Ronaldo, Messi and the Liga Team of 2012

Rob TrainFeatured ColumnistDecember 16, 2012

Ronaldo, Messi and the Liga Team of 2012

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    Ah, Christmas. The season of goodwill to all men (and women, children and animals presumably, but that never seems to get mentioned).

    Also the time of the year when a look back over the past twelve months is in order, and the construction of "best of" lists fills newspapers, magazines and late-night television slots. If you've ever spent Christmas in the UK, you'll know all about that. 

    It's just as well there is also a full program of football league matches during Yuletide to keep the nation sane.

    In the spirit of Christmas, here is a Liga 11 of the year based on the calendar year, not who won what (or scored how many, or didn't) last season or seasons past. It might not be good enough for FIFA, but it'll do for our purposes.

    After all, a footballer is for life, not just for Christmas.

    To keep it from being a Real Madrid plus Barcelona 11, only one player from any team gets in.

Gorka Iraizoz: Athletic Bilbao

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    They don't make them like Gorka Iraizoz any more. A proud Navarran (who therefore qualifies for Athletic's geographic constraints), he has played for Gernika, the Basque Country and, since being bought back from Espanyol, has been Athletic's undisputed no. 1. 

    Few goalkeepers made more stops than Iraizoz last season. Nobody has kept the ball from the back of the net more often in 2012-13. As San Mames crumbles around Marcelo Bielsa, Iraizoz is the foundation that could yet keep Athletic's proud record of never having been relegated alive.

    Iraizoz, and Aritz Aduriz, in fairness. The returning Basque prodigal son is doing the business at one end of the field. Iraizoz is keeping Athletic in games at the other end.

    Add a run to the finals of the Europa League and King's Cup season, and Iraizoz hasn't had a bad 2012. If Athletic's 2013 is not to take a turn for the terminal, Iraizaz will be needed more than ever.

Hugo Malla: Celta De Vigo

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    The rise of Hugo Mallo has been as startling as that of Spain's risk premium.

    Brought into the fold as an 18-year-old, he impressed Celta's hierarchy so much in preseason they slapped a 10-million-Euro clause into his contract.

    Mallo was then flung into Celta's first team during the 2009-10 season and was an ever-present at right back in the Galician side's 2011-12 promotion campaign.

    His performances caught the eye of Spain's international setup, and he is now a full-fledged under-21 player.

    It won't be too long before the big boys come knocking on Celta's door.

Sergio Ballesteros: Levante

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    The first center-back slot could equally have gone to Ballesteros' teammate David Navarro, as both formed a brick wall that took Levante to its first European qualification last season.

    Ballesteros gets the nod as the man is a colossus, not exactly a spring chicken at 37 and yet has hardly missed a game for The Frogs since he arrived in 2008.

    Instrumental on and off the field as a leader, Ballesteros transformed a team of has-beens and never-will-bes into a continental contender through the sheer will of a man who knows where his talents lie.

    A memorable year for Levante's captain, who was cast onto the scrap heap by Mallorca none-too-ceremoniously, will come to a personal full-circle when the draw for the last 32 Europa League matches is made next week.

Ricardo Costa: Valencia

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    Ricardo Costa hasn't had it all his own way since his transfer from a loan spell at Lille to Valencia in 2010.

    The Portuguese international fell foul of the club's management and fans at the start of last season and was reduced to the ranks despite being a club captain.

    Since then, and despite his staggering disciplinary record, Costa has formed a formidable partnership with Adil Rami at the heart of Valencia's defense. He was also reinstated to the Portugal squad for Euro 2012.

    At a club where institutional mayhem is a dish always served hot, the Portuguese remained cool by his own Iberian standard and turned in the performance of a lifetime against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, filling two positions after the dismissal of Antonio Barragan.

    The best efforts of Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller et al were thwarted by Costa's positioning and tireless running as Los Che came from a goal down to claim a valuable 1-1 tie.

    Ernesto Valverde, the latest coach to accept the Mestalla's poisoned chalice, has kept faith with the fiery defender.

Alberto De La Bella: Real Sociedad

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    After spending several seasons in the nether regions of Spain's league structure with mostly B team sides, Alberto de la Bella landed on the doorstep of Real Sociedad in 2009.

    The left back played 30 games in Real's promotion push and has been a regular at left back for Los Txuri-urdin ever since. 

    Assured, with a decent pass in his armory and an even better shot, De la Bella scored the equalizer for Real at Valencia that led to an eventual 2-5 away win.

    He also chips in with the occasional assist and has played every Primera game this season. Not bad for a 27-year-old whose last gig was with Sevilla's stiffs.

