50 Best European Academy Prospects Now Playing for Their First Team

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterApril 9, 2014

50 Best European Academy Prospects Now Playing for Their First Team

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    There just aren't enough one-club wonders out there anymore, are there?

    Players such as Andres Iniesta, who is poised to make his 500th appearance for Barcelona against Atletico Madrid this week, is one such star to deserve credit.

    We celebrate those who stay loyal because it's such a rarity, with money, agents and wage packets controlling most players' futures in 2014.

    With that in mind, we've constructed a list of 50 players still playing for the club they were with when they were 16 years of age and ranked them according to how good they were at their peak value.

    That means Steven Gerrard is graded at his barnstorming best, Iker Casillas at his sharp, shot-stopping greatest and Philipp Lahm as of right now.

    Any player who joined a club at 16 or younger is counted; that's the cut-off point. "European" refers to teams, not players.

50. Ben Davies, Swansea City

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    Ben Davies has impressed many high-profile clubs over the past 18 months, and his strong showings in the Europa League have only armoured the suggestion that he could slot in at a top-four club.

    Certainly, Brendan Rodgers would be wise to check his price-tag when looking for left-backs this summer at Liverpool, with anything up to £15 million likely justifiable to the board.

    Davies has a complete game, defends studiously and looks extremely competent in the passing game.

49. Bruno Martins Indi, Feyenoord

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    Bruno Martins Indi has surpassed the 100 mark in appearances for Feyenoord at the age of 22, having played centre-back or left-back since entering the fold in 2010.

    He's set to start for the Netherlands at the 2014 World Cup alongside Ron Vlaar in defence, and his comfort in possession—borne from experience and playing on the flanks—will be an asset to the methodology in place.

    He's pretty slow, but he has enough nous to get away with it.

48. Joel Veltman, Ajax

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    Joel Veltman has risen from nowhere to become the future of Ajax's defence. No one's ruing the loss of Toby Alderweireld now that he, Stefano Denswil and Niklas Moisander are manning the line.

    The Dutchman makes up for a lack of power and size by timing his tackles and jumps perfectly, often outfoxing opponents with clean challenges and movements.

    He's still susceptible to mistakes, but this is his first full season in top-tier football despite being aged 22. It's been a joy to watch him grow this year.

47. Jean-Paul Boetius, Feyenoord

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    Jean-Paul Boetius' killer instinct and creativity has lessened the burden on his colleagues to act in front of goal, and his linkup with Graziano Pelle this season has been absolutely amazing.

    Boetius had totalled nine goals and nine assists at the time of writing, per WhoScored, while Pelle has 20 Eredivise goals from 24 starts.

    Feyenoord are fighting hard for second place in the league despite the developmental status of their XI, and Boetius might just be the unexpected jewel.

46. Daley Blind, Ajax

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    At some point during the 2012-13 season, Daley Blind decided he'd had enough of being the scapegoat of Ajax football club and began turning in incredible performances on a weekly basis.

    He went from being consistently mocked for his showings to being mocked into the Netherlands' World Cup 23-man squad, and he now looks set to start either at left-back or in central midfield.

    For some players, it just clicks.

45. Samuel Umtiti, Lyon

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    Samuel Umtiti has emerged as another potential star from Lyon's academy, and he caught Europe's eye with this incredible screamer in the Europa League last year.

    The French-Cameroonian is powerful, built like a beast but has the mobility to play left-back or centre-back. He slotted in on the left last season but has moved centrally following the sale of Dejan Lovren to Southampton.


44. William Carvalho, Sporting Lisbon

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    William Carvalho is the dreamy prototypical holding midfielder capable of anchoring a formation on his own.

    His massive size, range and incredible footballing IQ make him tough to out-fox and impossible to out-muscle, and it's rumoured, per the Mirror, that he's heading to Manchester United.

    Wherever he lands, he'll be a super player.

43. Memphis Depay, PSV Eindhoven

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    Memphis Depay's strong form over the course of the season has ensured he'll be going to the World Cup finals with the Netherlands this summer.

