The countdown continues. Premier Leauge defenders get the once over, while the latest wonder kids are put through their paces.
40. Ronaldinho (BRA / AC Milan)
After years in a self-made wilderness of poor fitness and worse form, Ronaldinho has become a player rejuvenated at AC Milan. While he will never again recapture the dazzling, effervescent displays that once, all too briefly, singled him out as the finest footballer on the planet, the classy touches and breadth of vision still remain. Statistically, Ronaldinho was Serie A’s most creative player last season, credited with 17 assists in both domestic and European competition. He also weighed in with an impressive haul of 15 goals, dismissing accusations that he’d become little more than a luxury passenger. Despite the impressive turnaround in form, Ronaldinho was omitted from Brazil’s World Cup squad, in what amounted to a national outcry. As Dunga correctly pointed out, however, he’d been dragging Ronaldinho around for years while his contributions on the pitch were pretty close to zero. New Brazilian head coach, Mano Menezes, has opened the door to a possible return to the international fold. For now, Ronaldinho will have to be content with orchestrating Milan’s new-look attack. He’s not nearly as mobile as he once was, but if he sustains his current level of commitment then he can remain a top player for a good few years to come.
39. Mesut Ozil (GER / Real Madrid)
Since his superlative displays in the World Cup, it’s been a meteoric rise to football superstardom for the German-born Turkish playmaker. Although in fact, Ozil has been one of the most creative players in world football for a couple of years at least, credited with an incredible 49 assists across all competitions for Werder Bremen in his last two seasons of play. The youthful Ozil stepped into the considerable breach left by the departure of Diego, Werder Bremen’s previous Number 10 supremo. Such was the instant vision and panache of Ozil’s performances that the club barely seemed to notice the Brazilian had left. The rest of the world sat up and paid attention during Germany’s electrifying World Cup campaign, with Ozil orchestrating much of his team’s offensive, scoring his first two international goals along the way. Ozil’s movement off the ball is just as good as his skill in possession. He’s quick, nimble, intelligent and offers a boundless source of clever, accurate passes. A dream move to Real Madrid has cemented Ozil’s status as football’s biggest rising star, and he’s sure to improve dramatically under the masterful tutelage of Jose Mourinho. Seemingly destined to become one of the outstanding players of his generation.
38. Pepe Reina (SPA / Liverpool FC)
While it’s easy to criticise Rafa Benitez’ transfer market record while manager of Liverpool FC, there’s no denying that signing Pepe Reina was something of a masterstroke. And something of a surprising one at that, since Reina was brought in to replace 2005 Champions League winning keeper Jerzy Dudek, himself no slouch between the sticks. Arguably the Premier League’s best goalkeeper based on his last five seasons of work, Reina is a big part of the reason why Liverpool tend to concede such a meagre number of goals. No other keeper in England keeps as many clean sheets season in and out. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that, without Reina’s shot stopping prowess, Liverpool might well have found themselves slipping into the bottom half of the table last season. Apart from his outstanding handling of the ball, Reina brings another dimension to Liverpool’s play with his excellent long range distribution. A regular in the Spanish national team squad, Reina will probably always have to content himself with a bit part role while Iker Casillas is around. If he had an English passport, he would’ve won 100 caps by now.
37. Victor Valdes (SPA / Barcelona FC)
The oft-maligned keeper has been steadily improving his level of performance each season, to the point where he looks like becoming Barcelona’s finest man between the sticks since Andoni Zubizarreta. Valdes’ generally creditable performances during his early years were marred by occasional lapses in composure and the odd howler here and there, but by this point, he appears to have eliminated such flaws from his game. Valdes has been outstanding in Barcelona’s last couple of trophy laden seasons. Competition for a spot in the Spanish national team has been incredibly fierce, with the likes of Pepe Reina and Diego Lopez also in contention, but Valdes looks like establishing himself as the solid second choice behind the indomitable Iker Casillas. He does not always look entirely confident when coming off his line, but more than compensates with his athleticism and agility. Valdes represents a long term investment on the part of Barcelona, and the patient faith they’ve shown in his capabilities is now paying off superb dividends.
36. Florent Malouda (FRA / Chelsea FC)
Got off to a slow start in his Chelsea career, derided for his perceived sour attitude and disappointing lack of impact on the pitch. But Malouda has been quietly and steadily improving to the point where he became one of the most effective and consistent performers in the Premier League last season. Equally adept as a traditional left winger or tucking inside a midfield diamond to take on a more central role, Malouda combines energetic running with strength, speed and skill on the ball. Figuring in over 50 matches for Chelsea last season and credited with 15 goals and 15 assists, Malouda was an essential component in the club’s double winning campaign. A hugely disappointing World Cup with a disastrous French national team has perhaps taken some of the shine off Malouda’s otherwise outstanding recent form, but he’s likely to remain a top player for both club and country for a few years yet.
