Part three of the Top 50 Players in the World, as voted by over 100 fans and football bloggers, has landed. Here we count down from 30 to 21; with some World Cup winners, a few Champions League finalists, a Swedish striker ripping it up Serie A and one of the finest players of this Premier League season.
30 Wayne Rooney
The moment Rooney aggravated an ankle injury seconds before Bayern Munich’s last-gasp winner in the Allianz Arena in March, his year plunged into a profligate abyss. He had hitherto scored 34 goals but wasn’t to score from open play for his club again for nearly 10 months.
The sale of Cristiano Ronaldo released Rooney like a caged animal. No longer consigned to his bête noire on the left wing, he was allowed to roam and was rampageous; the number nine wearing the number 10. Dimitar Berbatov was his foil for the first half of the season, but when United manager Sir Alex Ferguson identified the advanced attacking merits of recent acquisition Antonio Valencia, the formation switched to a 4-3-2-1 with Valencia and Nani supporting Rooney in the lone striker role. Away to Arsenal, Rooney produced one of the performances of the season in with a remarkable showing in which he effectively played both number nine and number 10 roles whilst supported by Nani and Ji-Sung Park. His breakaway goal was one of the goals of the season as the Gunners were powerless to prevent their nemesis from spearheading United to an emphatic 3-1 victory.
Other majestic displays came away at Tottenham where he bagged the clincher, while he hit two of his season’s five braces against AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League and scored hat-tricks against Portsmouth and Hull. He then leaped off the bench to head in United’s Carling Cup final winner against Aston Villa – one of eight headers during a 10 goal spell that confirmed Rooney had finally emerged into a prolific striker.
Now that Rooney was a rampant goalscorer, 2010, a World Cup year, was surely his year. But a torrid campaign, a prolonged crisis of confidence, a nagging ankle as well as alleged rampant scoring off the pitch and a selfish contract dispute contributed to him falling inescapably from grace. The recent brace against Aston Villa – his first since demolishing Milan – may re-energise the Croxteth man, but worries linger inside and outside Old Trafford that his best may have already been observed.
29 Sergio Busquets
It’s hard to believe that Sergio Busquets is only 22. With two league titles, one Copa del Rey, one Champions League, one Club World Cup and a World Cup already in the bag, Busquets has achieved more in three years than the vast majority can dream of achieving in an entire career. However, despite his incredible success and evident ability, the Barcelona midfielder is still a somewhat divisive character.
The Catalan’s reputation took a dive (quite literally) when his histrionics led to Thiago Motta’s dismissal in the second leg of last year’s Champions League semi-final between Barça and Inter. The sly peek through his hands while rolling around on the floor in fabricated agony turned him into the devil incarnate in the eyes of some, his regular use of the ‘dark arts’ leading to questions arising over his character.
But we should not allow a bit of gamesmanship to cloud our assessment of a man who has become one of the finest young players in the game. A near-flawless defensive midfielder, Busquets has been at the forefront of the recent tactical evolution in that position, alternating between centre midfield and centre-half as he provides the necessary cover for Barcelona’s marauding full-backs.
While his contribution to Barça’s remarkable style of play may frequently go unnoticed, Busquets was central to the Blaugrana’s success last season, playing 33 of 38 league games and making 52 appearances in total as Pep Guardiola’s side marched to the La Liga and World Club Cup titles.
Busquets again proved his substantial worth at the World Cup last summer, starting every game as Spain negotiated their way past the likes of Chile, Portugal and Germany before claiming the most coveted title of them all with victory over the Netherlands on 11th July. For the Barcelona anchor man it was a quite superb end to a year which had seen his talents come to be more fully realised by the footballing public.
He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but Sergio Busquets is here to stay.
28 Zlatan Ibrahimović
Love him or loathe him, Zlatan Ibrahimović is one of the most talented strikers in the modern game. Upon receiving criticism from former club Inter after joining city rivals AC Milan, Ibra replied “before I arrived Inter won nothing”. The big Swede has a point. In fact, if you were to include the two league titles that Juventus were stripped of as a result of Calciopoli, Zlatan has won seven successive league titles for four different clubs in three different leagues.
