World Football's 20 Unlikely Heroes for 2012
Not many people expected Thierry Henry to be back at The Emirates
As the proverbial world football train thunders into 2012, we can be sure that there will be some surprises in the coming 12 months.
With the European Championships and The Cup of African Nations as well as the usual host of domestic and continental competitions taking place this year, surprises are likely to be sprung.
Whether it be an outstanding performance by an individual, club, or nation, here's a list of those I feel will catch the eye of unassuming members of the footballing public.
Stoke City FC
Stoke boss Tony Pulis
Tony Pulis' Stoke City have sometimes been tactically criticised since their return to the top flight of English football in 2008.
Many claimed Pulis instilled a bullying attitude into his players with tough tackling and long throw-ins, both trademarks of his team.
However, the Potters have qualified for the Europa League's last 32 (where they will be joined by both Manchester clubs), and sit proudly in eighth place in the Premier League.
Stand out performers have been wide men Matthew Etherington and Jonathan Walters, as well as lanky front man Peter Crouch, who scored his 100th career league goal against Blackburn on Monday.
The future, and 2012 in particular, looks bright for Stoke.
Swansea City FC
Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers
Chris Brunskill/Getty Images
The first Welsh side to compete in the English Premier League, and the first in the English top flight since Cardiff City FC were relegated in 1962, have proven they are not just there to make up the numbers.
Manager Brendan Rodgers has expressed his own footballing beliefs through his players, making them play attractive passing football and keeping up with established Premier League sides like Everton and Aston Villa.
With a solid defence and a great home record, it looks more than likely that the Swans will remain in the league for another season, which will delight the fans.
Norwich City FC
Holt in action v Newcastle
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
The Canaries have performed admirably since their return to the top flight, and are sitting pretty in the top half of the table.
Their dramatic collapse and accompanying free-fall through the leagues culminated in them starting their 2009/2010 season in League 1 (the third tier) with a 7-1 loss to Colchester.
However, since then manager Paul Lambert has turned around their fortunes, leading them to two straight promotions.
With the charge led by big frontman Grant Holt, whose style is a throw back to strikers from years gone by, Norwich will establish themselves as a force in English football during 2012.
Henry in action for NY Red Bulls
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Not many people would have predicted this transfer before the beginning of the season, but Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger obviously feels it is necessary with the imminent departures of Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh to the Cup of African Nations.
Even if his impact on the Premier League falls flat, he will help behind the scenes at Arsenal and give the club a boost, as well as create a buzz of excitement around the whole league.
And who knows, this could lead to a move back to one of Europe's big guns.
Ligue 1's Montpellier have been the perennial yo-yo team of French football.
Despite being one of the founding members of France's first professional league back in the 1930s, the South Coast Club have struggled for consistent success, but that could change in 2012.
They are currently lying in second, only three points behind big-spending Paris Saint Germain, thanks in no small part to the fantastic performances of star striker Olivier Giroud.
If they can continue their excellent form after the winter break, Montpellier could find themselves battling for the title and for a rare taste of European football.
Clermont Foot Auvergne 63
Based in the French city Clermont-Ferrand, Clermont Foot have never featured in the top flight of French professional football.
Their only notable success has come in the French domestic cup - the Coupe de France - reaching the semi final once back in the 40s.
However, sitting atop of Ligue 2 going into the winter break, their fortunes may be about to change.
For the archetypal lower league club, promotion could open the door to new players, sponsorships and a wealth of new fans, and could potentially mark a turning point in their history.
German club Borussia Mönchengladbach have gone through nine managers in the last nine years, so it's no wonder consistency has been hard to come by.
Gone are the glory days of the 70s — when they won five Bundesliga titles, two UEFA Cups, and the now-abolished Intercontinental Cup, as well as being runner up in the equivalent of today's Champions League in '77 (losing to Liverpool).
However, 2012 may see their return to the forefront of European club football.
Holding a position in the top four of the Bundesliga, and boasting one of the brightest young European stars in Marco Reus, they are one of the teams to watch in the coming year.
Fortunen have been missing from the Bundesliga for over 24 years, despite historically being one of the top flight's regular participants.
After their yo-yo years in the 90s, Düsseldorf dropped into the fourth tier of the German league, and only clambered their way back into 2. Bundesliga in 2009.
However, in their second season back in the second tier, they have only lost once in 19 matches, and lie in first place during the winter break.
They look set to continue their fine run of form and could once again take what fans believe is their rightful place in the Bundesliga next season.
From their humble beginnings as St. Mary's Young Men's Association FC in the late 19th century, Southampton climbed the leagues and established themselves as a force in English football, winning the division one title in 1984.
However, due to financial difficulties and consequent administration, they fell back through the divisions to League 1 in 2009.
Having won promotion back to the Championship last season, Southampton, much to everyone's surprise, are topping the table ahead of promotion favourites West Ham.
A welcome return to the Premiership could be on the cards should Nigel Adkins' men continue their fine vain of form.
A relatively young club—formed in 1976—Stevenage have had their fair share of successes in their short history.
Winning the FA Trophy in 2007 and 2009 and also finishing runners-up twice, they have climbed through the leagues and look to be continuing to do so.
