Part 3 of this year’s Top 50 Players in the World 2012 sees us countdown from 30 to 21 with no less than SEVEN new entries. Amongst that collection of newbies are three Juventus players, understandable considering their big year in Serie A where they went games 49 unbeaten.
View the longlist and voting process here.
Paris St. Germain and Brazil
Brazil, being Brazil, will always be considered one of the favorites for the world cup. More so if the tournament is on home soil. But for all the talk of samba soccer the unveiling of Brazil’s new generation of attackers it is Thiago Silva who can truly stand up and be counted among the best in the world.
A Brazilian defender? Very seldom has the nation enjoyed a world-beater whose job was to prevent the scoring of goals. Indeed even the pairing of Carlos and Cafu were more lauded for their set pieces and crosses than their tracking back.
Blighted by injuries in his early career Thiago gained a second chance when AC Milan snapped him up from Fluminese in 2009. He went on to play 92 games for the Rossoneri, his astute performances drawing comparisons with another defensive great Desailly.
In fact comparisons to the France great are pretty spot on. Thiago employs the same close physical marking philosophy that made the Frenchman his name.
He also enjoys fantastic tactical awareness and his reading of the game is refined to the point where simply his positioning snuffs out any potential attacks. Lastly the ability to come out of defence with the ball at his feet is, as a Brazilian, you’d expect but is still a rare commodity to find in that position.
Thiago’s big money move to PSG last summer for €42m was seen as some to be too high. But there is brains behind the PSG project. Carlo Ancelotti knows better than any the value of solid defence. And with Thiago at the heart of it the foundations for success are very solid indeed.
Borussia Dortmund and Germany
The last line of defence in a Borussia Dortmund team who are an ever-growing force to be reckoned with in European football, Mats Hummels has established himself as one of the most highly rated and sought after central defenders in the game.
Still only 24-years-old, Hummels is a rare breed in the modern game, not reliant on one or two stand-out aspects to his game, but boasting quality in a broad range of attributes, making him as close to the complete defender as one could hope for.
Euro 2012 was the stage whereby Mats Hummels introduced himself on the world stage, many regarding him as one of the shining lights of the tournament in a German side which many tipped to go all the way, but unfortunately fell in the semi-finals to Italy.
Prior to this though, Hummels was an instrumental cog in the machine of Borussia Dortmund, leading a defence which conceded considerably less than a goal a game domestically on their way to retaining the Bundesliga title.
In terms of European achievements, Hummels has been ever-present in a defence that conceded only five goals on their way to topping a group which contained Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax, one many considered as ‘the group of death’ in the Champions League this season.
Following this impressive achievement, Dortmund on the other night showed again why they should not be taken lightly by Europe’s big guns after drawing their first leg tie with Shaktar Donetsk 2-2, putting themselves in prime position to progress, Hummels being the man who scored the all-important second goal, also hitting the woodwork and getting voted man of the match.
Given his personal achievements for club and country over the past year, Mats Hummels deserves his spot in the ‘Top 50’ as much as any defender. His almost unique blend of marking, anticipation, aerial strength, composure and passing ability, in a modern game where the term ‘world class’ is used all too loosely, makes him one of the few who is genuinely worthy of the status, and the best is probably yet to come.
Juventus and Italy
“Chiellini is a very important player for us and means so much to us that we nicknamed him ‘the captain’,” explained Juventus centre-back Martin Caceres.
Giorgio Chiellini had an astounding 2012. Forming an integral part of a back-line, that conceded the fewest amount of goals in Europe’s top four leagues last season, Chiellini brings the strength, the aerial ability and the hunger that led his Old Lady to unprecedented success in 2012.
Played on the left of a three-man defence for the majority of last year, Chiellini excelled in both protecting the area and providing key penetrative passes in the offensive phase of the game to contribute to the team. Boasting physical strength and incredible stamina, the defender does not shy away from opponents and loves nothing more than to impose his strength, produce the important tackle and bully the opponent into surrendering possession.
A leader on and off the pitch, the Italian is a renowned fighter with the ‘never say die’ attitude that helped revive an Old Lady who suffered from mediocrity prior to the arrival of Antonio Conte. Always on hand to calm the atmosphere, to fight for decisions or to shout instructions, Chiellini pushes his teammates to achieve success.
This season, in the 19 matches Chiellini has played for Juventus, the team conceded only 12 goals meaning that the side on average allowed in only 0.63 goals a game. With an injury forcing him off the pitch in December, Juve conceded nine goals in eight matches by the end of January to demonstrate the fragility felt by the side in his absence. He is simply, irreplaceable.
Intelligent, humble and incredibly professional, Chiellini’s ability to appear omnipresent on the pitch helped lead Italy to the Euro 2012 final and his beloved Juve to continual success.
Barcelona and Spain
Barcelona’s fabled La Masia youth-set up wasn’t always what it is now. Back in 2005, a young Jordi Alba was released, with his lack of height and physicality cited. Having failed to catch the eye of neighbouring Espanyol, he went to work his way back up the chain at lower league Cornella.
