50. Humberto Suazo (Club de Fútbol Monterrey)
Plying your trade in Chile usually means you are away from the footballing road map, but Suazo earned acclaim for his goalscoring in the 2006 Copa Sudamericana. Colo-Colo reached the final and along the way Suazo netted 10 times in 12 games, including a stylish hat-trick against Gimnasia La Plata and suddenly his name was in every scout’s notebook. In 75 games for the Chilean champions, Suazo scored a flummoxing 70 times, including goals to win the 2006 Clausura tournament final against Audax and the one that secured the 2007 Apertura tournament. Despite criticism concerning his weight and attitude, Suazo is widely admired and is the Chilean national side’s main scoring weapon. He has moved from Colo-Colo to Mexican outfit CF Monterrey for $5m – a huge sum for a Chile-based player – but the 26-year-old is surely equipped to pursue a career in Europe.
49. Benni McCarthy (Blackburn Rovers)
Playing for mid-table Blackburn, McCarthy enjoyed a terrific campaign, scoring 18 Premiership goals (24 altogether) – more than anyone else bar the exceptional Drogba – and playing a key role in Blackburn’s Uefa and FA Cup runs. McCarthy’s finishing dexterity was palpable, but he was much more than just a poacher, as illustrated by the match-winning thunderbolt against Arsenal.
48. Alfonso Alves (SC Heerenveen)
The Dutch Eredivisie is admittedly no match for the three main leagues, nor the Bundesliga or Ligue 1, but Brazilian Alves has outshone most others in the forwards department after scoring a sensational 37 goals in 39 appearances for the unfashionable SC Heerenveen after moving from Malmo FF. During his time in Sweden, Alves knocked in 94 goals in 52 games and his overall record purportedly reads at 129 in 83 matches, predictably leading to interest from Europe’s biggest sides including Chelsea and numerous clubs in Spain. Alves has taken his time to acclimatise to the rigours of professional football – he is 26 now – and Heerenveen are justifiably loath to sell their record signing. However, they will have to fend off more than a few major clubs to keep hold of this latest phenomenon from South America.
47. Juninho (Olympique Lyonnais)
Lyons picked up yet another Le Championnat crown, and though they disappointed in Europe, Juninho was supreme again. He is arguably the best free-kick taker in the world, creating frightening angles with a dead ball that leave opposition goalkeepers wondering what day of the week it is. The Brazilian is a figure of consistency, and was a central protagonist during Gérard Houllier’s reign – the backbone of a hungry team that trounced the opposition in Ligue 1. Juninho’s talent would not be out of place in any major league, but he has recently penned a new two-year deal to remain at the Stade Gerland and is set to see out his career there.
46. Jamie Carragher (Liverpool FC)
For three seasons now, Carragher has been a model of consistency at the back for Liverpool, and was a key figure in their run to last season’s Champions League Final. At times he may look lacking in class, but there can be no doubting his on-field courage and sheer effectiveness in nullifying opposition strikers. These attributes, along with intelligent reading of the game and the ability to marshal the back four have made the former utility man Liverpool’s rock.
45. Pablo Aimar (Real Zaragoza S.A.D)
The Argentine’s sale to Zaragoza from Valencia exasperated many of Los Ches’ supporters, and after a successful season in Aragón, there are strong grounds for their annoyance. Aimar has always had the capability to light up a match. His cheeky smile tells you all you need to know about the skill he possesses and just how destructive he can be, but his failure to put in consummate performances with any regularity has affected his reputation as a match-winner. Zaragoza finished sixth last season, not far off Champions League football, and qualification for the Uefa Cup is largely down to Aimar’s panache. It is no surprise that striker and fellow-Argentine Diego Milito has finished so high in the scoring charts – he has one of the best distributors and architects in Spain playing just behind him.
