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Skysports.com counts down ten players who have unexpectedly established themselves as key players

Competition for places in every Premier League squad is extremely fierce and, while nobody is there just to make up the numbers, there are players that probably started the season expecting to be on the bench more often the pitch.

However, a number of youngsters have enjoyed breakthrough campaigns and there have been other examples of experienced journeymen suddenly establishing themselves as key members of starting XIs. Skysports.com here counts down ten surprise regulars.

Matt Taylor - Bolton

If you were a Premier League club with a couple of million quid to spare you could probably have bought Taylor last summer as Owen Coyle brought in Martin Petrov and Robbie Blake on free transfers. Reduced to a bit-part role from the bench, Taylor did not start his first league game of the season until the final day of October. He's barely missed one since as he re-established himself as a Premier League player in an over-achieving team. We'll gloss over the last few weeks when the Trotters seem to have found their usual just-about survival form.

Ali Al-Habsi - Wigan

Signed on loan from Bolton to replace reserve keeper Vladimir Stojkovic, the Omani goalkeeper probably thought he'd feature in the Carling Cup and the occasional Premier League game when Chris Kirkland's back had gone. Nobody figured on former England keeper Kirkland letting in ten goals in the first two games of the season, prompting a promotion for Al-Habsi ahead of a visit to Tottenham. Phenomenal in a 1-0 win, he has only budged from between the sticks for games against Bolton and the Latics now face something of a battle to sign him on a permanent basis. And Kirkland faces something of a battle for his top-flight career.

Pablo Zabaleta - Manchester City

The Argentine must have been dumped on a pile marked 'surplus to requirements' along with Shaun Wright-Phillips and Roque Santa Cruz this summer, but Zabaleta enters the second half of the season with more Premier League minutes under his belt than Jerome Boateng, Joleon Lescott, Micah Richards or even Adam Johnson. There's something inherently honest about the way Zabaleta plays football and that clearly appeals to Roberto Mancini, who must have been underwhelmed by the performances of Boateng since his arrival. Such is Zabaleta's continued and unexpected success, Richards is eyeing the exit door.

Maxi Rodriguez - Liverpool

Obviously it helps if your club has got no real wingers worthy of the name, but it's fair to say that Maxi has figured far more often for Liverpool this season that anyone would have expected. Certainly far more than Ryan Babel, Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic would have hoped. In a sea of mediocrity, Rodriguez is just about staying afloat and will continue to do so until Liverpool buy a new winger, perhaps Stewart Downing or Ashley Young. His steady if unspectacular performance against Everton suggests he may have a future at Liverpool that looked highly unlikely at the end of last season.

Johan Djourou - Arsenal

When Arsenal fans were indulging in their traditional summer pastime of clamouring for new centre-halves, many of them forgot about the existence of Djourou, who had been injured for so long that there was a genuine 'oh yeah, forgot about him' moment for many when he started appearing on the Arsenal bench at the start of the season. Fast-forward five months and Djourou - assumed to be fourth choice after the arrivals of Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny - is the central figure in Arsenal's back four. The Swiss international has now started nine Premier League games and has conceded only three goals - he won't be forgotten again.

Marc Albrighton - Aston Villa

The reluctance of the previous manager to use Aston Villa's homegrown talent meant that England Under-21 winger Albrighton played barely an hour of Premier League football last season. Under Kevin MacDonald and Gerard Houllier, Albrighton has played over 20 hours this season. Results may not have been brilliant, but Albrighton's performances have often been eye-catching - particularly against Manchester United when a young Villa side bossed their elders and betters for large periods of the game. Imagine what the wing trinity of Albrighton, Young and Downing could achieve with Darren Bent feeding off their service.

Alan Hutton - Tottenham

As August became September, the Scotsman was frustrated with Tottenham for scuppering a move to Sunderland by asking them to match a ridiculous £9m price tag. As September became October, he was established in a swashbuckling Spurs side thanks to a 45-minute cameo against Wolves when Younes Kaboul joined Vedran Corluka on the injured list. Corluka is now in the position on the bench previously occupied by Hutton, who has now played more Premier League football for Tottenham this season than anyone barring Heurelho Gomes, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. Now that's what we call a turnaround in fortunes.

Seamus Coleman - Everton

When Ian Holloway asked David Moyes if he could borrow Seamus Coleman again for Blackpool's first season in the Premier League, you suspect he already knew the answer. Moyes already knew that he had a gem in Coleman, and his stellar performances for the Seasiders ensured that he would be part of the Scotsman's plans this season. We suspected he might be second-choice right-back, but what we didn't expect was his emergence as first-choice right-winger, prompting comparisons to Tottenham's Bale. Leon Osman has learned that if you snooze (or pick up a rib injury) you lose.