In 2008, bargain hunting Valencia saw something in the youngster who was then a left winger. After a successful loan spell at second division Gimnastic Tarragona, he broke into the first team at the Mestalla the following year.
An injury crisis meant he featured at left back rather than in the attack. Naturally, there were some defensive deficiencies in his game that needed ironing out but his pace in getting back and ability on the ball going forward saw him rapidly become a favourite of the manager, Unai Emery.
By 2011 he was an established regular and catching the eye of clubs with more financial clout. In the 2011-12 season, Emery began to use him in tandem on the left side with the more functional Jeremy Mathieu. In September, in a 2-2 draw at the Mestalla, the pair gave Daniel Alves a roasting, with Alba flying past the Brazilian time and time again.
Left-back was proving a problem area for the Catalans due to Eric Abidal’s ongoing illness, and they began to cast the net wide in their search for his long-term replacement. They needn’t have looked too far. With just a year left on his deal at Valencia they turned to Alba and it looks to be a steal.
His marauding style and combination play has seen him slot in perfectly at the Camp Nou, but it’s worth remembering that back in the Spring it was anything but certain he’d get the nod for the national team. Joan Capdevila’s decline left that spot open in the starting XI and at first it looked as if Nacho Monreal was the favourite to nail it down.
Both impressed in the lead up to the tournament but in the end Vicente Del Bosque opted for the more dynamic Alba. The rest is history. Alba went on to have a stellar tournament, capping a run of superb performances with a goal in the final against Italy.
Juventus and Chile
Arturo Vidal continued the excellent form he showed while with Bayer Leverkuesen and, at €10 million, proved to be one of the bargain purchases of last season. The Bianconeri are believed to have already refused an offer of four times that amount from Real Madrid for the Chile international as he became a vital component in their title triumph.
While many quite rightly lauded the contribution of fellow new arrival Andrea Pirlo, the performances of the 2006 World Cup winner were facilitated by the tireless running of Vidal and Claudio Marchisio beside him in the Juve midfield.
Vidal led Serie A with 5.4 tackles per game whilst also making 2.2 interceptions, stats which only serve to highlight the sheer volume of work he went through in his debut season and he has continued that into the new campaign.
Yet there is far more to his game than defensive endeavour, as witnessed by his seven goals and three assists last term, with five more strikes already to his name in the current season. With three more in the Champions League – including vital goals home and away against Chelsea – he has proven an essential component in Juve’s continued success.
Known as ‘Captain Hook’ for the manner in which he wins back the ball, Vidal’s tenacious displays have quickly seen him become a fan favourite in Turin while the rest of Europe cannot fail to notice his continued excellence. The bid from the Spanish champions will not be the last and the club face a difficult task to hang on to the 25 year old.
Juventus and Italy
The 2011-12 season was something of an Indian summer for Gigi Buffon as the Juventus goalkeeper shrugged off the injury problems which had blighted his previous few seasons to once again don the Superman cape he has won for the best part of twenty years. Voted best goalkeeper in the last quarter century by the International Federation of football history and statistics recently, last term was the first since 2008-09 he had started at least thirty league games for the Bianconeri.
However, it was not just regular appearances which he contributed to Antonio Conte’s debut title win – the fifth of Buffon’s career – he was also back to his absolute best on the field. Keeping an incredible 21 clean sheets in the 35 matches he played, the undisputed Italy number one was part of a superb defence which conceded just twenty goals in a season in which they went undefeated throughout the entire league campaign.
He was still busy, making 79 saves as the players in front of him seemed to be constantly rotated as Conte searched for his perfect line-up, eventually finding the 3-5-2 shape which still brings success to Turin in the current campaign.
Those performances have seen him named Serie A’s Best Goalkeeper for the first time in five years at the annual Oscar del Calcio awards, the eighth time he has taken home the honour. Now back in the Champions League, Buffon has also inherited the Captain’s armband from the departing Alessandro Del Piero and is now the senior member of Conte’s exciting young team.
Juventus will continue to expect much from the man who they paid a still record fee of €55 million some twelve years ago but, as his form over the past eighteen months proves, they can indeed rely on Gianluigi Buffon once more.
Borussia Dortmund and Germany
In essence, Marco Reus typifies what makes this generation of German players so exciting. He’s quick, powerful, skilful and intelligent. Oliver Kahn says of Reus: “We have to go back many years to remember such a talent in Germany. Reus is very, very fast, he’s always moving into space and he’s a very intelligent player.”
His moment in the national team came a bit too late in 2012 when he was called into action at half-time when 2-0 down against Italy and while they improved, Germany crashed out of the European Championships. But that disappointment is sandwiched by a fantastic year for Reus who, at Borussia Mönchengladbach, was named player of the season.
He continued that rich vein of form for his new club Borussia Dortmund after earning a £17.5million pound move back to his first club and has arguably become the key man. He’s perfect in their system which mirrors Germany’s but borrows a lot from Spain too.
Reus can operate on both flanks, play up front as a false nine, as he sometimes did for Gladbach, or in the “hole” as he mainly does now. For Dortmund, he has stoked up a wonderful partnership with Germany’s other leading light, Mario Götze and with those two together, 2013 should prove to be a great year for club and country.
