Euro 2012: The Best Player on Each of the 16 National Teams
Believe it or not, the holy grail of European international football is almost upon us once again.
That's right, there are only a few agonizing days until the start of Euro 2012, when we get to see many of the world's best players competing against each other for the honor of being crowned the continent's best.
To make it this far and just qualify for the tournament, each national squad has to have truly exceptional players who can change games or dictate them. But every team has that one player who stands above the rest and can juggle the pride of a nation at their feet.
Let's take a look at all 16 of those players.
Croatia: Luka Modric
In a Croatia team that is overflowing with midfield talent, Luka Modric stands above the rest and has grown into his country's best player.
He had another stellar season at Tottenham, in which he continued to be the driving force behind many of Spurs' attacks. It was obvious why Harry Redknapp would not let him go last summer, though speculations have inevitably continued.
Boasting fabulous passing range and accuracy, Modric has the ability to both act as his team's metronome or pepper the defence with pinpoint through-balls.
If he can hit top form at the Euros, Croatia might just be able to surprise some people.
Ukraine: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk
After another very solid season with Bayern Munich, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is proving that his experience and toughness allow him to continue to spit in the face of Father Time.
It is not surprising why he is a fan favorite of the joint hosts. His imposing presence at the back of the midfield for the last 12 years has been a massive part of Ukraine's success, and his leadership is invaluable.
In a team that will probably rely more on toughness and organization than guile and skill, Tymoshchuk figures to be an integral part of his team's strategy at the Euros.
Ireland: Robbie Keane
There can be no other choice here than Ireland's best player ever.
Robbie Keane continues to be the talisman of the Irish national team, and his patchy club form has never found its way into his game when he puts on the iconic green shirt of his country.
Some worried that his move to Los Angeles Galaxy last summer would lower his level of play, but Keane is still performing at the same high level that Irish fans have been used to for the past 14 years.
With intelligent movement, admirable toughness and the instincts of a goal poacher, Keane is the oil in Ireland's engine up front. It will be extremely difficult for the Irish to score goals or create much of anything without their captain's best.
Greece: Sotiris Ninis
Not many people know the name Sotiris Ninis because, well, no one really knows Greek football. But more should be aware of one of the country's young jewels.
At the age of only 22, the attacking midfielder accrued 100 league appearances for Panathinaikos before recently securing a move up to Serie A club Parma.
The most exciting thing about Ninis is the incredible range of skills he can use to beat opponents. He can pick out a pinpoint pass, dribble past a defender, rip a shot on goal or just blow past his marker with excellent pace.
All this in a little 5'8" package.
Denmark: Christian Eriksen
Twenty-year-old Christian Eriksen beats out the plethora of Denmark's experienced, quality internationals due to his incredible skill and game-changing ability.
Many rave about Mario Gotze of Borussia Dortmund, but Eriksen is at least an equally skilled package and quickly rising to superstardom at Ajax. We very well might see him at a bigger club after the Euro Championship.
Eriksen's close control is nothing short of outstanding. He can dribble past and weave through defenders with almost unsettling ease.
As a creative midfielder, though, his true strength lies in his passing ability. Combine that with unteachable creative instincts, and it makes Eriksen a scoring threat every time he touches the ball.
Russia: Andrei Arshavin
As an Arsenal fan, it is extremely painful for me to tout the moody little Russian so highly, but Andrei Arshavin can truly be world class on his day.
The problem with him is that those days don't come nearly often enough. But this is a list based on quality, not consistency, so Arshavin definitely earns the honor of being his nation's best player.
While he does not have much pace to speak of, his dribbling ability and the quickness of his feet are right up there with the very best on the planet. When deployed in his preferred central role, Arshavin is certainly capable of creating chances for his teammates.
Again, though, he only gets this honor if he decides to play hard on a given day.
Czech Republic: Petr Cech
This is a tough competition between Cech and Tomas Rosicky, who had a fantastic bounce-back year at Arsenal, but the former's massive presence in goal for Chelsea when it really mattered just gives him the edge.
Among the surreal hype over the signings of Eden Hazard and Hulk, probably the most intelligent move that Roman Abramovich has made all summer has been extending his starting goalkeeper for four more years (via The Telegraph).
With Cech the Czech in goal, you know it will be an immensely difficult task to put the ball in the back of the net. Aside from the intimidation factor of the helmet, he has a rare combination of size, lightning-quick reflexes and great goalkeeping instincts.
Those might just see the Czechs go further in the tournament than many expect.
