The nearly men: 24 stars who just fell short of FFT’s Best 100 Players in the World list
This year’s FFT100 was quite possibly the hardest we’ve ever had to put together, meaning cuts were sadly inevitable when naming the best 100 football players on the planet.
Even more difficult was whittling down this list of those who almost made it – at first featuring some 50 names with genuine claims to have been among our best 100 players. So who’s in with a shout of coming up trumps next time?
1. Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
OK, let’s get these out of the way first. Liverpool fans won’t seeing any of their players in this year’s FFT100, but it’s highly likely they’ll have at least two in next year’s edition should things continue in a similar vein for Coutinho. The Brazilian is a terrific player – there’s no doubting that – but what’s also fair to say is that he wasn’t consistent under Brendan Rodgers. Coutinho is capable of the truly spectacular, but he’ll need to show more of that boyish flair under Klopp in a fluid system that suits him better to get recognition here.
A lack of fitness and injury hampered £29m man Firmino’s start to Anfield life, but recently the outlook has got a whole lot brighter. It started with the arrival of Klopp – a previously keen suitor from his Dortmund days – whose sprightlier tactics have already seen the 24-year-old Brazilian pushed into a false nine role on occasion, where he has dovetailed with Coutinho excellently.
2. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Dortmund)
Mkhitaryan suffered something of a confidence dearth last season – perhaps symptomatic of Dortmund’s dreadful first half of the campaign. Missing good chances seemed to affect the Armenian schemer on a weekly basis, and as such it wasn’t really until March that he claimed his place back in the first team. Mkhitaryan has begun 2015/16 terrifically under Thomas Tuchel, however, netting 13 goals in all competitions and servicing Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang brilliantly for the Gabonese hitman’s stellar season so far. Honourable mentions here too for Ilkay Gundogan and Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who are both key for Dortmund as they fight on all fronts this term.
3. Willian (Chelsea)
In Chelsea’s dreadful season so far, their industrious Brazilian has been a rare bright spot. Willian has been the Blues’ best player, proving particularly adept from free-kicks having netted six of the things already – four in just five Champions League matches. The selfless 27-year-old was overshadowed by Eden Hazard & Co. as Chelsea romped to the title last year, however, with many feeling he could have offered more creatively to supplement his defensive diligence. More of this season’s work, though, and it’ll be impossible to overlook him. Another Mourinho favourite, meanwhile – Oscar – must first nail down a first-team place.
4. Nabil Fekir (Lyon)
Suffice to say, last season’s title chasers have understood plainly just how important their twinkle-toed 22-year-old is to their Ligue 1 chances while he’s been sidelined. Fekir plundered 13 goals and assisted nine more as Lyon earned a Champions League berth for this season before rupturing knee ligaments playing for France (who won the international tug of war for his services) in September, ruling him out for six months. He’s expected back sometime in the New Year, when he’ll be targeting a place in France’s squad for the 2016 European Championship. If he’s fit and firing, les Bleus will be rather pleased indeed.
5. Marquinhos (PSG)
PSG's young Brazilian had been forced to play second fiddle to Thiago Silva and David Luiz at club level and for his country for so long, but over the last year has made progress. Silva’s continued place in Dunga’s bad books means Marquinhos is featuring more regularly for Brazil, and in between injuries has better established himself as a central defender in Paris this season with David Luiz not always available. He’s still only 21. Fellow team-mates Kevin Trapp and Serge Aurier – summer signings from Eintracht Frankfurt and Toulouse respectively – are also on the up, enjoying regular football in the French capital.
6. Yacine Brahimi, Ruben Neves (Porto)
What started with a fine 2014 World Cup for Algeria continued at Porto after a snip €6.5m move from Granada. Brahimi dazzled Portugal and the rest of Europe in 2014/15 as Porto reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League, hitting five goals and weighing in with three assists. Bigger clubs have been sniffing ever since, though a quieter start to 2015/16 has meant that price tag of his hasn’t skyrocketed yet.
And then, Neves. Captaining your club in the Champions League is a proud moment for any player, but doing it at 18 is something else entirely. In just featuring he broke another record – previously held by Cristiano Ronaldo – as the youngest-ever Portuguese footballer to play in Europe’s biggest club competition. England’s biggest sides are already circling, but it seems Neves is just fine where he is for now.
7. Paulo Dybala (Juventus)
The young Argentine earned a summer move to Juventus after netting 13 goals and joint-leading the assist charts for middling Palermo last time out, and has started life well in Turin with six goals in his first 13 league games. The 22-year-old is now at a big enough club to truly get recognised at international level too, what with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez and others to compete with. More sharp-shooting like this in Serie A and in Europe, and Dybala will surely be in next year’s FFT100.
8. Max Kruse, Julian Draxler (Wolfsburg)
Replacing Kevin De Bruyne at Wolfsburg couldn’t have fallen to just one player, so €47m of the €87m they trousered for the strawberry-blond string-puller went on Bundesliga pair Kruse and Draxler. The former arrived from Borussia Monchengladbach after helping fire die Fohlen to an unlikely Champions League berth, while the 22-year-old Draxler – not cheap at around €35m – was snared from Schalke.
The young German was unhappy with the unrealistic expectations heaped on his shoulders in Gelsenkirchen, and now has a more balanced team environment in which to thrive. Early signals have been mixed, but the talent is clearly there. Seven goals in Kruse’s last eight matches for club and country, meanwhile, suggest a player settling in north Germany.
9. Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal)
Should Arsenal finally lay their hands on a long-awaited Premier League title this season, it’s highly likely that Koscielny will have played a big role in it. But for now that’s all hypothetical: what the Gunners currently have is an athletic centre-back who’s the best of their bunch, but of whom questions have been asked about his season-long reliability. Time for the France international to prove them wrong.
10. Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich)
Injuries have stolen huge chunks of Martinez’s last two seasons at Bayern, which has been hard for a player who knows full well how much his manager rates him. Pep Guardiola’s penchant for tweaking his system is well known, and in Martinez he has a player with the footballing brain and technical ability to fill a number of roles. Right now he’s playing regularly in his preferred centre-back role, but has also featured heavily in central midfield for Bayern. If he can stay off the treatment table, his team will be all the better for it.
11. Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter)
The 22-year-old central midfielder was a hefty €35m outlay for ambitious Inter Milan in the summer, having particularly impressed as Monaco beat Arsenal en route to reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Since then he’s been a regular fixture of Roberto Mancini’s title-chasing Nerazzurri side alongside fellow FFT100 candidates Samir Handanovic, Ivan Perisic and Gary Medel, and will be eyeing a place in Didier Deschamps’ France squad for the 2016 European Championship on home soil.
12. Jackson Martinez (Atletico Madrid)
Martinez’s form hasn’t taken off at the Vicente Calderon since his summer move from Porto, but there’s still plenty of scope for him to fill the growing room Diego Simeone’s team clearly has this year. Three goals in all competitions is hardly how the Colombian will have envisaged his start to life at Atletico Madrid but he should be buoyed mentally by his 21 league goals last year with Porto, and sterling work in helping them to the Champions League quarters. Only four players netted more in the competition in 2014/15. Defender Juanfran, meanwhile, earns few plaudits but is still such a reliable performer for the Rojiblancos.
13. Morgan Schneiderlin, Chris Smalling (Man United)
Schneiderlin finally got his big-club move when he joined Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United revolution in the summer. (Well, not so much a revolution but a bunch of blokes with plastic spoons instead of pitchforks, but never mind). There aren’t many better all-round central midfielders in the Premier League on top form, but he isn’t the first name on Van Gaal’s team-sheet as he battles with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick for recognition. Still, he’s started 10 of United’s 14 league games this term and could be vital to the Reds’ silverware assault. Smalling, meanwhile, has enjoyed his finest run of form yet under Van Gaal this season. The athletic stopper had struggled for consistency before the current campaign, but should he continue to lead United’s backline by example then he’s a shoo-in for the FFT100 next time.
14. Karim Bellarabi (Bayer Leverkusen)
That Bellarabi was playing on loan at relegated Eintracht Braunschweig in 2013/14 and made his Germany debut in October of the following season says much about his speedy rise. ‘Schnellarabi’ (‘Schnell’ being the German word for ‘fast’) has earned his nickname with good reason: last season he netted the Bundesliga’s fastest-ever goal against Dortmund (nine seconds), one of 12 league goals the nippy winger thumped in. The 25-year-old is firmly part of Joachim Low’s Germany plans and progressing well.
15. Nicolas Gaitan (Benfica)
Gaitan has long been linked with Europe’s biggest teams – Chelsea and Manchester United most strongly from England – but now in his sixth season with Benfica, the 27-year-old attacking midfielder is still picking apart Portuguese defences. Simply, the Argentine has been the best creative midfielder in Portugal for at least three seasons. Last term he laid on 15 league goals despite missing five matches through injury – no mean feat considering the deep-lying opposition Benfica regularly face.
16. Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)
Little Insigne has been enjoying Rafael Benitez-less life at Napoli this season. A cruciate ligament injury forced him to miss four months of last season but he’s come back incredibly strongly for the Stadio San Paolo outfit: the 24-year-old burst into tears after scoring on his return to the starting line-up back in April, and new manager Maurizio Sarri’s approach appears have drawn the best from the talented Italian international. As Napoli fight for Serie A and Europa League honours, Insigne will be vital.
17. Andre Ayew (Swansea)
So far, Ayew has been everything Swansea fans had hoped for since joining Marseille on a ‘free’ in the summer (according to French reports, the 25-year-old picked up a cool £5.7m signing-on fee). A healthy return of six goals in 14 appearances is just fine for a forward whose move to South Wales came as a big surprise, following five big seasons at Marseille in which Champions League football was commonplace.
18. Lucas Biglia (Lazio)
Unlucky not to have made the FFT100 after helping Lazio to the Champions League play-off round, Biglia is an understated performer whose talents were linked with Real Madrid and Manchester United in the summer. He was outshone by the more explosive Felipe Anderson last term, but having been given the captaincy this term (much to the chagrin of team-mate Antonio Candreva) the Argentina international will be hoping to haul his struggling side back up the table following a poor start to the current campaign.
19. Hugo Lloris (Tottenham)
Lloris hasn’t done a whole lot wrong in 2015, it’s more that there are six goalkeepers who’ve had better years on FFT’s list. His kicking certainly isn’t great, if we were to pick fault, but of course the Spurs skipper is still a fine goalkeeper who could put himself in the shop window with a big season at White Hart Lane.
20. Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo)
Berardi might not be part-owned by Juventus anymore, but the 21-year-old is likely to play for the Old Lady one day. The Bianconeri still hold first refusal on the player they relinquished rights to for €10m in June, which is good news for them: Berardi has netted 33 goals in 77 Serie A goals since Sassuolo were promoted in 2013, impressive numbers considering the minnows’ standing in Italian football. It’s been tougher going this time despite Sassuolo faring well – just two goals in 10 games – but a first Italy cap is around the corner.