In part two of this year’s Top 50 Players in the World feature, as voted by you: some big fallers from 2011, a couple of new entries and some more Bundesliga repping.
View the longlist and voting process here.
Barcelona and Spain
Amidst speculation that his off-field activities were proving a distraction, Gerard Piqué’s on field performances in 2011 fell somewhat short of the standards set since his move home from Manchester United. 2012 was always going to be a big year for the elegant defender, and his return to form has silenced the critics.
Carles Puyol’s presence had been key to his development, but for most of the last 18 months he’s had to make the step up as top dog due to the frequent injuries to his senior colleague. Playing alongside a variety of partners at club level- many of them not orthodox centre backs- he’s emerged as something of a leader rather than a joker.
Nowhere did we see this better than in the European Championships. It’s long been rumoured that he doesn’t get on with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos. The two were too entwined with their clubs’ identities, many worried. Concentration had proved a weakness in Piqué’s game, and with Ramos’ positional capabilities also questioned, there were genuine fears about the Spain defence.
Such concerns proved unfounded. Piqué upped his game and his partnership with Ramos proved rock solid as Spain went on to shut out all-comers after their opening 1-1 draw against Italy. His calmness at the back and ability to step out from defence with the ball made him a central figure in his side’s success.
Back at club level it’s been more of the same. Barcelona have suffered defensively at times, but that’s been largely off the back of injuries which have denied them Puyol’s much needed height at set plays and a more open style under new coach Tito Vilanova. 12 months ago, there were mutterings that Piqué might even be sold. Now you’d be hard pressed to find anyone disputing his form and capabilities.
Borussia Dortmund and Germany
If footballers were animals, Mario Goetze (or Götze, for pedants and fans of fans of the umlaut) would be a bee: quick, agile, workmanlike, annoying – perhaps even scary – to those who face him, clad in yellow and black, he doesn’t so much run around the pitch as he does buzz about it. Listen closely, you’ll hear it.
Super Mario is arguably the biggest, shiniest jewel in the vast crown that is Germany’s young, attacking talent. Having made his debut the previous year, he made his real domestic breakthrough in the Bundesliga winning season of 2010/11, proving to be one of the spearheads of that surprising campaign, making 33 appearances in the league and scoring six goals, all at the tender age of 18. He was continuing that form until suffering an injury setback last January, causing him to miss most of the second half of the season as Dortmund retained the title.
He’s bounced back from injury better than ever this term, with 12 goals in total thus far, and, although Dortmund themselves have not been able to keep pace with Bayern, they’re favourites for 2nd place and worthy of a cheeky punt for the Champions League. He’s formed a strong partnership with Marco Reus, one that German legend Franz Beckenbauer described as the best “classic [midfield] duo” in world football.
Already a firm part of the German setup at 20, expect to see a lot more of him come Brazil 2014 and, most importantly, expect to see him climb higher and higher in this list each year. Individual and team glory, for both club and country, and a top-ten spot (at the very least) beckon. For Mario, life is as sweet as honey…
Roma and Italy
Daniele De Rossi is easily one of the best midfielders in the world. One of a dying breed of one-club players, the Roma star has played over 400 games for i Giallorossi since he made his debut against Anderlecht in 2001 in the Champions League.
That first club appearance in the greatest club competition on the planet was to signify the beginnings of an incredible career.
De Rossi is one of the first names on the team sheet for club and country. He brings a selfless style that provides the very foundations for all that is good about Roma and Italy.
Comfortable in anywhere along the defensive spine, De Rossi, as a player, is a simplistic passer, reads the game incredibly well and above all else is a superb leader of men.
The possessor of the most frightening thousand-yard stare since Roy Keane is a man who does not suffer fools easily, and like all great leaders he expects high standards from himself and his team mates alike.
Competitive to the nth degree, De Rossi is one of the most defensively intelligent players on the planet. This is mainly because he is such a good reader of the game that he never dives in. As a result his tackles are rarely mistimed, he is rarely exposed by pace and he makes an inordinate amount of defensive interceptions.
The World Cup winner in 2006 enjoyed a majestic European Championships last summer. He helped guide the Azzurri to the final where they were eventually defeated by Spain.