    His agility, pace and rasping long shot have made him a serial threat in the Eredivisie all year long, and he has a genuine shot at starting opposite Arjen Robben if he keeps this up.

42. Raheem Sterling, Liverpool

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    Raheem Sterling was poached from Queens Park Rangers' academy at 15 years of age, with Rafa Benitez seeing his obvious potential back in 2010.

    He was in and out of the Liverpool squad last season but has taken on a starring role this year, with Brendan Rodgers happy to trust him in big games and move him around the formation.

    Sterling has gone from non-factor to must-start—at least in some people's views—for England at the World Cup this summer.

41. Ross Barkley, Everton

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    Ross Barkley is a very polarising player, with one set of fans believing him to be a very special young player and the other set feeling he's a little overhyped.

    Any English player who can dribble and pass well is going to be adored rather easily—see Jack Wilshere as a prime example—and ultimately we must hope he turns out as good as the early signs suggest.

    He's a wild-card to start for the Three Lions at the 2014 World Cup.

40. Kieran Gibbs, Arsenal

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    Kieran Gibbs has enjoyed a breakout season, with most Arsenal fans in agreement that he is now a superior option to Nacho Monreal at left-back.

    The academy product is a pacey, direct outlet who bombs forward with venom, and his decision-making in the final third has come on superbly in the last year or so.

    He can be exposed defensively at times by top players, but the important thing is he's progressing with every month that goes by. If Arsene Wenger can work to ensure he's not left unprotected, that'll help, too.

39. Alessandro Florenzi, Roma

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    It doesn't matter which position Alessandro Florenzi ends up playing, he'll be adored by Roma fans regardless.

    He is being hailed already as a one-club man loyal to the city of Rome, and the Curva Sud strongly believe he will be their next great captain.

    His work rate and footballing IQ are high, but he's let down a little by his lack of agility and pace. Still, as a functional, Thomas Mueller-esque winger, he does a great job.

38. Iker Muniain, Athletic Bilbao

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    Iker Muniain has spent the 2013-14 season carefully rehabilitating his reputation and has done well to leave a dreadful previous campaign under Marcelo Bielsa behind.

    He's clocked up more than 200 appearances for Athletic Bilbao,, despite only recently turning 21, and has revived his standing as one of the brightest youngsters in the game.

    Los Leones fans still hold out hope he can be one of their greatest-ever players and stick with the team for his entire career. Given his passion for the club and strong work ethic, there are few outsiders doubting he can do it.

37. Luke Shaw, Southampton

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    Luke Shaw has enjoyed one of the most remarkable seasons of any player in Europe, putting together a full schedule as a starting left-back and attracting the attention of Chelsea, as per the Mirror.

    Analysing Southampton as a whole, it's amazing to see just how much Mauricio Pochettino has done (tactically) elsewhere on the pitch to free up space for Shaw to receive the ball in space.

    At 18, he's similarly skilled to Kieran Gibbs in defence and more powerful going forward. Sky's the limit.

36. Maxime Gonalons, Lyon

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    Maxime Gonalons, 25, has been with Lyon since 1999—a truly remarkable show of loyalty, but some believe he's overstayed his welcome in Ligue 1.

    Teams such as Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who last summer were crying out for a clever holding midfielder, should have been lodging bids for the Frenchman; Rafa Benitez is a fan, but the club rejected several bids from Napoli this January, per Football Italia.

    He drops into space and balances formations superbly, and understands positional play down to a tee. He's not flashy, but boy, is he effective.

35. Danny Welbeck, Manchester United

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    Danny Welbeck has been with Manchester United since he was eight years old; he's a local boy, and if he had his own way, he'd play for the Red Devils for the next 15 years without hesitation.

    His debut goal in front of the Stretford End created a level of expectation he hasn't quite been able to reach as yet, but he's still a valuable asset and continues to improve with every season.

    His linkup play with Wayne Rooney will keep him relevant for the next half decade at least.

34. Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon

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    Alexandre Lacazette has been a member of Lyon—or, at the very least, subsidiaries of the team—since he turned to football at an early age.

    He officially joined Olympique Lyonnais in 2003 and has now become a first-team starter, playing up front or just off the line in conjunction with Bafetimbi Gomis very well.

    He's tricky, silky, quick and dangerous with the ball at his feet.

33. Andriy Yarmolenko, Dynamo Kiev

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    Andriy Yarmolenko is far from your typical winger, with his 6' frame towering over poor, unsuspecting full-backs.

    He joined Dynamo Kiev from Desna Chernihiv at the age of 16 so he sneaks in here, and both club and country utilise him extremely well when switching the ball over to his big body.

    He's not quite Eugene Konoplyanka, but he's not a bad substitute if Dnipro out-price you.

32. Wojciech Szczesny, Arsenal

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    If Wojciech Szczesny can cut out his mistakes, he'll make the step to the elite tier of goalkeeping, but until then, there will always be fans who doubt he's worthy of the No. 1 shirt.

    Arsenal fans will see this as a harsh assessment, but his blunders are not infrequent and a recent one essentially ruined a Champions League game against Bayern Munich.

    He's one of the best shot-stoppers in the Premier League, but to become the finest overall, there's just one more step to take.

31. Ander Iturraspe, Athletic Bilbao

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    Ander Iturraspe is one of the more underrated players in La Liga, and there's even a valid argument to suggest he's been the third-best midfielder in Spain this season.

    Marcelo Bielsa's fast-paced system didn't suit him, but under Ernesto Valverde, he's flourished as a solid, dependable midfield anchor in a slower system of play.

    Like many Athletic Bilbao players, he's a product of their superb system and has been with the club since 2004.

30. Alberto Moreno, Sevilla

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    If Sevilla escape the impending summer with Alberto Moreno still on the books, it'll be a major shot in the arm for the club.

    The Spaniard is coming into his own at left-back and looks to be threatening Jordi Alba in la Roja's setup, with his attacking, incisive presence backed up by a steady and complete defensive game.


29. Jack Wilshere, Arsenal

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    Jack Wilshere is currently out injured, and although the latest incident was a freak break by Daniel Agger, it adds to the blows his fragile ankles have taken.

    He's likely to stay with Arsenal for his entire career after graduating from the academy, and although he's a boyhood West Ham fan, he's adopted the Gunners and runs himself into the ground in every game.

    If he can stay healthy and get on track, he can be an important player for England and a world-class midfield general for Arsene Wenger.

28. Adam Lallana, Southampton

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    Adam Lallana ignored several Premier League advances when his beloved Southampton dropped into League One, instead staying to help them win consecutive promotions and re-enter the top tier.

    Despite the hype around his potential England status for the World Cup, he remains an underrated player. Many, many highlight reel touches and goals are lost to the depths of the lower leagues.

    He can be more than an impact player for Roy Hodgson this summer.

27. Aymeric Laporte, Athletic Bilbao

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    For those doubting Aymeric Laporte's pedigree, you're not likely to find many other 19-year-old's holding a consistent spot in a top-four La Liga team's defence.

    That he's managed to lock down such an integral role and keep Borja Ekiza and Mikel San Jose out is astounding, and he's growing with every game.

    The closest comparison for him is Raphael Varane: The way he tackles cleanly, tracks runners and punches above his weight class make him an intriguing prospect.

26. Andoni Iraola, Athletic Bilbao

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    Andoni Iraola doesn't get enough press outside of the Basque regions, and many are not aware that he's been reliably trundling along at right-back for Athletic Bilbao since 1999.

    He's remarkably calm on the ball and amazing in tight spaces, able to work the ball cleanly through small gaps and combine sensibly with winger Markel Susaeta.

    He rarely gets caught out, plays high-percentage passes and brings great energy to attacks. At 31, he's peaked, and his football under Marcelo Bielsa was superb.