44. Diego (SV Werder Bremen)
The youngster’s elegance has wowed the footballing world during his most imposing season at Werder Bremen, and the next generation of Brazilian prodigies will surely be led by this diminutive architect. Diego plays with a smile on his face and is composed at all times, ready to penetrate the opposition defence with one pinpoint pass that strikers adore. His vision and staggering development mean Diego is one of the hottest players on the market and you feel he is bound for one of Europe’s elite clubs shortly.
43. Gary Neville (Manchester United FC)
As the skipper of Manchester United, Neville came to embody the qualities so apparent in their title-winning side: resilience, tenacity and, as in the cases of Scholes and Giggs, a stubborn refusal to accept one’s footballing powers were on the wane simply because of age. Though less obtrusive than his predecessor Roy Keane, Neville, as ever, was a model of consistency in the role of right-back. Indeed, it could be argued that Ronaldo was able to play so freely, and with so few defensive responsibilities, because he knew that, with Neville behind him, his flank would not be exposed.
42. Rodrigo Palacio (Club Atlético Boca Juniors)
There is a train of thought that there is no such thing as a late developer in the world of football. Some of the names on this list have challenged that idea, and Barcelona-bound Palacio is another who has taken some time to ripen, but the 25-year-old was the most sought after property in South America over the previous 12 months before Frank Rijkaard moved in for €22million (£14.9m). In the Torneo Clausura, Palacio scored seven times in 11 starts and in the Apertura, which preceded it, his stats read as 12 goals and seven assists in 21 appearances. The forward has already won the 2005 Copa Sudamericana, 2005 Apertura, 2006 Clausura and 2007 Copa Libertadores and was included in the Argentina squad for the 2006 World Cup. A clinical, assured finisher, Palacio seems ideal to solve Barcelona’s goal woes.
41. Paul Scholes (Manchester United FC)
An eye problem ruled former England international Scholes out of the end of the 2005/6 campaign, and very few predicted he would be able to return to his sizzling best as his age caught up with him. The minority who backed him evidently knew the player well and his lasting desire to continue playing right at the top of the game contributed to a remarkable recovery. A memorable thunderbolt against Aston Villa typified Scholes’ season when he was all-action, all the time and it is no surprise that United’s Premier League success coincided with the 32-year-old’s resurgence.
40. Raúl Tamudo (RCD Espanyol)
The wonderful captain of the Uefa Cup finalists has at last demonstrated his remarkable talent in taking the traditionally pedestrian Espanyol through the Uefa Cup rounds and into a final where the underdogs undeservedly fell to the comparatively mighty Sevilla on penalties on a rainy night in Glasgow. Tamudo works hard across the pitch but retains the primary striker role, scoring 17 goals in all last season, and is a precise finisher as illustrated in Espanyol’s unlikely draw at the Camp Nou in the penultimate match of the season. Phil Ball described the biggest disappointment of the Spanish season as “Espanyol and Sevilla not being able to share the Uefa Cup” and few could disagree after the Catalan side’s heroic endeavours, commanded and encouraged by the omnipresent Tamudo.
39. Ricardo Carvalho (Chelsea FC)
With lengthy absences to defensive colossi Cech and Terry, Carvalho faced additional responsibility this campaign – and responded magnificently. He is an indefatigable, rugged and uncompromising central defender strong in the tackle and fierce in the air, but also has the technical gifts to kick-start attacks from the back. These qualities are added to by a penchant for scoring key goals, including a fantastic bullet header at Old Trafford last campaign.
38. Xavi (FC Barcelona)
Another enormously gifted midfielder who relies on precision passing rather than pace to change a game’s complexion, and Xavi is a player who expertly reads the game and is able to supply the telling pass at the end of a move. His genius was a constant in a testing season for Frank Rijkaard and the majority of his players, and he reminded watchers just why Barcelona are the most exciting team to watch when in the mood to provide exhibition football.