In Poland he started off the tournament at centre half in a 3-5-2 formation that held the World and European champions to a draw in the first game. For the rest of the competition he was employed in centre-midfield by Cesare Prandelli and put in a string of marvellous performances.
His form was such that, despite the Spanish dominance of Euro 2012, he comfortably made the team of the tournament. That good form prompted interest from Manchester City and Roberto Mancini. However, De Rossi chose to stay in Rome rather than accept all the trappings that come with the Citizens.
At club level De Rossi enjoyed a superb start to 2012 and was never less than excellent despite Roma losing six of their last 14 games. This term he has been restricted by injuries, suspension and poor team form, but has still managed to raise his game at international level when called upon.
In short, he has easily been one of the best midfielders in the world in 2012.
Bayern Munich and Germany
When Daniel Alves and Marcelo were the chosen full-back’s for the FIFA world XI in 2012, there was much consternation amongst football writers, fans and bloggers alike. Not because either aren’t quality players – far from it, you don’t play for Barcelona or Real Madrid if you can’t play – but because arguably neither had enjoyed an outstanding calendar year: Alves suffered a noticeable dip in form which led to a period out of Los Cules starting line-up, whilst the defensive side of Marcelo’s game continued to be exploited.
On the other hand, the Bayern Munich defender Philipp Lahm, was nothing less than excellent throughout 2012, be it in the red of Bayern or the white of Die Mannschaft at the summers European Championships (where he was named in the Uefa team of the tournament), and his absence from the supposed world’s best XI raised more than a few eyebrows.
In many ways, Bayern captain Lahm is the very epitome of the modern-day full-back; Adventurous going forward, a clever passer, good crosser, tigerish in the tackle and intelligent to the extent that he is rarely outwitted by opposing frontmen. Performances in both legs of last season’s European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid showcased Lahm’s best qualities in microcosm, from the magnificent assist late in the first leg teeing up Mario Gomez’ winner, to a display of resolute and courageous defending in the second as he helped Bayern resist the Spanish champions in two pulsating matches.
Disappointingly for the defender, 2012 ended without a trophy for Lahm; His beloved Bayern were beaten finalists in Europe’s premier club competition – made all the more agonising by the fact that the final itself was played at the Allianz Arena – and fell short in their challenges for national honours, whilst Germany were dumped out of Euro 2012 by Italy at the semi-final stage,
Nonetheless, he has gone someway to rectifying that since, with Bayern safely into the knockout stages of the Champions League and top of the Bundesliga, having conceded a measly seven goals in 20 matches.
In many ways Philipp Lahm is the complete full-back. It is by no means overly-extravagant to suggest that based on his form over the past 12 months, he is the best right-back in world football. And yet, the funny thing is, he may just be an even better left-back. Certainly, he is world football’s greatest current purveyor of ambidexterity. Of that, there is no question.
Chelsea and England
There are many out there, myself included, who feel Ashley Cole is no longer a truly world-class performer. With the rise of more attacking full-backs – such as his compatriot Leighton Baines – currently able to offer more in the final third than an all-rounder such as Cole, it is only natural that, at the age of 32, his standing in the game begins to diminish. After all, it is now almost a decade since he was seen as an outlandishly attacking component of the legendary “Invincible” Arsenal side.
Yet he has still managed to enter this list after a year of relative personal triumph. With rumours previously suggesting he may leave Chelsea – and perhaps England – at the end of the season, the news in January that he had signed a one-year contract extension arrived faster than you can say, “I nearly crashed my car.”
Moreover, last Wednesday he became only the seventh man to reach 100 England caps, just three days after finishing 3rd in the annual England Player of the Year award. The latter was likely based on his typically solid displays at Euro 2012; an event that kicked-off only a month after similarly stellar performances had helped his Chelsea side secure that elusive Champions League trophy in Munich.
Indeed, it had perhaps been even more elusive for Cole than his club, given that he had an extra runners-up medal with Arsenal in 2006. Last season he also added another FA Cup medal to take his tally to seven, more than any player in history, to sit alongside his three Premier League titles and solitary League Cup. Regardless of controversy and public persona, there is little doubt that he will go down as the most decorated – and talented – English left-back of all-time.