Eyebrows were raised when Ibra joined AC Milan at the start of this season. Not least by the nature of the deal in that Barca had purchased him in a €70 million deal in 2009 and within a year were willing to loan him to Milan with an option to buy for €24 million.
Looking at the above mentioned figures you would imagine Ibrahimović’s only season with Barcelona had been a complete failure however this is far from the truth. By the seasons end he had managed to score 21 goals in all competitions helping the Catalan club regain their title and just falling short in the Champions league semi-final against former club Inter Milan. The arrival of David Villa to Barcelona as well as Zlatan’s deteriorating relationship with Pep Guardiola were the main factors in the Swede being offloaded.
Barcelona’s loss (if you could say that) has proved to be Milan’s gain and Ibrahimović hit the ground running with the Rossoneri, spearheading them to the top of Serie A, scoring goals a plenty ( 12 in 23 games so far) and also providing some valuable assists along the way. He has also proved pivotal in the Champions League so far this season with 4 goals in 5 starts for the Italian club. On an international level Ibrahimović captained Sweden in the Euro 2012 qualifiers and has so far scored 2 goals in 3 games proving his importance to his home country’s cause.
2010 may not have been seen as a vintage year for Ibra and while he wasn’t the major success that Barca would have hoped for he did play an important role for the team. As for his time at Milan so far he has been nothing short of sensational on occasion and don’t be surprised to see him higher up the awards lists this time next year if this form continues.
27 Samir Nasri
There is no doubt that Samir Nasri deserves his place in the Back Page football Top 50, and it would be no surprise to anyone should he find himself higher up the ladder in next year’s poll. Since the start of this season Nasri has become a vital player for both club and country, something both will come to realise more since his recent injury.
There were signs earlier in the year of Samir finally settling in at the Emirates, a superb solo goal against Porto in the Champions League which was nominated for Goal of the season by UEFA. Then after the disappointment in not making the French 23 man squad for the World Cup he responded in the best way he could by playing some of the best football of his career.
In October the young Frenchman went on a great scoring run; goals against Shakhtar Donetsk, Birmingham City and then an exquisite finish in what was an impressive performance against Manchester City at Eastlands.
Nasri then put his international bleus behind him with a virtuoso performance at Wembley, as Laurent Blanc’s France side outclassed England in a 2-1 victory. Nasri was superb during the game; his ability to dribble in tight situations and to consistently link up with his team-mates bamboozled the England defence.
Back in the league Nasri was turning heads, his impossible finish against Tottenham, the volley at Villa Park and then to top it all off the two wonder goals against Fulham, beating three men before rounding the goalkeeper. It was poetry in motion, and a joy to watch.
Watching him come through the ranks at Marseille you could see the amazing potential, linking up with Franck Ribery brought his talent to the fore and now under Arsene Wenger there is no doubt Samir Nasri is a fabulous player and well deserving on his place in this list.
26 Gonzalo Higuain
Real Madrid and Argentina striker Gonzalo Higuain is the 26th of the top 50. So why then was he number 26? Well, French-born Higuain finished the 2009/2010 campaign as Real Madrid’s highest goal scorer in the league, scoring one more than his more high-profile teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo. Only Lionel Messi scored more in La Liga last year, and did so emphatically over his national-team colleague, netting 7 more goals than Higuain’s 27.
There can be no doubting Higuain’s fantastic finishing ability. Higuain at first struggled a little for Los Blancos, but his scoring record in recent years has been fantastic, managing at least a goal every other game for Madrid since the 2008/2009 season.
Higuain was Argentina’s top scorer during the 2010 World Cup with four goals. Helped mostly by his hatrick against South Korea, he scored in the Last 16 game against Mexico and helped Argentina into the quarter finals where they were soundly beaten by a brilliant Germany team, 4-0.
Higuain started the 2010/2011 season in similar goalscoring fashion with 10 goals in 18 games for new manager Jose Mourinho. His season was wrecked, however, by a back injury in early December, putting him out possibly for the rest of the season.
