Euro 2012 qualifying begins again in earnest this week as Serbia, Italy, Spain and more prepare to square off in a battle for continental domination.
Spain saunters into the proceedings as both European and World Champions, though the Netherlands and Germany look just as lethal.
Here is your (somewhat biased) guide to the top 25 players in Euro 2012 qualifying. Let the great debate begin…
Reason: Goals. Forssell is the brightest light of the Finnish national team, which suffered demoralizing losses to Hungary, Netherlands and Moldova last fall.
The former Birmingham striker’s inspired play gave his country something to believe in on November 17 of 2010 when he scored a hat trick in Finland’s brutal 8-0 castigation of San Marino, a team that allowed a staggering 29 goals during last fall’s qualifying round while scoring zero.
Forssell has five goals in qualifying thus far, the third highest goal total behind Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Miroslav Klose.
Reason: Unless you’re Estonian, chances are you hadn’t heard of Konstantin Vassiljev until October, when his spirited, pacey, creative play helped his national side overcome Serbia in a stunning 3-1 victory.
Vassiljev is an attacking midfielder who supplies the same type of creativity, distribution, playmaking and goal-scoring ability that Rafael Van Der Vaart does for Tottenham Hotspur.
If he can continue to rally his team around him, Estonia may well be a side to watch as Euro 2012 qualifying progresses.
Reason: Due to his ornery nature and lack of team spirit, Cassano was left off of Italy’s 2010 World Cup squad. We all know how that went.
With his reinstatement, however, the team saw immediate turnaround. Cassano contributed to both of Italy’s goals against Estonia in Euro 2012 qualifying, scoring the first and assisting the second. He also scored a thunderous goal in Azzurri’s 5-0 destruction of Faroe Islands.
Cassano adds unpredictability and a much needed sense of cut-throat abandon to Italy’s offense—he is the side’s most important player entering Euro 2012.
Reason: Pique provides essential support to Spain’s backline and it’s forward movement.
The center back contributes all the necessary tackles to keep defenders away from the goal while his distribution to players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso is yet another crucially precise link in Spain’s chain of ball movement.
Pique came in fifth (the highest ranking Spaniard of the lot) in a Goal.com reader’s pole ranking the top players in Euro qualifying during fall 2010.
Reason: Less than a year ago, football fans outside of Portugal knew Meireles as the tattooed Iberian bloke with the awful haircut.
Since moving to Liverpool in August of 2010, Meireles has scored five goals and contributed three assists. He has demonstrated exactly the midfield creativity that the Reds needed.
If Meireles successfully links with Nani and Ronaldo, Portugal will be an offensive terror at Euro 2012.
Reason: Bale is fast, fast, fast. His crosses are powerful and accurate, and he can score quick, decisive goals from a serious distance.
Though Bale is young and inexperienced, he has shown gradual progress over the course of the 2010-11 season.
With the EPL and Champions League experience he is gaining through his time on Spurs, Bale is learning every day how to adapt to new situations, improve his decision-making and impact games. He is Wale’s great hope.
Reason: The footballing world’s opinion of Arshavin has been low of late, and it’s no surprise. The jack of all trades (attacking midfielder/winger/second striker) suffered a very poor run of form through the second half of 2010 and the nascent months of 2011.
But lo! A light on the horizon shines! Since contributing to Arsenal’s massive routing of Barcelona at Emirates, Arshavin has made marked progress toward recapturing the glory of his old self.
Look no further than Arshavin’s phenomenal league goal against WBA last weekend for proof of his talent.
Reason: Charlie Adam has carried Blackpool on his back this season in the EPL, and it looks as though the Scottish national team expects him to do the same.
Said Scotland head coach Craig Levein, “Some of the passes he plays are just sublime and I see him being a central figure. Almost being like our quarterback, if you like.”
Adam is an expert at scoring from set pieces, can do so just as well from open play and is one of the great long passers in the English game.
He possesses an ability to distribute and orchestrate that makes him one of the most sought-after midfielders in the EPL.
