The 2012/13 edition of the Barclays Premier League will be most remembered for the ease with which Manchester United won the title, and the all too familiar surrender of a Champions League place by Tottenham Hotspur - pipped for the second successive season by Arsenal. The two players that shone head and shoulders above the rest though, in my opinion, were players who took their performances to a whole new stratosphere. While Robin Van Persie once again delivered goals (some worthy of being shortlisted for goal of the season) and Michael Carrick continued to be the cog that made the Champions tick, neither performed to the exceptional level on a consistent basis that both Juan Mata and Gareth Bale managed.
Towards the end of the previous season, Chelsea's attacking midfielder was moved from the wing, and into a role behind Fernando Torres - with the sole intention of coaxing the best from the misfiring striker. With Didier Drogba gone, and Eden Hazard signed to play down Chelsea's left, Di Matteo once again looked to give Mata the license to roam in a central role. The two Spaniards both scored in Chelsea's September 2-1 win over Arsenal, while Mata scored twice at White Hart Lane two games later. In the month of December, Mata scored six times in eight appearances, taking his goal tally to an impressive thirteen in all competitions. Having played in both Euro 2012, and the Olympics, it was only natural his goalscoring exploits would suffer post-Christmas, but he still played a starring role as Chelsea secured third place and won the Europa League.
By mid-November Gareth Bale had only managed four goals for Tottenham, but two goals in the space of four days, and a hat-trick on Boxing Day, helped spur the Londoners on a thirteen match unbeaten run. Only the Welshman could match Van Persie's two nominations for BBC's goal of the season, scoring a long-range effort at Upton Park, and then running through Norwich's defence in January, before coolly slotting home. Add winning goals against West Brom, Newcastle and Swansea, and a late equaliser away to Wigan, and Gareth Bale deservedly earned recognition as potentially the third best player in the World. Muted transfer fees in the region of £50m haven't been dismissed as nonsense either. To think the winner of both the Player, and Young Player of the Year awards was once regarded as a jinx when selected for Spurs.
Looking ahead to the forthcoming season it is difficult to envisage who might make the leap from 'key starter for their club', to one of Europe's 'most sought after talents', but there are two names I can confidently tip for a monumental year. Liverpool's Daniel Strurridge has attended both Manchester City and Chelsea's youth set-up's, and has featured in both a wide attacking role, and as a central striker. But in January 2013, when signed by Brendan Rodgers for £12m, Sturridge began to show the potential many had seen in all too infrequent glimpses. With the ability to play in each of the attacking roles across Rodgers' 4-2-3-1 formation, the Englishman began to receive the run of games his development craved. And with Suarez, Coutinho and Henderson all capable of interchanging positions and providing the quality of service needed, Sturridge finished last season with 10 goals from 17 league games. While Luis Suarez is still serving a suspension for his attack on Ivanovic, which is likely to see him absent until October 5, in his place Sturridge can expect an extended run at the tip of the team. As Southampton, Stoke and Aston Villa line up on Liverpool's early season programme, he will hope the goals continue.
The second player likely to propel himself to a higher level of appreciation is another winter-transfer-window-mover. Newcastle United will surely not suffer as poorly this year as last. Although the presence of Joe Kinnear only goes as far as sending shivers down Geordie spines, the retention of Cabaye, Ben Arfa, and more importantly, Coloccini, should see an upturn in fortunes. And the player who should benefit most from the increased flair on show (injury permitting) should be former Toulouse midfielder Moussa Sissoko. On debut he helped Newcastle blow away hosts Aston Villa with a 45-minute exhibition in creative football, only to falter as the relegation battle became more fractious and nervy. The following weekend the Frenchman scored twice in a 3-2 win over Chelsea, earning comparisons with Manchester City's Yaya Toure due to his powerful running from midfield. That his season was curtailed by injury may act as a blessing as opposing managers might fail to protect against the all-action midfielder. If Newcastle can capture Darren Bent, Loic Remy or Pierre Aubameyang, then another tilt at European football could be on the cards, with Sissoko instrumental alongside Cabaye in midfield.