League 2 playoff winners last season, they are enjoying life in the third tier, occupying sixth place and likely to challenge for the play offs to get into the Championship.
It would be a true fairytale story if the provincial Hertfordshire side were to gain promotion for a second successive year.
St Johnstone FC
Sandaza wheels away after scoring v Kilmarnock
The Perth-based Scottish club have performed remarkably well in this season's SPL.
Scotland's proverbial 'no-where' team are commonly found in mid-table, away from danger, but not threatening the top four.
However, despite a poor start to the campaign and a mediocre home record of only four wins from 11 games, the Saints find themselves in fifth and in a great position to push on and challenge for European football in 2012.
Their away record, one loss in 10, has been one of the key factors in their decent form, as has the form of Spanish striker Fran Sandaza, signed on a free after being released by Brighton last May.
The former Valencia Mestalla forward has scored nine in his 15 appearances.
Ross County FC
In a highly competitive league, the Scottish First Division outfit have all but run away with it.
With two games in hand, they could potentially go nine points clear of established clubs like Dundee and Falkirk at only the halfway stage.
The Staggies only entered the Scottish Football League in 1994 after competing in the amateur Highland League since their founding in 1929, but quickly worked their way up the divisions.
Holding onto their position in the table will be difficult with a wealth of talent chasing them, but promotion to the SPL is a real possibility for the Dingwall side.
In what has already been a landmark year for Cypriot clubs, APOEL could go one step further and qualify for the second knock-out round of the Champions League.
After avoiding the potential 'big-teams' in the draw and having already beaten Porto and Zenit St Petersburg in the group stages, a two-legged tie with French club Lyon won't faze them in the slightest.
Also topping the Cypriot league mid-way through the season, there is a distinct possibility that they could qualify for the Champions League again next season.
It will be hard for APOEL to beat the highs of 2011, but it looks like they will give it a good effort.
The African country has never qualified for the Cup of African Nations, but will feature this year as co-hosts with Gabon.
The country is one of the smallest in Africa, with a population of under 700,000, and boasts little in the way of footballing heritage.
Their only achievement on the international stage was winning the CEMAC Cup in 2006—an amateur tournament held between six African nations.
They are not expected to achieve any great feats in the tournament, but with a home crowd behind them they may cause an upset or two.
It's fair to say that the country of Libya has been going through a tough time as of late.
However, it seems the opposite can be said for their national football team.
After a 0-0 draw with Zambia in their final qualifying match, Libya reached the Cup of African Nations for only the third time.
With confidence high and having been named as hosts of the 2017 tournament, they will be the surprise package in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
Poland, as joint host of this summer's European Championships, earned an automatic place in the competition, and the draw has been somewhat kind to them.
The eastern European nation only first qualified for a Euro tournament back in 2008, but have featured in the finals of two of the last three World Cups.
This summer (in the group stages at least), they will avoid all the so-called 'big teams', having been drawn in Group A alongside Greece, Russia, and the Czech Republic.
This is no easy group for the team FIFA ranks 66th in the world, but with home advantage, there is a very real chance they could spring a surprise or two and find themselves in the knock-out rounds.
The previously mentioned Marco Reus will no doubt feature in Joachim Löw's Germany side at the Euro's if he continues his fine domestic run of form.
Linked with a host of big European sides, including Bayern Munich as well as Arsenal and Manchester City, the Mönchengladbach midfielder could be on his way if he impresses for the national side in Poland & Ukraine.
Whether he moves on from Borrussia or whether he stays with the Germans, 2012 is bound to be an exciting year for the youngster.
MKD in action for Denmark
The Danish winger plied his trade in the Netherlands as a youngster, with spells at RKC Waalwijk and later Ajax.
His time with the Dutch giants didn't go as planned, and following a loan spell at Sparta Rotterdam, he returned to his native land to join Brondby.
Krohn-Dehli's performances since joining in 2008 have caught the eye of many, and he looks to have revived a stuttering career.
He has become a regular in the Danish national team, and will be one to watch at the Euros.
Rami lining up for France
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
The big French centre back celebrated winning the league and cup double with Lille by signing with Spanish club Valencia last year.
Recent reports have linked him with a move to Manchester United, but he has stated that he is completely focused on giving his best for his new club.
Since making his international debut 18 months ago, he has established himself as a regular in Laurent Blanc's side, making a further 15 appearances to date.
This summer could mark another milestone in his career, as a good performance on the European stage will lead to further interest from clubs more reputable than Valencia.
Yarmolenko in action v Shakhtar
The 22-year-old attacker has proven he can cut it at not just a domestic level with Dynamo Kyiv of late, but also with the Ukrainian national team.
With 16 goals from 19 league appearances this season, Yarmolenko has already 17 full international caps and six goals to his name, but this could really be the year he becomes a household name.
With Ukraine co-hosting the Euros, the home crowd will be right behind the youngster, and big offers for his services could follow, if he isn't snapped up before the tournament.
I also contribute to a weekly football podcast, called Jumpers for Goalposts, which can be found here: http://soundcloud.com/champions-chat