We’re into the final 20 of this year’s big countdown and this particular section features five Spaniards as well as four players who helped Manchester City to their first Premier League title since 1968.
View the longlist and voting process here.
Real Madrid and Spain
When all-time record goalscorer Raul departed Real Madrid in the summer of 2010, it was as if Los Blancos had lost limb – part of their identity if you like.
Armed with the captain’s armband that had been surrendered by the departing Raul, one-club man and goalkeeper Iker Casillas took it upon himself to fill the void that had been left by the centre-forward.
While he couldn’t score the goals that Raul did so frequently, he could prevent his side from shipping any at the other end and also give the fans a player that they could relate to – someone that loved the club in the same way that they and Raul do.
It wasn’t until 2012 when Casillas truly realised that ambition. He had looked on enviously as his international colleagues at Barcelona ruled domestically and abroad under the guidance of Pep Guardiola between 2008 and 2011.
However, in Guardiola’s final season at the Barca helm, Casillas skippered his side to their first La Liga title in four long years. While Cristiano Ronaldo claimed the headlines for his winning contribution in April’s title decider at the Camp Nou, a string of saves from 31-year-old Casillas ensured that Madrid recorded a priceless 2-1 victory.
It was Casillas’s fifth league title, but his first as captain and the look on his face when he lifted the trophy suggested that it was his sweetest success to date at club level.
Hoisting silverware above his head is something that Casillas is more than used to now though. In the summer he led Spain to European Championship glory, becoming the first nation to record a Euros – World Cup – Euros treble.
For whatever reason he may not be Jose Mourinho’s first choice between the sticks right now, but his performances in 2012 showed that there are not many better with the gloves.
Real Madrid and Spain
Spain – with some justification – received complaints for being “boring” during Euro 2012, with much of the criticism aimed at Vincent Del Bosque for utilising Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets alongside each other. Indeed, many felt Spain would be better off dropping Alonso in favour of the celebrated Barcelona triumvirate: Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Busquets.
Yet, excluding the outrageously gifted Iniesta, Alonso was arguably Spain’s star performer throughout the tournament. After his brace – on his 100th cap, no less – sent his side through to the semi-finals, Del Bosque said: “He is one of the attacking strengths of ours. He knows how to create and finish.”
Wait a minute: “Attacking strength”? Alonso, as we know from his time at Liverpool, is a supreme playmaker, equally capable of dictating the game with pin-point 60-yard passes or more measured short ones. But he is not a player you would particularly associate with directly contributing to goals on a regular basis.
Yet, for Spain at least, he does, with 14 goals in his last 69 caps making him one of the more prolific players in the Del Bosque era. Compare this to just the solitary goal in his last 90 league games for Real Madrid, for whom he takes up a slightly deeper position, and it’s clear that Alonso is perhaps more adaptable than given credit for.
Indeed, for Spain, he’s almost a dynamic box-to-box midfielder; for Madrid, he’s the calm quarterback, expertly catering for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo’s needs. Granted, the roles aren’t exactly chalk-and-cheese, but within his crucial two goals against France – a well-placed header after a late surge into the box, and a typically composed penalty – there was a mixture of both on display in a match desperately devoid of quality elsewhere.
Like most of his club team-mates, he hasn’t been at his fluent best so far this season, picking up a yellow card almost every other game in the process. However, there can be little doubt 2012 was a fantastic year for Alonso, as he played equally instrumental roles in finally dethroning Barcelona in La Liga and helping Spain become the first nation to win three major tournaments in a row. There remains hope the current season can be salvaged with a long-awaited second Champions League medal for the midfield maestro—Madrid will almost certainly need him at his best to stand a chance.
Manchester City and Spain
Even though he fell twelve places from last year’s sixth spot in the Top 50, 2012 was most arguably the most successful of David Silva’s career so far as he picked up both domestic and international honours.
For Manchester City, the man nicknamed ‘Merlin’ by supporters was instrumental in the club’s Premier League winning season, helping himself to six goals and a league high 17 assists over the course of the campaign to secure a place in the PFA Team of the Year.
