Top 50 Players in the World 2014: Part 4 – 20-11

The votes have been tallied so it’s time to reveal Back Page Football’s Top 50 Players in the World for 2014!

It’s time for Part 4 of this year’s countdown and it features a number of players who have shot up the standings compared to 2013, including a couple of Real Madrid stars and a goalkeeper who has established himself as one of the best in the game.

View the longlist and voting process here.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

20 Paul Pogba ( 32)

Juventus and France 20_Pogba-01

The year 2014 started brilliantly for Pogba. Having recently won the Golden Boy award (given to the best U-21 player in Europe), he produced standout performances to help his side defend their Serie A crown. He finished the season with an impressive nine goals and nie assists, his personal best in both departments.

For a 19-year old being named in the starting-11 almost every game-week was an achievement in itself. He proved his worth on endless occasions. In games where nothing seemed to be happening, he either came up with an audacious assist or an outrageous goal. His performance in the game against Sampdoria was tremendous, scoring a goal and assisting one.

Likewise, his contribution in matches away at Verona and Udinese was equally amazing and decisive. He stole the show and was awarded “Man of the Match” with his winner against Bologna at home. At the end of the season Pogba was named as the Serie A Young Player of the Season 2013-14 and also earned a place in the Serie A Team of the Season 2013-14.

With the ability to score spectacular goals and being tactically strong minded, Pogba’s work rate had no parallel. He was selected in France’s squad for 2014 FIFA World Cup. He started all but one of France’s games at the World Cup. Playing an important role in the central midfield, Pogba registered an assist in group stage and then scored a crucial goal in the knockout round.

France was knocked out in the quarter-finals by eventual champions Germany but Pogba had done enough to be named tournament’s “Best Young Player”.

This season Pogba picked up from where he left. From providing assist for match winning goal by Tevez against Milan early in the season, to scoring a brace against Lazio and helping Juventus stay top, 2014 has been a great year of a guy with excellent credentials at such tender age. He was named on the 23 man shortlist for the 2014 Ballon d’or and was youngest on the list.

Hamza Babar

19 Toni Kroos ( 37)

Real Madrid and Germany19_Kroos-01

2014: unquestionably the best year of Toni Kroos’ career to date. The, now 24-year old, German started off 2014 as he always did with Bayern. Orchestrating Bayern’s midfield under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage, Kroos’ composure on the ball and vision for a pass guided Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title for the 2013-14 season.

So much so the influence Toni was, dictating Bayern’s acclaimed style of play, he influenced ultimately in a 3-1 win over Hertha to secure said title crowning Bayern Munich champions, contributing with a goal.

2014, Germany won the World Cup. Kroos, an indispensible part of the first team, in their journey to Brazil and their adventure through it. He went to Brazil, the biggest time of his career as a young man, and came back a hero – with a shiny medal to flaunt alongside the title.

Kroos, assisting many goals, notably scored two (two minutes apart – 24′ and 26′) in Germany’s 7-1 thrashing of hosts Brazil. He received the man of the match award in what was undoubtedly the most thrilling spectacle of the 2014 World Cup. To sum up Kroos’ World Cup, he was rated the best player of the tournament by the Castrol Performance Index – official statistical analyser of the World Cup.

The summer continued to escalate for Toni – as impossible as that sounds. Shortly after the World Cup, Kroos signed for Champions League holders Real Madrid. It really doesn’t get bigger than that, well at club level anyway. Kroos himself stated that Madrid are “the biggest club in the world.”

2014 is surely a pinnacle calendar year for Toni Kroos in his career, and his continually commendable performances, now at the world’s biggest club, will surely bring him a wealth of achievement in 2015.

Gene Oliver

18 Luka Modrić ( 45)

Real Madrid and Croatia18_MODRIC-01

Some people look like natural footballers. Finely tuned and toned athletes with film star looks stepping out of Bugattis and Ferraris with supermodels on their arms as countless paparazzi flashbulbs light up their mega-watt Hollywood smiles. Then there are players like Luka Modrić.

The five-foot-eight 65-kilo Croat has mercifully shorn his ridiculously gangly blonde locks, but thankfully has not lost his Sampson-esque ability on the ball. While Real Madrid teammates James Rodríguez, Cristiano Ronaldo (I refuse to use that ridiculous letter and number moniker), Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema steal the limelight, Modrić is the spark that ignites their flames.