Beñat Etxebarria: Real Betis

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    2012 could be considered Beñat's breakthrough year. Until the start of the 2010-11 season he had been plying his trade with Conquense (on loan from Athletic) after being released by the Bilbao club Betis' reserves, both in the darkest corner of Spanish professional soccer, Segunda Division B.

    An ever-present in Betis' promotion campaign the following year, 25-year-old Beñat's career since his debut for the Seville club's first team just two years ago has moved faster than a Spanish politician living next to a tax office.

    The current calendar year has delivered a two-goal performance in Betis' derby win over Sevilla in March, A call-up to the full Spain team in May and the only goal of the game in Pepe Mel's side's win over Real a few weeks ago.

    Betis' bid to return to the Champions League next year will depend largely on retaining Beñat's services during the January window.

Juan Carlos Valeron: Deportivo

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    It's easy to forget the contribution Juan Carlos Valeron has made to Spanish football.

    Before Andres Iniesta existed, Valeron was Andres Iniesta. A skillful player with wonderful balance, the Canary Islands-born midfielder is a magician who is still pulling rabbits out of his hat after more than 12 years at Deportivo.

    Without him, the Galicians might not have made a swift return to Primera this year. Without him, they stand a much higher chance of going straight back down.

    The last reminder of the heady days of Super Depor Valeron is, shall was say, a vintage breed but his contribution to Depor's 2012 warrants a place.

Isco: Malaga

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    This was a toss-up between Isco, the young starlet of Malaga's project, and Joaquin, who was brought in by the south coast club's financial backers to provide a short-term Champions League-experienced boost.

    As it transpired, the youthful vigor of Isco seems to have reignited the spark Joaquin left lying around somewhere at Mestalla.

    Both have shone as Malaga has defied preseason predictions, based on the non-payment of wages, the sale of Santi Cazorla and the disappearance of said financial backers for most of the summer, to lead Malaga to fourth in La Liga and to top spot in its Champions League group at the expense of AC Milan.

    Isco, also brought in from Valencia although Malagueñan by birth, has since made his name with mature performances and spectacular goals for his hometown club, which earned him a call from Vicente del Bosque in May.

Cristiano Ronaldo: Real Madrid

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    It would be impossible, and churlish, to suggest a Liga 11 for 2012 without including Real Madrid's Portuguese winger.

    He may have his detractors, but the simple fact remains that Ronaldo is one of the best players the world has ever seen. Able to do pretty much anything on a football field, his array of tricks and blistering pace makes him a nightmare to defend against and an, ahem, agitated dream for his legion of fans.

    Would Real have won the league without him? More than likely not. Would Portugal have reached the semifinals of Euro 2012 without him? Definitely not. He has carrying his national side for some time.

    Would he break the 100 million barrier (in any currency) if he was to leave Real? Certainly.

    Have we seen the best of Ronaldo? Let's hope not. Unlike many at the top of the game, he continues to demand the best of himself and teammates. 

    It might not be everybody's cup of tea, but it's incredible to watch. Anybody who says otherwise is not a fan of the game.

Lionel Messi: Barcelona

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    Lionel Messi also has his detractors. Would he be that good without his La Masia teammates? Would he be able to deliver as he does for Barça playing for, say, Manchester United away to Wigan on a freezing Wednesday in January? 

    Who cares. It's entirely the Argentinean's choice where he wants to play, and good luck to him.

    It will be a long time, if at all, until we see another player of his kind. People of my father's generation talk about George Best in the way ours does about Messi. There is no greater compliment.

    He has broken practically every record in the book, even if FIFA chooses to pretend that he hasn't (while counting every goal Pele scored in friendlies, charity games, against his kids in the back yard etc) while Santos crushed every minnow in sight. 

    Never mind, Messi is a once-in-a-lifetime player as well, and as much as that annoys some people, trying to argue otherwise is like a dog trying to scratch that itch just beyond the reach of its increasingly frantic claws.

    The Flea is destined for the greatness of Pele, Maradona and Best.

Radamel Falcao: Atletico Madrid

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    Colombia striker Falcao is a relative newcomer to the Liga tussle between Ronaldo and Messi, but he has crow-barred his way into the debate (much like all three have crow-barred their way into this rather attacking team). 

    Falcao announced his arrival on the European continent by leading Porto to Europa League glory with 17 goals in the competition, usurping Jurgen Klinsmann's mark of 15.

    He repeated the trick with Atletico, leading the side to an unprecedented unbeaten UEFA Cup/Europa League campaign, scoring twice in the semifinals and twice in the final.

    Then, the Colombian embarrassed European Champion Chelsea with a hat-trick in the Supercup.

    With 16 in the current campaign, Falcao is the hottest (available) property in world football at the moment. It won't be long until Atletico accepts 50 to 60 million for him.