At the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, Silva was a key component of the Spanish side which won its third successive major international competitions. He netted twice, against Ireland in the group stages and Italy in the final. Indeed, the goal against Ireland summed up Silva’s incredible guile and composure as he calmly stroked the ball into the bottom corner of the net when faced by three defenders and a goalkeeper.
With three assists also to his name, Silva had the best efficiency of any player at Euro 2012 and was subsequently named in Uefa’s Team of the Tournament.
The 2012/13 season didn’t get off to the best of starts for Silva after a hectic summer, and an October hamstring injury meant he missed a number of games. However, since December he has been getting closer to his best form and remains the key creative influence in the Manchester City side.
Despite reports regularly linking him with a move back to his home country, Silva inked a deal in September 2012 to stay at the Etihad Stadium for another five years.
Barcelona and Spain
He splits opinion, but… not amongst those who work alongside him. Nor amongst those who truly understand the game. They recognise his value. Sergio Busquets is the embodiment of the modern midfied anchorman, positionally aware, intelligent, always thinking of the next pass and able to win the ball time and time again without getting his shorts dirty, but not afraid to stand up when matters get dirty.
If Xavi is the heart and soul of Barcelona and Spain, then Busquets is the foundation. It’s hard to imagine either side being quite as good without input. “If I could be a player now, the player I’d want to be is Sergio Busquets” said Vicente Del Bosque during the 2010 World Cup. His words were scorned in some quarters, but few would be quite so dismissive now.
Many people’s opinion of Busquets has been coloured by one incident. Falling to floor after colliding with Inter’s Thiago Motta in the Champions League semi-final of that same year, his cynical ‘peekabo’ whilst writhing on the ground drew near-univeral opprobrium. Never mind that Barcelona’s opponents were masters of the darker arts themselves, the image has stuck for many.
Certainly though, Busquets is not afraid to get stuck in. Graham Hunter has likened him to the bigger kid who’s always looking out for his mates when the rougher boys look to intimidate them. Impossible to faze, he always seems to select the right option. “A moment of doubt for Busquets is a moment of thought; that risk turns out, time and time again, to be no risk at all” wrote the Guardian’s Sid Lowe after last November.
Xavi echoed those sentiments after Barcelona claimed the 2011 Club World Cup. “Without him, we could never have achieved what we have. He’s an extraordinary player who is never wrong”. Many exceptional players have vied for his position at club level, but the likes of Yaya Touré, Javier Macherano and Alex Song have been seen off by the Le Masia graduate.
For a final word on this pivotal talent, it’s worth turning to Del Bosque again. “He does it all, he’s continually at hand to help the team. He’s generous, and a good lad who sacrifices himself to make his team-mates better. That’s a value you simply can’t put a pricetag on”.
Real Madrid and Germany
2012 was a pretty special year for Mesut Ozil. He played a significant role in cementing Real Madrid’s title triumph as they held off Barcelona, as he made over 50 appearances in all competitions and made a whopping 24 assists.
An elegant, intelligent figure in the heart of Madrid’s midfield base – Ozil has been somewhat of a revelation since joining the La Liga side in 2010. Madrid chief Jose Mourinho has seemed to reap the benefits of playing the German in a more advanced role where he can combine with the wonderful Cristiano Ronaldo. The Spanish game has suited him down to a pin.
We mustn’t forget Özil was on the short-list of 2011-12 year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or award, too, after such a fine season in Madrid. The title was the icing on the cake. And there was something momentous about the championship victory as Real became the first Spanish team in the top flight to reach 100 points in a term. Impressive.
But he wasn’t nominated for just one prestigious award last year. Ozil was nominated for UEFA Best Player in Europe Award, in which he finished 10th, being youngest in Top 10. Global spectators were clearly recognizing the midfielder’s exploits and rightly so.
