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May 3, 2012

The best signings of the season

It is a safe assumption that, somewhere in the Premier League this weekend, a chant of "what a waste of money" will go up. Yet assess the dealings of the last 12 months and it is notable how well much of it has been spent. Swansea, Newcastle and Norwich have been particularly successful in the transfer market, and Anthony Pilkington, scorer of eight goals from the wings for the Canaries, is especially unfortunate not to earn a place on this list. But there are other fine buys, like Scott Parker, a nominee for the PFA Player of the Year award, and Jean Beausejour, a cause of Wigan's unexpected revival, who still do not figure in ESPN's top ten buys.

• Hubbard: Season's worst signings

10. Sergio Aguero (Manchester City, £38 million)

There are fewer excuses for failure when paying out huge fees, but Manchester City certainly chose wisely when signing Aguero. The Argentine has allied speed, skill and deadly finishing in a year where his class has been a constant. He is closing in on 30 goals and while all of City's other strikers can be faulted - Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli for their temperament, Edin Dzeko for his performances - Aguero could end the season as top scorer for the champions.

9. Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea, loan)

It is a problem many managers never experience but a loan signing who does too well can be troublesome. Sigurdsson's eye for goal may make it harder for Swansea to recruit the Icelander on a permanent contract. However, it has also taken City safely into mid-table and enabled them to add incision to their trademark passing game. Indeed, Brendan Rodgers was bold in introducing Sigurdsson, omitting a less adventurous midfielder and reaping the rewards in the shape of seven goals.

8. Nikica Jelavic (Everton, £5.5 million)

It is fashionable to mock the Scottish Premier League but, as David Moyes has proved, scouting trips north of the border can profitable. Former Rangers striker Jelavic has been a revelation in his brief Everton career, finishing with ice-cool composure and delivering on the big stage, whether an FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool or a trip to Old Trafford. Together with another inspired January signing, Steven Pienaar, he has restored optimism to Goodison Park and it is telling that not since 1912 had an Everton player reached ten goals in as few minutes as the Croatian.

7. Yohan Cabaye (Newcastle, £4.5 million)

Even at the time, the fee seemed ridiculously low. Cabaye was a France international who, with Lille, had just won Ligue 1. Now the whole deal seems too good to be true: Cabaye has dovetailed perfectly with Cheik Tiote, providing the brains to complement the Ivorian's brawn. A fine technician, he has shown the ability to pick a pass and, when shifted into a more advanced role by Alan Pardew in recent weeks, proved capable of scoring. And, like Newcastle, he is showing signs of peaking at the business end of the season.

6. Michel Vorm (Swansea, £1.5 million)

A week before the start of the season, Swansea City still did not have a goalkeeper to replace the departed Dorus de Vries. Then Vorm arrived, excelled on his debut at Manchester City and the notion that the newcomers would be the division's whipping boys started to look more unlikely. Arguably, the Dutchman was at his best in the opening months of the campaign, helping Swansea acquire momentum. As a footballing 'keeper, he suits Swansea's style of play. As a penalty specialist, he ensures opponents cannot be too confident when they get a chance from 12 yards.

5. James McClean (Sunderland, £350,000)

The mere mention of Steve Bruce's name can prompt criticism, but the former manager has, albeit indirectly, played a significant role in Sunderland's revival under Martin O'Neill. For the first half of the season, it seemed the free-transfer acquisition of Sebastian Larsson was Bruce's best bit of business. But, while the Swede has continued to impress, he has been overshadowed by McClean. The Irishman debuted in O'Neill's first game - Bruce had parked him in the reserves to allow him to acclimatise to life at Sunderland - and has meant that left wing is no longer the Black Cats' problem position. Strong, direct and a fine crosser, he is worth many times the minuscule amount Bruce paid for him.

4. Craig Bellamy (Liverpool, free)

In its own way, Bellamy's success damns the former director of football Damien Comolli. While spending vast amounts on underachievers, Liverpool, without paying a fee, made one of the signings of the season. Bellamy is probably the best finisher at Anfield, a fast, feisty force who can be deployed either on the left or as the central striker. His monumental performance against Manchester City took Liverpool to the Carling Cup final and his free kick led to Andy Carroll's FA Cup semi-final winner. He has been underused, but that is not his fault.

3. Yakubu (Blackburn, £1.5 million)

It was no secret Yakubu was available. Loaned out to Leicester last season, unwanted at Everton, the consensus was that he was finished as a force in the Premier League. So his success this season must rank as one of the strangest elements of Blackburn's surreal season. The Nigerian has been an ever-present in the top scorers' chart, and arguably none of his rivals has been quite as cool a finisher. His brace against Manchester United brought one of the year's shock results and, in the unlikely event Blackburn do survive, they will do so principally because they fed 'the Yak' and he scored.

2. Papiss Demba Cisse (Newcastle, £9 million)

Such statistics are more meaningful after a long career but, in Premier League history, no one has a better goal-per-minute ratio than Cisse. An extraordinary volley against Chelsea may be the Senegalese's best strike but a natural scorer is best measured by the total and significance of his goals. If they propel Newcastle into next season's Champions League, his £9 million fee will have been repaid many times over. As it is, he is testament to the acumen of manager Alan Pardew and chief scout Graham Carr.

1. Demba Ba (Newcastle, free)

Cisse has taken over as Newcastle's finisher now, but it should not be forgotten that Ba provided them with their initial impetus and that he helped rebrand them as the cleverest operators in the transfer market. After the 2011 sales of Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll, their two premier goalscorers, Newcastle had not spent a fee on a striker until Cisse's January arrival. Yet in the meantime, Ba's golden run of 15 goals in 15 games ensured Carroll was not missed and Pardew's side were a constant at the upper end of the table.

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