Picking a Best-in-the-World Squad for World Cup 2014
With the World Cup now little over a year away, it is a time to look forward to the festival of football that we can only hope awaits in Brazil next summer.
In this case, the focus is on picking a best-in-the-world, 23-man squad from those who are likely to be at the finals next summer.
Focusing on those who will likely be at the finals, of course, means that the likes of Gareth Bale or Zlatan Ibrahimovic are ineligible. Picking a hypothetical squad, meanwhile, requires attention to the balance of players required to tackle a major international tournament.
Thus, over the next few pages, I have attempted to pick a best-in-the-world squad that I would take to a major tournament. Feel free to contribute your 23 player selections in the comments section below.
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer
Manuel Neuer came into the Germany team shortly before the 2010 World Cup and has not looked back since, making his way to the top of the European game with his new club Bayern Munich.
A fine shot-stopper, Neuer is also a commanding presence in his area and a good distributor of the ball. Of all the keepers currently playing international football, he is perhaps the very best.
The dominance of his Bayern side this season has helped Neuer establish a phenomenal record of conceding just 13 goals in 27 matches in the Bundesliga.
The goalkeeper's role in conceding so few, though, should not be forgotten amid a team that is clearly ahead of their domestic rivals.
Right-Back: Philip Lahm
Germany captain Philip Lahm has been the best right-back in the world for some time now but may still end up playing the 2014 World Cup from the left side of defence.
It is a position Lahm has played many times for his country to great acclaim, but there is no doubt that his natural role is on the right side of defence—where he plays at club level.
There are few standout right-backs in world football at present and while Lahm may lack the explosiveness of Daniel Alves for example, he is a much better defender.
A good judge of when the situation calls for extra bodies in attack, Lahm is not scared of getting forward and is a good crosser of a football when in advanced positions.
Left-Back: Jordi Alba
Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba was one of the standout performers of last summer's Euro 2012, even scoring a goal in the final to cap a fine tournament.
A converted left winger, Alba has a natural tendency to push forward in attack that can leave gaps in behind. However, his attacking instincts can easily be accommodated tactically.
A good dribbler, one-touch passer and crosser of a football, Alba has all the qualities to be the best attacking left-back in the world if given the freedom to play his natural game.
It is a shame, though, that David Alaba's Austria side are unlikely to make a World Cup, with the Bayern Munich player a truly outstanding left-back.
Centre-Back: Vincent Kompany
Belgium centre-back Vincent Kompany is one of the outstanding defenders of world football and having started life in midfield, is a reassuring presence with the ball at his feet.
Given that our side will have a heavy emphasis on ball retention, the Manchester City man is ideal for a role in the team. Defensively, he is as solid as anyone around, but there is a refinery to his game that few can match.
The benefit of adding Kompany to the side, also, is that he could easy move into a more advanced position if a change of defensive midfielder was required or if the team decided to play a three-man defensive line.
Centre-Back: Thiago Silva
If Thiago Silva is not the best defender in world football at the moment, then he is certainly not far from being so. PSG's Brazilian centre-back is a remarkably elegant defender but when required, is also willing to put everything on the line for his cause.
There is a danger that, stylistically, he and Kompany are too similar to form an effective defensive partnership. However, given the immense quality that both players possess, they should have no problem working together in our side.
Anyone who saw Thiago in action against Barcelona in the Champions League this past week will be aware of just how good he can be. To keep out the quality of defender our side will have on the bench, he must continue that form.
Defensive Midfield: Sergio Busquets
The ideal candidate for our side's defensive midfield role and given that he will be joined in midfield by some familiar faces, he should have little problem settling in.
Busquets is the calm, reassuring presence that every side needs. Since his promotion to the Barcelona first-team, he has shown countless times that he is a wonderful reader of the game, and it is that awareness that makes him stand out from the crowd.
When it comes to ball retention, Busquets has learned from some of the best and due to his one-touch passing abilities, has overcome some quality opposition to make himself first-choice for club and country.
His presence should also help accommodate the attacking instincts of colleague Jordi Alba at full-back.
Centre Midfield: Xavi Hernandez
The veteran Barcelona central midfielder has been a true great of world football and in 2014, should get the opportunity to sign off his international career with an attempt at winning a second world title.
An absolute master with a football at his feet, it is no surprise that both Barcelona's and Spain's results have been heavily dependent on his availability and form in recent years. Xavi is the key to both side's game plan and the man to whom they look when under pressure.
He will be 34 at the time of the World Cup, but if given enough rest in advance of the tournament, there will be few doubting his ability to heavily influence the competition.
Centre Midfield: Andres Iniesta
The third member of the Spain and Barcelona midfield trio that have won everything in the game over recent years, Andres Iniesta is another who has saved his best for the big occasions.
A better dribbler than teammate Xavi, Iniesta tends to operate in slightly more advanced areas and will continue this regular role in our best XI selection.
It has been Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have divided up the individual prizes in recent years, but in the eyes of many, it has been Iniesta who has been the most influential player when it has come to major tournaments.
