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 60-51, including Chelsea's 'evolving' starlet, our only teenager AND the oldest player on our list.
60. Raheem Sterling
Did you know? Sterling has scored or assisted 15 league goals in 2014 already; the youngest player in Europe's top five leagues to have reached double figures.
Forget Liverpool’s timid start to the campaign, and anything you might think about that whole tiredness business – without Sterling, Liverpool wouldn’t have challenged for the Premier League title last season. Luis Suarez was devastating, and the undisputed force behind the Reds’ charge, but the Uruguayan couldn’t have done it all without the help of his prodigious team-mate. Sterling’s stunning solo display against Norwich left Brendan Rodgers’ men on the brink of glory, only for things to turn bad against Chelsea and Crystal Palace. Undeterred, the 19-year-old later proved one of England’s rare positives at an otherwise dismal World Cup – and a key player in Roy Hodgson's ongoing rebuilding process. As with Rodgers, the question for Hodgson is not whether to select Sterling, but where best to deploy him. JB
INTERVIEW Sterling: run your marker ragged
59. Gonzalo Higuain
Did you know? The Napoli man has scored (14) or assisted (6) 20 league goals in 2014 so far.
Before signing for Napoli last year, Higuain was Europe's most coveted benchwarmer, patiently watching as various Real Madrid managers employed a conveyor belt of stellar names while his stock, somehow, increased. And with good reason: with 100 La Liga goals in the bank, the Argentine switched seamlessly to Serie A, scoring 24 in 46 games. This form was capped by a useful World Cup in which Higuain – more important to his country than the overlooked Carlos Tevez or the unfit Sergio Aguero – grabbed the winner in a 1-0 quarter-final win over Belgium. MA
Did you know? Oscar made 26 tackles at the 2014 World Cup; only Javier Mascherano (30) made more at the tournament.
The Brazilian may have slipped 10 places in FFT’s rankings, but Oscar continues to attract admirers at Stamford Bridge. Luckily for him, they now include the boss. “Oscar has had a mental and tactical evolution that has allowed him to be a fantastic player,” Jose Mourinho enthused after a 2-1 win at Crystal Palace in October. “He’s not a No.10 that plays with the ball at his feet. He analyses the game and sees where the team needs him to move.” After netting nine goals last season, the Samba star has played a prominent role in Chelsea’s all-conquering start to 2014/15, including stunning strikes against Palace and QPR. GD
INTERVIEW Oscar: play that killer pass
Did you know? Of the 68 players in the top five leagues to have made over 1500 passes in 2014, Xavi has played the fewest minutes (1833 passes in 1637 minutes).
Despite our incessant need for story arcs, football rarely feeds us fairytale endings. Even the greatest players tend not to bow out in the centre of the biggest stages, instead edging away from the limelight and blending into the scenery. The man of a thousand preposterous pass statistics turns 35 years old in January; having retired from Spain duty in the summer, he has more often than not been left out of the Barcelona team of which he has been a mainstay throughout the millennium. That doesn’t make him a bad player overnight, and they won five of the first six games he appeared in, but the loss was an important one – to Real Madrid – and he may continue to find himself overlooked on the big occasion. GP
INTERVIEW Xavi: master the pass
56. Giorgio Chiellini
Did you know? In 25 league appearances in 2014 in Serie A so far (as of Nov 21), Chiellini has been involved in 15 clean sheets.
The enduring image of Chiellini’s year comes from Brazil 2014: the defender sitting in the Italy penalty area, one hand raised in protest, the other clutching the bite mark left by Uruguay’s “cannibal squirrel”, Luis Suarez. Shame, really, because Juve’s immovable object and vice-captain – previously voted the seventh-best player operating in Europe – enjoyed a solid season as his side strode to a Serie A title, a charge that included a five-month unbeaten run. He’s now into his thirties, but when has that ever stopped an Italian defender improving? MA
INTERVIEW Chiellini: Keep your emotions in check on the big occasion
Did you know? Gabi was an integral part of Atletico Madrid's 2013/14 season, playing 57 games in all comps for the La Liga champions.
One of Atletico’s key players not to be picked off by the European big hitters following Diego Simeone's upending of the La Liga apple-cart, Gabi certainly rounded off the domestic season in style: it was his corner that resulted in an equaliser against Barcelona, the subsequent 1-1 draw earning his team their first title in 18 years. This glory was bittersweet, though. Gabi was part of the team that lost out in the Champions League final to a Real Madrid unit big on swagger. Still, his captain’s role in helping Atleti to break up the big two’s dominance in Spain was pivotal – hence his debut appearance in the FFT100. MA
54. Gianluigi Buffon
Did you know? The veteran stopper started the 2014/15 season with 7 consecutive clean sheets for club and country.
Still a cornerstone for both club and country, Buffon endured mixed fortunes during 2014. Italy were knocked out in the group stage of his fifth World Cup, and it is perhaps telling that even at 36 he hasn’t retired from international football under his old Juventus boss Antonio Conte. As has so often been the case since 2001, he excelled with Juve, helping them to a Serie A title and the Europa League semi-finals. In recognition of a superb career he was awarded the Nereo Rocco Prize in September… two months after extending his Juventus contract to 2017. MA
53. Mario Mandzukic
Did you know? No player has scored more headed goals in Europe's top five leagues in 2014 than Mandzukic (6).
To look at Mandzukic’s 2014 is to wonder. The Croatian striker managed 26 goals and 10 assists in all competitions for Bayern Munich last season, a vital component of a team that retained both domestic league and cup in Germany. The 28-year-old ended the campaign as second-top scorer in the Bundesliga and scored twice at the World Cup to boot. Yet Pep Guardiola wasn’t satisfied, rumours of a rift between player and manager growing until Mandzukic was sold to Atletico Madrid in the summer, with the player admitting Guardiola’s style of play didn’t suit him. Statistically a good year, but not enough to stop him becoming a square peg in a round hole for Pep. JF
52. Leonardo Bonucci
Did you know? Bonnuci has helped keep 16 clean sheets in 2014 already in Serie A; no outfield player in the top five leagues has more.
Another year, another Scudetto for Juventus, and once again 27-year-old Bonucci played a major part. With the Italy international in defence Juve only conceded 23 goals all season in Serie A, cruising to the title with a quite remarkable 17-point margin. Bonucci’s rugged nature, twinned with his impressive distribution and vision from deep defensive positions, means he remains a key component of Juve’s stalwart defence, though he was rotated at times last season with Angelo Ogbonna and Martin Caceres among the capable alternatives. Smart on the ball and not afraid to put his body on the line for the team. JF
51. Antonio Di Natale
Did you know? Di Natale (19) has netted more goals than anyone else in Serie A this calendar year.
A drop of 10 places, but still not bad for a player who was supposed be enjoying his retirement right now after bowing out with a hat-trick against Sampdoria at the end of last season (honestly, who writes this man’s scripts?). Instead, Di Natale decided to give it one more year for his beloved Udinese, and neither party is regretting it – the 37-year-old striker is already into double figures for the season, having bagged at least 20 in his previous five. A top-notch all-round goalscorer, whom Italy might wish had prolonged his international career beyond Euro 2012. LM