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In the third part of this year’s countdown, we feature two of last year’s top five whose 2014 didn’t quite hit the heights of the past. There’s a few other fallers, while a French striker makes his return to the countdown after missing out in both 2012 and 2013.
View the longlist and voting process here.
30 Andres Iniesta (▼ 5)
In 1897, in response to rumours that he had fallen ill and died Mark Twain famously responded, “The report of my death was an exaggeration”, which in some ways perfectly sums up the totality and over-eagerness of media. And nowhere is that totality more prevalent than in football. A constant, everyday scramble to boil down complex situations to an easy to swallow narrative.
And so to Andrés Iniesta, who apparently is finished, over the hill, past it, kaput. That’s the narrative of his 2014. In the fabric of his career it is fair to suggest that he’s had better, but even his worst years are those most footballers can only dream of.
2014 will be the first trophy-less year since 2007, a year, at club level where his side were pipped by surprise package Atletico Madrid. Internationally of course, his talent could not stop the Spanish dynasty collapsing in on itself.
Notions that the sun is setting on his career are ludicrous, but we are perhaps entering an age of adjusted expectations. Barcelona are still very much in uncertain waters – with Valdes and Puyol no longer at Camp Nou and Xavi approaching 35, Iniesta is looked upon as one of the leaders to guide the club through this transition.
That is not to say he is a mere figurehead. In fact, his passing has never been more accurate, with a completion rate over 91% – he is clearly seen as an essential part in a new-look Barca, testament to the fact he signed a new contract signed that will keep him at the club till at least 2018.
2014 hasn’t been easy, or perhaps enjoyable for the diminutive Spaniard. But at just 30-years-old, with a box overflowing with tricks, it’s hard to see any signs of demise just yet.
29 Marco Reus (▼ 17)
In 2014, ten years of meticulous planning and a change in strategy culminated in a fourth World Cup triumph for Germany.
A landmark year for German football is also one tinged with sadness. Sadness that probably their most gifted attacking player missed the glorious success in Brazil. Marco Reus is an elite player in statistics and ability, yet his fall from 17th to 29th in this year’s top 50 is predicated by an injury blighted twelve months.
In the early part of the calendar year, Reus shouldered much of the creative bourdon at Borussia Dortmund. Despite their mid-season lull, Reus maintained consistency. He grabbed a hattrick against Stuttgart in February, as Dortmund recovered from 2-0 behind to win 3-2. Reus almost solely turned around a 3-0 deficit against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16.
For his first goal he took advantage of a mix up between Ikar Casillas and Pepe, the second a thumping side foot finish from close range after Robert Lewandowski hit the post. Henrik Mkhitaryan spurned numerous chances in the second half and a 2-0 win was not enough to take the black and yellow into the next round.
Frequently Reus led a solitary resistance against the all-conquering Bayern Munich, but Dortmund finished a mammoth 19 points behind their great rivals in the Bundesliga and also lost the DFB Pokal final in extra time.
If falling short with Dortmund grated, Reus had aspirations of lifting the most famous gold trophy in sport with his national team, success that would have superseded anything at club level. Reus appeared to be a certain starter for Die Mannschaft, but disaster struck in a pre-tournament friendly with Armenia. Reus attempted to tackle Artur Yedigaryan, but twisted his left ankle in the process. The slow motion vine loop regurgated on twitter amplified the damage. Reus left the Mainz turf in tears as his World Cup dream vanished.
Lewandowski’s departure from Dortmund to Bayern placed an even heavier reliance on Reus, but he’s played just nine times in the second half of 2014. Dortmund have struggled dismally domestically, even dropping to the bottom of the Bundesliga at one point.
Rare rays of sunlight for Reus included a towering headed goal away to Bayern and a rasping drive from thirty yards against Galatasaray in Europe. Reus re-aggrevated his left ankle in November, only to return two weeks later and injure his right one when Paderborn’s Marvin Bakalorz crassly lunged at him from behind, ruling him out until January.
At 26, Reus is theoretically arriving into his peak.
Dortmund’s travails in 2014 have opened the possibility of their latest star departing for one of Europe’s superclubs. Reus combines the perfect blend of pace, agility, technique and intelligence, he scores and assists aplenty. Reus is a difference maker but the fragility of his body is a major concern.
Another fast-twitch fibre attacker Arjen Robben has managed to navigate the constraints on his body in the past 18 months, but ligament not muscle injuries are more of an issue for Reus. He appears to crumble like a Cadbury’s twirl bar at the slightest hint of an aggressive challenge.