There are few strikers better than Gonzalo Higuain at his age level. Many may forget that the Argentine has only just turned 23, there is still plenty of time for him to get better. It’s hard to think any other strikers as good as Higuain in that age group. Indeed perhaps only Diego Forlan and David Villa are better out and out strikers than he in La Liga.
Perhaps one thing holding back Higuain from a more deserved reputation is that he is not a “Galactico” in a club of Galacticos. He will never get the attention that Cristiano Ronaldo managed to get, he did not command the transfer fee that Karim Benzema (€35m to Higuain’s €13). Indeed, Higuain is the main reason Benzema had gotten little game time. Instead Gonzalo Pipita quietly goes on his business of scoring lots of goals with the promise of many, many more to come in his future.
25 Phillip Lahm
Few players embody consistency more than the diminutive fullback. Equally effective on both sides, Lahm has distinguished himself as one of the premier fullbacks in the game. Unselfish, intelligent and quick, Lahm has been a key player in Bayern and Germany’s success over the last couple of years. Lahm seems to have been around forever even though he just turned 27. Now captaining both Bayern and the German National Team, Philip Lahm is regularly and rightfully mentioned as one of the best of his generation.
Robben was universally singled out after Bayern’s successful year last season but the truth is that the Dutch winger would not have been as effective without Lahm’s support on that right hand side. Robben not only hit the peak of his form with Lahm behind him but combined more with the fullback than any other player. Moving Lahm to the right was a conscious decision by Van Gaal last season to give Robben one of the best supporting fullbacks around and as a result the freedom to attack freely without needing to worry about defensive responsibilities. Lahm’s ability and intuition to get forward, overlap and link up with Robben became one of the most potent ways Bayern attacked last season. One needs to just look at the statistics to see just how effective the two were last season as Bayern’s right side contributed to a total of 43 goals in all competitions.
Bayern began the 2010/11 season slow but have since October rounded into form and have lost only 3 times in the last 21 matches in all competitions. In a season filled with injuries and tactical changes Lahm was the one constant that the team able to rely on. Lahm has even picked up penalty taking duties after numerous players failed to convert theirs during the course of the year. More impressive is the fact that Lahm is the only player at Bayern to start and play all 90 minutes of all of Bayern’s 32 matches so far.
Some players suffer injuries and often fail to regain previous form. Other players are switched to different positions and struggle to make the transition and just about every player gets substituted or rested during the course of the season. It is no exaggeration to say that none of those commonalities apply to Philip Lahm.
24 Nemanja Vidić
If you wanted to see a pale face on Manchester United supporters, it was not when they had lost to Chelsea or Liverpool – but when reports about a possible Vidić move to Real Madrid began rearing its head. But their captain (ahead of Ferdinand and Giggs, which says something) committed to the club long-term during the summer of 2010 and up to now has showed why this proved to be something more than just a decent investment.
Solid as a rock? That is simply not enough to describe the way the Serbian defender plays. He didn’t get the armband just because he scored the 1000th goal at Old Trafford in it’s Premier League history. Whenever Red Devils needs him, he is there to make the last ditch tackle, clear the ball, read the opponents’ move, start counter attack, and occasionally score.
Although his form in 2010 was some way off the performances from the 08/09 season when he was rightly named Barclays Player of the Season, Nemanja Vidić remained one of few positives that Serbian fans at least could take from the World Cup hosted in South Africa. Despite finishing bottom of their group it was a stand-out performance against Germany that showed many what the Serbian defence, with Vidić in the heart of it, is capable of.
Last season was a bit short for him because of injury, and quite unsuccessful, but that story is different this year. He has started every single match in the Premier League this season and is one of the reasons why Manchester United have only lost one game in the competition. I don’t have any doubts that if he continues playing with that form for the whole year, he will deserve place way higher in the ranking than in that one for 2010.
Few players can attest to a year as good as 2010 was for Maicon Douglas Sisenando. The brilliance of the Brazilian fullback was readily apparent during the Inter Milan’s incredible treble run in the first half of the year.
Domestically, Maicon consistently excelled. His darting runs forward have allowed him to become a rare goal threat from right-back. With Inter needing a win against Juventus to hold off the challenge from Roma, Maicon produced a late moment of genius which deservedly won Serie A’s goal of the year.
