100. Mohamed Salah
There's nothing wrong with getting chewed up and spat out by Chelsea’s voracious youth recruitment system. Ask Kevin De Bruyne, in and out of Cobham’s revolving doors within two years, and now back in the Premier League as one of Europe’s most respected playmakers after proving himself at Wolfsburg. Salah may not yet be of the same stripe as the ruddy-faced Belgian, but he’s following a similar course.
A makeweight loanee swapping places with Juan Cuadrado in the last winter window, he showed enough form for Fiorentina (nine goals in 26 games) to earn a move to Champions League side Roma, on a loan quickly converted to a permanent deal. He’s already bagged half a dozen for Rudi Garcia’s side – including one in Florence that took his new team top of the table. Maybe this quicksilver talent was another that Chelsea let go too soon. – GP
99. Grzegorz Krychowiak
Twelve months ago, few people outside Nervion – Seville’s beating commercial heart, and home to the city’s biggest football team – could even spell copy-and-paste’s Krychowiak, let alone know how he played. Now, the Pole is one of Europe’s most in-demand defensive midfielders after starring in Sevilla’s retention of the Europa League and fifth-place La Liga finish.
The 25-year-old’s rise has been heady since an under-the-radar €4.5m move from Reims in the summer of 2014, his consistency and rangy dynamism allowing Yevhen Konoplyanka and Ever Banega the freedom to create further forward for Unai Emery’s men. With Arsenal in need of defensive midfield cover because of injury to Francis Coquelin, Arsene Wenger could do much worse than buy the backbone of Sevilla’s success. The problem? Krychowiak won’t come cheap. – AM
98. Ezequiel Garay
A year of two halves for the 29-year-old centre-back, who ended his first season in Saint Petersburg with silverware as Zenit captured a first league title since 2011/12. And having seen his efforts recognised and rewarded by being named Fans’ Player of the Season, Garay then flew off to Chile to help his country come a penalty shootout away from a first Copa America triumph since 1993.
An early start to the new Russian season meant Garay wasn’t given sufficient rest, but despite the fatigue the former Real Madrid and Benfica stopper has still played a pivotal role in Zenit’s 100% record in the Champions League. Injuries have taken their toll on the international scene, however, limiting Garay to just one cap since the Copa America final. – BC
97. Ricardo Rodriguez
Reports suggest Manchester United may buy the left-back as ‘cover’ to the injured Luke Shaw. If that’s the role United have in mind for the Swiss, he’d be the best cover since Jimi Hendrix reinvented All Along The Watchtower. Like Leighton Baines, but with a better aerial game and worse hair, Rodriguez puts in a mean cross and a meaner set-piece. When 2015/16 began, he’d contributed more goals (11) and assists (18) than any other Bundesliga defender since arriving in January 2012. His defensive game is improving, too.
The quarter-final of Wolfsburg’s triumphant DFB-Pokal campaign – only their second trophy – showed his ability at both ends: the full-back converted a perfect penalty for the winner in their 1-0 defeat of Freiburg, before single-handedly stopping a certain equaliser. He’ll also be key to Switzerland’s stab at meaningful progression at Euro 2016. – HD
96. Stephan Lichtsteiner
Able to operate as both a wing-back and an orthodox right-back, Lichtsteiner was key in enabling Bianconeri boss Max Allegri to switch between three- and four-man defensive systems, and that flexibility was essential in their run to the Champions League final. The Swiss stopper has now won the Serie A title in each of the last four seasons, and weighed in with three goals and five assists in 2014/15 as the Old Lady fell just short of sealing an improbable treble.
Lichtsteiner underwent surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat in October, and was back on the field just 30 days later to score at Borussia Monchengladbach and rescue a point for his side – testament to the incredible drive and intensity that typifies his play. – AD
95. Son Heung-min
Son is our No.1. The top Asian player, that is. Earlier this year we crowned the former Bayer Leverkusen wideman as the best player in our Asia 50. Since then, the Premier League newcomer has earned an £18m move to the Premier League and announced himself at White Hart Lane with three goals in nine games across all competitions, maintaining his good goalscoring rate. Meanwhile, the South Korean has netted five goals and supplied two assists in his last three international appearances.
A recent foot injury has hampered the 23-year-old’s chances of impressing on English shores but there is certainly more to come from the industrious and athletic attacker, able to shoot from range on either foot and perform a variety of attacking roles. Harry Kane, your reinforcements have arrived. – GM
94. Sebastian Giovinco
When Yaya Toure powers past defenders, he looks like a 16-year-old playing in an under-13 game. In the 2015 MLS season, Giovinco resembled the 13-year-old academy wunderkind embarrassing his mates’ dads in the garden. The Atomic Ant’s debut MLS season blew away fellow newbies Kaka, Pirlo, Lampard, Gerrard, Drogba and Villa. The league’s joint-top scorer with 22 and clear assist leader with 16, Giovinco popped in goals for Toronto from long and short range, dead-ball and open play, with right foot and left foot – not headers, obviously, he’s only 5ft 4in – while his almost cruel dribbling dazzled YouTube and arguably attracted a new millennial generation to MLS.
In mid-October, he stepped off a transatlantic flight from Italy – his form has earned an Azzurri recall – 75 minutes before a crucial game in which his goal, said to be Toronto’s best ever, confirmed the team’s first-ever play-off qualification. Those flights may be a thing of the past if Barcelona firm up their interest. – GP
93. Anthony Martial
£36m, potentially rising to £58m, for a little-known teenager? This was a panic buy, surely. It took Martial 20 minutes to disprove that. After his fine goal against Liverpool, sparking four in his first four games, he was justifying that fee. Louis van Gaal had to rethink his claim that Martial was bought “for the next manager”; many wonder why he’s on the wing while Wayne Rooney misfires.
It’s not all been smooth sailing. Paul Scholes, suddenly outspoken, said Martial “doesn’t look bothered if he misses a chance”. If he’d read FourFourTwo, Scholes would know that means little. Armand Garrido, Martial’s former coach, explained: “He’s so relaxed, he feels no pressure. If he misses, he might just smile. That helps.” With opportunities up front in the offing and Euro 2016 on home soil, Martial should have more to smile about next year. – HD
92. Carlos Bacca
The FFT100 waves goodbye to Radamel Falcao this year, an alarming slide from fourth place two years ago – largely due to the fact he’s been playing like a drain ever since, not helped by a serious knee injury in early 2014. Arriving in his place is another Colombian with a penchant for Europa League final goals.
Bacca netted twice for Sevilla in May’s showpiece against Dnipro in Warsaw – including the Spanish club’s winner, a textbook piece of ruthless finishing. The 29-year-old has undoubted killer instinct in the penalty area, and 17 goals in the second half of the 2014/15 season earned the former Club Brugge star a £21m summer move to Milan, which had delivered half a dozen goals by early November. – CF
91. Wayne Rooney
“Rooney, Rooney, Rooney,” sang Wembley as England’s record goalscorer was annointed on September 8 this year, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s long-established total. But you don’t remain in the FFT100 on seven Euro 2016 qualifying goals and sentiment alone. Manchester United’s captain was debated long and hard as to whether he is still the best English player. Finally consensus was reached that although he still is, considering his versatility across the pitch, industry, leadership and ability to withstand high-pressure situations for club and country, Harry Kane had enjoyed a much better 2015 with Tottenham.
But two league goals all season and a roughly on-par support role to Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao last term point towards a year of decline for the 30-year-old. A big 42-place drop indicates that vast improvement is needed if he’s to hang onto his place in this list in 12 months' time. – GM
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