37. Massimo Oddo (Lazio/AC Milan)
The Italian right-back changed clubs in January after enjoying a terrific first half with Lazio – who eventually finished in third position – before offering stability in AC Milan’s often wobbly defence and playing in the Champions League final as his new club ended in fourth. Milan were desperate to sign him in January and finally managed to acquire him from the particularly averse Roman side and it proved an excellent purchase as Ancelotti’s men restored pride to Italian football in dashing towards glory in Europe with comprehensive victories versus Bayern (away), Manchester United (home), and Liverpool in Greece. Oddo was overlooked as a key man in the wake of the 2-1 victory, but the fact that both of his clubs have reached the Champions League next season indicates what a distinguished 12 months he has had.
36. Alessandro Nesta (AC Milan)
The Italian defender has had, like many of his fellow compatriots, a year to cherish with a World Cup title and Champions League crown added to his cabinet. Nesta is one of the most endowed defenders in the modern game while also a calming presence in the back-line and his speed on the pitch and willingness to scrap when necessary makes the elegant Milan player imperative to both club and country, and he played critical roles in both recent successes.
35. Franck Ribéry (Olympique de Marseille)
The Marseille fans trust more in Ribéry than the midfielder does the club, as his move to Bayern Munich suggests. He leaves France, though, to warm applause after guiding Marseille to second place and Champions League football, plus a place in the French Cup final following a summer when he stood out in Germany during France’s run to the final of the World Cup. Having been linked with both Arsenal and Real Madrid, such was the talent he displayed in one of his best campaigns as a professional, the choice to head to Uefa Cup-bound Bayern baffled most. However, he is an intelligent player who realises his new employers will almost certainly return to the Champions League in 2008, probably along with a Bundesliga title in one hand, and possibly a Uefa Cup in the other.
34. David Beckham (Real Madrid)
After signing for LA Galaxy in January, Beckham was ostracised by Real Madrid and seemingly doomed to spending his last months of European football unwanted and unused. But you can never discount a man as redoubtable as Beckham and, as Fabio Capello’s side struggled and he remained the consummate professional in training, he was recalled after a month’s absence. He made an immediate impact with his tenacity, sublime passes and, above all, his ever-marvellous set pieces; though he suffered an injury soon after his recall, he re-established himself as Real’s heartbeat, forming a deadly partnership with former Old Trafford teammate van Nistelrooy. The upshot of this was his first trophy (a Super Cup excluded) at Real, secured on the last day of the season, and a recall by England, for whom he created three goals in two games; Real desperately tried to cling onto him, but to no avail.
33. Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal FC)
Fabregas may be just 20, but he already displays astonishing footballing maturity. He is the fulcrum of the Arsenal side, and continues to astound with his passing ability, vision and creativity; the Spaniard was responsible for 16 assists for his club last season. He has also learned not to be bullied by intimidating, but less gifted opponents and his tenacity and resilience is another reason why Real Madrid and Barcelona are so interested. What is perhaps most impressive, however, is the consistency and indefatigability he displayed over more than 50 games last season. With Thierry Henry having left, it is clear Fabregas is now the man upon whom Arsenal’s hopes rest; his fearlessness and wonderful talent come to epitomise the promise of their youth.
32. Juan Román Riquelme (Club Atlético Boca Juniors/Villarreal)
The ‘Lazy Magician’, a nickname given to Riquelme for his capacity to weave a perfect pass and cause mayhem in opposition defences while avoiding the need to dart past an opponent at pace, took a prolonged sabbatical at Villarreal, who still hold his contract, and seemed totally disinterested in football. Last September he retired from the national side after intense criticism and one of the most gifted players appeared set to waste his talents. However, Boca Juniors offered him a final chance and brought him to La Bombanera on loan, and he has been reinvigorated back at home, making him hot property once again in the transfer market. Although Boca didn’t take domestic honours, missing out on the Clausura Championship, they triumphed in the prestigious Copa Libertadores with a 5-0 aggregate thumping of Brazil’s Gremio. Riquelme was outstanding in both legs, scoring two in the second tie to confirm victory. His genius has never been doubted and now it seems to have returned. Riquelme has also decided to return to play for Argentina at the Copa América as a host of clubs chase his signature. Things are looking up for the muted master.