Cole has only been voted in the PFA Team of the Year once since joining Chelsea in 2006, and there is little doubt that his attacking capabilities have been overtaken by a select few. But at a time when the Premier League collectively appears increasingly incapable of defending, purists will rest easier knowing we have at least one more season of witnessing classic Ashley Cole tackles, goal-line clearances, and unerring composure in possession throughout the pitch.
Sylvinho, the man Cole displaced at Arsenal, once said: “Ashley does not need people saying, ‘Do this’ or ‘Go there’. He knows, he knows.” It’s safe to say: he still knows.
Manchester United and England
There have been those that have broached the subject that this season is make or break for Wayne Rooney. The Manchester United striker may’ve been at Old Trafford for close to nine years now, but there are those that believe he needs to prove himself to his doubters once again.
Some believe a move to midfield would be the wisest choice for manager Sir Alex Ferguson, but his goalscoring exploits over the past 12 months suggest otherwise. Last season alone, the England international netted an impressive 34 times in all competitions as United missed out on a 20th top division title on goal difference, despite securing a victory on the last day of the season at Sunderland; an encounter Rooney netted the only goal in.
His campaign may’ve been hindered by a severe leg gash in the 3-2 win over Fulham back in August, but 13 goals in 24 games is an impressive return for the player. Granted, the 27-year-old may not have picked up in club or individual honours, but remains recognised as one the best players in the world, having been nominated in the 25 man Ballon d’Or shortlist.
On top of that, his international career continued in impressive vain with four goals in five games and Rooney recently netted in England’s 2-1 win over Brazil at Wembley. While some will still have their doubts over the striker, it’s fair to say 2012 was a success on a personal level for the front-man.
However, he desperately needs to take that form into 2013. Turning 28 in October means he’ll become one of the more senior players for both club and country and the added responsibility must be grasped with both hands.
Yet for Rooney in a year that could well see him redevelop as a player, he’s ticking all the right boxes to ensure his doubters are silenced once and for all having come off the back of an impressive year.
Bayern Munich and Germany
Is there a better midfielder of his type in the world today? Bastian Schweinsteiger is the fulcrum upon which Bayern Munich and Germany turn.
The 97-times capped German international started out life as a right-sided midfielder for Bayern before eventually moving inside. Here his superb vision, discipline and phenomenal levels of power and stamina could be put to best use.
Schweinsteiger has been a regular for Munich over the last decade but it is only in recent years that the 28-year-old has become a world force.
Domestically, ‘Schweine’ has won every single competition that Germany can throw at him and only the UEFA Champions League has avoided him thus far.
2012 was a hugely significant year for the most important player for club and country. Schweinsteiger may not be the captain for Bayern or Germany but there can be little doubt that he is the true leader and brain of both teams.
Last year Schweinsteiger was nothing less than magnificent as Bayern made it to the Champions League final where they were eventually beaten by Chelsea on penalties.
He was also superb as Munich finished in second place in the Bundesliga, a disappointing 12 points behind Borussia Dortmund.
Unlike lesser players though he did not let these disappointments get to him and when Euro 2012 rolled around he continued his impeccable form.
During the competition spread across Poland and Ukraine, Germany were nothing less than sensational. The free spirited German’s dispatched Portugal, Holland, Denmark and Greece with relative ease on their way to the semi-finals. However, they were eventually undone by a savvy Italian side but Schweinsteiger still managed to impress.
This term Schweinsteiger has once again been the very heartbeat of Bayern as they romped to the top of the Bundesliga. Showing the world exactly why he and Bayern Munich are perennial challengers, the centre-midfielder has dominated every single opponent put in front of him.
In the 24 games he participated in for club and country before Christmas he only tasted defeat twice against Bayer Leverkusen and BATE Borisov.
Scoring six goals in 24 matches from midfield and weighing in with an impressive 88 percent pass completion rate, an average of 70 passes per game and only being dispossessed twice in six Champions League games, Bastian Schweinsteiger is probably the best midfielder of his type in the world today.
He could play for any team.
Bayern Munich and Germany
2012 was a largely disappointing year for German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. His employers, Bayern Munich, had the chance to win an historic treble, but ultimately ended up empty-handed after they were runners up in the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and the Champions League. Despite the failure to land a trophy, the 26-year-old continued to improve and impressed throughout the year.
