Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
Andrea Pirlo has been playing top-level football for over a decade, but Euro 2012 was when the hipster footballer went mainstream. It’s surprising Pirlo has taken so long to acquire such a grand reputation – this is a double European Cup winner, and man-of-the-match in the 2006 World Cup final – but his transfer to Juventus in 2011 has prompted a new wave of Pirlo love.
Euro 2012 featured his masterful display of long-range passing against England, even in a goalless draw, before Pirlo’s beautiful ‘Panenka’ penalty provided the tournament’s finest moment.
The Italian playmaker has repeatedly said he’ll retire from international football after this World Cup, and therefore this is his final chance to shine on the world stage.
He plays the same game – collecting possession in deep positions before launching long passes into attack. While often famed for his diagonal balls, Italy’s narrowness and the pace of Mario Balotelli and Ciro Immobile means his distribution might be more direct.
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
Andres Iniesta is a fantastic player for Barcelona, but he’s even better in the red of Spain. He smashed in the winner in the last World Cup final, and was named Player of the Tournament at Euro 2012. Although usually fielded high on Spain’s left flank, a position he doesn’t enjoy as much in the centre of midfield, from this role he leads his side’s attacking charge more.
The reason is that there’s no Lionel Messi. Without him to supply, Iniesta goes on more mazy dribbles, and attacks the opposition penalty area more directly. In Euro 2012, against both Italy and Croatia, Iniesta’s solo slaloms prompted incredible photos, showing multiple opponents trying to tackle him – but, in reality, this was because he was sometimes the only Spanish player attacking.
Vicente del Bosque’s forward trio is undecided – he could use direct players like Pedro Rodriguez and Diego Costa, or link-up men like David Silva and Cesc Fabregas. Iniesta’s role will depend upon the identity of his team-mates, but the tiki-taka master could be Spain’s most direct attacker.
Steven Gerrard (England)
At Euro 2012, only two players made the team of the tournament without reaching the semi-final stage. With German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese players dominating, the names of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Steven Gerrard were particularly noteworthy.
While Ibrahimovic won’t be in Brazil – and says he won’t be watching, either – Gerrard is again England’s captain. His Euro 2012 displays were most obvious for his superb deliveries into the box – in England’s three group games, he assisted three goals: Joleon Lescott headed in against France, Andy Carroll nodded in against Sweden, Wayne Rooney did the same against Ukraine. The theme was Gerrard’s wicked balls from the right flank.
After the huge disappointment of missing out on the title with Liverpool, Gerrard will be desperate to bounce back with a strong showing in Brazil. Now playing a deep-lying role in his autumn years, Gerrard’s defensive discipline will be tested against the world’s best No.10s.
Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Ozil was fantastic in some matches at Euro 2012, memorably showing brilliant positional intelligence to expose Holland’s static midfield in a comfortable 2-1 German win.
But Germany exited the competition at the semi-final stage against Italy, with Ozil shifted to the right flank, and Toni Kroos used at the top of the midfield triangle, told to track Andrea Pirlo. Clearly, it wasn’t a successful tactical move from Jogi Löw, and that defeat was hugely frustrating for Ozil, who prefers to start centrally. He couldn’t influence the game from the right, and must feel slightly snubbed by his national team coach.
This time around, there are question marks about Ozil’s form, which dipped towards the end of his debut Arsenal campaign. Germany have plenty of playmakers desperate to fill the No.10 role, and Ozil must dominate this side from the outset if he’s to remain in his best position.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t at his best during Euro 2012, but he still shared the top goalscorer award with three goals in five games. Following a disappointing opening defeat against Germany, where Ronaldo was very quiet, he also caused problems with his lack of defensive work against Denmark.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento instructs Ronaldo to stay high up the pitch rather than tracking the opposition right-back, and Lars Jacobsen moving forward unattended meant Denmark created two goals from their right flank. Ronaldo, meanwhile, failed to take his chances on the break. He justified this freedom, however, with two fine goals against Holland in the final group game.
Ronaldo has a huge task this summer. He’s accustomed to having to compensate for Portgual’s lack of a reliable goalscoring forward. But now, with his former Manchester United teammate Nani in poor form on the right flank, Ronaldo the only dangerous Portuguese attacker, and might need to win games solo.