Jack Wilshere - Arsenal

This was always going to be the year of the Wilshere breakthrough, but it must be beyond even the Englishman's most optimistic expectations that he would enter 2011 as a first-choice central midfielder along with Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas. That triumvirate has become Arsene Wenger's default combination, with Denilson pushed onto the sidelines. The continuing injury problems of Abou Diaby have undoubtedly helped Wiilshere's cause, but you need only watch his performance in the goalless draw with Manchester City to see why Wenger has been more than happy to fast-track a player still in his teens.

Rafael - Manchester United

The fact that Rafael's red card against Tottenham and subsequent suspension comes as a major blow to Manchester United illustrates just what an integral figure the young Brazilian has become. The established back four of Rafael-Ferdinand-Vidic-Evra has conceded just two goals in its last six outings and introducing either the past-it Gary Neville, the underused Wes Brown or the mediocre John O'Shea will significantly weaken that defence in Rafael's absence. Would Wayne Rooney have used language quite so industrial if O'Shea had been shown a red card? Rafael has already started more Premier League games this season than in the whole of 2009/10 and his assured handling of Bale on Sunday illustrates exactly why.

Comments (11)

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Alice Louis says...

i believe that Rafael has done enough to earn a place in the Man Utd squad and he defends very well. i liked the way he handled Gareth Bale too.

Posted 11:18 20th January 2011

Stephen Ring says...

What the hell?? John O'Shea is way more than a mediocre player! In the start of 2009 when United went on their amazing clean sheet run O'Shea only played less games than Van Der Sar and Vidic. He has played in every position for United, including a clean sheet when he went in goals against Spurs. He has played Almost every game for Ireland for Ireland since his debut, including along the entire back 4. He scores in important games and is never a disappointment when it comes to big games whether it being scoring important goals like hes done against Liverpool or nutmegging Luis Figo in the Champions League. And even Fergie said he was one of the only players who played very well in that abismal Chamions League final loss to Barcalona in 2009. Plus if he was only a mediocre player why would Ferguson still play him whenever he is fit, refuse to sell him to anyone, and even praise him as one of the best defenders United have?

Posted 09:35 20th January 2011

Pete Goldsmith says...

How about Mike Williamson? Soloman Kalou?

Posted 08:40 20th January 2011

Martin Jones says...

John O'Shea - Medicore? That's a bit harsh, he's not a first team standard player.. but he certainly isn't medicore.

Posted 02:16 20th January 2011

Vinecnt Vaiano says...

While I wouldn't put him in this top ten, I think special mention needs to go to Bolton's Stuart Holden. He has done a credible job opposite Mertin Petrov, and caused all kinds of selection issues for the overachieving Owen Coyle.

Posted 00:44 20th January 2011

Matt Jarratt says...

Well, Marc Albrighton has been a massive suprise at Villa Park in my opinion, the young winger has been reliable and shown alot of talent so far this season and I actually think that he has performed better than other players such as Young and Downing at Villa, all of the above have performed well so far this season except to be honest I expected Maxi to be a regular and im still not sure how good Rafael is, personally I always liked Wes Brown at right back before.

Posted 22:26 19th January 2011

Kyle Graham says...

Rafael couldn't handle Gareth Bale on Sunday... that's why he got sent off...

Posted 17:25 19th January 2011

Josh Blakey says...

What about Joey Barton at newcastle? Everyone wrote is career at newcastle off a year ago! Look at him now hes probably the most in form england midfielder!

Posted 17:03 19th January 2011

Tim Sexton says...

If you're talking about unexpected fixtures in a premier league team how could you possibly over look Spector at West Ham? The long forgotten defender seems to have found new life in an injury raveged midfield. Add to that that he seems to be able to strike the ball aswell its surprising West Ham haven't tied him down to a longer contract than the 6 months he has remaining on his contract!

Posted 15:48 19th January 2011

Mike Lathbury says...

What about Vincent Kompany? A substitute holding midfielder under Sparky, he's held off a string of big-money defensive signings since to establish himself as first-choice centre half.

Posted 14:58 19th January 2011

Wayne Black says...

I think the best key player and probably the best bargain is Tiote at newcastle. Real Legend.

Posted 13:49 19th January 2011

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