On their way to the Champions League final, Neuer performed plenty of heroics, not least in the semi-finals against Real Madrid in which he crucially saved two penalties in a dramatic shootout victory. On home turf, Bayern lost the final, which also went to penalties, to Chelsea but not through any fault of Neuer’s, who not only saved a spot kick by Juan Mata, but in fact converted one himself.
His national team were also tipped for success at Euro 2012 and reached the semi-finals before being knocked out by Italy. But Germany’s number one was his usual dominant self and earned plenty of praise throughout the tournament.
This season, however, Bayern and Neuer himself have enjoyed a far better time. The keeper has been a fundamental part of the team’s watertight defence; their record being the best across Europe’s top leagues. At the time of writing, Bayern have only conceded seven times during the 2012/13 season, whilst Neuer has personally kept 15 clean sheets. At 6’4”, he’s an intimidating, and dominant physical presence, but also has the agility to pull off eye-catching saves. The German will be looking to make up for last year’s heartache, and has the potential to become a fixture on this list for years to come.
Barcelona and Spain
As far as prized Catalans go, Cesc Fabregas has taken the relatively road less traveled to earn his spot in Barça’s XI. Yet doubt persists, and some maintain that Cesc is nothing special in Barcelona’s squad, which is a truism that needs to be further examined. In London, the Arsene and Thierry-mentored prodigy’s role was limitless within the squad. Trouble began when Arsenal’s invaluable midfielder began to show shades of Xavi.
Imitating an elusive metronome is always going to be a monumental challenge, and in the end Cesc just wasn’t up to the task. With Xavi only improving as he glided into his 30s, an existential dilemma surrounded the 29 million euro boy on the bench. Guardiola experimented with the midfielder in a more advanced position, but the transition was unconvincing by Pep’s standards.
Then Euro 2012 arrived. Based on Vicente Del Bosque’s plans, the summer of 2012 was supposed to supply either the continued descent of Fernando Torres or the mysterious irrelevance of Cesc Fabregas. Of course, neither panned out. Nando’s free fall was put on hold as he was snagged tournament top scorer largely as a substitute, but perhaps more impressive was Cesc’s willingness to adapt to the role of a False 9 and force Euro 2008’s heroes to the bench.
Since Iker hoisted yet another trophy for La Furia Roja, Cesc’s versatility has only been pushed further. We still cannot define Cesc’s role within Barcelona’s squad so clearly, however, he’s also still only 25. While his identity as a footballer is in flux, we can only wait to see the thought behind his irreplaceable status in Tito’s squad develop. Between one-twos with Andrés and a rediscovered confidence to find Xavi in pockets of space, Fabregas’ comfort with improvisation is only adding to his quality.
Borussia Dortmund and Poland
The Polish international represents something of a pin-up for football hipsters around the world with the 24-year old 6-foot striker’s deadly finishing propelling Borussia Dortmund to multiple titles in recent seasons.
Lewandowski netted a whopping 28 times during the 2010-11 campaign when Jürgen Klopp’s free scoring side romped to the German domestic title before securing a second consecutive Bundesliga crown in 2011-12 on the back of their Polish hit man’s personal haul of 22 goals.
He has represented his native Poland 50 times scoring 15 goals including a crucial strike in the Euro 2012 1-1 draw with Greece leading to speculation that Lewandowski is on the brink of a big summer move to one of a host of Premier League clubs including Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea or possibly a switch to hated rivals Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola’s decision to assume the managerial responsibilities at the Allianz Arena looks to have swayed Lewandowski’s destination with the promise of additional big money signings and a prolonged assault on the coveted Champions League.
All this transfer speculation appears to be affecting the Polish striker’s current form with Lewandowski sent off in Dortmund’s recent 4-1 hammering by Hamburg (despite earlier getting on the scoresheet) to leave Bayern Munich 15 points clear at the top of the table. Yet his ability to lead a 4-5-1 formation as the lone striker, his prowess in the air and deadly finishing with either foot makes “Lewy” still one of the most coveted and deadly strikers in world football.
Irrespective of where Lewandowski eventually ends up next season you can be certain goals will follow.