Reason: Zinedine Zidane has called Nasri the future of French football. The explosive young talent is Arsenal’s golden boy, and it’s not hard to see why.
The fleet-footed fellow has 14 goals and four assists in all competitions for Arsenal, including a brace against Fulham so stupendous the goals must be seen to be believed.
Though he has suffered regular injuries in 2011, there’s no doubt that Nasri heralds a new era of hope in French football after the side’s disastrous 2010 WC campaign.
Reason: You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it until the Three Lions win another World Cup—it’s the birthplace of football, and they can’t get it right. Lax regulations and an increased EPL interest in buying players rather than developing young Britons has ruined the national side.
Enter Joe Hart. This 23-year-old keeper is one of the best things to happen to England since David Beckham shaved off those corn rows.
Wayne Rooney can have the longest goal drought he wants. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can argue all day about how to organize the midfield. John Terry can lay with all of their wives. A keeper as good as Hart can help decide the fate of team.
Reason: Huntelaar is, in many ways, the opposite of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Dutch striker has scored a whopping eight goals in Euro 2012 qualifying as of this writing, but he only has seven in the 2010-11 season at club level.
Though he posted similarly disappointing numbers with Milan and Real Madrid, put the man in an Oranje top and he just can’t help himself—it’s goals, goals, goals.
Reason: Ibrahimovic’s brilliant form at Milan this season proves that he really is the top player the world has long thought him to be.
In 33 games spread across all competitions, the mountainous Swede has 19 goals and 12 assists—he’s directly contributed to almost as many goals as he’s played games.
Ibra has also shown strong leadership at Milan. As the captain of his national side, Zlatan now bears great responsibility that, if his work in Serie A is any indication, he will more than live up to.
Reason: Funny fellow, Ozil. But then, looks aren’t everything.
This young German attacking midfielder showed tremendous ability at the 2010 World Cup as an integral component of Germany’s brutal counter attack.
At club level with Real Madrid, Ozil plays so well and has adapted so perfectly to the side’s style of play, that hardly anyone has noticed that Kaka, widely regarded as the best midfielder in the world just a few years ago, hardly plays.
Reason: RVP is nothing short of phenomenal when he’s well enough to play in Arsenal’s 2010-11 campaign. He has scored 11 goals and racked up five assists, despite missing a full 13 games due to injury.
Van Persie's speed and passing ability make him a perfect link in a chain that also includes Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Huntelaar.
Reason: England’s brave John Terry is a difficult player to measure in any real sense because his vast array of reputations are so embedded in our consciousness that it’s impossible to watch him without thinking, “so that’s how a philanderer clears the ball” or, “here comes the overrated player of a generation.”
Regardless of your opinions of Terry’s technical skill or moral character, it’s hard to argue against his leadership ability. If England stands any chance of advancing through Euro 2012 qualifying, it needs organization and unification.
John Terry is the man who gives that to the Three Lions.
Reason: This guy is nasty, straight up. Born Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha, the phenomenally fast winger is one of the best passers in European football in 2011.
As of this writing, he leads the EPL in assists with 16. Add to that his nine league goals, and you have a man who has contributed to more than a third of United’s goals for the season.
Nani also found the back of the net twice for Portugal in one game last fall.
Reason: Schweinsteiger is a bit like Zidane in that he doesn’t score an inordinate number of goals, but the proflic scoring activities of teammates like Klose would be impossible without his indefatigable work in the midfield.
His ability to maintain possession, distribute the ball, create forward momentum and provide crucial creativity is essential to his team.
Schweinsteiger’s passing and movement proved vital in the formidable counter attacks Germany showed at the 2010 WC.
Reason: Because he is Ribery. Because he is fast, aggressive and an excellent distributor. Because his passes are accurate and his face bears a brutal scar. Because he is, to quote one famous French fellow, the “jewel of French football.”
But mainly, because he is so good that no one seems to mind his series of progressively awful haircuts.