As part of our hypothetical team, he will now get the chance to shine above his two rivals as part of the same side.
Right Wing: Lionel Messi
Argentine international Lionel Messi is quite simply a phenomenon and no doubt, will be heralded as one of the greatest couple of players of all time once he eventually retires.
Operating from a starting position on the right flank in our side, Messi will be given a similar role to that in which he has shone for his national side in recent times. The expectation will be that he is free to wander into more central areas if needed.
From the right flank, Messi is able to come infield onto his favoured left foot and pick a suitable pass or take on a shot. This will be his primary method of attack for our side.
He is, though, capable of beating players for fun on either side, becoming a very difficult proposition for the opposing left-back who will be kept guessing as to which side he will attack.
Left Wing: Cristiano Ronaldo
While Messi will be beating players with his graceful dribbling prowess on the one flank, Cristiano Ronaldo will be utilised as an inside forward from the left flank in our team.
The Real Madrid and Portugal forward would have been the best player in the world by some distance in most eras and in some people's eyes, is the only player able to say he is better than Messi at present.
A demon on the counterattack, Ronaldo is an astonishingly complete attacker. He has pace to breeze past most opponents, trickery to leave defenders standing and strength to shrug off even the most rugged of centre-backs.
With a canon of a right foot and fine ability in the air, it will be little surprise if Cristiano Ronaldo is the man to capitalise most from the build up play of the maestros Xavi and Iniesta in midfield.
Centre-Forward: Radamel Falcao
Colombian forward Radamel Falcao is the man afforded the honour of leading the line for our star-studded side, although he will have plenty of assistance from those in deeper areas.
A lethal finisher off either foot and a fine header of the ball, Falcao is currently leading the way as far as centre-forward play is concerned, with 22 goals in 26 La Liga games for club side Atletico Madrid this season.
There is plenty of competition for the striking berth in our side, but despite the performances of the likes of Edinson Cavani and Robin van Persie this campaign, it is Falcao who arguably holds the best record of the three.
Colombia will rely on him to score goals if they are to perform to their best in 2014, and our side, too, will look to him to provide a mobile and intelligent reference point in attack.
Substitutes Part 1
When it comes to choosing a goalkeeper for our side, it is a truly difficult task with three elite candidates standing out for the role. Experienced Spain star Iker Casillas, though, gets the nod as backup to Neuer, with his unflappable nature and recent history of international success valuable attributes.
Given Buffon's wonderful goalkeeping abilities and performances for Juventus over the past two years in particular, it feels somewhat unfair to include him as a third choice goalkeeper. Buffon, though, would add great experience to the squad and a balanced personality that would see him relish the challenge of seizing the No. 1 shirt ahead of his rivals.
The Tottenham defender has been one of the outstanding players of the Premier League since his arrival from Ajax last summer. With the ability to cover the left-back position, he is ideal for a squad at a major tournament.
Sergio Ramos is perhaps unlucky to miss out on the team itself but like Vertonghen, is ideal for a substitutes berth. Ramos can play either centre-back or right-back with aplomb and has over 100-caps worth of experience to his name.
Substitutes Part 2
Juventus centre-back Giorgio Chiellini is another who could easily have been included in the first-team for the tournament. A rugged, no-nonsense defender, Chiellini is a man that can be relied upon when the pressure begins to rise.
A second player from the all-conquering Juventus side that dominate Italian football at present, Pirlo is in the squad as the calming influence who can be introduced late in games. If a tactical change was needed, his introduction to the team mid-tournament could offer variation to the midfield play.
The midfield runner of our side, Toure will have to make do with an impact substitute's role in our side for the time being. He has shown at both Barcelona and Manchester City that there are few better box-to-box midfielders around, with his powerful surges forward almost impossible to rein in.
Brazilian midfielder Oscar is in the squad as our utility player, offering the ability to play in any position from the centre of midfield forward. Every squad needs players who offer a variation of skills and at present, there are few more talented than Oscar in this respect.
Substitutes Part 3
The backup to Iniesta, Mesut Ozil is our side's replacement playmaker. The Real Madrid man is one of the most creative attacking midfielders in world football, with a wand of a left foot and a history of performing on the big occasion. There could be no better player to have in reserve.
The wildcard of our squad. Many people remain to be convinced by Neymar, but his talents are truly extraordinary. Give him the right platform, as no doubt our team would do, and he has the potential to reach the very top of the game. He offers competition for the two wide forward roles.
Napoli's Uruguayan star Edinson Cavani is another who will feel hard done-by not to be selected in our first-choice 11. A backup to Falcao as the central target man of our team's attack, there would be little hesitation in introducing the agile forward should the Colombian fail to score.
Robin van Persie
The experienced option in reserve, van Persie is the third of world football's elite centre-forwards at present. While he could also play one of the wider roles if needed, van Persie's role in the squad would be as a settling influence while defending a lead or as a second striker when chasing an equaliser.