The end of the year is a time for giving, celebrating and taking stock, so let's attempt to take care of all of that by identifying the three players we enjoyed watching the most during 2013.
Since the possibilities are myriad (and feel free to leave your three in the comments section at the bottom), it’s been limited to players observed in the flesh during the year. So consider this an apology, Senor Lionel Messi.
One game attended in 2013 sticks very firmly in this writer’s mind, and probably always will: the second leg of Sweden’s World Cup playoff against Portugal in Stockholm. What had been trumpeted as a direct face-off between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo may have ended 2-3 on the night in terms of goals, but there was no doubting who was the man of the night.
Portugal threatened to buckle on occasions that night, but their skipper wouldn’t let them. With awesome power, will and sublime finishing, Ronaldo delivered Portugal to Brazil single-handedly. If 2012 with Portugal could have been his year, he seems hell-bent that 2014 will be.
When we look back at this calendar year, it’s impossible to escape the contribution of Ronaldo. He has struck an astonishing 69 times in 60 games, topping the 200-goal mark for Real Madrid, then beating Eusebio’s tally for the national team before going on to equal Portugal top scorer Pauleta’s tally of 47 in Sweden.
“He’s a machine,” said Portugal teammate Miguel Veloso after that match in Stockholm (per Tim Lewis of The Observer).
Ronaldo deserves more than to be defined by his supposed rivalry with Messi—as Barcelona’s star man does, too—but another wide man who divides opinion merits a pat on the back for his efforts this year. Arjen Robben is often not considered one of the world’s greatest due to issues with fitness or barbs about his perceived attitude, but 2013 showed why he should be.
It’s easy to forget that the Netherlands winger looked to be on the way out last season. Robben started just four Bundesliga games before Christmas and had to fight hard to become a key player for Bayern again. Yet fight he did.
While he will be remembered for his moment of redemption, the winning goal in the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund, his performance in the semi-final against Barcelona might have been the pinnacle, showing he had the desire and industry to match his ability.
He continued deep into 2013, biting Dortmund again in the key match of the Bundesliga season so far at the Signal Iduna Park in November, when a typical burst of acceleration took him clear to stroke in the game’s decisive second goal from a difficult angle. Despite turning 30 in January, there is plenty to come from Robben.
To complete our three is one of the year’s less-heralded Trojans.
Blaise Matuidi of Paris Saint-Germain and France has played 63 matches for club and country in 2013, but his boundless energy means he has looked as energetic in the last as his did in the first. Every team needs its glue, and he is just that for both.
Since returning to the capital in 2011—he grew up in the Paris suburbs—Matuidi has developed at an extraordinary rate. His relentlessly efficient passing is little short of miraculous, given the 100 mph speed at which he does things.
The 26-year-old covers every blade of grass in midfield and in both boxes, and he even covers at left-back. Having been suspended for the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Barcelona (a crucial absence), he will hope to make up for it in 2014. Matuidi will certainly be as important for France in Brazil next summer as Franck Ribery or Hugo Lloris.
Season’s greetings to all B/R readers, and here’s to more of the same in 2014.