The experts have been consulted, the contenders have been discussed, and the arguments have been had (several times over). Now it's here - FourFourTwo's eighth annual countdown of the world's 100 best football players.
Below are numbers 20-11, including the world's best defender, a 26-year-old veteran and the man who dictates Madrid's rhythm.
20. Yaya Toure
Did you know? Toure is the joint-top scoring midfield player in the top five European leagues in 2014 so far, with 14 goals.
In May 2012, with Man City needing a win at Newcastle, Roberto Mancini substituted Samir Nasri for Nigel de Jong. Brows furrowed but the switch allowed Toure to stride forward, dominate Newcastle and score the goals that won that first title as surely as did Sergio Aguero's subsequent and somewhat more Hollywood effort. Two seasons later, with Aguero frequently injured, it was Toure who again stepped up, scoring 20 league goals to drag the Sky Blues back to title triumph. At his best Toure is as unstoppable as a muscular 15-year-old ringer in a primary school game, swatting past floundering opponents before unleashing shots of technical beauty. City's big question is not where to play him but how to even consider replacing a man who turns 32 at season's end. GP
INTERVIEW Toure: Dominate the middle of the park
19. Cesc Fabregas
Did you know? Fabregas has averaged a goal assist every 224 minutes in his Premier League career, the best rate of any player ever (min 25 assists).
Despite performing admirably in a variety of roles during three years at the Camp Nou, Cesc’s Barça adventure wasn’t quite the dream return he’d hoped for. After a forgettable summer with Spain, however, it looks like trophies ahoy for the midfield schemer as part of Jose Mourinho’s revamped Chelsea. He may have fitted in at Stamford Bridge seamlessly, but what Fabregas does best has changed very little over the last decade: trademarked Spanish ball-hogging, and a truly refined eye for the right pass – with Diego Costa in particular banqueting on his assists. NM
18. Luka Modric
Did you know? The former Spurs man has made more passes than any other Real Madrid player in 2014 so far (1734).
“Modric is changing the rhythm of the way we play in attack,” Carlo Ancelotti declared towards the end of Real Madrid’s Champions League-winning 2013/14 season. “He displays a lot of character and it’s important to have personality.” Modric played over 50 games for Madrid and the balance the little magician brought to Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 formation was hugely important in Madrid’s run to a 10th European Cup. The Croatian's poise, link play between attack and defence and ability to both spot and execute the killer pass were all central to Madrid’s successful season. Little wonder, then, that the midfielder climbs into our top 20. JF
17. Diego Godín
Did you know? No defender has been part of more clean sheets in 2014 in La Liga than Godin (17; level with Juanfran).
It’s been a remarkable 12 months for the Atletico Madrid centre-half, a player whose performances for club and country have passed by relatively unheralded. FFT’s blast of trumpets here is based on a season in which Godin helped build a barrier that saw los Rojiblancos concede only 26 goals as they upset the natural order in winning La Liga. Illustrating his worth at either end, his header at Camp Nou sealed Atleti’s first title in 18 years. En route to the Champions League final, Godin marshalled a defence that conceded just six times – and opened the scoring with what should have been the winning goal (his penchant for important strikes also saw him send Uruguay through into the World Cup last 16 at the expense of Italy). The big surprise is not that Godin sits 17th on this list, for that is fully deserved, but that Atletico managed to keep hold of him. NH
16. Sergio Aguero
Did you know? Only Les Ferdinand (13 in 95/96) has bagged more goals in the opening 11 matches of a Premier League season than Aguero managed this term (12).
He’s still only 26 despite making his professional debut 11 (ELEVEN) years ago, but 2014/15 could be his most prolific season yet. Aguero is nothing if not a reliable source of goals: at no point in 2014 has he gone more than two Premier League games without scoring. A record of 12 in 12 at the start of this season, on top of five in five in the Champions League including that hat-trick against Bayern Munich, is even more impressive given that he’s without an in-form striking partner, which was so helpful last term. Just think: if he had two working hamstrings, Aguero could be the world’s best striker and Argentina may have won the World Cup. HD
Did you know? Neymar netted 15 goals in 14 appearances for Brazil in 2014, his most prolific year yet for his country.
A small rise in the rankings for the Samba star, whose 2013/14 ended with domestic disappointment and World Cup heartbreak (and back-break). The signing from Santos struck 13 goals and set up 11 others as Barca lost out to Atletico Madrid both in the La Liga title race and Champions League quarter-finals. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, Neymar seemed to be single-handedly dragging Brazil through their home World Cup – converting an ice-cool penalty in the last 16 shootout against Chile – only for Colombia’s Camilo Zuniga to fracture the Brazilian's spinal vertebra, and Germany to crush Brazil’s spirit. GD
14. Toni Kroos
Did you know? Kroos made more passes than any other player at the 2014 World Cup (544).
It’s a struggle to think of a player who passes the ball as effortlessly and effectively as Kroos. Three seasons ago the 24-year-old was playing as an attacking midfielder, not quite good enough to assert his authority deeper, but rated highly by Bayern Munich’s hierarchy nonetheless. How right they were has been proven by his subsequent successes: key roles in a 2012/13 treble, another title the following season and then, to cap it all, a starring part in Germany’s World Cup triumph. Four days after lifting the trophy in Brazil, the young pass-master was announced as a Real Madrid Galactico. As a successor to Xabi Alonso, there was no one better suited. JB
13. Thomas Muller
Did you know? Muller scored 5 goals in 7 games at the 2014 World Cup; he now has 10 goals in 13 games in the competition in total.
A worker, a chaser, a scrapper, an awkward, gangly man with elbows and limbs jutting out at all kinds of obscure angles. A wide man, a playmaker, a No.10, a false nine: Müller is many things, but easy to contain, he ain’t. A consummate professional, the German is a tireless worker (only one player covered more ground in last season’s Champions League than his 136.25 metres-per-minute average) with an ‘unorthodox playing style’, according to his national coach – and a straight-talker who quipped post-World Cup that FIFA could "stick their Golden Boot up their arse". Above all, though, he’s an excellent footballer. JF
12. Andres Iniesta
Did you know? Iniesta has averaged more final-third passes per game in 2014 (27.5) than he did in 2013.
So, he is human after all? Although admittedly not that human, what with Iniesta still being the 12th best footballer on the planet despite enduring a sub-standard year by his own ridiculously high standards. Statistically, 2013/14 was Iniesta’s poorest campaign since an injury-ravaged 2009/10 – when he still managed to score the winner in the World Cup final. A trophyless season for Barcelona and playing every game of Spain’s humiliation in Brazil hasn’t helped, but he still has feet to die for, and a footballing brain to match. If 2014 was the year of the athlete, look out for 2015: Revenge of the Technicians. LM
INTERVIEW Iniesta: How to dominate the midfield
11. Thibaut Courtois
Did you know? Courtois kept a La Liga-high 20 clean sheets as Atletico Madrid won the Spanish top flight in 2013/14.
The only surprise in Courtois’ peerless Premier League displays is that they didn’t begin earlier. The Belgian was among the best in his position when Chelsea decided to loan him to Atletico Madrid for a third season, and after an incredible campaign for the Mattress Makers, he’s making up for lost time. As a goalkeeper he has it all: unflappable temperament, wonderful reflexes, excellent distribution, total command of his area – even height (6ft 6in). And he’s only 22. He could be more vocal with his defence and upset his team-mates less, but really, the sky’s the limit. HD