Year in Review: Picking the Top 25 Footballers of 2011
It's that time of year again where we take stock of what has happened over the past 12 months.
There may be a few more rounds of fixtures to go before December is through, but this feels as good a time as any to have a look back at who have been the top performers of 2011.
Here are 25 footballers who have impressed me most over the past year.
Few players have seen their star rise quite as meteorically as the young Brazil striker.
Over the summer the forward was the name on everyone's lips as he was linked with moves to some of the biggest clubs in Europe, before eventually signing a huge new deal at Santos.
This year he has scored 13 goals in 21 appearances in the Campeonato Brasileiro and another seven for Brazil, won the Campeonato Paulista and the Copa Libertadores, while several instances of his outrageous skills have become viral video hits.
It's incredible to think that he doesn't even turn 20 until February.
The 20-year-old Basel playmaker is one of the other break-out stars of 2011.
The Kosovan-born ethnic Albanian lit up the European Under-21 Championship this summer, scoring a cracking goal against England before netting a hat-trick against Bulgaria at the tournament in Denmark.
His status as one of the brightest young talents was confirmed last week when he set up both goals in the 2-1 win over Manchester United which saw the Premier League champions eliminated at the group stage.
Messi began the year by winning his second-straight Ballon d'Or, and it seems inconceivable that either Xavi Hernandez or Cristiano Ronaldo will stop him from claiming a hat-trick.
He ended last season's Champions League campaign as the Man of the Match in the final and the competition's top scorer. This season, he has scored six goals in five appearances in Europe.
Put simply he is the best player in the world.
Suarez has certainly made a name for himself since his infamous handball on the line in last year's World Cup quarterfinal.
Since joining Liverpool in January, he has continued to attract as much attention for his antagonistic behaviour as he has for terrorising of Premier League defences.
Still, he is one of the most dangerous players in England, and on the international stage he was top scorer and named Player of the Tournament as Uruguay claimed a record 15th Copa America title.
He may have missed the first three months of the year through injury, Higuain has certainly made up for lost time.
In only his third game back in the Real Madrid team, the striker scored a hat-trick as Los Merengues savaged Valencia 6-3 at the Mestalla.
This season, he has scored an exceptional 12 goals in La Liga—at a rate of one every 59.3 minutes—and in the space of 13 days in October scored three hat-tricks in four matches, twice for Real and once for Argentina.
Antonio Di Natale
Another striker who has posted crazy figures this year, Di Natale has scored 28 Serie A goals for Udinese since January.
The veteran forward's achievements last season were somewhat overshadowed by his teammate Alexis Sanchez, who left for Barcelona in the summer, but the 34-year-old is no one-season wonder.
Last season he scored 28 goals in Serie A. The season before that, 29. This season, despite Sanchez leaving, Udinese are once more fighting at the top of Serie A as we near the halfway point of the campaign.
Manchester City may have discovered their mojo over the summer holidays, morphing into a free-wheeling, high-scoring unit that has only this week suffered its first league defeat of the season.
However, back in the days when the Citizens were grinding their way into the Champions League places, it was their defence which caught all of the attention, and the near flawless Kompany led the way.
Now City's captain following the bizarre downfall of Carlos Tevez, the Belgian centre-back remains one of the first names on Roberto Mancini's teamsheet.
When Schalke reached the semifinals of the Champions League last season (yes, that really did happen), Neuer became one of the most highly-regarded goalkeepers in world football.
Even the German side's dismal 6-1 aggregate defeat to Manchester United could not dim his growing reputation, and Alex Ferguson made no secret of his desire to sign the Germany number one.
However, Bayern swooped in to sign him for £18 million, and since then Neuer has helped Bayern to the top of the Bundesliga with the division's best defensive record.
This year has featured yet another raft of absurd statistics and figures relating to Xavi's performances pulling the strings in the Barcelona midfield.
Even in the Champions League final, he made more passes (124) than the entire Manchester United midfield.
At 31 years old, he has just been named on the three-man shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d'Or for the second year running.
Sturridge joined Chelsea from Manchester City in 2009 for just £3.5 million, but he is now an established first-team player at Stamford Bridge who is currently keeping £50 million man Fernando Torres rooted to the bench.
After scoring twice in the 7-0 FA Cup drubbing of Ipswich at the turn of the year, Sturridge went on loan to Bolton where he scored eight goals in just 12 Premier League appearances.
This term, back at Chelsea, he has scored another eight goals and finally made his senior England debut last month. If he keeps up this form, he could well be on the plane to Poland for next summer's European Championships.
The big Serbian centre-back was an integral part of the Borussia Dortmund side which won the Bundesliga last season.
The six-foot-four defender formed a solid partnership with Mats Hummels that saw BVB concede just 22 goals in the league in that campaign, half that of second-placed Bayer Leverkusen.
The 23-year-old has been ruled out until the New Year after his cheekbone was fractured in a collision with Wolfsburg's Sotirios Kyrgiakos, and his return can't come soon enough for Juergen Klopp's side.
Since joining Manchester City from Valencia 18 months ago, Silva has gone from strength to strength.
For all the goal scoring exploits this season of teammates Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli, it is the little Spaniard who has caught the most attention.
He is the most creative player in the Premier League this season, already claiming eight assists and setting up nearly 50 chances for his colleagues. He is sure to be in the running for the PFA and FWA awards come next year.
