Last week I denounced the overrated for their extravagant and wicked ways, but today I celebrate to my mind, the most underrated players playing in top level European football.
They may not sell many t-shirts. They may not be particularly handsome or good-looking. But they get the job done, and they get it done well.
Whether for lack of media coverage, playing in a mediocre team or simply being overly loyal to their clubs these players have passed under the radar time and again.
Even when they make it to the big time they often aren't guaranteed a first team place, often being criminally underpaid and in some cases criminally underused.
It's time we lifted the veil on these diamonds in the rough, the players that clubs have been trying to keep secret at all costs from other clubs, the players the average football fan deserves to see play at least once in your football supporting lives.
At 34 years of age Julio Cruz's career is fast coming to an end. Having been criminally underused in a utility/substitute role throughout his entire Inter and Argentina career, Inter will 'future endeavour' Cruz as his contract runs out this summer.
There will be little fanfare in honour of a good servant to the club (club top scorer '07-'08) much less any wailing over the fact that one of the club's most potent strikers is going out to pasture.
Having won titles in three different countries (Argentina, Holland and Italy) and a Silver medal at the 1996 Olympics its is nonetheless remarkable how Cruz has stayed away from the spotlight throughout his career. He has never been recognised by any award in an individual capacity.
189/485 appearences all told is a respectable return for any striker - even more so if you consider a good proportion were made as a substitute. And even more so again when Cruz began his footballing career...as a gardener.
It was at Banfield where Cruz began his footballing career as a groundskeeper for the club and only upon being asked to fill in for a player during a practice game did coach Oscar Lopez recognise the quality of the, up until that point, complete unknown.
It is quite literally a story even Walt Disney would have been hard pressed to match both in terms of its sheer outrageousness and romantic quality.
With his football career/fairytale seemingly coming to an end the question remains...will Cruz go back to being a groundskeeper?
AKA...........................................'The poster boy squaddie'
Before people roll their eyes and dismiss the rest of this slide show as utter crap because of this pick let me admit, yes I could get my fingers burnt with this one (much like Huntelaar in the overrated slide show last week) but hear me out will ya?!
Darren Fletcher is not just a sentimental keepsake of compatriot Alex Ferguson in the squad.
I think 128 appearances for Manchester United and winning every single trophy that a English based player can win by 25 (bar the silly UEFA Cup) squad member or not, must say something about the player's own abilities.
Performances against Chelsea in 2005, Roma (7-1) in 2007, Arsenal in the FA cup and last week have highlighted to me the importance of squad depth in the modern era, and for that Fletcher is a poster boy.
He may not be first choice but when the suspensions, fixtures and injuries pile up, the true test of a club over a season is the players it can still field and for that Fletcher's role, a bit like that of utility man John O'Shea is highly underrated.
Think about it, if Liverpool were to lose Mascherano, Alonso and *god forbid*, Lucas Leiva , who could they call up, Plessis?! Similarily if Real lost Guti, Sneijder, Diarra etc, they only have Javi Garcia to come on?!
Its a tribute to Manchester United's traditionally strong youth program that guys like Fletcher and O'Shea can step in an maintain team performances in turbulent times. This is not to demean Fletcher himself however.
As the youngest Scotland captain in over 110 years Fletcher has been consistent for his country too. With Barry Ferguson seemingly outcast by the SFA this will only continue you feel.
I've begun to take a liking to Fletcher over the years. He's humble, professional and doesn't feel like the world revolves around him.
With Hargreaves continually sidelined, Giggs & Scholes set to retire soon, the big question remains 'can he step up to the plate?' And the answer I believe is 'yes he can'.
In fact I think he could become the new Paul Scholes.
AKA.......................'The Dagger of Benicalap' (no I'm not smoking anything here, this is for real)
"It is clear that he is one of the best players. Some footballers are a little more than others and Vicente is one of them" - Cludio Ranieri (current Juventus coach)
For my money, Vicente would of easily made it into the left winger slot for Spain, Valencia and my own personal world XI only a couple of years ago. The amazing thing is, when fit and given consistent 1st team action I still think he could be the best left-winger in the world. Really.
Since the highs of the UEFA cup and Liga double Vicente has become the forgotten man at the Mestalla. No longer in favour with la selection or even at the Mestalla, Vicente has been left to publicly rue his injury grievances or watch games from the bench.