This year his pass success rate is just over 90%, but he has only scored four goals all year, and only directly assisted three this season. This is due to his more withdrawn role as part of the double pivot alongside Toni Kroos, which has resulted in him not threading the final pass but kick-starting the lightning counter attacks for the glittering forward line.

How did such a slight frame come to offer protection to Real’s defence? His early career shaped his fearlessness when he went on loan to HŠK Zrinjski Mostar in the Bosnian Premier League at the age of 18, and returned having been voted the league’s best player.

An efficient, stylish operator, Modrić is the uncomplicated cog in the firmament at the Bernabéu who has effortlessly adapted to his less heralded role after being the focal point of Spurs’ attack for four years.

The sooner the likes of Barcelona sensation Alen Halilovic come through into the national side the better. The clichéd debate may be whether Messi can do it on a wet Tuesday night at Stoke, but Modrić can do it all season in Bosnia.

Andrew Flint

17 Alexis Sanchez ( New Entry)

Arsenal and Chile17_SANCHEZ-01

Sitting wonderfully coincidentally at number 17, Alexis Sanchez has settled into the Premier League more naturally than any other player in memory.

With nine goals, three assists, thirty-six chances created, six man of the match displays and three successive Arsenal player of the month awards (at the time of writing), Sanchez has slided so effortlessly into this Gunners side it is difficult to remember them without him.

Indeed, it is difficult to envisage where they would be in the league without Alexis. On a purely statistical basis, Arsenal would be sitting 16th and 12 points worse off.

Now combine with this Alexis’ electric World Cup campaign, leading the line with two goals, an assist and two man of the match awards as Chile were the unlikely progressors from the ‘group of death’, and an electric 2014 for Barcelona, he has a total of 27 goals and has warranted cult status back in Chile. The attacking winger has had an incredible year.

As any Arsenal fan will also testament to, it is not just Alexis’ goals that endear him to the crowd, his incredible work rate and desire to win makes him an asset to any team and whilst he is sometimes criticised for being too ‘greedy’ and losing the ball too often, this is more than outweighed by his ability to track back, win the ball high up the field and create a chance out of nothing.

Put simply, Alexis is a winner. No wonder he looks a bit out of place at Arsenal at the moment…

Nathaniel Shaughnessy

16 Thibaut Courtois ( 42)

Chelsea and Atletico Madrid16_Courtois-01

The most recent handful of years saw a distinctive changing of the guards in a specific area of international football.

To be more precise, a changing of the guards in goal. Before the turn of the decade, the likes of Casillas, Buffon and Čech dominated internationally. In recent years, they have been replaced by a new generation of goalkeepers. Lloris, Neuer, De Gea and, most recently, Thibaut Courtois.

2014 was a year in which Courtois was exemplary for this change, beating Casillas and Valdés to La Liga title in May, giving Atlético their first league success since doing the double in 1996.

For his contribution to this success, he won the Ricardo Zamora trophy for best goalkeeper in La Liga for the second year in a row. Exactly one week after winning the league, he managed to withstand a Real Madrid barrage for 92 minutes in the Champions League final, only to lose after extra time.

Upon the return to his actual employer in the summer, he showed to have surpassed another icon of the old generation, beating living legend Petr Čech for a place between the Chelsea sticks.

Mourinho’s decision to make Courtois his first choice didn’t really come as a surprise to football fans. Having spent three years on loan at Madrid’s second club, Courtois showed the world what he was capable of.

With his height of 1.99m (6 ft 6,5 in) he proves most useful in a team which plays a more defensive style of football, being almost unbeatable from outside the box with his enormous arm span.

2014 also saw him start in all five of Belgium’s World Cup games, being beaten only three times, of which once was from a spot kick.

Aged just 22, Thibaut Courtois already is a key figure in one of Europe’s biggest teams and most promising national sides, one who will keep getting even better.

Symen Boersma

15 Angel Di Maria ( New Entry)

Manchester United and Argentina15_angel_di_maria-01

As the clock strikes midnight on new years ever and big ben chimes, between the salutations and raising of glasses most of us will allow ourselves a moment to take stock of the preceding 12 months. And, somewhere in Cheshire, an Argentine will be pinching himself to check it hasn’t all been a dream.

Not in his wildest imaginations could the 26-year-old from Rosario have predicted what 2014 has brought him. To be honest, neither would any of us onlookers.

After a, perhaps, subdued previous year Di Maria was one of Real Madrid’s most important players in the second half of Los Blancos’ season.