Reus still holds a one in two goalscoring record at Dortmund, but 2015 is difficult to forecast for the most coveted footballer in Europe.
28 Arturo Vidal (▼ 21)
Juventus and Chile
The fact that this is the third consecutive year for Arturo Vidal Pardo to make it into the twenties of this list, matches his description as a footballer. A steady performer who always delivers but will never be an absolute superstar.
Always one of the first names on the team sheet for club and country, he is a world class midfield pivot who would add value to any team.
Last year, Vidal lead Juventus to their 30th Scudetto, this time in record-breaking fashion, accumulating a massive 102 points after which they defeated Lazio to win the Coppa Italia as well.
Furthermore, Juve reached the semi-finals of the Europa League, after a thrilling, snow-covered climax in their Champions League group which lead to their elimination. Vidal had a major contribution to these successes, scoring 18 goals from midfield.
The World Cup saw the Chilean captain and his team being drawn against the two finalists from the former edition. Having secured a place in the next round already after winning their first two matches against Australia and Spain, the defeat against the Dutch side meant that they would have to beat Brazil in order to advance into the quarter final, a task which proved slightly too heavy for them.
Once again, Vidal was instrumental from midfield, a main reason why the Chileans left the World Cup with their heads held high.
The second half of 2014 looks familiar, with La Vecchia Signora once again topping the table week after week. And once again, the man who seems to match his hairstyle with his zebra-striped jersey has been essential, already contributing four goals to dismissing AS Roma’s everlasting desperate attempts to overtake Juventus.
If they manage to keep him in Turin despite the persevering rumours linking him to the Premier League or Primera Division, Juventus wil greatly enhance their chances to become the dominating force in Italian football for seasons to come.
27 Robert Lewandowski (▼ 15)
Bayern Munich and Poland
Robert Lewandowki’s move from Borussia Dortmund to bitter rivals Bayern Munich was one of the most protracted transfers in modern football history. Even in this era of so-called transfer sagas this one was long in the making.
For roughly two years it was clear that Lewandowski was going to let his contract wind down and that Munich was his preferred destination; the only question was whether the Dortmund hierarchy had the stomach to bite the bullet and sell him directly to the Bundesliga juggernauts before that happened. Of course, we now know they didn’t.
Lewandowski announced in January 2014 that he was following Mario Götze in crossing the great divide, but unlike the expensive German his departure would afford Dortmund no compensation.
Yet such was the Polish striker’s impact with Die Schwarzgelben that all this was forgotten when he made his final home appearance at the Westfalenstadion. It was a remarkable sight to behold, given the circumstances, as the 26-year-old received a collage of pictures depicting his time with the club, flowers, and a lengthy ovation from the crowd.
Conveniently, the milestones reached by Lewandowski in those first five months of 2014, his last with Dortmund, go some way to explaining the adulation he received in spite of what some football cultures would consider treachery. His brace away to Zenit in the Champions League first knockout stage made him the club’s overall top scorer in European competition and the goal against Wolfsburg in the German Cup semi-finals was his 100th for Jürgen Klopp’s side, coming in 182 games. The league campaign finished with Dortmund in 2nd and Lewandowski as leading marksman.
A brief glance at the Bundesliga table is proof enough that Dortmund dearly miss the Pole. Their loss has been Bayern’s gain. Guardiola sold the excellent Mario Mandzukic (no. 47 in this list) to make way for Lewandowski and despite his relatively quiet start (by his standards) he’s still repaid Pep with 9 goals in 22 games, including strikes against Man City, Roma, and inevitably Dortmund.
26 Franck Ribery (▼ 4)
Bayern Munich and France
The Frenchman claimed the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award in August 2013 following a continental treble-winning campaign with Bayern Munich as well as an impressive FIFA World Cup qualifying run, upending the typical Messi-Ronaldo dichotomy which dominates world soccer conversation.
His 2014, however, has similarly been nothing short of sublime.
In his play, he always seems to teeter cunningly between brilliance and abandon, cutting through opposing defenses with force and poise to either create his own shot opportunity or to feed to one of his teammates.
He began 2014 with two goals in his first two Bundesliga games, scoring in victories against Eintracht Frankfurt and Wolfsburg.
Though he was fruitless toward the end of Bayern’s march to the Champions League semi-final, he did score in the first two games of the group stage against Roma this season as well as guiding an expertly placed, weak-footed shot home in his season debut against Stuttgart.
