contributor: In 2012, Kadir accumulated 11 goals and 10 assists in just over 30 matches for club and country. The imminent January transfer window could see the 29 year-old Kadir move to Le Velodrome as Marseille look to reinforce their attack. Not bad for a man who once thought he just might not be good enough.
31. Nicolas Nkoulou (Olympique Marseille/Cameroon) – Watching Nikolas N’Koulou play is one of the joys of football. Standing at a vertically challenged 5’10 (180 cm), N’Koulou is often an entire head shorter than the towering strikers he is assigned. But the Cameroonian international lets not his physical limitation determine where or how he plays. In fact, Nicolas N’Koulou is the rebuttal to those who purport that physique is a necessary attribute for effective defenders. This isn’t to say that N’Koulou is weak- quite the opposite – the centre-half is blessed with the natural strength that most of us can only dream of. His leaping ability and pace are the tools he utilizes to compensate for a size disadvantage. Yet the joy of watching N’Koulou is in the aesthetic of observing skill in the art of defending. Too often are defenders praised for their strength, aerial ability, or a no-nonsense approach (See Tony Pulis). The Marseille defender positions himself well, times his tackles perfectly- stabs the ball here, shimmies it to safety there. Nicolas N’Koulou is a textbook defender in one-on-one situations and that really is a joy to watch.