Euro 2012's Unheralded Stars

WARSAW, POLAND - JUNE 12: Alan Dzagoev of Russia closes down Ludovic Obraniak of Poland during the UEFA EURO 2012 group A match between Poland and Russia at The National Stadium on June 12, 2012 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

The best players at the European Championships tend to be from huge leagues. How about the guys who ply their trade outside of the big four?

One of the great things about international football is exposure to players that most of us aren't very familiar with. We know the guys based in the big leagues, of course. Nobody who plays in the Serie A, the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga can possibly come as much of a surprise, but the guys who ply their trade elsewhere? They're a lot newer, shinier and exciting-seeming. The only problem is that they're mostly not as good at playing.

Oh well, they're still fun. We've seen the all-stars and their backups already, but here here you'll find the top performers that nobody had paid much attention to* - your Euro 2012 shadow starting eleven.

GK - Rui Patricio (Portugal, Sporting)

If Portugal had won their penalty shootout against Spain to reach the finals, Sporting's 24-year-old goalkeeper would have been the reason why. He's the first goalkeeper to have recorded a clean sheet against the eventual Champions in a meaningful match since Diego Benaglio in South Africa, and he had to do it over 120 minutes too, saving brilliantly from Andres Iniesta right at the death before stopping Xabi Alonso's first spot kick.

Sure, Portugal then lost, but it wasn't Rui Patricio's fault - and he wasn't half bad in the rest of the matches either. The young goalkeeper's been linked with a move away from the Primeira Liga for some time now, and his performances in Euro 2012 will only accelerate the rumours.

LB - Simon Poulsen (Denmark, AZ Alkmaar)

The Eredivisie isn't exactly known for its defending right now, but Denmark and AZ Alkmaar left back Simon Poulsen left a mark on Euro 2012. Denmark came surprisingly close to emerging from the group stages at the tournament, with only a last minute goal from Portugal's Silvestre Varela between them and a probably semifinal berth. Poulsen was a major part of that success, defending well and acting as a conduit between the back line and Michael Krohn-Delhi. He was especially impressive in what will probably go down as the upset of the tournament, when Denmark dispatched Holland in the first game of Group B.

CB - Bruno Alves (Portugal, Zenit St. Petersburg)

Portugal and the Russian Premier League are both sources of relatively unknown talent, although calling Zenit off the radar is a bit of a stretch if you're a Champions League devotee. Bruno Alves has been a Portugal stalwart for years, making him one of the easier selections on this list. Although he missed that key penalty against Spain in the semifinal, he was a key element in getting to that shootout, defending brilliantly in the knockout stages and helping hold the eventual champions to a scoreless, two-hour draw.

CB - Yevhen Khacheridi (Ukraine, Dynamo Kyiv)

We come to Dynamo Kyiv's Yevhen Khacheridi by process of elimination. No, he didn't have a great tournament, but he was better than his peers. Thomas Sivok was ruled out thanks to the Czech disaster against Russia; Greece's defence was a shambles, as was Croatia's. That's not to say that Khacheridi was bad for Ukraine - he was, indeed, a very competent player, and at 24 years old has bags of potential. But this might be the weakest position in the team.

RB - Darijo Srna (Croatia, Shakhtar Donetsk)

Using Srna is almost cheating. Probably the best right back in the world that nobody talks about, Srna's one of the keys to how both Shakhtar Donestsk and Croatia operate. He was his usual self for Croatia during Euro 2012, but unfortunately for him, they crashed out at the first hurdle after a closely-fought loss against Spain. Darijo Srna is awesome. You should watch him more. Everyone should watch him more.

LM - Vaclav Pilar (Czech Republic, Viktoria Plzen)

Yes, we know he's gone from Viktoria to Wolfsburg already. No, we don't care. He's not yet played in the Bundesliga, and that's good enough to get him onto this team. The Czech Republic made it to the quarterfinals thanks to a really erratic display in a weak group, but Pilar might have been their most consistent performer, notching a great goal against Russia then added to his tally against Greece. Intelligent, incisive runs were Pilar's forte in the tournament, and it'll be interesting to see how he adapts to life on a bigger stage.

CM - Ognjen Vukojevic (Croatia, Dynamo Kyiv)

Sure, he might just be the guy who allows Luka Modric to be Luka Modric, but that's an important role and Vukojevic does an excellent job of not messing it up. Now 28, he's never going to be anything particularly special, but when you have a midfield partner who's generally amongst the world's best passers, all you want in the holder is a guy who wins the ball, then gives it to the big guns. Vukojevic will do (and did) just that.

CM - Joao Moutinho (Portugal, FC Porto)

Joao Moutinho is perhaps the engine that drives both Portugal and Porto. While Raul Meireles runs around harrassing people and Miguel Veloso does something that mostly looks like standing on one place looking puzzled, Moutinho's the link for everything that Portugal does. He was excellent at the Euros, putting in a solid defensive shift while controlling their passing game, and now Manchester United are sniffing around...

RM - Alan Dzagoev (Russia, CSKA Moscow)

If you weren't familiar with Alan Dzagoev, he made a spectacular first impression on Euro 2012's first day, scoring a brace as he and Andrei Arshavin combined to rip the Czech Republic apart. He'd add to his tally with a headed goal against Poland, although a teamwide outbreak of woeful finishing meant that neither he nor anyone else could score against Greece, sending Russia crashing out of the tournament at the first hurdle. That's not stopping some major teams from looking seriously at the 22-year-old, who is out of contract at the end of the year. A fun transfer saga awaits...

CF - Ludovic Obraniak (Poland, Bordeaux)

While Borussia Dortmund Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski will get much of the credit for Poland's occasional displays of devastating attacking football, Bordeaux's Ludovic Oraniak is at least as responsible for his country's attacking nous. He has an excellent habit of drifting to where he's needed most, creating overlaps and holes for his team to exploit, and it's difficult to imagine Poland playing the way they did (at times) without him. On another note, it's slightly telling that he's the first player based in France in this list.

CF - Dimitris Salpingidis (Greece, PAOK)

Sure, he looks like someone's drawn a cheeky beard on a cherub. But for a Greece side that was supposed to rely on the creative talents of Sotoris Ninis, Dimitris Salpingidis was a breath of fresh air. He came on in the opener with his side down 1-0 and down to ten men, scored the equaliser and then won what should have been a match-changing penalty. He also managed a goal and an assist against Manuel Neuer and Germany, which would be impressive enough for anyone, let alone a striker who's only ever plied his trade in Greek Superleague.

*Yes, we know some of you are Football Manager junkies and/or streamaholics. It's figurative language!

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