Installed as the most attacking element of Real’s midfield it was he, more than any other player, that provided the conception of Madrid’s goal scoring exploits.

While more famous galaticos stole the headlines it was Di Maria’s opening goal that saw his team lift the Copa Del Rey, it was Di Maria’s industry and talent that provided a league topping 17 assists, and, more than anything else, it was Di Maria’s performance in Lisbon that secured La Décima. 

So to Brazil, and ultimately, bitter disappointment. Much like in Lisbon it was he who provided the goal, despite a disappointing performance, to overcome Switzerland. Yet, in the oppressive heat of Brasilia an attempt at goal ended his tournament and opened up a can of what might have been.

With an energetic and sometimes crucial display for both club and country no one could have predicted what would happen next. Though what was rationalised as simple collateral damage for Real Madrid’s new Galaticos policy has been Manchester United’s gain.

So much is still uncertain at Old Trafford, but the consensus is that the Argentine is worthy of the hallowed number seven shirt. Seeing his deft lob over the Leicester City goalkeeper its hard to argue.

Charles Pulling

14 Eden Hazard ( New Entry)

Chelsea and Belgium14_Hazard-01

The weird paradox of natural talent is embodied in the flesh by Eden Hazard. You gaze in wonder at the innate gifts at his disposal, and yet still yearn for much more. Chelsea’s Hazard has won Ligue 1’s player of the season, finished runner-up in the PFA version and made over 300 professional appearances before the age of 24.

He is on course to reach 100 club goals in the near future and has been called the best young player in the world by his manager Jose Mourinho. It demonstrates the raw talent Hazard possesses, and there’s still another couple of levels he can reach. The general consensus is that the Belgian has yet to scratch the surface of what he could achieve.

2014 has been another year of steady but painstaking improvement in the evolution of Hazard. Chelsea’s year began with an early January victory away to Hull City, Hazard toyed with Alex Bruce before accurately finding the bottom corner of Alan McGregor’s net. Hazard was at his most exhilarating against Newcastle in February, scoring his first hat-trick in blue in a 3-0 home win.

In a season of transition for Chelsea, they finished third in the Premier League and lost at that semi-final stage to Atletico Madrid in Europe. Jose Mourinho attempted to mould Hazard into a more diligent defensive winger, but he was roundly criticised by his coach for failing to track Adrian Lopez’s run in the second leg, which resulted in Atleti’s second goal.

At international level, 2014 was deeply disappointing for Hazard. Years of superlatives and hype had bubbled towards a crescendo, as Belgium were discussed so much as a potential World Cup dark horse that they Obstensibly became one of the favourites. Les Diables Rouges made the quarter-final in Brazil, but Hazard was a peripheral figure, meandering through matches.

In his national shirt, Hazard fails to exude the same menacing offensive threat he does at club level. A few theories possibly explain the divergence in form. One is that Hazard feels more pressure to deliver for Belgium and suffers be comparison.

Another is Marc Wilmotts’ inflexibility tactically and his miserable inability to harness a successful team from the talent at his disposal. Hazard must harbour some blame from his

Hazard has continued to wield his magic spell at Chelsea in late 2014, scoring in his last five games at Stamford Bridge. He has yet to score away from home this season, and Hazard still should get more goals from the position he plays. With Belgium, Hazard has a paltry 6 goals in 50 caps, a record that is fairly scrutinised.

Hazard is still adapting and learning, so he is on the right trajectory towards greatness. He has tight close control, a quick turn of pace, floating dribbling, precise passing around the box and is deadly from the penalty spot (despite his miss against Maribor).

He has fleetingly flittered with that dazzling aura great players possess. He appears set to enter another conversation and stratosphere in the coming years.

Conor Kelly

13 Sergio Aguero ( No Change)

Manchester City and Argentina13_AGUERO-01

While it’s lazy to label Manchester City a one man team given their array of talent, the importance of Sergio Aguero in his three years at the club cannot be understated.

Two Premier League titles, a Capitol One Cup and a Community Shield is a good return on investment for City who forked out £38 million to sign him from Atletico Madrid in 2011.

The second of those league title came earlier this year when City overhauled Chelsea and Liverpool late in the season, though Aguero’s influence was restricted due to injury.

He still managed to find the net 17 times in his 23 appearances, a more than credible total even if his end to the campaign paled in comparison to that stoppage time winner against Queens Park Rangers in 2012.