Even worse, as a former Spanish Young Player of the Year Award winner, he must see the irony on of a new young gun in Juan Mata taking his place in the team. Astonishingly, even in the nadir of his career currently, he is still Valencia's third top scorer this season, amazing!
Vicente has been steadfastly loyal to his club (There must be something in the water in Valencia that makes players want to be so loyal to that club) rejecting big moves abroad (to Manchester United a couple of seasons ago most notably, among others).
Even his legal feud with the club medics has not deterred Vicente from taking his place on the bench every weekend.
At a time where Valencia's troubles certainly require loyalty and humbleness from their players, Vicente, unlike his more spiteful compatriot former golden boy winger, Joaquin has provided it in spades.
I really like Vicente as a player: he can finish, has good acceleration and pace, good crossing ability and is fairly consistent. The big question is his injury problems...are they purely 'psychological' as the club doctors say or are the club doctors themsleves incompetent?
Hopefully time won't tell and we'll just see a fit and ready to go Vicente in the team every week for los Che ('the guys'). In my opinion he is better than Mata for pure talent and probably any other left winger but somebody needs to end the nonsense he's been in for the past three seasons, and quick.
AKA.......................................'The New Paul McGrath'
In my opinion, a fully fit Ledley King is England's best centre half.
I know there are those who would be inclined to prefer the likes of other excellent players like Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Sol Campbell, Jonathan Woodgate, Matthew Upson and even Phil Jagielka but for my money King has the strength, acceleration, technical and heading ability to be the complete defender.
For a player that is physically unable to train every week we can only imagine what type of player King could have matured into with consistent appearances and an accumulation of experience (which many believe benefit defenders more over time than attacking players)
Ledley King is simply inspirational as Tottenham's part-time captain.
Despite an uncurable chronic knee problem and many other injuries Ledley has racked up over 200 appearances for his club to date and appeared in two league cup finals (winning one, his only piece of silverware).
He has also made 19 appearances for England, in one of these he famously filled superbly in for John Terry at Euro 2004 against France (in one of his all too rare appearances for his country).
But he has not played for his country in almost two years now and his international future remains bleak if not over.
Even his club future has many strings and caveats attached. For instance only being able to play once a week and usually not more than 20 games a season.
Despite being highly acclaimed by managers like Martin Jol, Harry Redknapp, Sven Goran Eriksson and of course Fabio Cappello, King will sadly never have the career and accolades his raw talent deserves.
His injury status makes him untransferrable and therefore some might say unable to forward his career, while he has never been recognised with any awards meaning he unofficially graduates into the famous 'thinking man's school of fabulous footballers'.
He may never become the footballer he could be and he may even become the forgotten man at times (even by his own club's supporters) but as Redknapp himself adds: "Even if he only plays 20 games a season, he's worth having because he's so good we have a much better chance of winning" - tragically his career has been de facto shortened drastically compared to others so lets appreciate him while he's around.
While his hometown team, Lyon would go own to dominate French football after he left, Fredi would go on to acquire something of a journeyman status in the game. I've always rated Fredi no matter where he's been, even if he keeps getting sold.
At West Ham and Spurs he has impressed me with his mercurial and elegant technique, speed and shooting and and now at Sevilla, well.....90/169 tells its own story.
Give him consistent appearances and a style of football which emphasises technique and he's like a footballing ballerina. I've often compared him to Thierry Henry, and make no mistake he's not too far off the Arsenal, France and currently Barcelona, legend.
He leads the line for the most successful Sevilla team ever assembled in modern times and though their heyday under Juande Ramos (currently last seen performing similar miracle work with Real Madrid) has long since passed, they are on course for a CL finish yet again - thanks to Kanoute.
For Mali he boasts a further 20/32 record and is the first non-African born African footballer of the year award winner in 2007. Fredi is literally outstanding some games and I often wonder how Fredi would have done had he he been given a more consistent gig at Tottenham.
Unfortunately Fredi is probably more known for his political and religious beliefs and more specifically his close affiliation with that 'shower of terrorist bastards' or so they call it , Islam.
Personally I thought Fredi's gesture in support of Palestine was hearfelt whatever your opinion on the topic might be and certainly within the confines of freedom of speech even if he was yellow carded and reprimanded by the Spanish FA....inexplicably.
