FourFourTwo's 100 Best Football Players in the World 2017: 90-81
90. Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan)
- Donnarumma is the youngest goalkeeper in Serie A history (16 years, 8 months), having debuted on October 25, 2015 against Sassuolo. He's started all 84 Serie A matches since
As he closes in on a century of appearances for Milan, it’s hard to believe that Donnarumma is still only 18. Having made his debut for the club in 2015/16, aged 16, he’s since established himself as the true heir to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne.
Of course, 2017 hasn’t all been plain sailing. He took his time before extending his contract with the Rossoneri, enraging supporters as he flirted with the idea of a move away. He has also looked shaky at times, most notably when conceding having failed to control a backpass against Pescara in April.
Despite all of that, Donnarumma remains integral to Milan and Italy. His youth may lead some to see him as an exceptional prospect, but in truth he has already surpassed that status thanks to a plethora of game-changing performances.
Highlight: In March, the teenager made his first start for Italy in a friendly against Holland. In doing so, he became the youngest goalkeeper ever to start for his country.
Words: Blair Newman
89. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
- Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more La Liga goals than Karim Benzema (124) since he joined Real Madrid in 2009
At his best, the Frenchman greases the wheels of Real Madrid's attack and creates space for Cristiano Ronaldo. At his worst, he’s passive and wasteful.
Sadly for him, the latter version has appeared more often than the former this year. Benzema has hit just 12 goals in 39 games in La Liga and the Champions League and, while few fans minded his modest record when Madrid won the Double, glaring misses have since proved more costly. He has recorded just seven assists all year.
It hasn’t helped that Alvaro Morata and Mariano, the strikers who Madrid sold in summer, have been scoring for fun. Yet even as his own fans have whistled him, Benzema has retained the support of the club, who gave him a new four-year-deal in September.
Highlight: In May, Benzema skipped past three Atletico Madrid players near the touchline to set up a crucial away goal in the Champions League semi-finals.
Words: Thore Haugstad
88. Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich)
- Muller carved out 12 Bundesliga assists in 2016/17, his highest single-season total in the competition
It’s arguably been Thomas Muller's most challenging year as a Bayern Munich player. The goals haven't flowed at the same rate, and the “space investigator” tag doesn't seem to quite have the same ring as it did before.
Across most of the current campaign, Muller hasn't really pushed Robert Lewandowski for the No.9 shirt. The Germany international's goal drought wasn't as painful as his 1,000-minute wait for a goal in 2016, but it still hurt. He netted only four in the second half of last season and has managed a solitary strike this term.
The 28-year-old isn't so much going through a drought, but an identity crisis at Bayern Munich. Does he still matter to them? The time may come for the German champions to push for an innovative manager – a Pep Guardiola type – and it remains to be seen how Muller can sustain his career at the top level should that happen. One saving grace, though (at least for now): Joachim Low still entrusts him as a key component of his Germany side.
Highlight: In Manuel Neuer's recent absence, Muller has been given the honour of captaining the side – certainly another ambition fulfilled for the local-boy-made-good.
Words: Russell Smith
87. Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)
- Rakitic won possession 34 times in Croatia's successful World Cup qualifying play-off win over Greece; only one Croatian player won more in those ties
Since arriving at Barcelona from Sevilla in 2014, Rakitic has accepted the fact that he will no longer be the force that could single-handedly drive his team to victory. And yet, the same hard work and determination that he put into his captaincy in Andalusia has helped the sacrifices he has been willing to make at Camp Nou.
The Croatian is often asked to do some hard running in midfield, but still has the footballing brain to cover spaces intelligently, and the technical ability to help Barça retain possession or release their marauding full-backs out wide. Since the appointment of Ernesto Valverde as boss, Rakitic has turned into a dependable general in the Catalans’ midfield.
Highlight: Playing in all of Barça’s first 20 matches of 2017/2018 – only the second player at the club to manage that feat in the last five years.
Words: Simon Harrison
86. Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea)
- Fabregas has played more Premier League games than any other Spanish player (327), having managed his 300th match (212 apps with Arsenal) in February
A Premier League champion in May and Chelsea’s most creative operative during Antonio Conte’s first season, desspite barely starting a third of their games. Fabregas spent most of the early part of the year providing invention from the bench; a third wheel to the highly successful N’Golo Kante-Nemanja Matic partnership.
Six months on, and with Matic now wearing Manchester United red (and Tiemoue Bakayoko not yet convincing on either side of the ball), Fabregas is as important as ever. He has never been the quickest player, nor the most combative, but he retains a knifing passing range that still challenges defenders the length and breadth of the country.
Highlight: His second Premier League title in May. A peripheral figure in one sense, but utterly invaluable in another: a team-leading 12 assists made him by far the most valuable auxiliary option in the league.
Words: Seb Stafford-Bloor