The pasty playmaker may be yet to score in La Liga this season in 10 appearances, but his game has never really been about goals.
Last season saw Iniesta's best scoring return in the Spanish league with eight strikes in all, but his dynamic ability to turn an opponent in the midfield and push the play forward makes him the perfect foil for Xavi.
He was not on the scoresheet in the most recent Clasico, a 3-1 win for Barca at the Bernabeu, but his performance was as majestic as you would come to expect from the midfielder.
It would be excessive for Rooney to be included in this list solely for THAT overhead kick in the derby against Manchester City, but that magnificent match-winner has become symbolic of him awaking from his year-long malaise.
Since that goal in February, Rooney has scored 24 goals for Manchester United, including one in the Champions League final.
Along the way he has scored three hat-tricks, including one against West Ham which was a huge step towards United claiming their record 19th title, and another in the 8-2 drubbing of Arsenal earlier this season.
The reigning Football Writer's Footballer of the Year, Parker won universal acclaim for his gutsy, tireless performances that were the only thing giving West Ham any hope of surviving relegation.
The Hammers lost that battle, but Parker has since moved on after joining Tottenham for a £5 million fee that looks more like a bargain with each passing week.
Despite turning 31 this year, Parker has finally cemented his place as a regular in the England squad, and is virtually assured of his place on the plane to Poland next summer.
This season Ronaldo has already scored 21 goals for Real Madrid, including his 100th for the club in less than two-and-a-half seasons.
He has scored four hat-tricks along the way, as well as the nerve-setlling opener in the second leg of Portugal's Euro 2012 play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Yet another sub-par performance in the Clasico may raise question marks over his big-game play, but he has done enough this year to be reinstalled in the three-man shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d'Or
Anyone thinking that the powerful Uruguayan striker's first season at Napoli, in which he scored a phenomenal 31 goals, was a one-season wonder will be sorely disappointed.
It's true that his goal scoring exploits do not quite match-up to that incredible debut haul, but he has still produced the goods at key times.
The 24-year-old has already notched up 11 club goals this term, including a hat-trick against Serie A champions Milan and three goals in two games against Manchester City which ultimately saw his team, and not the Citizens, qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League.
The young playmaker is yet another of the most promising youngsters in world football, and was an integral part of Dortmund winning the Bundesliga.
The 19-year-old may be all about the assists, following his German league record of 15 last term, but he has added goals to his game too.
This season he has already scored five in the league, one more than the whole of last season, and also scored his first goal for the German national team, against Brazil of all teams.
The Barcelona keeper may have once been perceived as a weak link in the Blaugrana team, but no longer.
Valdes has developed into one of the world's most reliable keepers, a solid last line of defence on the rare occasions that Barcelona relinquish possession long enough for the opposition to test him.
He also showed admirable character to carry on passing the ball out from the back in the Clasico even after his first-minute error allowed Karim Benzema to open the scoring, and Barca went on to win the game.
There are few strikers in world football who divide opinion as sharply as Mario Gomez. Some say the Bayern Munich forward is a flat-track bully who spurns five good chances for everyone he scores.
The riposte always comes back: just look at his record. This season alone he has scored an average of one goal for each of his 15 Bundesliga appearances, plus another six in the Champions League. In Euro 2012 qualifiers, only Netherlands Klass Jan Huntelaar has scored more than Gomez's nine goals.
The big centre-forward has also added good all-round play to his game, and looks certain to be leading the line for Germany when Joachim Loew's side embark on the tournament proper next summer.
As mentioned before, the likes of Silva, Ageuro and co have been hogging the plaudits for Manchester City's record-breaking start to the Premier League season.
However, the performances of their rangy, box-to-box midfielder have been just as valuable to their success, and he scored the goals which won them both the FA Cup semifinal and the final itself.
Perhaps Toure's true value will only be appreciated when he is away at the African Cup of Nations next month.
Still only 20, the Lille attacking midfielder is one of the brightest stars in a wonderful crop of young Belgian players.
A key part of LOSC's Ligue 1-winning side last season Hazard has continued to progress. He needs just one more goal to match his total of seven for the whole of last season in the league.
Hazard recently announced that this will be his final year at Lille. Europe's biggest clubs will have form an orderly queue when the summer transfer window opens next year.
So, Atletico Madrid lost both of their star strikers in the summer, Aguero moving to Manchester City and the ageing Diego Forlan switching to Inter Milan.
No problem: Atleti just went out and bought Falcao. The Colombian striker ran ragged for Porto last season, particularly in the Europa League where he scored 17 goals.
An absolute monster in the air, Falcao has already scored nine goals in his first 12 games in La Liga, and is probably the only thing keeping them in mid-table right now.
The previously unheralded Marseille goalkeeper is now finally getting the words of praise he deserves.
OM only conceded just four goals in their entire Champions League group campaign. Only Real Madrid shipped fewer.
After four seasons as the number one at the Stade Velodrome, there will be several of Europe's bigger clubs circling for his signature come the end of the season.
Robin Van Persie
What is there to say about RvP that hasn't been said already? Not much, really, so best just lay out the bare facts.
Since scoring at Birmingham City on New Year's Day, Van Persie has scored 40 goals for Arsenal, including a hat-trick in the epic 5-3 win at Chelsea.
If the Dutchman keeps on scoring the goals, both in volume and quality, that he has been this year, then he will end up having his own statue erected outside the Emirates to sit alongside the newly-unveiled one of Thierry Henry