A back injury held Ribéry out of this summer’s World Cup, refusing him the chance for redemption on a global stage following the embarrassment in South Africa. His subsequent retirement from international football brought to an end a legendary French career, one which voices no less prominent than Zinedine Zidane have praised.
The 31-year-old’s focus can now remain solely on Bayern Munich, the well-oiled machine which Pep Guardiola has crafted into his own vision. Perhaps more than any of the countless other world-class cogs, Ribéry’s form dictates a certain tempo which is impossible without him.
Hopefully we have several more years of watching his powerful strides enrage defenders, to our delight.
25 Andrea Pirlo (▼ 16)
Juventus and Italy
The elegant Italian playmaker may appear to be tiring but he once again orchestrated Juventus to yet another Scudetto, Pirlo’s fifth league title in total.
At the age of 35, he maybe beginning to be overshadowed by his younger compatriots but even so, 85% of his passes were played forward. This further demonstrates his importance within a team which scored more than 100 goals last season.
Like the Italian national team, Pirlo had a rather poor World Cup campaign, eliminated in the group stage. Despite the age difference, he completed 55 more passes than any other Italian in the competition.
Following the embarrassment in Brazil,there were some changes and many furrowed brows around the Juventus Stadium when ‘Max’ Allegri was brought in as head coach in the summer. Both he and Pirlo had some differences from their days at Milan. Lack of playing time in his preferred position was the reason behind Pirlo’s move to the Bianconeri in 2011.
However, it is understood that the two resolved any issues from that period; apparently Pirlo stating “Don’t worry, you can count on me”. Pirlo did not disappoint, scoring two goals in his seven Serie A appearances this season – including a late winner in the Turin derby in November.
Juventus will likely end the year top of the Serie A and successfully qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League. That’s exactly where Pirlo belongs, at the upper echelons of football. And who can argue with a player who has created 58 chances in 28 Serie A games since their 3-0 victory over Roma in January.
If there is one thing that the man from Brescia proves is that class is certainly permanent.
24 Karim Benzema (► New Entry)
Whilst Cristiano Ronaldo has rightfully claimed the plaudits for Real Madrid in 2014, Karim Benzema has quietly used the year to cement his position as an invaluable part of Los Blancos attack.
In terms of numbers, Benzema scored nine goals between January and May, giving him a La Liga total of 17, which, along with his nine assists, meant he had a hand in a fifth of Real Madrid’s 104 domestic goals for the season.
Benzema’s contribution to Real’s attack was important, but it was his improvement under Carlo Ancelotti which was more valuable to the side. Whereas the season before Benzema was the man to put the finishing touch to an attacking move from the likes of Ronaldo or Di Maria, he began to make goals for himself within the final third, as well as drifting wide and creating goalscoring opportunities for others.
At the World Cup, Benzema was the main attacking threat for Les Bleus, and he bagged three goals in five games as France’s performances went from freeflowing and mesmerising to awkward and disjointed as they exited to eventual champions Germany.
However, it was his return to Madrid which saw the Frenchman hit form that will make his 2014 memorable. He was susceptible to the initial malaise which covered the whole Real Madrid side at the beginning of the season, but since then Benzema has hit hot form.
Beginning at the 8-2 dismantling of Deportivo, (where although he didn’t score, he had two assists and was part of the move for four goals in total) the ex-Lyon man has been enjoying his best run of form since moving to Madrid, netting 11 in 13 games (correct at time of writing), made even more impressive by the fact he has had that ratio alongside Ronaldo’s dominance for Real so far this year.
If Real Madrid and Benzema continue the form they’re on, it wouldn’t be surprising to see both adding to their impressive medal collections come May next year.
23 Yaya Toure (▲ 24)
You could sum up Yaya Touré’s year with a number of sayings. It has been a game of two halves for Manchester City’s Ivorian beast; from January to May he scored 13 goals, 11 in the league, as Sheikh Mansour’s dream team powered to the title with the unstoppable former African Player of Year the driving force.
Despite being employed as a holding midfielder for much of his career in Belgium, Ukraine, Greece and Spain, Pellegrini unleashed him as the focal point of the attacking midfield unit. His immense physical presence married with a meticulous eye for goal saw him wreak havoc with defences.
Since August however, he has retreated into his shell somewhat after a slightly ridiculous episode when he sulked about not being given a birthday cake by the club’s hierarchy.
