28. Youssouf Mulumbu (West Brom/DR Congo) – The Congolese midfielder has been one of the stars of West Brom’s magnificent ascent to higher echelons of the Premier League, enforcing himself in midfield with his incessant hassling and playbreaking. The stewardship of Claude Le Roy convinced him out of exile at international level for DR Congo, and he delivered an excellent performance in their 4-0 Afcon play-off 1st leg home win. Playing next to the more reticent Cedric Makiadi, he played the role of box-to-box midfielder and executed the penetrative passing and embraced the freedom to barnstorm forward that we rarely see at club level.
27. Aymen Abdennour (Toulouse/Tunisia) – Despite finishing 8th and 26 points adrift of Montpellier, the surprise Ligue 1 winners, Toulouse, together with the champions, had the joint-best defence in Le Championnat with only 34 goals conceded. Aymen Abdennour was integral in that impressive defensive feat. The heavyweight French-born Tunisian is one of the most physical defenders in Ligue 1 and his brawn made many grimace at the Cup of Nations – not least Andre Ayew who was on the end of an elbow which saw Abdennour sent off.
26. Henri Bedimo (Montpellier HSC/Cameroon) – In Montpellier’s fairytale Ligue 1 triumph, the left-wing raids of the peripatetic Bedimo largely went unnoticed amidst the excellence of Oliver Giroud and Younes Belhanda. That’s understandable, of course, because defensive players are generally less celebrated. A key feature of Montpellier’s attacking phase, however, was the almost fraternal familiarity between John Utaka and Bedimo down the left-flank, their blistering pace coupled with boundless energy over the course of 90 minutes saw seen them man the left-flank more often than not.
25. Abdelaziz Barrada (Getafe/Morocco) – A boyhood Real Madrid fan, the highlight of his 2012 came when he scored the winner in Getafe’s 2-1 win in Augst over the Spanish giants he holds dear to his heart. But it’s his consistency in an inconsistent Morocco team which has been particularly laudable. Barrada has played with the endeavour and studiousness that has ultimately forced Adel Taarabt out of the upcoming Cup of Nations. Although he doesn’t come close to Taarabt in terms of pure technical ability, he is, unlike a lot of foreign-born Moroccan attacking midfielders, the best at applying it in the ruddy colours of the Atlas Lons. His performance on his international debut, a 2-0 win over Burkina Faso in February 2012, was exceptional; a refreshing contrast to Taarabt’s gross gewgaw. And, along with Houssine Kharja, he was pivotal in overturning Morocco’s precarious 2-0 first-leg defeat and sealing their place in this year’s Cup of Nations with a 4-0 defenestration of Mozambique in return leg in Marrakech.
24. Cheick Tiote (Newcastle/Ivory Coast) – Tiote continued his slow rise prominence as one of the best defensive midfielders in England with a good yet unspectacular year. Although his robust tackling and aggressive style of play was a nightmare for almost every opposing player, Tiote’s lack of discipline and inability to keep possession of the ball often resulted in dampen on-field displays in the second half of the year. At international level, he has been a stalwart in an Ivory Coast side which has lengthened it’s unbeaten run to 22 games, utilising simplicity on the ball as he has anchored the midfield with Didier Zokora to allow Yaya Toure to do his worst. Tiote is one of the most talented defensive minded players in the English league right now, but to attain the same level of success as the likes of Michael Essien and Yaya Toure, the former FC Twente midfielder needs to buckle up his performances in 2013.
23. Brown Ideye (Dynamo Kiev/Nigeria) – Earning a place in the current Nigeria national team has become an arduous task if you’re a European-based player due to coach Steve Keshi’s insistence on only picking those in hot form, but Ideye has been a regular. Indeed, like the Super Eagle that he is, Ideye has soared high in the friendly sky and finally added consistency to his performances for Dynamo Kiev in his second season at the club. Despite being 5’11”, Ideye’s remarkable leaping ability, and the evasive runs to manoeuvre into the right areas, has seen him scoring headed goals against those taller than him with astonishing ease. Even though his club sit 14 points behind Shakhtar in the Ukrainian league, Ideye is second in the goalscoring charts with 13 goals to his name.
22. Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland/Benin) – “When you train with him he goes around you and he’s spun your T-shirt back to front!” Matt Kilgallon, his Sunderland team-mate, enthused. “He goes past you and your clothes are on the wrong way around. He’s a little magician.” Indeed, if he was South American they’d call him ‘El Mago’. Officially named Sunderland Player of the Year at the end of the 2011-2012 season, only David Silva (86) created more goal-scoring opportunities for his team-mates than Sessegnon (71) during that season. This season, Sessegnon began with a cooling off period but has slowly returned to show his best form and Sunderland have ascended from an ominous position with it.
21. Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow/Nigeria) – The best things in life are sometimes discovered via happenstance. Coming in at just 5’7”, Ahmed Musa certainly doesn’t depict the quintessential Nigerian striker that is captured in our retinas, but a long-term injury to team-mate Seydou Doumbia saw CSKA Moscow convert the promising winger, who had the misfortune of having the Promising Winger Syndrome of having little-no end product, to a striker. What could go wrong? Illogically, nothing. Whilst the 20-year-old hasn’t been as unforgiving as Doumbia in front of goal, he is CSKA’s top scorer this season with 8 goals in 16 starts as they sit at the top of the Russian league at the halfway stage. His dynamism has given CSKA more or a less a 4-6-0 system that, at its best, completely bamboozles centre-backs.