25. Eugene Konoplyanka, Dnipro

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    Eugene Konoplyanka came oh-so-close to joining Liverpool this winter, as per ESPN, but the clubs failed to agree a fee.

    The Ukrainian perhaps didn't show his best form for Dnipro as they exited the Europa League to Tottenham several weeks later, but judgement is clouded by a lack of match sharpness caused by the Eastern European winter break.

    The winger is electric with the ball at his feet, as dynamic and quick as they come and with a razor-like right boot.

24. Bruno Soriano, Villarreal

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    Bruno Soriano is far from the flashiest of names, but he's been Villarreal’s best player—once again—in a resurgent season for the Yellow Submarine.

    The job he does on and off the ball just in front of the back four makes what happens ahead possible; Villarreal have been a great watch this season, but without their 10-year stalwart in position, they wouldn't be wowing us quite so much.

23. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Borussia Monchengladbach

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    Marc-Andre Ter Stegen's journey with Borussia Monchengladbach is coming to an end, and if the Daily Mail are to be believed, he's been chosen as Victor Valdes' replacement at Barcelona.

    'Gladbach have been resigned to a sale ever since the goalkeeper confirmed he would not sign a new deal with the club, and the fans will always applaud him having seen him progress through he ranks at Borussia Park.

    His insane reflexes and ability to play with the ball at his feet make him a natural fit in Catalonia.

22. Julian Draxler, Schalke

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    Julian Draxler is not a £40 million player at this moment in time, and Arsenal were right not to stump up an absurd sum for him this January.

    But that doesn't mean he's any less of a talent, and looking at his somatotype, he has the potential to explode physically like Gareth Bale did. From there, it's a matter of time before he enters the world-class bracket.

    Despite recently turning 20, he's an undroppable cog in Jens Keller's side; any youngster that achieves that at this stage is often destined for future greatness.

21. Antoine Griezmann, Real Sociedad

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    Antoine Griezmann didn't show his true, remarkable talent in the Champions League this year.

    Those who had heard plenty about him, yet hadn't seen him, came away from his games against Manchester United this season extremely disappointed, but watch out for him as a game-changer at the World Cup this summer.

    The la Real product is now the Basque club’s most valuable player, and it's been suggested he could fetch up to £25 million this summer.

20. Koke, Atletico Madrid

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    Koke has risen from nowhere to become a favourite among world football fans.

    His disciplined game suits Diego Simeone's tactics at Atletico Madrid down to the ground, with his ability to transition from central to wide areas seamlessly a real asset to the compact setup in place.

    He's technically excellent, a typical Spanish midfielder, but boasts grit and physicality, too.

19. Claudio Marchisio, Juventus

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    Rumours linking Claudio Marchisio to Manchester United last summer were laughable; the midfielder is a Juventino through and through, even sticking with them during relegation to Serie B.

    He formed one part of a remarkable MVP midfield last season with Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, offering hard running, width and calmness from left central midfield.

    He's lost his spot to Paul Pogba for the time being, but Marchisio remains the darling of the fans.

18. David Alaba, Bayern Munich

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    At 21 years of age, David Alaba is already the popular choice when fans consider who the world's best left-back is.

    He's actually a converted central midfielder but dropped into defence to cover while Holger Badstuber struggled with injuries. He's blossomed, shows immense composure and great crossing ability, and boasts outrageous physical strength and speed.

    Credit Austria Wien for the coaching work done, but he qualifies after spending the last six years with die Bayern.

17. Victor Valdes, Barcelona

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    As hard as it is for Barcelona fans to take, Victor Valdes is leaving the club in peak form.

    They stuck with him as he made boneheaded mistakes and hashed clearances, and now, in his best-ever season of shot-stopping glory, he's announced he will leave for free at the end of the season.

    For now, he qualifies for our top 50 and we honour him appropriately. He takes a little too much flak from fans who haven't had the chance to re-assess his form, but Valdes will consider his two decades of work in Catalonia a success when he reaches the shores of tax-free Monaco this summer—providing his ACL repairs OK.

