The countdown continues. Argentinean defensive midfielders show their class, while a couple of high profile strikers don’t quite make the most of their talents.
30. Carlos Tevez (ARG / Manchester City)
After several years of sometimes fruitless toil for West Ham and Manchester United, Tevez is blossoming once again at Manchester City, displaying the kind of form that once made him the deadliest goal predator in Argentina and Brazil, as well as the South American Footballer of the Year three times running. The fans admire Tevez for his tireless work rate and never say die attitude, but it’s his neat touch, pacy incisions into the box and quick, tight turns that really set him apart. He especially likes to receive the ball with his back to goal, turn, and run at opposition defenders. Tevez’ goals to games ratio has sometimes been a tad lacklustre, but finishing out the 2009/10 season as the Premier League’s fourth top goal scorer indicates that the boy can finish. Tevez had a fine World Cup with Argentina and notched a brace against Mexico, but more is expected from him at international level from the Argentinean public. Actually has a successful part time career as front man for the cumbia villera (Argentine ghetto music) group Piola Vago.
29. Carles Puyol (SPA / Barcelona FC)
Without a shred of backhandedness, it might be said that Puyol is the most recognisably “English” of Spanish players, in that ruggedness and commitment are his most outstanding traits, as opposed to any special elegance or skill. Perhaps not blessed with a wealth of natural talent, Puyol has nonetheless made himself into a fearsomely competitive player through sheer force of will. He’s the dirt under the fingernails of Barcelona and Spain, the guy that adds grit and determination to the wealth of technical excellence. He leads from the back, drives his team mates on and delivers kicks up arses as and when they’re required. But Puyol is of course an outstanding defender in his own right, never seen to shirk from a tackle, with excellent positioning and awareness. Puyol’s central defensive partnership with Gerard Pique is arguably the best either Spain or Barcelona have ever had. And having regularly turned out for both club and country for over a decade now, Puyol’s trophy cabinet is virtually unmatched: he has already won every conceivable honour. A player universally admired for his passion and commitment to the cause.
28. Javier Mascherano (ARG / Barcelona FC)
After a dreadful season’s performance from Liverpool, Mascherano was one of the few players to emerge with his reputation intact. With his leadership and masterful defensive play, Mascherano offers precisely the kind of solid foundation a team’s success is built upon. His disciplinary record often leaves something to be desired, but the fact remains that there’s no more a precise and effective tackler in the modern game. Mascherano is the acknowledged master of breaking up opposition attacks and Claude Makelele’s rightful successor as football’s preeminent dedicated holding midfielder. He’s also a fine distributor of the ball – that is when he doesn’t try to get too ambitious and sticks to simple 5 yard passes. Mascherano is justly lionised in Argentina for his unstinting efforts for the national team. His level of performance for La Albiceleste has arguably been the most consistent out of any Argentinean player over the last five years. He’s won two Olympic gold medals, bossed the midfield for Argentina in the 2006 World Cup and duplicated the feat in 2010. Recently acquired by Barcelona under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, Mascherano should prove to be the perfect defensive platform from which Xavi and Iniesta can initiate their attacking magic.
27. Esteban Cambiasso (ARG / Inter Milan)
The quietly industrious midfield lynchpin has long been one of the more underrated players in world football, although his outstanding treble winning season with Inter Milan should go some way to earning him his due recognition. Primarily a holding player, Cambiasso is nonetheless partial to the occasional adventurous foray up the pitch when the right moment presents itself. His level of skill is often overlooked, but he does display some nice touches and his control of the ball is well beyond adequate. But Cambiasso’s greatest asset is his tactical aptitude. He reads the game well, is rarely caught out of position and is a first class interceptor of opposition attacks. What you get from Cambiasso is consistency of effort and composed, professional performances match in and out. Every coach would love to have one to call his own. Maradona’s omission of Cambiasso from Argentina’s World Cup squad – after what was arguably the outstanding season of his career – provoked shock and outrage. New national team manager Sergio Batista won’t be making the same mistake.
26. Gianluigi Buffon (ITA / Juventus FC)
The Old Lady hasn’t looked so venerable in recent seasons. In fact, she looks like she’s knocking on death’s door for much of the time. None of which could reasonably be blamed on Gianluigi Buffon, the finest goalkeeper of his generation, if not in Serie A history. Without him, Juventus’ fortunes would quite probably be considerably worse. Buffon is clearly hurt by his club’s downturn in fortunes, but he continues to turn out for them season in and out with admirable loyalty. Buffon knows he could pick his club and name his price if he decided to move on, but he’s opted to tough it out for the duration. Class like that is difficult to find in the modern game. But this list isn’t based on quality of character. Buffon is ranked because when it comes down to it, he’s still right up there with the very best keepers in the game, even after all these years. Far more agile than a man of his size has any right to be, Buffon astounds with his spider like ability to extend a limb to the most outrageously angled of shots. But it’s his steely composure and experience in danger situations that count as his greatest assets. A real leader on the pitch and a credit to his profession.