But back to on the pitch matters, at 31 Fredi has, I feel, more in the tank and should he ever leave Sevilla, it will once again be a pleasure to watch him for whoever he ends up playing for.
'Sunday, 28/12/08 Newcastle 1: Liverpool 5 - Newcastle goalkeeper wins man of the match award'. It is precisey amazing performances against the odds like this and numerous others to mention that have made Given, in my opinion the best goalkeeper in the Premiership.
He is the Premiership's Iker Casillas. He's that good.
Having watched Shay Given literally single-handedly save my country on numerous occasions from world beaters of the international scene like San Marino and Cyprus, I can honestly say Shay is the only player I would rate as world class currently playing for my country (although Robbie Keane would probably disagree..and he would be wrong if he did).
What makes Shay Given so underrated? Is it his humble, unassuming and consummately professional attitude and behaviour on and off the pitch which means he successfully avoids any headlines?
His complete lack of ambition to engineer a big move for himself over the years leading to a dearth of recognition in the European game (and in the trophy cabinet)?
Having surprisingly moved to Man City for €7m after being linked with Arsenal (among other teams) for the previous four seasons, Given, instead of ending up being the final piece of Arsene Wenger's team may have subjected himself to yet another purgatory before his career really takes off, albeit a better-paid purgatory of this time.
When I look at the likes of Van Der Sar and Ben Foster at Man U, Fabianski and Almunia at Arsenal, and Cech (who I've discussed before in my previous article) and Hilario at Chelsea, I find it amazing how Given ended up playing for 12 seasons at Newcastle (a team whose defenders have traditionally done their best to play for the opposing team) and not ending up at one of the Big Four of English football.
The '01-'02 and '05-'06 Premiership team of the season member deserves more than a 1st division medal when he retires but whether he will experience the highs of Champions League and International Summer Tournament football again is in question—when it shouldn't be.
AKA...........................'The only Brazilian that doesn't want to party'
Juan is something Brazil have lacked for a long time, a consistent and constantly reliable pure defender. Lucio may get all the plaudits for his rampaging runs, Danny Alves/Maicon for their almost right winger take on the right back role but it is Juan that holds everything together for Brazil & Roma at the back and chances are you probably don't know much to anything about him.
A former Bayer Leverkusen player (boy did they have a great squad back in the day), Juan moved on to Roma to fill in for Christian Chivu's departure to Inter. Whereas Chivu has been hit or miss, Juan has been one of Roma's few standouts in a tepid and inconsistent campaign.
Excellent anticipation, great heading and footballing skills and great technical ability he is probably the most underrated defender in a notoriously strong league for defenders, Serie A.
Did I mention he can score? His backheel against Reggina reminded all of us Roma fans out there there is still truly a bit of Samba soccer about him, but it is probably his German efficiency at centre-half we admire him the most for.
At international level he has captained Brazil to two Copa Americas and won a Confederations Cup. What excites me most is even though Juan is 30 and has been around for a long time on the European scene there's plenty more chapters to be written in his career and if I have my way, they will involve the words 'Roma', 'Win', 'Serie A'.
Australian international: Check. Plays for Everton: Check, Never won anything in the game: Check. Not promising so far right?!
Tim Cahill is the new Michael Ballack (because the current one for Chelsea plays like an 80 year old under the influence of elephant tranquilisers most games nowadays).
He has excellent heading ability (for such a 'tiny' man especially), great box-to-box stamina and is remarkably consistent, being a player in the world's most competitive league.
Boasting a 1/2 record almost for his country like Ballack and a career total 1/4 record as a pro, Cahill is inexplicably overlooked most seasons when the PFA or FWA award nominess are named.
Not just for his goals but for his all round footballing ability. This season he has led the line admirably at times for Everton despite never having had much previous experience playing in football's hardest role.
He is by trade a midfielder, perhaps more precisely an attacking midfielder and damn good value at that (Total career transfer fees total £1.5m, not bad when you consider Robbie 'Liverpool are my boyhood club' Keane's career total is an astonishing £69m)
Like Given, he is a consummate professional and avoids the limelight. After scoring a goal against previous club Millwall he refused to celebrate against 'the club that gave him his start in the game'.
