Introducing the season's most terrifying wideman, La Liga's pint-sized diamond and a striker who can't stop scoring...
40. Jerome Boateng
Pep Guardiola has faith in Jerome Boateng. The tactical anarchist looked at a man previously mistrusted at Manchester City, played out of position by Germany and flowering but not yet in bloom for Bayern Munich, and decided: yes. This guy can do all of my team’s defending. Guardiola is basically reinventing the concept of formations now, treating team-sheets like a modern art canvas, but as names swim before one’s eyes it’s clear that Jerome Boateng is in defence because, quite often, he’s the only one in defence.
Yet this Bayern team, with two wing-backs in its three-man backline or eight midfielders sharing a football pitch, is dominating the Bundesliga once again, conceding only five goals in 13 games. Why? How? Because Pep Guardiola has faith in Jerome Boateng. And boy, has he repaid it. – HD
39. Yaya Toure
Yaya Toure is not a happy bunny. In October he told L’Equipe of his “disgust” at the “bitter people” who “annoy and alienate” him. Considering he added: “I’ve won titles, lots of money, but I am not happy”, and considering his agent’s regular laments around contract renewal time, it’s impressive he’s so well-liked.
That’s because an on-form Yaya Toure still leaves fans awestruck. Premier League teams know not to underestimate him, and in January he could be named African Footballer of the Year for the fifth time running. However, his force-of-nature performances are becoming less frequent.
He captained his country to a long-awaited Africa Cup of Nations, but what’s really huge is this Champions League campaign: a chance to show Europe what England already knows. Toure’s wife told him recently: “Sometimes I don’t understand you.” She’s not alone. – HD
38. Arturo Vidal
The Chilean’s driving may not be the best, but he can play a bit. Vidal has never been far from the headlines during 2015, crashing his Ferrari while under the influence of alcohol midway through Copa America, then telling police in Santiago: “Handcuff me, but you’ll be sh****** on the whole of Chile!"
The midfielder was released in time to help his country become champions of South America, having already netted three goals at the tournament before his little off-road adventure.
Vidal had played his part in Juventus’ progress to the Champions League final, too, before joining Bayern Munich for £25.8m ahead of the new campaign. So far he has navigated the roads of Munich safely and played his part as Bayern have surged clear in the Bundesliga. – CF
37. Javier Mascherano
The Argentine would be an awful lot higher in any given player poll in the world, were he able to put in a few shifts in his preferred position – anchoring a midfield. (Still, a decent Copa America and Barça's Treble has pushed him up the rankings.) Unfortunately, one of the best footballers to have ever played that role happens to be in the Catalan’s current midfield in the shape and sturdy form of Sergi Busquets.
Instead, the former Liverpool man has spent many a season now at centre-back, the reliable straight man to the a partnership that currently revolves between four or five different players depending on who is in or out of form (that’s you Gerard Piqué) or injured (and that would be you, Thomas Vermaelen). – TS
36. Karim Benzema
The French striker’s 2015 will likely be best remembered for what went on off the field. First there were summer-long murmurings of a move to Arsenal, then the near-farcical Mathieu Valbuena sex tape blackmail story. But on the pitch, although he was unable to continue his hot streak of last Autumn into the early months of 2015, he has still looked a persistent threat in front of goal.
Having taken his tally for 2014/15 to a not unreasonable 22 goals in 46 matches, Benzema started the new season on fire, netting seven times in seven games as Madrid flew out of the traps. His good form may have been brought to an abrupt end by a hamstring injury in October, but there’s no question that, when fit and focussed, Benzema is among the game’s deadliest strikers. – JM
35. Gerard Pique
Barcelona have two separate players rolled into one with Piqué. There is the beast of a defender, the footballer who can win games single-handedly at the back while charging upfield for a fifth, just so the former Manchester United man can bait the Bernabéu into oblivion. (His third Champions League winners’ medal was secured last June as part of Barça’s second Treble of trophies won.)
Then there’s the ‘fat Elvis’ version: slow, uninterested, and chunky, a defensive liability that each one of his managers has had to deal with by benching and banishing to a step machine. Piqué is the last of the rebellious footballers, a player who shacks up with a megastar, parks his car where he likes and doesn’t give a hoot. If being dull is a crime, then Piqué is cleared of all charges. – TS
34. Douglas Costa
It’s arguable that no player in the world has wowed crowds quite like Douglas Costa in 2015/16 so far. Sure, Neymar has netted a sackful more goals than his compatriot, but for pure entertainment value alone Bayern Munich’s €30 million man from Shakhtar Donetsk has a terrific case.
The speedster had long established himself as a force in Ukraine, but it’s quickly become apparent why Pep Guardiola believed the Brazilian could improve his dominant German champions out wide. Costa sparkled while Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were injured, adding to his personal highlights reel on a weekly basis with devastating darts down the wing which helped produce seven assists in his first seven Bundesliga matches. Some bamboozling skills have left defenders for dead – and fans wanting more. – JB
33. Sergio Ramos
When Manchester United were looking to ease Ramos away from Real Madrid last summer, the footballing qualities of the player were just what Louis van Gaal craved. The strongest suit of Ramos has always been the fact that he doesn’t just wear his heart on his sleeve but dons Lady Gaga’s meat suit every time he steps out onto the pitch. Ramos is a footballer men and women want to be with, players want alongside them and managers need on the team-sheet when it’s squeaky-bum time. The Madrid captain is not so much a defender as the civilisation-saving John Conner of football: play with me if you want to live. A slight fall in the rankings reflects Madrid’s inability to catch Barcelona domestically and in Europe. – TS
32. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Milan had not just one but three Aubameyang brothers in their ranks at some stage or other, but all three departed without making an impact at the San Siro. The eldest of the trio, Catilina, was the only sibling to make a senior appearance for the Rossoneri but while he’s now back in his native Gabon with Sapins FC, it’s been youngest brother Pierre-Emerick who has become a superstar in the first half of the 2015/16 season.
The Borussia Dortmund speedster had netted 22 goals by early November – three more than Bayern Munich’s headline-hoarder Robert Lewandowski at the same stage – and is now being linked with the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal. He’s likely to cost an awful lot more now than the £11m Dortmund paid to sign him from Saint-Etienne two years ago. – CF
31. Antoine Griezmann
It’s difficult to believe that countless professional clubs as a youngster rejected Antoine Griezmann. Few doubted his talent, the worries surrounded the slight frame. Not any more.
Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi scored more than the Frenchman’s 22 Liga goals last season and Griezmann has been no less prolific this campaign, hitting four in his first five Champions League outings.
The 24-year-old is evolving, too, alternating between a centre-forward and a deeper No.10 role when Fernando Torres starts for Atleti and playing from a wide starting position for France, for whom he’s a leading light. All of a sudden, the €30m Los Colchoneros paid Real Sociedad at the beginning of last season doesn’t look like a bad bit of business. Now, he just needs a major trophy to become great. – AM