31. Fernando Torres (Club Atlético de Madrid)
The Madrid-born Atlético forward excelled at the 2006 World Cup and did so again at club level, shining bright in an average team and underlining why Liverpool are have splashed the cash with goals against both Barcelona and Real Madrid. The 23-year-old is the long-time holder of the captain’s armband and more than 200 fans gathered to protest on news that Torres’ departure was imminent. Guillem Balague is certain he would thrive in the Premiership, and his enormous £26.5m price tag suggests Rafael Benítez has confidence that Torres will sparkle. Many believe the ex-Valencia coach has secured a bargain.
30. Carlos Tévez (West Ham United FC)
Decent players in a mediocre team can have their ability exaggerated, but Tévez’s astounding talent is fit for any Real Madrid or Inter Milan side. The West Ham coup proved an almighty cock-up as the club, instead of fighting for a place in Europe, came dangerously close to an unthinkable relegation from the elite, but ultimately Tévez single-handedly rescued the Hammers following a stunning run of form at the season’s end. The Argentine is valued at £25m and looks to be worth every penny.
29. Dani Alves (Sevilla CF)
Are Sevilla overachieving? If so, perhaps it is because of the likes of Alves, who has risen from obscurity to become one of the club’s star players. Juande Ramos led Sevilla to the Uefa Cup and Copa del Rey last season, and despite the extra matches these competitions entail, the Andalusian side were still in the running for the title on the final day. Alves is a dedicated defender (at right-back) but loves pounding forward and, as a Brazilian, can also take a mean free-kick while also retaining the ball superbly. He is being chased by some of Europe’s top clubs and Sevilla seem resigned to letting him go, but Alves will have left an irrevocable mark on the club after a marvellous season that led to a first call-up to the national side.
28. Petr Cech (Chelsea FC)
Carlo Cudicini is, by all accounts, an excellent keeper – along with Henrique Hilario – so it is testament to Cech’s quality that his three-month absence was felt so strongly by Chelsea, and there was a marked improvement in their defence as soon as he returned. When he did so, the Czech keeper’s ability to organise his defence, unerring consistency and wonderful shot-stopping ability were immediately apparent. His big-match temperament, too, is indisputable: Cech was a key man in both of Chelsea’s cup triumphs and near faultless at the season’s end. Many have suggested that, had Cech been available all season-long, Chelsea would have retained the Premiership; but, at 24, he will surely have many more titles to celebrate.
27. Diego Milito (Real Zaragoza S.A.D)
Another Argentine in the top 50 and striker Milito enjoyed a spectacular year for Zaragoza, netting 23 times in 36 La Liga starts and lifting the club into sixth place, which guarantees Uefa Cup football next season. A late bloomer at 28, Milito has more than made up for lost time and along with being a central part of his national side’s future – perhaps ready to take over from 32-year-old talisman Hernan Crespo – he is expected to be snapped up by a Champions League club. Liverpool and Real Madrid have been linked with the Bernal-born hitman. Milito is a potent finisher, with his feet and head, and he continually carried his Zaragoza side in 2006/7 to become one the most-wanted strikers on the continent.
26. Rafael Van Der Vaart (Hamburger SV)
The unpredictable but prodigious 24-year-old has had to put his career on hold because of serious knee injuries, but last season he intimated just how good he could be in saving Hamburg from relegation when survival appeared improbable. He outscored Frank Lampard from midfield and, as captain, was a significant factor in rescuing Hamburg from the drop. English fans remember the wonder strike at Arsenal in the Champions League group stages, but Van der Vaart is much more than a scorer of sensational goals and he is beginning to satisfy the huge hype that surrounded him at Ajax, where so many legends have been produced. He may be next on the Dutch club’s extensive list of superstars generated by their excellent set-up.
25. Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham Hotspur FC)
Eyebrows were raised when the Bulgarian arrived at White Hart Lane, especially at his £10.9m price tag. However, after a slow start to the season, Berbatov found his feet and the back of the net and it seemed he had been in the Premier League all his life. The forward was the only player from a club outside the top four to make the league’s team of the season and though his selection might have been based on the 23 goals he scored, Tottenham fans saw his superlative effort away from the goal. He tracks back; he holds the ball up magnificently; he is happy to use his size to defend; he possesses a splendid touch in spite of that height. Berbatov’s value is now heading near the £25m mark but understandably, Martin Jol refuses to contemplate a premature departure.
24. Zlatan Ibrahimović (FC Internazionale Milano)
This capricious forward has missed maturity as a person, but certainly not as a footballer. When focussed, Ibrahimović looks the most talented striker on the planet and played a pivotal part in Inter’s amazing season. Bought for £17m from Juventus, the Swede has been in blistering form as Inter amassed 97 points to win Serie A and if he could sort out his mind, Ibrahimović would be leading the scoring charts whatever country he played in. At 25, his best years are approaching along with, hopefully, a more mellow approach but his technical intelligence has always been there and is his greatest asset.
23. Florent Malouda (Olympique Lyonnais)
Predominantly an attacking left-winger, the Frenchman has had a splendid season for Lyons, scoring 10 times in 35 Ligue 1 appearances and performing consistently as his club won yet another Le Championnat title. Malouda’s versatility is another facet of his game that is attracting teams such as Liverpool and Chelsea. He can ably transform into a secondary striker or fit in behind a front duo, using his pace and patent ability to both score and set-up others as he has done for the undisputed ‘Kings of France’. Malouda is now a key player in the national side, coming to prominence at last year’s World Cup with a string of imposing performances. He also won the early penalty in the final defeat versus Italy. A departure is looming, and leading English clubs are fronting the queue for the hard-working 27-year-old.
22. Ryan Giggs (Manchester United FC)
The Welsh wizard doesn’t enjoy the media spotlight, but due to his significant role in United’s domestic success, Giggs has been forced to face the cameras and try to explain how, like Scholes, he has managed to recapture his finest form. Giggs is often his own worst critic, but even he admits that the latest season has been one of his greatest; he found the net six times but his most notable stat reads as 18 assists, including seven in the Champions League. Now retired from Wales, Manchester United fans can expect more of the same next season – and hope it is just as mesmerising.
21. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United FC)
Many attest that Rooney could have performed better last season, but one must remember that all criticism is relative. The former Everton forward is uniquely brilliant and a class above the majority of the Premiership’s stars, and therefore much more is expected of him. Memorable goals against Roma and AC Milan in the Champions League, and versus Bolton domestically, along with his terrifyingly successful partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo, have elevated Rooney into the top 50 with his best years still to come in a winning season for Manchester United. Overall, he scored 23 times and created 14 more.
20. Carles Puyol (FC Barcelona)
The view in Barcelona is that the Catalan club handed their league crown to Real Madrid rather than forcing Fabio Capello’s side to win it outright, but the failure to win a third consecutive title didn’t mean there were not standout performers. Captain Puyol embodies the spirit and hardiness of the club and though not the most gifted defender, his leadership abilities have kept the dressing room stable in spite of rows between Ronaldinho and Eto’o, along with widespread discontent inside the entire organisation, and only their head-to-head record with their greatest rivals prevented Puyol from another trophy. A rock in defence and the club figurehead, the Spanish international is a perfect leader.
19. Andrea Pirlo (AC Milan)
Man of the Match at the World Cup final a year ago, Pirlo has continued to put in scorching performances for Milan and has consequently added a Champions League winners’ medal to his collection. He is another unsung hero who is eager to avoid the public eye and instead concentrate on matters on the pitch. A brutally effective playmaker, Pirlo is also renowned for his free-kick taking and ability to slow a game down and then dictate it at his own pace, with mesmerising results.