For a player that started his international career in the backwaters of Samoan youth football, his excellent appearances as part of Australia's World Cup 2006 team (unluckily knocked out by Italy) further cement his status as one of the game's unsung heroes to my mind.
So far David Moyes has done an excellent job in helping to let Cahill's potential grow season after season on the pitch - the potential he, like I seen, when Cahill was part of Millwall's outstanding 2004 FA cup run has been fulfilled.
The only question remains how long before the cat comes out of the bag and bigger clubs realise he could easily fit into their sides - surely not as a striker though!
[Interesting fact: back in 2002 Cahill was thinking of sueing FIFA for not allowing him to play for my country Ireland in the World Cup due to his Samoan background, unfortunately he ended up at a World Cup, with Australia...and we ended up with Glenn Whelan]
AKA.......................'The Thinking Man's Euro 2008 player of the tournament'
Marcos Senna has done what few Spaniards have done over the previous generations - delivered international honours for supporters of La Furia Roja. There's just one thing wrong with that sentence - he's not even Spanish!
Marcos Senna is a born and bred Brazilian, of that there can be no debate. Having spent the first five years of his senior career floating around the Brazilian domestic game Senna has finally found his home in the small town of Villareal however, where he is now club captain.
Unfortunately for Brazil, the player that Spanish and Villareal supporters are now indebted to never played for his country due do being yet another victim of serial underratedness (all the more galling when you consider Brazil have regularly lined up with the likes of Josue, Gilberto SIlva or Mineiro as DMs under Dunga)
What does Senna bring to the party for club and country? A wicked shot? (ask Arsenal), brilliant technique?, audacity? (YouTube 'Real Betis centre circle goal'), a brilliant set-piece ability (a very overlooked part of this man's game)...or as I would argue, balance.
Where it has become common for some teams to line up with more than one DM (or for example in Chelsea's case, three), Senna does the pivotal role alone leaving the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Silva etc to get forward and unleash red fury.
While he may never receive much recognition or win much playing for a, let's face it, overachieving small club like Villareal, here's hoping he can with his newly adopted country. Even though I'm sure Brazil won't want him to.
It had to be, didn't it? The player that almost everyone can agree is world-class 'without doubt', but a player that everyone would probably overlook even in their own world XI.
Life is tough for a goalkeeper. If people aren't hitting things at you, you're constantly being underrated by supporters, managers and even your fellow pros.
There is one thing everyone can agree on in the case of Iker Casillas, he is a living legend and probably even more important to Real Madrid over the years as any of the so called galacticos were.
It boggles the mind how being left in the firing line time and again Iker pulls off save after save, catch after catch. His penalty saving skills are not bad too lest we forget, while his loyalty and consistency for club (339 appearances by the age of 27, very young for a goalkeeper) and country (91 caps) are almost unparalleled anywhere in world football.
And then there is the career to die for. 4 Ligas, 2 CLs, an intercontinental cup captaining Spain to their first trophy in 44 years and no. 1 in the FIFA rankings (not to mention numerous underage medals for Spain, underlining his consistency even since his youth teamer days): hes has literally seen it and done it all by age 27 with literally only the World Cup left to conquer (who would bet against that?!)
Casillas' individual honours are typical of that of a goalkeeper. Although he is currently ranked the best goalkeeper in the world by the IFFHS (and third of all time) the closest he has come to winning an overall footballer award has been fourth place in the Ballon D'Or - one of his most successful seasons to date on a personal level.
In an age of beachballs doubling as footballs and the era of no backpasses there must be no debate that Casillas is probably one of the all time top three goalkeepers (statistics or no statistics) - and he is only half way through his career!
I've put Casillas at No. 1 to highlight the increased importance of the goalkeeper in the modern game as the differentiator between great teams. Saint Iker, like his more illustrious counterpart, Buffon has proven a goalkeeper can be just like any other galactico, in terms of performance (and not publicity) anyway.
Its also because I really do feel goalies get a raw deal in terms of recognition, when often they are more integral to the success of the team than any other player. A good goalkeeper should not be taken for granted and a legendary goalkeeper should be praised to high heaven.
[Interesting fact: Casillas was recently offered £11m per season wages by Man City, he turned it down - at least Arabs appreciate goalies]