With an assists tally in the double figures and a healthy contribution of goals, it is perhaps unsurprising that he is most often regarded as a typically offensive Brazilian wingback.
Because of this, Maicon’s defensive prowess is the most overlooked of his many qualities. His positional awareness and well timed tackling saw him become a key member of one of the most dominant back fours in Europe in recent years.
When it came down to the Champions League Semi Final against Barcelona, the double threat of Maicon’s abilities became apparent to any doubters.
In the first leg at the San Siro, Inter’s number thirteen put the home side ahead after a powerful close range drive.
For the second leg, it was all hands on deck for Mourinho’s effort to smother Barcelona. Maicon tracked the rare wide ventures of the tricksy Pedro and rendered him a non-factor. Maicon deserves as much credit as any other player for the defensive masterclass in the Nou Camp, making a number of critical interceptions during the game.
At international level, although Brazil’s World Cup languished under the unimaginative control of Dunga, it was Maicon who provided what was perhaps the single moment of inspiration for the Seleçao in South Africa. Brazil’s opening match against North Korea had been reduced to a gruelling stalemate.
The 5 time world champions were unable to find a breakthrough until the athletic frame of Maicon burst as far as the byline. Once there, he whipped an impossible bending shot around the goalkeeper. Debate emerged about whether he meant it. You bet he did.
22 Xabi Alonso
The difference between an aficionado and a fan is what they appreciate. People who like steak tend to like fillet or sirloin. Those who love steak will usually opt for rump-steak or rib-eye.
Equally, those who like football tend to look to those that score bucketloads of goals or twinkle-toed wingers. Those who love football – who obsess about it, who dream of it, who think of nothing else – prefer cultured midfielders. Hagi, Pirlo, Rui Costa, Scholes and their ilk are far more fascinating. Xabi Alonso, in many ways, typifies this and, equally, football geeks tend to love him.
At Liverpool, in that thrilling but ultimately fruitless chase for the title in 2008/9, Alonso was the star man in a supposed two-man team. If the greatest slur against him was Benitez’s thought that Barry was a finer player surely second to that was Liverpool’s two best players were Torres and Gerrard.
Alonso has not only the ability to find pockets of space but, moreover, the capacity to create it with his positioning and understanding of the game. Further, all team games are about the manipulation of space and he is, bar Xavi, the finest manipulator of space in world football – he opens teams up where such an opening seemed impossible.
21 Carlos Puyol
World Cup winner and European Champion at International level, 13 honours as Captain of one of the greatest club side of all time and scorer of crucial ‘English’ goals (©every lazy journalist at the World Cup), Carlos Puyol is some player. He may not be as pretty (in looks or the way he plays) as many of his teammates, at club or international level, but he remains one of the most effective defenders in the game. As scary as Barcelona are going forward, their defense remains criminally underrated. Sitting along Gerard Pique for club and country they have formed a partnership for the ages. Thus far this season, in 21 La Liga games L’equip blaugranahave conceded just 11, after only conceding 24 last season. At the World Cup, Spain conceded only 2 goals in their 3 group games and then did not concede another as they marched towards their destiny.
In many ways, it is the assuredness of Puyol next to the skill of Pique that allows the players in front of them to control games and dominate teams in the way they do. In two teams lacking natural wingers, much of width for both Barcelona and Spain comes from their fullbacks, and the respect and confidence of Puyol is crucial to this. Whilst Pique’s skills may grab attention, the leadership of Puyol cannot be undermined, nor is he a mug with the ball, and his role in the build-up to Pedro’s goal in ‘El Clasico’ shows.
They say that the best defenders keep their shorts clean, relying on controlling attackers rather than last minute tackles, and you rarely see a last ditch tackle from Barcelona, moreover an ability to stifle attackers.
Puyol may not grab headlines but is effective and provides a foundation and leadership for two of the best teams in the world, perhaps his teammate for club and country puts it best.
“Puyol is the key, not just because he is one of the best defenders in the world but because of his character. He never lets up.”Xavi.
Check back on Wednesday as things get a little interesting, as we enter the final twenty of the Top 50.