But Ozil also enjoyed a fruitful year with the German national side. A crisp passer with an impeccable touch – there was heavy pressure on him to lead Germany at Euro 2012 and he coped with the high demands well. Joachim Low’s men reached the semi-finals where they were knocked out by Italy with Ozil scoring a stoppage-time penalty, merely consolation though.
A wand of a left foot, agile on the turn and experienced in several major championships at just the tender age of 24, Mesut Ozil is and continues to be Madrid’s leading light in midfield.
Chelsea and Spain
Before delving into just how instrumental Mata has become at Stamford Bridge, there’s something that we should address: Juan’s a genuinely good guy. Why is it worth addressing? It’s not because he’s taken to learning English aggressively while exploring London, nor is it because of his prime selection of indie music or fantastic feed of photos on Instagram. Juan Mata’s character has shined through the heavy layer of clouds in England, but to some extent his complete lack of controversy has led to a silence surrounding his play. Of course, he’s clearly appreciated within most footballing circles, but there’s a sense that because he rarely makes headlines he’s fallen into a place where he’s almost taken for granted at times.
Didier Drogba was the hero of the Champions League, but it was Mata’s lonesome creativity in Chelsea’s squad was consistently relied upon when they reverted to cynically effective counterattacking football, similar to Wesley Sneijder’s role in Inter’s Champions League run under José Mourinho. Mata not only accepted the weight of the role, but his competitive spirit revealed itself to be as strong as anyone’s.
Unlike some of the other fleet-footed foreigners in Premier League, there is hardly any divide of opinion on Mata. Beyond the occasional embellishment, he rarely dives. He’s always moving, his eye for goal is improving, and once again he is expected to fulfill all the duties of a #10 under Rafa Benitez. With a feeling of comfort in England and a leadership role for youngsters like Oscar in the squad, it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 24 years old. Perhaps an ego will arise in the future, but at the moment we can enjoy the nonchalant, yet hyper-competitive attitude that will leave Mata listening to depressing Radiohead songs if Chelsea fail to secure silverware this season.
Manchester City and Argentina
Just how relevant was Sergio Agüero in 2012? Well, he the most important goal in Premier League history, that’s how relevant. If “Kun” Agüero does nothing else in his career, he’d still go down in the history books for that goal against Queens Park Rangers in the 94th minute to win Manchester City the league title. But Agüero will achieve much more and 2012 should only go down as a benchmark.
If that’s the case, the second-half of the year has been something of a disappointment because due to injuries, Agüero hasn’t been able to feature as prominently. He has still been one of Manchester City’s best players but as the chance of a title slips increasingly away from them, it seems his name will only be followed by only one “o” come the end of the season.
Still, Agüero can look back in 2012 with fondness and look to kick on in 2013. He has scored 11 goals for City this season, to go with his 27 last season. His role in the side has alternated in that time, highlighting his wonderful ability. Mainly, he’s played as a number 10 off Edin Dzeko but he can only play on his own up front, which he did the majority of times in the title winning season. Even so, what Agüero does in a typical match doesn’t change much despite regularly switching positions.
His all-round ability is fantastic, often linking up quickly with his team-mates or playing off the shoulder off his defender in the same game. He can dribble too, bamboozling defenders with lightning feet and has the turn of pace to leave them trailing in his wake. And that, in a few sentences, is what has made Agüero so good in 2012. He has been often compared to Romario; short, squatty and skilful that you’d have thought he was a number 10 but as his goal against QPR showed, he’s also one of the best goalscorers around.
Manchester City and Belgium
Year 2012 will most likely go down in history as the year Vincent Kompany truly became a world class player.
Despite good form in the 2010/11 season, the Belgian was yet to fully blossom so was challenged by Mancini to become one of the best defenders in Europe, responding in 2012 by becoming one of the best in the world.
Strong, smart and with an innate ability to read the game, Kompany had been loved by Blues for years but often under-appreciated by opposition supporters who hadn’t had the pleasure of watching him play every week.
But with the confidence and calm of someone well beyond that of his 26 years, and in the form of his life, Kompany couldn’t help but be noticed by all in 2012.
