FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2016: 30-26
Heading towards the final quarter of our list of the world's finest footballers…
Featuring Chelsea's ball-winner supreme and a pair of Barcelona mainstays...
Words: Seb Stafford-Bloor, David Cartlidge, Greg Lea, Ben Clark, Andy Murray
30. N'Golo Kante
It was a scandal that Kante didn't receive an individual award for his role in Leicester's title win. The FWA voted for Jamie Vardy, the PFA chose Riyad Mahrez instead and, in both cases, opted for style over substance. Vardy and Mahrez were undeniably essential to Leicester, but neither matched the breadth or consistency of Kante’s contribution.
Rather than operating exclusively as a stopper, the £6m signing quickly became integral to every department of Claudio Ranieri's side. He was the master brick: screening the defence, beginning moves inside his own half and acting as an auxiliary counter-attacking piece. Kante has exhibited all the traditional holding midfield qualities over the past 12 months, but not at the cost of showing how rounded a player he is – something not lost on Didier Deschamps, who made him a cornerstone of France’s European Championship side.
Now at Chelsea, he's the iron heart of Antonio Conte's much-admired 3-4-3 system. His partnership with Nemanja Matic has quickly become one of the best in England and turned the side's soft centre into the toughest in the land. – SSB
29. Gerard Pique
The style has always been there. Ditto the calmness. And the love for the occasional practical joke. But in 2016, there has been consistency and an ever-increasing iron will to Pique’s Barcelona performances.
The Catalan has won over Luis Enrique, who had serious reservations over Pique’s long-term future when he first sat in the Camp Nou dugout in 2014, and is now one of his manager's most trusted on-field lieutenants. If fit – Pique missed four games in late October or November – he’s as guaranteed to start as Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta or any of the MSN forward line, and was vital to los Cule’s title win in May.
The stink bombs are now a thing of the past – the 29-year-old centre-back restricted himself to tweeting emojis when Real Madrid were ejected from the Copa del Rey for playing ineligible players. Take away the cheeky chappy persona and you’d lose the confidence and bravado that sets Pique apart, and provides the beginning for many Barcelona attacks.
All too often, the ‘footballing centre-half’ only gets points for style. Pique has the grit, determination and defensive nous, too. He’s won seven of the last nine league titles, beginning with Manchester United in 2007/08. Put simply, you want Gerard Pique in your team. – AM
28. David Alaba
On one level, 2016 has been a disappointing year for Alaba. Although Bayern Munich scooped another Bundesliga title in the spring, they once again failed to reach the Champions League final under Pep Guardiola. On the international stage, meanwhile, Austria crashed and burned at Euro 2016, picking up just a single point from clashes with Hungary, Portugal and Iceland as they proved unable to live up to their ‘dark horses’ tag.
And yet for all that, Alaba has strengthened his case to be the planet’s most complete footballer in the last 12 months. His versatility is astonishing – left-back is where the 24-year-old is used most, but he’s also played at centre-half, in central midfield, on the flank, as a No.10 and up front throughout 2016. Being able to adapt to so many different positions speaks volumes about both Alaba’s technical ability and his understanding of the game, which is extremely well developed for a player yet to reach his prime. – GL
Next: The Belgian reborn
27. Eden Hazard
Hazard's performances last season hurt no one more than himself, which led to the Belgian declaring in the summer: “I don’t want to leave Chelsea after a bad season.”
His form for his country during the Euros served as a warning that the winger was on the way back to his best. The start of the season drew rare sightings of brilliance, but it was when Antonio Conte changed to a 3-4-3 that Hazard really excelled.
Conte’s tactical change released him of his defensive duties, allowing Hazard to focus on doing what he does best. His tricky feet and balance can make him seem like the second coming of Cristiano Ronaldo; if he maintains his current form, there’s no reason why he can’t match the Portuguese’s incredible achievements. – BC
26. Ivan Rakitic
An often overlooked cog in the Barcelona machine, Rakitic may take a backseat when it comes to the headlines – those are left to MSN – but he's undoubtedly a chief conductor in the team. The Croatian's energy has been vital to the Catalans' stream of success, with Rakitic providing stamina and hard work in the engine room.
He contributes defensively, while in attack he pushes the team on and makes sure the ball reaches the special trio ahead of him. Make no mistake, Xavi can’t be replaced by any player, but it’s testament to Rakitic that he’s been a staple of Luis Enrique’s side.
Along with Luka Modric, Rakitic is also an inspirational figure for his national team and impressed as part of an exciting team at Euro 2016. The midfielder's leadership and status were evident during the tournament, emphasising his progress since moving to Barca from Sevilla two years ago. – DC
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FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2016
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