25. Daniele De Rossi (ITA / AS Roma)
The archetypal midfield action man, De Rossi is renowned for his powerful runs from box to box, his capacity to break up opposition attacks and his ability to get an offensive going with his excellent distribution and passing range. Traditionally, De Rossi hasn’t been a particularly reliable source of goals, although he did step up his tally for last season and is known to score the occasional long range cracker. Despite being capable of getting into pretty much any team in the world, De Rossi has elected to remain loyal to AS Roma. He aims to become a career long club icon after the style of Giuseppe Giannini and Francesco Totti, even if it means he will never get the kind of recognition he deserves in the wider football community. One of the few Italian players to emerge with any sort of credit after a disastrous World Cup, De Rossi has firmly established himself as the vital cog in the Italian midfield. Combining physicality, skill and tactical knowhow in one formidable package, a lot of clubs would be prepared to pay a lot of money for De Rossi’s services, if only he could be pried away from Rome.
24. Julio Cesar (BRA / Inter Milan)
It’s the hotly anticipated World Cup quarter final showdown between Brazil and the Netherlands. Brazil’s machine-like precision has them cruising towards another seemingly inevitable victory. But disaster strikes ten minutes into the second half when an uncharacteristic error of communication between Felipe Melo and goalkeeper Julio Cesar leads to a fluke deflection, sending Wesley Sneijder’s speculative shot crashing into the back of the net. It’s the sort of high profile incident that can seriously damage a career reputation, but it shouldn’t let us forget Cesar’s superlative level of service for Inter Milan over the last four seasons. Inter have won four Scudettos in a row, including the trifecta of league and European honours last season, with Cesar’s goalkeeping heroics as crucial to the club’s success as the contribution of any other player. He is a master of anticipation and comes off his line to deal with incoming balls with confidence and conviction. It’s not often that Brazil can claim to have a goalkeeper who matches the calibre of their outfield players. In fact Cesar has probably been the only one.
23. Bastian Schweinsteiger (GER / Bayern Munich)
If he had done nothing else in his career, Louis van Gaal might still be considered a genius for figuring out how to get the best out of Bastian Schweinsteiger. A pretty good wide attacking midfielder for most of his career, Schweinsteiger was switched to the centre last season to become the team anchor, midfield commander, attacking instigator and all around provider of general excellence. The heart and soul of two of last season’s most outstanding teams: Bayern Munich and the German national team, Schweinsteiger’s tenacity, drive and positional sense put him in the thick of all the action. Bayern Munich had their best season in nearly a decade, picking up another Bundesliga title and reaching the final of the Champions League. Joachim Low followed van Gaal’s lead by positioning Schweinsteiger in the centre for Germany’s World Cup campaign, but even he must have been taken aback when the powerfully built Bavarian came second to perhaps only Diego Forlan as the tournament’s best player. But what’s been most surprising about Schweinsteiger has been his heretofore unrecognised mastery of the ball. His capacity to nimbly sidestep defenders and find space to stroke passes around to his team mates has been positively Xavi-esque at times. At 26 years old, Schweinsteiger was possibly the breakout star of the 2009/10 season.
22. Fernando Torres (SPA / Liverpool FC)
An explosive goal scorer who relishes the big occasion, Torres’ overall impact has been hampered by injury in recent seasons. Liverpool have managed to hang on to their prize asset amid acrimonious circumstances – for one more season at least – but don’t expect Torres to stick around in the long term if the club’s fortunes don’t pick up dramatically. With his pace, aerial ability and aggression in chasing down loose balls and long passes, Torres was always going to be better suited to the hurly burly of English football than to the more technically refined style of his native Spain. He is not especially effective at linking up the play or bringing his team mates into the game, but compensates with his electrifying bursts into goal scoring positions. Torres is a lethal marksman and capable of finishing with power and precision from short or long range. He had a disappointing World Cup, appearing in all seven of Spain’s matches to little impact. Despite winning the tournament, he was arguably his country’s worst player. Torres did score the winning goal in the Euro 2008 final against Germany, however. The Spanish are generally much less taken with Torres than the English, where the football media are fascinated with his every move.
21. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (SWE / AC Milan)
Unquestionably one of the world’s most talented players, Ibra’s stock has dropped after a season of mixed fortunes with Barcelona. This was always a player subjected to more than his fair share of critical scrutiny. After all, how many other strikers would receive such vilification after scoring 21 goals in 41 games in their debut season with a new club, amid the always difficult transition between Italian and Spanish football? True enough, Ibra seemed to struggle to get on the same wavelength as his new team mates at times last season, making a laboured effort out of what should have been a seamless, free flowing style of play. A rather complex character, Ibra does not always appear to enjoy his magnificent natural gifts as much as he should. Nonetheless, the Balkan Swede remains one of the very best strikers on the planet on his day. Few players combine his size and strength with such effortless grace on the ball. Ibra can function as target man, goal hunter and creator-in-chief, all in the one package. Ibra fell out with Pep Guardiola and headed back to the more familiar pastures of Serie A at the start of the season. For a cut down price, AC Milan have netted themselves a peerless match winner; easily one of the best in the world on top form.
* Rankings continued on post above…