18. Iker Casillas (Real Madrid CF)
While Madrid do not contend they have the best defence in La Liga, they can thank Casillas for keeping them within touching distance of the title in the first half of the season and again for retaining their place at the summit of the league towards the end of the campaign. Deservedly the highest paid Madrid player, and one who dismisses the galactico lifestyle – and his goalkeeping has benefited. A great shot-stopper and reader of the game, Casillas is a club icon and the unheralded key to Madrid’s domestic glory, and at only 26, has many more years ahead of him to ensure he becomes the indisputable number one in the world.
17. John Terry (Chelsea FC)
You only miss something once it’s gone, and José Mourinho certainly shed a few tears on hearing Terry would be out for a prolonged period. The captain is a terrific leader and defender, and makes the list despite missing a sizeable chunk of the season. His absence probably cost Chelsea the league title, but his subsequent return spurred the West London club on to win both domestic cups, including the FA Cup at the new Wembley.
16. Javier Zanetti (FC Internazionale Milano)
AC Milan, with their Champions League victory, overshadowed Inter’s incredible achievement of taking 97 points in Serie A, losing just one of their 38 matches, and Argentine Zanetti – the captain – was certainly the inspiration behind such a phenomenal year. He is an impassioned leader who is competent in midfield and on either flank as a full-back, so perhaps one should not be astonished that Inter’s triumph came on the back of a dependable defence. Zanetti is the sort of player whose impact can only be measured when he is gone.
15. Ronaldinho (FC Barcelona)
According to the press, the FIFA World Footballer of the Year has lost all his flair and wherewithal in the space of a few months, but Ronaldinho still managed to be Barcelona’s top scorer with 23 and their main creative output. After a poor World Cup, the Brazilian showed obvious signs of fatigue but still managed a great first half to the season, including a wonder goal against Villarreal and a few extraordinary set pieces. Ronaldinho’s personal standards are exceptionally high, so perhaps the 2006/7 season will not go down as his best, but he was effectual despite apparent burnout.
14. Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United FC)
Although Serbian, Vidic is a central defender who encapsulates all those archetypal British qualities: strength, resilience and defiance. He has shown these in abundance throughout this season, forming a superb central defensive partnership with Rio Ferdinand to lead Man Utd to the title. When you add in his pace, competence on the ball and prowess at set-pieces (he scored a crucial Champions League goal against Benfica), Vidic is close to the consummate Premiership defender, a far cry from he uncertain player of last campaign.
13. Cristian Chivu (AS Roma)
The Italian capital’s foremost club revelled in a fabulous year, when they reached the last eight of the Champions League, were the only side to beat Inter Milan in finishing second in Serie A, and subsequently hammering Italy’s champions in the Coppa Italia final to secure a piece of richly-deserved silverware. Playmaker Totti takes the plaudits and media attention while Chivu is the grafter of a hard-working side. He can play at centre or left-back (the former for Roma) and is captain of the Romanian national side. In a country where defending is an art, Chivu is widely regarded as one of the best in Serie A and is at the crux of Spalletti’s side. The 26-year-old apparently has always had his name in the stars: only in his early twenties, he captained an Ajax side containing the likes of Rafael van der Vaart, Andy van der Meyde and Zlatan Ibrahimović as the Dutch side dominated domestically. Roma are led by the influential Totti, but Chivu is the hero in the shadows, and is currently being chased by Inter and Barcelona, who both rate him exceptionally highly.
