It's halfway through the season of the Barclays Premier League, and what a unpredictable season it has been. The decline of Liverpool, the sharp rise and fall of Chelsea, the unexpected success of Ian Holloway's Blackpool, and the soap opera that is Manchester City. Manchester United remain unbeaten despite the Wayne Rooney saga and a distinct lack of fluency on the field, and the North London duo of Arsenal and Tottenham are flying high in both the Premiership and the Champions' League. It's a shame, however, that the limelight is not shared with other clubs who have had newsworthy seasons. The resurgence of Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, the excellent form of Bolton and Sunderland, the lack of form from Aston Villa and Birmingham, and the woefulness of West Ham and Wigan. Somehow these stories fly underneath the radar in American coverage of soccer, and while it is impossible to unveil every mystery of this season, it is fair to say that there have been unsung heroes throughout the Premiership who deserve a moment of glory. Players like Gareth Bale, Samir Nasri, and Andy Carroll are not included despite their terrific seasons because they have been praised to the skies already. It is my goal to bring those who haven't had that pleasure into the spotlight. With that said, here is my Unheralded XI.
The Finnish stopper is a model of consistency in the Premiership. Bolton are a unfashionable team by nature, but a playing style based on hard work and defense leaves them seventh in the table at Christmas. Despite a lack of clean sheets, Jääskeläinen has been colossal between the posts, with vital saves against Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers preserving hard-earned points
The least assuming player on the biggest club in the world, Rafael has quietly become the first-choice right-back at Manchester United at the tender age of 20. Usurping club stalwarts such as John O'Shea and Gary Neville is no mean feat, but Rafael's speed, positioning, tackling skill and Brazilian flair (see his goal against Wigan from last season) makes him impossible to leave out.
Jagielka has been knocking on the door for a regular berth in the English national team and on the back of this form, it would be tough to deny his request. Everton's lack of attacking flair pressurizes the defense, but under the leadership of Jagielka, they have only conceded 21 goals in 18 matches.
The rock of one of the toughest defenses in the league to break down, particularly at the cauldron that is the Brittania stadium. Huth also provides the main aerial threat at Stoke City's excellent set pieces, especially Rory Delap's deadly long throw. With three goals already this term, look for Huth to push for more goals as a part of Stoke's formidable set piece unit.
As a Newcastle fan, I am always furious when Enrique fails to receive the praise he deserves. The most consistent performer on Tyneside, Enrique brings pace, solid defensive cover, and terrific crossing ability to a team largely devoid of all three. Recipient of the NUFC "Player of the Season" award last season, as voted for by the fans, Enrique remains one of the most underrated players in the Premiership
The always entertaining Ian Holloway has, deservedly, received the lion's share of the plaudits for Blackpool's terrific first season in the top flight, but club captain Charlie Adam deserves his share of the credit. The Scottish playmaker has 3 goals and 4 assists, and his excellent form is a major reason why Blackpool is challenging for Europe rather than battling relegation.
Andy Carroll can't score with all of his headers, and every time he nods one into a dangerous position, Kevin Nolan has been on hand to finish things off. Eight goals already in a prolific season for the Newcastle captain, including a superb hat-trick against Sunderland, a game in which he wrote himself and his trademark "funky chicken" celebration dance into Geordie folklore.
Arsenal haven't won the title since the Invincibles of the 2003-04 season, and a major reason why is the lack of a strong defensive midfielder in the mold of Patrick Vieira. Alex Song plays like Vieira; a hard-tackling, no-nonsense midfield general who chips in with a goal or two. If Arsenal put an end to their title drought this season, Song will have played a pivotal role.
Outstanding when West Brom were relegated two seasons ago, outstanding when they were promoted last year, and outstanding as West Brom climbed to the dizzying heights of mid-table this year. Second in the league with 8 assists, Brunt's magical left foot has unlocked many a defense this year, keeping his team relatively safe from the relegation fight thus far. If the Baggies escape the drop, Brunt will garner most of the credit.
Viewed as a $14 million flop until this season, Elmander has finally found his form, with 9 goals making him the fourth-top striker in the league. Standing 6'3", the burly Swede is the perfect complement for the bustling Kevin Davies, and Bolton's resurgent strikeforce is driving the club into the hunt for a spot in Europe.
Driven out of Russia with racist taunts and abuse, the gangly winger/striker has found a happy home at West Brom. With a healthy return of 6 goals in his first season in England, Odemwingie adds a bit of much-needed flair to West Brom's otherwise direct style of play, and he has swiftly become a fan favorite at the Hawthorns.