The Dark Horse XI of the upcoming EPL season - players who can turn the fortunes of their teams

Liverpool Open Training Session At Anfield

Every season in the Barclays Premier League, the world fixates its gaze and salivates at the prospect of watching the top brass play week in and week out.

Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Juan Mata, Steven Gerrard, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Frank Lampard to name a few, constitute the list of stars in focus.

But every season a few players emerge who mange to take the stage by storm. Be it Luka Modric in the 2008-09 season or Demba Ba and Javier Hernandez in the 2011-12 season or more recently the likes of Christian Benteke and Michu last season; players who rise from virtual obscurity to fulfill their potential, professionals who catch the breath of viewers and make a huge difference in the fortunes of their teams, the perennial ‘dark horses’.

Here is a list of players in the English game who are relatively lesser known or even hidden from the public glare but can go on and become the beacon of light for their teams.

1) Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)

Simon Mignolet joined Liverpool in a 9 million pound move

The Belgian international shot stopper has joined Liverpool in a 9 million pound move this summer. With eleven clean sheets to his name last season, Mignolet can be credited as one of the major reasons for Sunderland staying in the Premier League.

Beating former Newcastle United ‘keeper Craig Gordon to the number one spot in the 2011-12 season, this keeper who also has a goal to his name on Belgian soil, played all 38 matches last year.

Mignolet has shown tremendous signs of improvement lately, progressing in leaps and bounds. And with Liverpool amidst a major overhaul at the back, it is only natural that he is bound to impress.

2) Matija Nastasic (Manchester City)

Manchester City v Leeds United - FA Cup Fifth Round

Out for six weeks – Matija Nastasic’s absence due to injury is a big blow to City

Few would doubt the abilities of the Serbian international, as he partnered Vincent Kompany in the City defence last season. The fact that he debuted for City against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu shows how much trust Roberto Mancini had in the 20-year-old.

Matija made 25 appearances for City last season while effectively removing Joleon Lescott from the starting eleven.

However, a recent injury against Sunderland in a friendly in Hong Kong has ruled out the centre-back for four to six weeks, meaning that City would be without his services for the first month of the Premier League.

Once he’s able to make a comeback, the only direction the big Serb can look unto now is forward.

With the influence of a certain neighboring Serbian defender waning, the former Fiorentina defender will try to give his level best performance during the course of the season and cement his place in the national team.

3) Erik Pieters (Stoke City)

Dutch Eredivisie - PSV v PEC Zwolle

Erik Pieters was signed by Stoke City from PSV for a four-year deal

The 24-year-old joined the Britannia club on a four-year deal and was immediately praised by manager Mark Hughes on his versatility. Pieters, who left PSV Eindhoven after 5 years and 140 appearances, is a natural attacking left-back who can also play in the centre of defence.

Last season saw Marc Wilson, Andy Wilkinson, Geoff Cameron and even Robert Huth utilized on the left side of the stoke defence. Naturally, Stoke supporters would be breathing a sigh of relief after the signing of the Dutch international.

With the chance to redeem himself at his new club, Pieters has the potential to become an immediate fan favorite and follow the likes of recent Dutch imports like Vermaelen, Suarez and Jan Vertonghen.

4) Paulinho (Tottenham Hotspur)

Brazil v Spain: Final - FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013

Paulinho was the perfect link between attack and defence for Brazil in 2013 Confederation Cup

The Brazilian midfielder born in Sao Paulo was one of the highlights of the Confederations Cup and was responsible for providing the balance between attack and defence in the 3-man midfield utilized by the Selecao.

Following his 17 million pound transfer to White Hart Lane, there will be intense speculation among fans and pundits alike regarding how Andre Villas Boas would bring out the best in him.

The Brazilian was a fairly regular goal scorer for former club Corinthians with 20 goals in 86 appearances. Heralded as the Brazilian Frank Lampard by Juan Roman Riquelme, Paulinho’s 86th minute winner against Uruguay paved the way for the Samba kings to enter the final.

With the impending departure of Gareth Bale, there would also be the added pressure on his shoulders to chip in with the goals along with orchestrating the play. AVB would have succeeded at finding the ace in the pack if the midfielder fires Tottenham into a Champions League spot this coming season.

5) Matthew Lowton (Aston Villa)

Wycombe Wanderers v Aston Villa - Pre Season Friendly

Matthew Lowton – Paul Lambert’s second signing at Aston Villa

Matthew Lowton was Paul Lambert’s second buy after he took charge of Villa and having spent just 3 million pounds on the full-back, he wouldn’t be asking for more.

This English defender, who became an instant YouTube sensation after his magnificent volley against Stoke City from 35 yards out, is also endowed with positional versatility and has made 37 appearances for the Villains last season.

Lowton, who started out as a ball boy at former club Sheffield United stated that he has hopes of following in the footsteps of former Blades defender Phil Jagielka and playing for the national side. Matthew Lowton is a player to look out for this coming season.

6) Leroy Fer (Norwich City)

UEFA EURO U21 - Netherlands U21 v Russia U21

Leroy Fer – the “unmissable” player for the Dutch squad will be plying his trade for Norwich City this season

Described as being “unmissable for squad” by the retired Dutch captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst is something special, especially when you are just 19 years of age.

Since then, Leroy Fer has never looked back. Amassing 203 appearances and scoring 37 goals in the process, the former Feyenoord man was even made vice-captain at the age of 21.