35. Nemanja Vidic (SER / Manchester United)
The hard-nosed Serbian has arguably demonstrated himself to be the Premier League’s best central defender – at least when fully fit. A slew of niggling injury problems limited his overall impact last season, much to the frustration of Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson. In fact, Vidic was strongly tipped for the exit, quite possibly to Real Madrid, but a recent contract extension – along with being awarded the captain’s armband – would appear to have put an end to all the speculation. A powerfully built athlete, Vidic is the type who relishes mixing it up with opposition players. He is brave and aggressive when challenging for the ball, but his game rarely looks anything less than composed. He’s more than comfortable on the ball too. In the 2008/09 season Vidic was voted both the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year and The Barclays player of the season. United unearthed a real gem when they signed Vidic from Spartak Moscow. At just £7 million he represents one of the best transfer market bargains of the last decade.
34. John Terry (ENG / Chelsea FC)
Suffered a dip in form last season after the highly publicised scandals in his personal life, but reports of Terry’s waning prowess are grossly exaggerated. This was still the player who formed the backbone of the Chelsea defence last season, after all, with the Premier League champions conceding a fairly miserly 32 goals during the 2009/10 campaign. Terry remains one of English football’s most consistently effective players, a physically imposing central defender who is rarely beaten in the air or on the deck. And after more than decade playing alongside and against the cream of European talent, under the tutelage of master tacticians such as Jose Mourinho, Terry has learned to cultivate a more cultured aspect to his game; he reads the play well and his distribution from the back is crisp and sharp. There are signs that Terry is maybe not quite as mobile a player as he once was, but his experience and organisational skills should keep him at the heart of the defence for club and country for many years to come.
33. Ashley Cole (ENG / Chelsea FC)
The only English player who has a legitimate claim to being the best in the world in his position. Cole has long been lamented as an example of everything that is wrong with football’s over paid and pampered modern superstars, but while his attitude might grate, it’s difficult not to respect his ability. It’s Cole’s terrific engine that gives him total command of the left flank; his speed and stamina allows him to get up the pitch to support the attack or gallop back to make last ditch tackles with equal aplomb. His quality of crossing and distribution has improved in recent seasons as well. One of only a handful of England players to perform creditably in the World Cup, Cole’s displays for Chelsea over the club’s title winning 2009/10 season easily rank among the best of his career. He also became the first man ever to win 6 FA Cups – 3 with Arsenal and 3 with Chelsea.
32. Luis Fabiano (BRA / Sevilla FC)
Not nearly as high profile a player as his predecessors in the Number 9 role for Brazil, and nor does he have the same flair for the spectacular, but Fabiano, nonetheless, is a guy who gets the job done: he scores lots of goals. He hasn’t always been at the top level. After notching the record strike ratio for Sao Paulo FC with 118 goals in 160 matches, Fabiano struggled in his initial European stints with Rennes and FC Porto. It was only after a move to Sevilla that his career truly took off, and fairly slowly at that. But Fabiano’s goal scoring acumen helped Sevilla to secure the UEFA Cup twice on the trot, and he has consistently been one of the most prolific marksmen in La Liga ever since. No shrinking violet, Fabiano earned something of a reputation as a hard nosed brawler back in Brazil. He’s a physically combative striker, but has skill in both feet and an expert nose for a goal scoring opportunity. He played well in the World Cup and notched up 3 goals for Brazil, although one of them clearly involved a handball. Fabiano’s international record is quite excellent, although he’s inevitably found wanting when compared with the likes of Romario and Ronaldo back home. Widely fancied by top teams in England and Italy over the last couple of seasons, Fabiano has finally put an end to speculation over his future by signing a new contract with Sevilla.
31. Sergio Aguero (ARG / Atletico Madrid)
Although there’s no doubting his immense natural talent, there remains the lingering sense that Aguero’s progress has stagnated somewhat in recent seasons. At 22 years of age, he’s yet to fully blossom into the world class superstar he’s long been touted to become. Still, Aguero’s deft touch, lethal bursts of acceleration and agile twists and turns do provide some splendid moments. They just need to come a bit more consistently. There’s maybe some doubt as to how Aguero is best utilised. Is he supposed to be a Number 9 goals machine or a Number 10 supporting striker? Well, his finishing and his overall decision making could stand some improvement. There’s still plenty of time, but it’s generally felt that Aguero will need to move on from Atletico Madrid in order to realise his full potential. The long mooted move to Chelsea didn’t end up going through, but there’ll be no shortage of suitors for one of the few high profile prospects yet to be snapped up by a major club. Still one for the future, then, but he is a conjurer of magic.
* Ranking continued in next post up…