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FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2015: 30-21

Words: Greg Lea, Huw Davies, Andrew Murray, Harriet Drudge, Gregor MacGregor, Gregg Davies, Adam Digby.

30. Raphael Varane

Varane’s development has continued apace in the last 12 months or so, with the Real Madrid defender climbing 55 places after a highly impressive 2015. The Frenchman has started 27 of los Blancos’ 37 La Liga encounters this calendar year, surpassing Sergio Ramos and Pepe as the club’s principal centre-back.

Comfortable with the ball at his feet and an astute reader of the game, Varane is also blessed with lightning speed that can benefit his team in both an attacking and defensive sense, something he demonstrated with this barnstorming run against Atletico Madrid in April. There’s still room for improvement, but Varane is already one of the world’s best centre-halves at the tender age of 22. – GL

29. Thibaut Courtois

He’s collected a league title, a Euro 2016 berth and a baby daughter in the last year, but Courtois has also shown himself to be human, uncharacteristic mistakes prompting an 18-place drop down our list.

And yet his injury has prompted a 14-place drop down the table for his club. The Blues have been sloppy in all areas, but the confidence emanating from Courtois’ presence can’t be underestimated – not when Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea concede more goals in 12 games than in each of their first two title-winning seasons.

The next time you doubt Courtois’ influence, watch him defend a corner. His arms appear to span the penalty area, his rangy stride the stadium, as the ball is sucked towards him like a spider to the plughole. Every subsequent cross sails 10 yards too far from goal. Thibaut Courtois is why. – HDa

28. Toni Kroos

After joining Real Madrid in 2014, Kroos symbolised the Spanish side’s move away from an athletic-based style of play to something more technical in Carlo Ancelotti’s second campaign in charge. The German sat deepest in Madrid’s midfield, building play and setting the tempo from in front of the back four.

His role has changed under Rafael Benitez, with anchorman Casemiro often fielded at the base of the midfield and Kroos pushed further forward. While the 25-year-old hasn’t been at his best so far this season, he remains important for the balance of the team. 2015 may not have been as fruitful for silverware as last year, but the World Cup winner is still a fine midfielder. – GL

27. James Rodriguez

How do you top a season in which you finish as the World Cup top scorer and net the best goal? If you’re James Rodriguez, you train hard and become one of Real Madrid’s most consistent players.

The Colombian combines versatility across los Blancos’ attacking midfield three, even as one of three central midfielders at times in 2014/15 for Carlo Ancelotti, with goals, assists and set-piece invention.

His free-kick against Real Betis in August (opens in new tab) summed up James perfectly – a mixture of supreme artistry and savage power. Although he’s struggled with injuries, Madrid’s lack of creativity without James is striking. To continue progressing, silverware in 2016 is a must, especially after a disappointing Copa America. – AM

26. David de Gea

The ‘will he, won’t he?’ saga of the summer behind him, De Gea has re-established himself as Louis van Gaal’s No.1. Not letting his failed transfer to Real Madrid affect him, the Spaniard simply carried on where he left off in 2014/15 when eventually brought back into the fold after a disruptive start to the season.

A string of spectacular displays, logic-defying shot-stopping and a much-improved physical presence in the penalty area has seen him leap nearly 60 places in the FFT100 list.

The sign of a truly great goalkeeper, the 25-year-old consistently wins his side matches, providing real quality, organisation and confidence at the back, whether for club or country. The custodian could propel either (or both) to silverware come the summer. – HDr

25. David Silva

The Manchester City playmaker has missed plenty of games through injury over the last 12 months but still retains that something special. He’s only completed a full match twice this season in the league, for example, yet still has six assists to his name (albeit from five appearances).

Who scored more goals last season in the league? Wayne Rooney or Silva? Both got 12, but Silva’s came from playing almost 230 fewer minutes of Premier League football. Silva also played his part in helping Spain to qualify for the 2016 European Championship finals, supplying a goal and assist in five appearances over 2015 as 100 caps beckon (he’s currently on 93) for the former Valencia attacker.

Gliding past opponents, finding space, knowing when to hold or release his passes, telepathic link-up play and an unfettered range of passing – the attacking midfielder still shines brightly in the FFT100. – GM

24. Mesut Ozil

Sixteenth on FFT’s list two years ago, the German playmaker struggled to hold down a place among the top 50 last time out after a mixed season at the Emirates Stadium was saved by World Cup success in Brazil. But having been accused of lethargy while marooned out wide, the 27-year-old is now blossoming into the creative king Gunners’ fans hoped they’d recruited from Real Madrid in the summer of 2013.

Assisting Olivier Giroud at West Brom on November 21 made it 11 for the season and ensured he’d set up a goal in an unprecedented seven consecutive Premier League matches, after laying on seven chances against Spurs with some devilish deliveries. “He has grown into a very great player,” cooed Arsene Wenger after the derby. “He has added commitment, leadership qualities and responsibility.” – GD

PERFORMANCE Control the ball like Mesut Ozil

23. Luka Modric

The Real Madrid pivot scored his first goal of the season in sweeping home against Shakhtar Donetsk during the last round of Champions League matches. And over the last 12 months the silky playmaker has proven himself as the fulcrum Madrid can rely upon following the loss of Xabi Alonso in 2014.

A man-of-the-match display in October’s Madrid derby and playing in all but one La Liga match this season are ticks on the Croatian’s FFT100 checklist, although two subsequent defeats, including that 4-0 mauling by Barcelona, has set the deep-lying string-puller back somewhat. Madrid's inability to match Barça over the last 12 months and exit at the Champions League semi-final stage haven’t helped his cause either.

Modric has also featured five times for his country in the last year, netting once and playing an influential role as Croatia qualified for Euro 2016 as Group H runners-up. – GM

22. Giorgio Chiellini

Despite missing it through injury, June’s Champions League final is probably the clearest example of what Giorgio Chiellini means to Juventus. Without the robust defender, the normally assured backline that has served the Bianconeri so well simply crumbled against Barcelona’s impressive attack.

The Catalan giants would likely have still won the cup, but Chiellini would have ensured that they earned it, his crunching tackles and well-timed headers so essential to his side’s success.

Entering his 11th season with the club, Chiellini continues to threaten from set-pieces, scoring two crucial goals in Italy’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. While 2015 has seen some uncharacteristic errors from the 31-year-old, he undoubtedly remains among Europe’s elite central defenders. – AD

PERFORMANCE Giorgio Chiellini: Anger management

21. Sergio Busquets

Put simply, there is no one else in world football who can do what Sergio Busquets does, as well as he does it. Control the ball, look for a team-mate, pass it to them. Nothing earth-shattering in that, perhaps, but the speed at which the Barcelona midfielder completes these three tasks is what sets Busquets apart.

Javier Mascherano, arguably the pre-eminent anchor when he signed in 2010, has had to be accommodated because he slows Barça down too much in possession. A fixture for club and country, another Treble is just rewards for one of the world’s most consistent operators. Yes, the play-acting is tiresome, but appreciate what Busquets is – the best player in his position by some distance. – AM

The list

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Joe is the Deputy Editor at FourFourTwo, having risen through the FFT academy and been on the brand since 2013 in various capacities. 

By weekend and frustrating midweek night he is a Leicester City fan, and in 2020 co-wrote the autobiography of former Foxes winger Matt Piper – subsequently listed for both the Telegraph and William Hill Sports Book of the Year awards.