16. Toni Kroos, Bayern Munich

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    Toni Kroos has a big decision to make this summer as to whether he stays at Bayern Munich, and if he does leave, he'll be forfeiting his place in our top 50—a ramification certain to render him sleepless, we're sure.

    Bar a one-season loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen, Kroos has spent the last eight years with die Bayern and progressed to the first team in 2010. He's soared past the 100-appearance mark and has outlined his value as a pliable, versatile midfielder.

    He has the deftness to play as a No. 10 and the physical build to drop deeper and play in flat central midfield. That clubs are courting him for astronomical fees should be no surprise.

15. Pedro, Barcelona

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    Ever get the feeling Pedro is taken for granted? Given that he appears far from indispensable to the fans, that might well be accurate—but the fact remains he's as "clutch" as they come.

    How many important goals has "Pedrito" bagged for Barcelona at crucial times? How often does he open the scoring on big semi-final and final nights?

    He recently went over the 100-goal mark for la Blaugrana and has won everything there is to win. 

14. Daniele De Rossi, Roma

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    Daniele De Rossi has rejected so many foreign advances it's crazy, and it's now inevitable he will truly end his career as a Romanisti legend.

    The 2006 World Cup winner has been a world-class midfielder for close to a decade and does everything you'd want from a player in his role: tackle, nullify, create, score and lead by example

    The passion he shows for red and gold may well be unrivalled.

13. Thomas Mueller, Bayern Munich

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    Thomas Mueller is one of the least flashy players in the game, and at times he looks like he doesn't quite know where the ball is in among his long, loping legs.

    But despite a less-than-gracious appearance, he's one of the most deadly, efficient and productive forwards to play. His footballing intelligence is off the charts, and at just 24, he already has just shy of 100 career goals for Bayern Munich.

    He's shown an ability to play anywhere in midfield and up front, links brilliantly with any colleague and has an underrated eye for goal.

12. Sergio Busquets, Barcelona

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    Sergio Busquets has been with Barcelona since 2005 and has steadily developed into one of—if not the—best holding midfielder in the world.

    In an age where few fit the bill as a prototypical anchor—given the obsession with the 4-2-3-1 and surging, box-to-box mids—Busquets' role at the base of Barca's 4-3-3 is now widely lauded as selfless, admirable and crucially effective.

    Few can break up play and drop into the right holes with such regularity and expertise. He's the perfect size, has great range and stands as a model to emulate in the role.

11. John Terry, England

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    John Terry moved to Chelsea as a 14-year-old midfielder, progressed through the ranks and now stands as a legendary Premier League defender.

    He was moved to cover a shortage of centre-backs, but the move paid off instantly, with his leadership, aggression and positioning clear from the off.

    Over the years he's terrorised opponents with his eye for goal from set pieces and leads a line superbly, and his decision to remain out of contention for the World Cup this summer has disappointed England fans on the whole.

10. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern Munich

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    Remember when Bastian Schweinsteiger was a winger? Well done Louis van Gaal for slotting him into central midfield, as it's a move that unlocked the German's true genius and extended his career.

    He's gradually gotten deeper and deeper as his career has progressed, and in a way he risks the same tarnished legacy as Carles Puyol—recent generations, or those new to the sport, see only an injury-plagued struggler.

    As a box-to-box midfielder, there have been few better in recent decades, and his ability in both boxes has seen Bayern consistently challenge for as long as he's been in the side.

9. Carles Puyol, Barcelona

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    Carles Puyol has announced, via the official website, that he will leave Barcelona at season's end as he no longer meets the required standard.

    It's a sad end to a stupendous career from the Catalan, whose resounding memory should be of blood-battered combat and aerial duels rather than injuries, setbacks and absences.

    In his day he was a true warrior, a hard-case centre-back who took no prisoners. He combined that steel with a tidy passing game to become a Barcelona tiki-taka stalwart and remains one of the finest centre-backs to have ever played the game.