His rotund agent Dmitry Seluk made a mess of a thinly veiled attempt to engineer an increase on his eye-watering £210,000 wage by comparing Suleyman Kerimov’s gift of a Bugatti Veyron to Roberto Carlos at Anzhi Makhachkala to the apparent paucity of lavish treatment his client had received.
His role anchoring the midfield has also affected his barnstorming dominance of opposition penalty areas, although he still chipped in with three goals in four games in November.
More worrying than his statistics is the deteriorating respect he receives – having his cake and eating it is proving rather difficult for the ex-Barcelona man.
At 31, and with a contract that will earn him £45 million until 2017, he has little motivation having already won the Premier League title twice. His legacy at the Etihad should remain intact as long as he keeps his toys in the pram – he has delivered silverware in return for his astronomical wage after all.
All’s well that ends well then, right?
22 Mario Götze (▲ 35)
One story dominates Mario Götze’s 2014: scoring the goal that won the World Cup for Germany. It was a sublime strike: Götze cushioned a cross onto his chest, the ball seemingly a shade too far ahead of him after the touch, but then guided a volley across an advancing Sergio Romero with his left foot.
It was a worthy winner of world football’s showpiece event. To be honest, if a player had done nothing more than score such a goal in such a setting, there would be a case for inclusion in this list. But Mario Götze has used 2014 to show that he is arguably the finest natural talent of an already blessed German generation.
Playing under Pep Guardiola at Bayern, Götze has shown versatility, intelligence, skill, and an eye for goal. Playing as a false nine, using his appreciation of space and fearsome pace and control, or anywhere across the attacking midfield three of a 4-2-3-1, where his creativity and range of passing can be used, Götze has shown an ability to adapt and play thinking football that suits his mentor’s style.
After a somewhat rancorous transfer from Borussia Dortmund in 2013, announced some 36 hours before BvB’s Champions League semi-final clash, Götze took a bit of time to integrate into the Bayern set-up.
Often used as a substitute, he none the less won the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal Cup final against his former club in a successful climax to the 2013/14 season.
Götze’s progression to a guaranteed starting sport has been hampered by the wealth of talent available to Guardiola, but when he plays, he usually makes an impact, scoring 10 goals in 19 appearances so far this season.
Götze was recognised for his achievements by being nominated in the 23-player shortlist for the Ballon d’Or in October. He is also a committed Christian who goes out with the lingerie model Ann-Kathrin Brömmel. 2014 has indeed been quite a year for young Mario Götze.
21 Bastian Schweinsteiger (▼ 14)
2014 was a year when Bastian Schweinsteiger managed to put all ghosts to rest and to confirm his place in the pantheon of German football greats.
If 2013 was the year when the pain of Champions League defeats were exorcised in Bayern’s 2-1 defeat of Borussia Dortmund then 2014 was the culmination of Schweinsteiger’s international career, banishing the disappointments of successive third place finishes in international tournaments.
Despite Schweinsteiger’s obvious talents, his range of passing, his drive and stamina, his ability to get crucial and often spectacular goals there have, until the last couple of seasons remained doubts as to whether he and his teammates were of a level with those that had gone before.
While runners-up medals in such elite competition is hardly something to be ashamed of, when you are the star midfielder of the German national team and that nation’s most successful club the comparisons with the “ruthless” champions of the past can be suffocating.
Anything less than a magisterial combination of Lothar Matthaus and Fritz Walter can be viewed as failure and unfulfilled potential. And until this year there were still creeping doubts that for all the talent and verve displayed by Joachim Loew’s German side they were always destined to fail gloriously at the final hurdle.
Persistent knee injuries in 2014 meant that Schweinsteiger was not as dominant as he had been under Jupp Heynkes as Bayern captured their fifth European Cup, however his fitness struggles helped shape perhaps the defining match of Schweinsteiger’s career, the 2014 World Cup final.
Robbed of midfield partner Sami Khedira due to an injury during the warm up, Bastian was partnered with Christoph Kramer, making his competitive start that night. When Kramer was concussed and had to be substituted in the first half the responsibility for the German midfield weighed all the more heavily on Schweinsteiger, but it was a challenge he rose to with relish.
Overshadowing Mascherano and Biglia in the Argentine midfield, being elbowed in the face by Sergio Aguero he became the epitome of the bloodied but unbowed Roy of the Rovers leader. He even played a crucial role in setting up Mario Gotze’s impressive winning goal.
A bruised and exhausted Schweinsteiger lifted the Jules Rimet in Brazil, but he had assured his place as an immovable great of German football.
Keep an eye out for the fourth part of the Top 50, out next week!