They have a famous fan in Franz Beckenbauer who says they are the “strongest football pairing in the world. At Barcelona Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi are building a triangle. But as a classic midfield duo there is nobody better than the prolific Reus and the strategist Götze.” No pressure then. “I don’t put too much pressure on myself,” Reus replies. “I just enjoy playing football.” And what a sight it is.
Real Madrid and Spain
Previously known as a swashbuckling full back, generous, gladiatorial locks flowing behind him as he stormed up and down the flank. Now, his hairstyle has matured, and so has he into a centre back of the highest quality. It was always expected this would be his position long-term, and so it is proving.
Strong, quick, good in the air and in the tackle, and naturally (he is, after all, Spanish) comfortable on the ball, he’s everything a modern centre back needs to be, indeed he has also shown that he is more than capable of chipping in with a goal or four each season Madrid. After coming through the ranks at Sevilla, he was a regular in their side at 18.
He was brought to the Bernabeu for a fee believed to be in the region of €27m, a remarkable sum of money for a teenager, even by the Galactico spending standards, and been a fixture in their side ever since, with over 300 appearances for Los Merengues to his name already.
He made his international debut at 18 (he was the youngest play to turn out for La Roja at the time) and has gone on to win an astonishing, given his age, 99 caps for Spain, and has already won the World Cup and two European Championships. He has established himself at the heart of defence for both club and country, equally adept at playing alongside the contrasting styles of Pique or Pepe.
The second of those Euro titles arrived last summer, with Ramos making the team of the tournament and grabbing a headline for himself with a ‘Panenka’ in the penalty shootout win against Portugal in the semi final. Euro 2012 was the icing on the cake, or the chocolate on the churros, as it followed up a La Liga title win with Madrid.
At 26, you’d imagine there’s still plenty more to come from the Spaniard, especially as he plays more and more at centre back, and learns to control his temperament and cut out the Pepe-like acts of petulance that have seen him pick up his fair share of red cards. There’s also plenty of time for his hair to grow back as well…
Galatasary and Côte d’Ivoire
After a difficult and perhaps, by his high standards at least, disappointing 2011(he didn’t make last year’s top 50), Didier Drogba put his name back on the map in the most emphatic fashion; playing a starring role as Chelsea won their first ever Champions League title.
However, he suffered a bad start to 2012 as he captained his country to the final of the African Cup of Nations, only to see them beaten on penalties by underdogs, Zambia. Perhaps his failure to win honours with the Ivory Coast will be what ultimately separates him from the all-time greats who have delivered tangible rewards on the international stage.
For Chelsea, he was out of favour somewhat until the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, but under Roberto di Matteo returned to his very best form, particularly in Europe when he helped put Napoli, Benfica and Barcelona to the sword.
Then in the final against Bayern Munich, he went on to surpass any of his previous achievements. After Chelsea fell behind to a Thomas Muller strike, Drogba stepped up and grabbed the crucial equaliser with a typically emphatic header. Then following Bastian Schweinsteiger’s miss in the resulting shootout, the striker dispatched the decisive penalty to make history and become an undisputed legend.
But with his contract running out in the summer, speculation was rife over whether he would sign and where he would go should he leave. Drogba publically admitted he would have stayed at Chelsea had they lost the Champions League final but decided to move to Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua, joining former Blues teammate Nicolas Anelka, where he scored eight goals in 11 games before moving again to Turkish side Galatasaray. Despite his departure, his legacy would be long-standing, and in November he was voted Chelsea’s greatest ever player.
Tottenham Hotspur and Wales
If there was one player who has gone from strength to strength over the last 12 months, it’s been Tottenham Hotspur’s Welsh Wizard Gareth Bale. The 23-year-old has proven time and time again to be one of the Premier League’s most dynamic and influential players on a consistent basis.
Part of Harry Redknapp’s side that secured a top four finish, before missing out on Champions League football as a result of Chelsea’s exploits in Munich, a summer transfer had been mooted, before Bale penned a four year deal at White Hart Lane.
Since then, the youngster hasn’t looked back. Under Andre Villas-Boas, the Cardiff born wideman has astounded all those keen to garner a look in at the Spurs ace, who has already broken his goalscoring seasonal best with 12 domestic games to go.
Comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo have been inevitable, such is their similarities in physique and style of play. However, to say he is as good as the Real Madrid star are a little pre-mature, but it’s fair to say Bale has the potential to reach the similar heights as his Portuguese counterpart.
It’s clear to see that the winger has begun to develop his game to match that of Ronaldo, with his exceptional capability to push into the middle of the park and break through the opposition backline, not to mention his free kick technique to match that of the Real ace; an aspect of which he put to good use during the recent 2-1 win over Newcastle United.
2012 was a very good year for the Spurs man it has to be said, but it’s a platform of which he needs to capitalise upon. If he is go from being a very good player to a great one, 2013 is the time to prove it. He possesses the capability and the potential and with the footballing world watching him closely; the next 12 months could be the most important of Bale’s career to date.