8. Francesco Totti, Roma

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    If you peruse back through our top 50, you’ll notice a distinct lack of Serie A nominations in comparison to many other leagues.

    Italian teams are notoriously bad at producing their own, and that's why the legend of Francesco Totti is celebrated so widely throughout the country.

    At 37, he's still leading the line for Roma, and there are muted calls for Cesare Prandelli to call him up for the Azzurri this summer in Brazil.

    The deft forward has been wowing us with his superb passing, inventive feet and world-class technique for close to two decades now.

7. Iker Casillas, Real Madrid

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    Iker Casillas is still stuck on the bench for Real Madrid, and in truth it's been a horrible 14 months since he broke his hand and saw Diego Lopez come in to take his spot.

    New manager Carlo Ancelotti has persevered with Lopez as his No. 1, limiting Casillas to cup games only, and it's become a tenuous situation ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

    Regardless, Casillas comes in and does an excellent job whenever he's asked; he's the ultimate professional and will go down as a goalkeeping great.

6. Ryan Giggs, Manchester United

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    That Ryan Giggs can still be the catalyst in midfield for a Manchester United win is astonishing when you consider he's hit 40.

    We are seeing him in what is likely to be his final season in football, but 15 years ago when he had pace and trickery to burn, there were no left-wingers on par.

    His ability to hit the byline, cross accurately or angle in a shot was unrivalled; there were no better exponents of the left-sided game, and England fans spent every week ruing the fact Giggs chose to play for Wales.

5. Philipp Lahm, Bayern Munich

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    Philipp Lahm is getting better and better, and at the age of 30, he appears to be hitting his best-ever form.

    His remarkable footballing intelligence has been on show since converting from right-back to defensive midfield this season, and he goes into what will likely be his penultimate World Cup in peak physical condition.

    Lahm never wastes an opportunity and makes every run count; the value of having a player who makes the right decision on a consistent basis cannot be underestimated.

4. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool

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    If Steven Gerrard can lead Liverpool to an unexpected Premier league title this season, it's possible it may cap the achievement of playing a starring role in winning the UEFA Champions League in Istanbul.

    His willingness to accept and adapt to a different role in midfield—converting from a barnstorming attacking midfielder to a deep-lying creator—has been key to the Reds' success this season; Brendan Rodgers' understanding of who to play around him deserves great credit, too.

    For the last decade or more, Gerrard has been the elite heartbeat in Liverpool's midfield.

3. Xavi, Barcelona

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    Barcelona have been looking at long-term replacements for Xavi for a while, but the Spaniard continues to perform at a high level whenever he's picked.

    When he's on the pitch, he takes control, with his short- and long-range passing second to none.

    His ability to release Dani Alves on the right and pinpoint his runs remains the prime method of attack for la Blaugrana, and the impact he's had at both club and international level over the past decade has been astonishing.


2. Andres Iniesta, Barcelona

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    Andres Iniesta will go down as one of the greatest players ever to have played the game, and his winning goal in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final will ensure his name is retained in Spanish folklore forever.

    There's often a debate as to who is the better player: "Andresito" or Xavi. Both play stupendous roles for Spain and Barcelona, but we've opted for this man as he's capable of things Xavi never was.

    Namely, his burst of agility and obscenely quick feet could rescue any situation, and as he slows down, he can settle into the Xavi pass-master position.

    Iniesta is poised to make his 500th appearance for Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Atletico Madrid.

1. Lionel Messi, Barcelona

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    Lionel Messi tops our list with ease as the only man who could possibly contend in terms of skill level—Cristiano Ronaldo—is far, far away from his Sporting Lisbon roots.

    He's been with Barcelona since he was 14 years of age, and such was his dedication to the Catalan cause, many Argentines viewed him with suspicion up until a remarkable showing against Spain for the national team.

    He is certain to complete his legacy as Barca's greatest-ever player, and if he can find World Cup joy with la Albiceleste, his claim as the best this game has ever seen could be ratified.