10. Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich — The Dutchman does one thing — cut inside with his left foot, but he does so like the vocalist who can hit that one perfect high note which is worth the price of admission on that one skill alone. Now 31 and coming off an injury at the end of the 2014-15 season, we’re just about at the end of Robben’s peak. If and when Robben looses a step, it’s hard to see him re-imagining his game as a deep-lying playmaker or somewhere else on the field. Even so, at his best he’s still the player that separates Bayern from being the best team in the Bundesliga to a Champions League finalist.
9. Yaya Toure, Manchester City — If Manchester City’s first three games of the 2015-16 are any indication, Toure is back to staking claim as one of the world’s best all-around midfielders. Toure should be rejuvenated this season after playing in both the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in less than a calendar year for the Ivory Coast.
8. Andres Iniesta, Barcelona — Now that Xavi is gone, Iniesta is the bridge at Barcelona from the Ronaldinho days to the current era. Since breaking into the first team full-time in 2004-05 the worst Barça’s done in La Liga is one third place finish. Over that span, Iniesta’s collected four Champions League winner’s medals, seven La Liga medals and countless others — along with all his triumphs with the Spanish national team. Iniesta will never post the gaudy individual goal-scoring stats as some of his teammates, but there totals are directly tied to his thankless, consistent play. The classic tiki-taka Barcelona style that we saw emerge at the start of this decade is tied directly to Iniesta and when he goes he’ll be nearly as difficult to replace as Lionel Messi within the concept of the team.
7. Luis Suarez, Barcelona — In his last four full seasons with Liverpool and Barcelona he’s tallied 103 goals in 163 games. That’s part of the reason the Catalan club paid close to $100 million for him after the 2014 World Cup despite his series of unsavory transgressions.
6. Paul Pogba, Juventus — 2015-16 will be a massive year for the French midfielder. Juventus let Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez and Arturo Vidal leave, handing Pogba the No. 10 shirt in the process. There’s also the 2016 European Championship in France looming in June. Juventus managed to hold off advances from Manchester City, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid and every other major club for Pogba’s services. One wonders where his transfer stock will be next summer or if it peaked en route to Juventus’ runner-up finish in the 2014-15 Champions League.
5. Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal — This might be overrating Sanchez, but the Chilean’s one-man dynamo performance for the Gunners last season was enjoyable to watch from a neutral standpoint. Headers, cuts inside, long range blasts … there didn’t seem to be a way Sanchez couldn’t score during his first season in England. He followed up lifting the FA Cup by helping Chile win the Copa America on homesoil. I’d imagine that the long season and minutes logged by Sanchez will catch up with him this season and his goal scoring drops off from last year’s 25 total haul. Even so, Sanchez is always worth watching.
4. Sergio Agüero, Manchester City — Could someone whom City paid over $50 million to acquire actually turn out to be a bargain? City’s won a pair of titles thanks in no small part to the goals of Agüero — 108 in 164 appearances in sky blue. As prolific as he is, sometimes it feels like Agüero is easily glanced over on these sorts of lists, myself included. Perhaps this is bound to happen when you share the international stage with Lionel Messi. Consistency is an oft-overlooked trait in soccer, but whenever Agüero is healthy he does what he’s paid to do: score goals.
3. Eden Hazard, Chelsea — Some questions to ponder about the reigning England Player of the Year. Is the gap bigger between Hazard and Ronaldo or Ronaldo and Messi? Does the Belgian have another 14-goal season in him for Chelsea? Is there a more effortless dribbler on the planet? Does he need to carry Belgium deep into the Euro next summer to justify his status? Do these questions actually have any bearing on Hazard himself? No, not really but they’ll be asked. That’s what happens when you’re as good as Hazard and you allow your skill to create headlines, not anything stupid you’ve done off the field as is (unfortunately) often the case in world soccer.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid — Do you think Ronaldo’s final thought each night before drifting off to sleep is why does he have to play at the same time as Lionel Messi? How much does it gall him that he’ll mostly be thought of as No. 2 compared to his rival? In abstract, it doesn’t matter much. Both are all-time greats and arguably with Zinedine Zidane the best soccer players of the 21st Century. Even so, you just know it galls Ronaldo to his core that Messi will always be seen as a little bit better and grab a little of his spotlight.
1. Lionel Messi, Barcelona.