Possessing a strong all-round game, he was played in positions ranging from right back to striker, finally settling down as a defensive midfielder during his term with Feyenoord.

In 2011, FC Twente paid 5 million pounds for his services and he played 2 full seasons while also chipping in with vital goals. Tackling and physical strength are two of his major advantages and will come in handy when he starts plying his trade with the Canaries this coming season.

7) Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)

Liverpool v Swansea City - Premier League

Philippe Coutinho – the Liverpool no. 10 can well match up to the jersey’s reputation

Once hailed as the “future of Inter” by club president Massimo Moratti, Philippe Coutinho has already established himself among the Kop favorites.

Handed over the number 10 jersey previously worn by the likes of Michael Owen and John Barnes, the former Inter attacker is more than capable of handling the mantle.

Coutinho has all the qualities in a quintessential Brazilian number 10, possessing pace, trickery, a good first touch, dribbling, versatility and an eye for goal. Scoring 3 goals and assisting 7 in just 13 appearances last season shows that he has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water.

Although few criticize him for occasionally losing the ball during dribbles, the Brazilian is just 21 years of age has a lot to learn. He provides the Merseysiders a new dimension in their attack.

8) Gerard Deulofeu (Everton)

Everton v Real Madrid - International Champions Cup 2013

Gerard Deulofeu (R) – the next Messi?

The La Masia wonder kid, touted as the next Lionel Messi, is certainly the cream of the blue Merseyside crop. Gerard Deulofue had been a part of Barcelona youth ranks from past nine years, and his senior debut came at the age of 17.

Developed mainly as a left inside forward, Deulofue exhibits a range of attacking versatility, being able to play at either flanks and as a trequartista. His speed on and off the ball, dribbling, creativity and an eye for goal set him apart.

Scoring 18 goals in the 2012-13 season, he ended up as fourth joint top-scorer in the Segunda division. Is he the heir to a certain mesmerizing Argentinian at the Blaugrana? Only time will tell.

9) Marc Muniesa (Stoke City)

Stoke City v FC Dallas

Marc Muniesa is the second youngest player ever to feature for Barcelona

The 21-year-old Spanish defender grabbed headlines following his surprise move to Stoke City this July on a free transfer. The second youngest player ever to feature for FC Barcelona is widely expected to start along with Ryan Shawcross in the heart of the Stoke defence.

The La Masia graduate brings to the Stoke defence his ‘on the ball’ skills along with his Barcelona experiences. This is a far cry from the traditional one dimensional defence employed by Tony Pulis at the Potters. Muniesa, along with Erik Pieters at the back, heralds the start of an altogether different Stoke unit under Mark Hughes.

10) Wilfried Bony (Swansea City)

Swansea City v Malmo - UEFA Europa League Third Round Qualifying: First Leg

Wilfried Bony’s pace and finishing are reminiscent of Didier Drogba

The 24-year-old Ivorian, signed from Vitesse Arnhem at a club-record 12 million pounds, ends Swansea City’s search for a natural centre forward.

The forward, who once failed a trial at Liverpool in 2007, is a strong aerial threat and his pace and finishing are reminiscent of Didier Drogba at his prime.

Possessing enough potency to lead the attack all by himself, the Ivorian international had amassed 53 goals in 73 appearances in 3 seasons for the Dutch club.

What is more astonishing is his poaching tally of 31 goals and 6 assists in just around 30 games. Bony could seamlessly fit into the team, potentially forming a lethal partnership with Michu behind him. It is indeed a combination that is set to bedazzle the Premier League.

11) Gary Hooper (Norwich City)

Brighton & Hove Albion v Norwich City - Pre Season Friendly

Norwich City’s Gary Hooper scored 82 goals in 138 appearances for the Celtic

The Celtic marksman switched to Norwich City on a three-year deal for an undisclosed fee.

Returning to his old stomping grounds would certainly be a boost for Hooper, who started out his youth career at the age of 9 with Tottenham Hotspur.

Since then, he has gone on to play at six different clubs in and around the British isles. Hooper’s abilities include his holding of the ball and his intelligent passing in the final third.

His finishing abilities and physical strength have undergone a thorough test with the Bhoys, while facing the physical nature of the Scottish league.

Capable of playing both as a support striker or as the one leading the pack, Hooper has demonstrated his skills with an astounding 82 goals in 138 appearances.

Norwich, with the sale of Grant Holt and the arrival of Ricky van Wolfswinkel have clearly stated their attacking intent. Ably supporting the attack is their midfield of Snodgrass and Pilkington. The English striker leaves us with one facile question though, will he follow the mighty footsteps of Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson, or the bleak ones of Samaras and Craig Beattie?

A few players who missed out:

1) Sascha Riether at Fulham.2) Robbie Brady at Hull City.3) Glenn Murray at Crystal Palace.4) Romelu Lukaku at Chelsea.5) Andreas Weimann at Aston Villa.6) Nathan Redmond at Norwich City.

Here’s hoping that some of these players live up to their potential and enchant the footballing world. This coming season in the Barclays Premier League is one to really look forward to.

If you think that I have missed out on some players, or if I wasn’t clear with the term ‘Dark horses’, or even if you feel some player doesn’t deserve to be in this list, contact me and do let me know your views in the comments below.

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