Reason: Much is made of David Villa and his preternatural ability to score goals in any situation, but Spain doesn’t win games by lighting other teams up—it wins by shutting them down.
Enter Puyol, former Bon Jovi roadie and central defender who is the anchor around which Spain’s wild and endless chain of passing sways.
He possesses the ability to score goals if need be, contributes leadership, cohesion and an essential sense of camaraderie to the team—and he has the best hair in world football.
Reason: The thing about Rooney is that, even when he isn’t playing the best football of his career, he can be a great player.
Sure, his performance at the 2010 WC can be described in one word (crap), but despite his lengthy goal drought during the 2010-11 season, he made immeasurable contributions to United’s offense in a sort of attacking midfield role.
In the 2010-11 EPL season, Rooney has found the back of the net seven times—five since February 1—and notched 11 assists.
Reason: Two fellows, one entry. Why? Because these two attacking midfield terrors play the same position for the same country.
Van Der Vaart and Sneijder express expert ball control, exemplary creativity and the ability to explode forward and score goals. Their talent has earned each of them comparisons to Zidane.
It’s almost unfair that one team has both players, though the same could be said of Spain’s host all stars.
Reason: When Klose steps onto the international stage in his Germany jersey, he miraculously transforms into one of football’s all-time great strikers.
Thus far in qualifying, Klose has scored six goals. Thanks to that, Germany currently sits atop the table. Add that to the four he scored in the 2010 World Cup and the one he scored in a friendly against Italy, and Klose has 11 international goals in less than a year.
Klose also adds great speed and depth to Germany’s fatal counter attack; he is a decisive passer, a quick decision maker, a sure dribbler and dominant forward force.
Reason: Of all the terms used to describe Vidic, perhaps the most appropriate is Manimal. The defender does his job with such zest, he is regularly seen chasing defenders well into their own halves and distributing the ball on counter attack.
Through his play on United and the Serbian national team, Vidic makes a very strong case for the old axiom, "the best offense is a good defense." He is an immovable object yet to meet an unstoppable force.
Reason: It’s easy these days to call Ronaldo overrated. He plays in the same league as Messi, against whom bored journalists endlessly pit him, and he expresses difficulty performing under pressure.
But the man is, without a doubt, one of the top players in the world. In 42 appearances across all competitions for Real Madrid during the 2010-11 season, Ronaldo has 37 goals and 12 assists. Add those up, and he’s contributed to more goals than he’s played games.
Of course, Ronaldo has a tendency to fold when playing at the national level, but recently he scored three goals for Portugal in a five-month period—more than he’d managed in the previous two years.
Reason: This guy is hardcore. He chokes his teammates for being disrespectful. No, seriously. When asked why, he responded, “I hate it when teammates constantly raise their hands and complain. It is disrespectful. We are a team. We don't need to do that. We have got to be role models and should not make such gesticulations.”
But Robben is more than a bad mother. He is a player of stupendous depth who is as adept as distributing the ball from his position on the wing as he is at sending it into the back of the net.
In 2010, he was named Footballer of the Year in Germany and Der Kicker Player Of The Year. Robben provided immeasurable contributions to the Oranje’s silver-medal winning campaign at the 2010 World Cup.
Reason: Xavi Hernandez is the midfield fulcrum of Barcelona and the Spanish national side—two of the most fluid, free-flowing teams of this young century.
He is the most important player on a team so dominant it allowed only two goals during its entire WC 2010 campaign.
The statistics speak for themselves: Xavi completed 65 more passes than any other player during Barcelona’s two-game Champion’s League ballet with Arsenal and finished 2010 with 94 percent passing accuracy.
Can't argue with that.
Q: How is the ordering of this list not completely arbitrary?
A: In many respects, it is. But thanks for asking.
Q: Did you know there are two 16’s?
A: No idea what you’re talking about.
Q: What? No Jack Wilshere? No Yoann Gourcuff? No Fabregas? No [insert name of criminally underrated or blatantly obvious player left off list]?
Q: But why?!
A: Because I said so. Now shut it.