A goalless World Cup was also something of a disappointment for Aguero and he had little impact on Argentina’s run to the final.

Having started all three group games, he limped off against Nigeria and didn’t return until the 82nd minute of the semi-final against The Netherlands.

Still only 26-years-old, Aguero returned to full fitness and started the 2014/15 campaign on fire, scoring 14 goals in 14 games, but another injury sustained in the opening minutes of the game against Everton will keep him sidelined for around six weeks

Aguero has also netted 11 times in his last 11 Champions League game, including an all important hat-trick as City came from behind to beat Bayern Munich at the Eithad Stadium towards the end of November.

With a total of 66 goals in 101 league games (94 goals in 141 games overall for City), Aguero’s strike rate of a goal every 108 minutes is the best in Premier League history.

In August of 2014 he penned a new five-year deal to stay with the club until 2019, at least temporarily ending speculation of a move away from the club.

Neil Sherwin

12 James Rodriguez ( New Entry)

Real Madrid and Colombia12_JAMES-01

Aside from offering football fans a pronounciational conundrum, James Rodriguez has had an almost perfect 2014.

The best of Rodriguez’s short spell at Monaco came in January, as he entered the new year by claiming a goal and an assist in his first Coupe de France match, and from there he went from strength to strength.

Of his nine league goals for Monaco, six of them came between January and May, which along with the his spot at the top of the assist charts, earned Rodriguez a spot in the Ligue 1 team of the season.

Whilst Rodriguez started the year well, the World Cup in Brazil is undoubtedly his highlight. Without Radamel Falcao many wrote off Columbia, but Rodriguez stepped up and lead his nation with what has to be one of the most complete performances at a World Cup in recent memory.

Looking back at World Cups this millennium, no player has put on a display like Rodriguez on the world’s biggest stage. He showed the perfect set of skills for an attacking midfielder; a deft touch, quick footwork, superb vision (all displayed in the array of goals he scored in the tournament in the process of claiming the Golden Boot) and most importantly some sweet dance moves for a goal celebration, as he was a catalyst for a Columbia side who were unlucky to be put out in the quarter final.

Off the back of the World Cup, Rodriguez secured a move to Real Madrid just a year after leaving Porto and took up the number 10 shirt worn by the likes of Laudrup, Seedorf and Figo.

Since then Rodriguez has slotted comfortably into the Madrid side, no longer the main man but still able to show his devastating skill set and still scoring goals.

2014 may be a stepping stone to a great career for James Rodriguez, but it is doubtful he will have a better 4 weeks in football than he did this past summer in Brazil.

William Brophy

11 Neymar ( 8)

Barcelona and Brazil11_NEYMAR-01

Watching Neymar’s ascension over the past few years has almost been like watching a firework’s trajectory. A steady rise gave way to a spectacular explosion, one you always knew was coming but of which you could not precisely predict the magnitude.

Carrying over the momentum of a Confederations Cup victory and a high-profile, if controversial, transfer from Santos to Barcelona in 2013, his 2014 saw him finally realize the potential we all knew he had.

Like countless other transcontinental moves, going from Brazil to Spain created intense fervor and speculation over whether his game would be able to adapt. A Champions League hat trick in December 2013 seemed to quell any doubt, and his form remained through this spring.

Acting as the counterbalance to Lionel Messi at the front, the Brazilian carried some of the scoring burden, scoring two against Celta de Vigo and the equalizer against eventual La Liga champions Atletico Madrid.

Neymar managed to return from the FIFA World Cup with a raging fire in his heart, promptly scoring in eight of his first ten matches across Spanish and European play this season, including a run of six straight games from September through October.

The spotlight completely fell on him, of course, over the summer, when his home nation hosted the World Cup for the first time since the infamous Maracanazo in 1950. Such pressure pushed Neymar to incredible heights, scoring two goals apiece against Croatia and Cameroon.

One of the most painful images of 2014 occurred when he suffered a back injury in the quarter-final, ruling him out of the rest of the tournament. Without him, Brazil lost in historic fashion to Germany.

Whether he would’ve made a difference is now immaterial, and besides, Brazil has many more years of Neymar’s brilliance awaiting.

Rory Masterson

Huge thanks to Barry Downes who has done all the artwork for the Top 50, you can check out more of his stuff here.

Keep an eye out for the fourth part of the Top 50, out later this week!

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