12. David Villa (Valencia CF)
The Valencia hitman is Spain’s best striker and he guarantees much more than goals. Villa’s impressive work-rate and dead ball delivery makes him an all-round performer and a forward who can also play on the wing if necessary. Forget Fernando Torres – any English club would love to have someone of Villa’s calibre. Understandably, though, Valencia are looking north of £30m. He scored 21 goals and provided 15 assists last season as Los Ches managed to sustain a title challenge in spite of a horrendous injury list and internal wrangles, and a similar number of strikes could be worth much more next season as Valencia eye La Liga glory, a success which would leave Villa utterly content
11. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid CF)
In previous times, Madrid’s defence has been shaped on a zero budget and was constantly their Achilles heel. The apparent end to the galactico era changed attitudes and in came Ramos at a hefty €27m, from Sevilla. 2006/7 saw the Spaniard mature, converting his potential into dependably exceptional performances. With World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro moving to the Spanish capital last summer, most thought he would come out with most praise, but the defensive hero behind Madrid’s La Liga victory was undoubtedly Ramos, who also netted six times, many of them precious goals at key times. At just 21, he could one day be hailed, like Cannavaro, as the world’s best defender.
10. Frédéric Kanouté (Sevilla CF)
The maxim dictating that players can completely transform in a fresh environment is certainly true for Mali striker Kanoute, who fronted Sevilla’s super season, scoring 30 times, including one in the Uefa Cup final and the winning effort against Getafe in the Copa del Rey finale. Tottenham fans remember a moody, apathetic player but the sun of Spain has galvanised him into action, and into a forward who is scoring goals for fun. In terms of impact, Kanoute was Sevilla’s single most influential performer and kept them in with a shout of winning La Liga until the final weekend. He looks set to stay, and many believe he will electrify in the Champions League next season.
9. Steven Gerrard (Liverpool FC)
Rafa Benítez might have added a strong Hispanic flavour to the Liverpool squad, but the passion inside the club remains strong, largely thanks to their inspirational captain. Gerrard, unlike many other England internationals, has an enviable amount of raw talent, leading to high praise from across the globe from the likes of Kaká and Carlo Ancelotti, and in guiding the Reds to another European final, confirmed that he is ready to join the all-time greats of the Premiership, and indeed the world. Twice almost a Chelsea player, Gerrard ultimately stated loyal and though his long-standing ambition to win the league has not been met, Liverpool’s objectives have satisfied him that further silverware is imminent.
8. Gennaro Gattuso (AC Milan)
Even Gattuso’s various managers are not safe from his insatiable passion for football, with both Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti suffering at the hands of an adrenaline-fuelled midfielder. The ultimate terrier, Gattuso has enjoyed the best 12 months of his career, collecting the World Cup and Champions League – and immeasurably contributing to both successes. The second leg of the semi-final against Manchester United brought one of his best performances of the season as AC Milan slaughtered the English champions 3-0, and Liverpool subsequently failed to handle the ferocious Italian in Athens.
7. Michael Essien (Chelsea FC)
He appears quiet and unassuming, but the Ghanaian is any manager’s dream. Rarely will you hear dissent from Essien’s mouth, even though he was asked to play in defence far more than he would have liked. Mourinho learned, though, that Essien can play just about anywhere and will always give his maximum and in a season of unpredictability, the 24-year-old was the only mark of consistency across the entire squad – and elsewhere within the club. Chelsea’s best performer is high on the wish list of all the continent’s top coaches.
6. Didier Drogba (Chelsea FC)
Drogba’s renaissance has been well documented: an ineffective ballet dancer transformed into a predatory striker in the space of 12 months. The Ivorian picks the last minute leveller at the Camp Nou as his favourite goal, but there have been so many special and important ones. The winner at home to Barcelona on the previous Champions League matchday; sublime efforts against Liverpool and Everton; the brilliantly worked winner in the FA Cup final. Chelsea’s search for a lethal striker – culminating with the ill-fated transfer of Andriy Shevchenko – has finally ended, though last summer not many would have predicted that it whould be Drogba outclassing the Ukrainian.
5. Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
He is probably the scariest youngster on the planet and the finest talent in Barcelona’s enviable squad. The 2006/7 campaign saw the maturity of the 20-year-old wizard, and he scored one of the most phenomenal goals in memory in the Copa del Rey against Getafe, dribbling past five opponents across a distance of 60 yards before finishing with his wrong foot. It typified a season of prominence for the Argentine as he led the front line ahead of the squabbling, at times unfit duo of Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o and his mid-season injury probably cost Barcelona league glory. Unlike some of his Barca teammates, Messi has no plans to miss the Copa América.
4. Ruud van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid CF)
Real Madrid fans pinpointed the Dutchman, who has scored 90% of his goals from inside the penalty area, as the principal reason for the club’s unanticipated La Liga triumph. Perhaps an undeserved crown, but Van Nistelrooy kept Madrid in contention with vital strikes and was central to their incredible end-of-season run, scoring in seven consecutive matches and matching a record set by former great Hugo Sanchez. Most of los blancos’ support were somewhat sceptical on Van Nistelrooy’s arrival from Manchester United, viewing him as a player past his peak, but a league title and the pichici – given to the top goalscorer in Spain – vindicated the decision to purchase him.
3. Francesco Totti (AS Roma)
The enigma has at last been solved. Adored in Italy’s capital forever, Totti has failed to convince those outside the country that he is indeed one the most talented stars in football. Until now. Winning the European Golden boot is the best way to show the world your talent, and Totti did just that with 26 goals and numerous assists, guiding Roma to second place and the Coppa Italia, plus a surprise place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, where the Roman sparkled in the first leg against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Many saw the World Cup as the opportunity for Totti to quieten critics, but apart from a fantastic penalty to win against Australia, he missed the chance. He subsequently put his international career on ice, and the decision was justified by a tremendous season as captain and playmaker. A true one-club man, Totti will never leave Roma, and if he can play so magnificently, there will be no suggestion that he should find a new team. The critics have no case to argue any longer.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United FC)
The revolution of Ronaldo is perhaps less shocking than the man he beat to the PFA Players’ Award, Didier Drogba, because his early days at Old Trafford has offered glimpses of his fantastic skill and propensity to be able to alter matches with a sole, lung-bursting run. However, Ronaldo had also picked up a reputation as a diver while an end product was missing, but the 2006/7 season has been one to remember for the Portuguese international. Undoubtedly Manchester United’s best performer, Ronaldo was the instigator behind the unexpected league triumph and a treble success even looked possible as the season headed towards its climax. It all came together wonderfully for the 22-year-old, who is now broadly rated as one of the top five players in the world; his value? Close to £50m.
1. Kaká (AC Milan)
Ronaldinho has the tricks, Ronaldo the flair, but Kaká has it all. Brazilians are the most naturally talented footballers on the globe and the 25-year-old incorporates his Latin elegance into his overall, devastating game, which has been perfectly adapted for the robustness of the European game. For Brazil, he plays with greater flamboyance but is also their most valuable player; for Milan, he is prepared to discard the exquisite touches and accordingly is brutally efficient; in the Champions League, which is the truest test of whether a player can contend to be best, he runs rings around the opposition at will. Whether it was against Anderlecht or Manchester United, Kaká was the finest Champions League player last season by a distance. His deft touch belies his 6”1 frame, his vision is extraordinary as is his composure in front of goal and he refuses to let any game pass him by. He is technically outstanding and an iconic, consummate player, who is devoted to religion and maintains a discreet, controversy-free life, making him the ideal role model for young footballers. Undoubtedly the world’s most valuable player – rated around the £45m mark – Real Madrid and Barcelona are desperate to acquire, at any cost, the most skilful and gifted midfielder seen for a decade. However, Kaká is utterly happy in Italy and there is a sense of the invaluable about this remarkable player whose contract only expires in 2011. Most believe he will captain Brazil in the future and steer them towards more World Cup glory while continuing to add to his trophy cabinet at club level. In the short-term, the Ballon D’Or and World Footballer of the Year crown are heading his way as Kaká endeavours to retain his place at the pinnacle of the game and ensure he is written into football’s annals as a true great of this era.