I would be lying if I could suggest the unheard of names who will take the Premier League by storm this coming season. Unfortunately my knowledge of Liverpool's Iago Aspas, Swansea's Jordi Amat, and Cardiff's Andreas Cornelius is as limited as my comprehension of American Football. That Michu could join Swansea for just £2m from Rayo Vallecano, displace Danny Graham, win the League Cup, and score 18 times in 35 league games, was a feat unlikely to be repeated. Christian Benteke though, began 2012/13 equally unfamiliar to British audiences, but a match winning display at Anfield - helping Villa to a 3-1 win - firmly placed the Belgian on the map. He has since kept Lukaku out of the national side, finished with 19 league goals, and had a price tag of £25m slapped round his neck.
Any attempt I could make to hazard an educated guess as to who might be the next Michu or Benteke would prove ultimately fruitless (although I do believe Jores Okore will one day prove a very astute signing for Paul Lambert). But I do propose two players who will perform sufficiently to earn unlikely berths on the plane to Brazil 2014. With John Terry and Rio Ferdinand no longer a part of the international set up, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott look largely unchallenged for a World Cup spot (qualification permitting). However, veteran of the GB Olympic team, and this summer's fateful under-21 squad, Craig Dawson has the potential to make a lasting impression on former West Brom boss Roy Hodgson. While the Baggies have rarely looked beyond a back four of Jones, Olsson, McAuley and Ridgewell, at 23 years of age Dawson is more than ready to force his way in. After joining Bolton on loan last January, Dawson was largely responsible for helping Freedman's side make a late push for the play-offs, finishing level on points with sixth-placed Leicester City. And under the excellent tutelage of Steve Clarke, I firmly believe first-team football in the Premiership will bring out the best in the former Rochdale man.
If last season was disastrous for Alan Pardew, given how well Newcastle fared in 2011/12, then surely Aston Villa fans could have forseen a season of struggle after both Houllier and McLeish's reigns. But the acquisition of Paul Lambert brought a degree of optimism, along with the signings of Vlaar, El Ahmadi and Benteke. But the focus of Lambert's transfers centred mainly on young, promising talents like Lowton, Bennett and Ashley Westwood from Crewe Alexandra. The club renowned for developing talents like Danny Murphy, Neil Lennon, and even Robbie Savage, had just sold Nick Powell to Manchester United, and few expected Westwood to break into the Villa first team straight away. But once Stephen Ireland exhausted all of his last chances, and Barry Bannan picked up another niggly injury, Westwood earnt an extended run alongside Fabian Delph. And his stats read quite impressively: he picked up seven assists in the Premier League; featured in all ten of Villa's league wins; and most significantly, in the eight games he missed, Villa drew three and lost five. The features of his play that resonates most fondly with me is the fact that he didn't attempt a single shot on goal from outside of the area (suggesting he despises the wasting of possession) and that on extending his contract his manager stated "he never seems to give the ball away, something like a 91% (pass) success rate". While Jack Rodwell, Tom Cleverly, Jake Livermore, Ross Barkley, Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson must wait patiently for a starting berth, you can be sure when available, Westwood's name will be one of the first on Lambert's team sheet, which adopts a forward-thinking 4-3-3 approach based on two pacy wingers in Agbonlahor and Weimann - a tactic one hopes England will use in Brazil.
If like me the failure to attract World-renowned names such as Guardiola, Falcao or Cavani to the Premier League, or even future stars like Alacantara or Isco, has left you a little downbeat ahead of the new season, then take a moment to place the top three in order, or name the sides likely to occupy eigth to twelth. There are a whole host of reasons why you must stay positive, most of all, the sight of the featured eight players demonstrating their skills week in and week out.
PS I promise not to blog any Premier League predictions, but for arguments sake, see below for my 1,2,3.
2 Manchester United
3 Manchester City
8 West Ham
11 Aston Villa