A natural leader, the centre back not only led his club to a first ever Premier League title in a fairy tale finish, with his emotion-fuelled winner against Manchester United proving a turning-point, but also took out the gong for Premier League Player of the Season – no mean feat for a player not known for his step-overs or goal scoring.
Rewarded with a six year contract, City’s longest in their history, Kompany hoisted some more silverware heading into the new season in the form of the Community Shield. And while his recent form has not been at his commanding best Kompany is still the most feared defender in England and impossible to get past on his day.
Hard to believe he was signed for only six million pounds.
Manchester City and Côte d’Ivoire
It’s testament to the 29 year old Ivorian that with all the talent at Manchester City’s disposal it his presence is such a crucial factor in their recent success. In fact more so than any other player on the citizen’s roster.
Touré moved to the Premier League in 2010, from Barcelona where he had been primarily utilised as a makeshift center back. The £24 million fee and purported £240,00 a week salary lead some to scoff at the move. But since then he has established himself as one of the most valuable midfielders in Europe.
The first thing to note of Touré’s skill set is his physical attributes. Standing at 6.3ft he can use his height and upper body strength to devastating effect simply swatting players away as he strides through the midfield. His torque is fueled by marathon stamina, which allows him to truly define the role of ‘box to box.
Of course being able to set out on lung bursting runs does not necessarily set a player apart from the rest. Luckily for Touré he is a gifted footballer who can influence a game with his long and short range passing as much as with his stamina.
The last feather in Touré’s bow, which truly defines him as a complete midfielder is his eye for goal which, while far from prolific, has resulted in some crucial goals for Manchester City including a late brace in the penultimate match of last season.
It’s no coincidence that Manchester City’s surge to win the title last season coincided with Touré’s return from the African cup of nations, and they have missed him dearly through the beginning of 2013. Yaya has intimated that it’s possible his long-term future may lay somewhere else on the continent; City’s owners would be foolish not to deploy all their vast resources to ensure he stays.
Liverpool and Uruguay
If there was a vote for the most polarizing players in the world, or perhaps even the most detested, Luis Suarez would likely be one of those moving up rather down from his rank in BPF’s Top 50. The Uruguayan epitomises the “you’d love him if he was at your club” player – defended vehemently by his loyal Anfield fanbase, hissed at by everyone else after each half-hearted tumble to the floor.
Suarez is slowly on the road to redemption, however, as moments of awe and wonderment become more frequent to the Premier League watcher than a dive or a complaint to an official. Well, slowly. Suarez is still the thorn in the side of every referee and anti-dive brigader as he is every defender, but 2012 – particularly the latter half of the year – was the year he cemented his status as one of the most dangerous attackers in football.
This time last year I doubted the player you voted as the 11th player in the world. I began seeing him as nothing more than a con artist; fooling everyone in his wake but time and time again not fooling the goal. Exactly one year later and that could not be further from the truth. With 18 goals to his name this season, behind only Robin van Persie by a single strike, Suarez has grown into the whole package.
The balance, cleverness and trickery to skip past an unlimited amount of obstacles and crucially now the composure, creativity and touch to score from anywhere he pounces. In a year of long range masterpieces, his beauty against Newcastle may largely go unnoticed, but is a superb example of a player who can do anything he so desires.
When Suarez has the ball at his feet there’s no such thing as giving up. His determination and doggedness to beat every defender who dares block his path is incredible. His never-say-die attitude is refreshing, particularly when Liverpool fans were accustomed to Fernando Torres gambling about like a deer rather than a pitbull terrier looking to bite your ankles off.
Unfortunately, his style will never win many over when one weapon in his armour is to dupe referees. But I really don’t think he cares. And to be honest, nobody else should either. The theatrics will always be a part of his game, just as much as his industrious energy and trickery.
2012 may have been the year Luis Suarez became ‘the racist’, but as the year faded out he’ll be more greatly remembered as Suarez ‘the footballer’.