Poland: Robert Lewandowski
While Wojciech Szczesny will play a huge part in stopping goals from going in, Robert Lewandowski will play an essential role in scoring enough of them to help Poland progress.
The striker was an ever-present in Jurgen Klopp's double-winning Borussia Dortmund side this past season, netting 22 goals and collecting the Bundesliga Player of the Season award for his achievements.
Tall and strong, Lewandowski offers a good aerial presence, but his main strength lies in his fantastic movement and great feet. When he has his shooting boots on, he is extremely tough to mark, as many German clubs have found out this season.
A goal-filled summer would merely be the culmination of a surreal year for him.
Sweden: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
He may be a mercenary, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the best players on the planet no matter whose uniform he may wear in a given year.
His unique brand of cockiness and swagger prevents Ibra from ever doubting himself, and thus he rarely gets stuck in bad patches of form for club or country.
He really has no reason to get down on his abilities because he has it all: massive size, imposing strength, wonderful close control, good pace for a big man and, of course, an absolutely venomous shot.
The Swedish captain deserves all the plaudits he gets, and he will have the chance to once again prove that he is a big-game player.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon
One could certainly make the argument that the almost seductively smooth Andrea Pirlo should receive top billing here, but it is hard to argue against the outstanding Gigi Buffon in any "best player" argument.
Questions about his age were decisively quashed this season, as his towering presence in goal led Juventus to an unbeaten season in Serie A and nearly a domestic double.
With 114 caps for Italy, Buffon has the honor of captaining his country at the Euros, and it is an honor thoroughly deserved. In a side that is famous and perhaps infamous for playing defensive football, Buffon is the rock that holds the fort down and lets the rest of the team play comfortably.
France: Yann M'Vila
Before you scroll down to yell at me in the comments for not picking Karim Benzema or Franck Ribery here, consider this: No French player had more successful passes, tackles or interceptions in Euro qualifying than Yann M'Vila.
The metronomic role he plays for club and country may not be as flashy as Ribery's mazy runs or Benzema's hatful of goals, but it is equally, if not more essential to the cohesion of the team.
Very few players have the combination of defensive nous, passing range and the ability to read the game that M'Vila has. WIthout him gluing the midfield together, the team would quickly lose its shape and rhythm.
Allow his manager at Rennes to make the point for me (according to Le Parisien, via FIFA.com):
M'Vila reads the game like Claude Makelele, has the presence of Patrick Vieira and can pass the ball like Yaya Toure.
Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo
This was probably the easiest choice of all, considering that Ronaldo is arguably the best player in the world and the shining light of his country's footballing philosophy.
There is literally nothing that Ronaldo does poorly. One of the fastest players in the world, he is also arguably the best dribbler, certainly the best trickster, owner of a scarily powerful shot and an absolute menace from free kicks.
He is incredibly consistent, as well, and has not really seen a notable drop-off in form for years. Having their captain raring to go is a must for Portugal if they wish to progress from this year's group of death that includes Germany and the Netherlands.
England: Wayne Rooney
Losing Rooney for almost all of their group stage matches was a massive blow for England because he is really the linchpin of the entire team.
It would not be unfair to call him a complete footballer. Technically a striker, Rooney often drops deep into midfield to help defend or spur attacks from a central position. Combining his pugnacious attitude with world-class skill, he is unstoppable now that he is on top form again.
His presence in the team is truly irreplaceable, but if England can progress without him, he will be fresher and more ready to make an impact than whomever the opposition may field.
Progressing, however, is a massive uncertainty for England right now.
The Netherlands: Robin van Persie
We all knew that there was a great footballer somewhere inside Robin van Persie, but a cruel series of injuries over the years has always prevented him from truly unleashing his talent.
This year, he finally did.
And the results for Arsenal were incredible. Thirty-seven goals in total—30 of which came in the Premier League–and a team-leading 12 assists were enough to earn him the PFA Player of the Year award.
It seems as though this rich vein of form will never end for Van Persie. Two recent goals against Northern Ireland add to his growing international haul, and it looks less and less likely that any defender will be able to keep him in check.
Germany: Mesut Ozil
Since moving to Real Madrid two summers ago, Mesut Ozil has become one of the three or four best midfielders in the world. He has come to define the beautiful, flowing brand of attacking football that Germany play.
Ozil makes every move and pass in an extremely smooth and aesthetically pleasing way. His physical grace on the pitch is matched by his astounding repertoire of passes and flicks that have shredded Spanish defences en route to Madrid's 100-point season.
Seeing Ozil play is a joyous experience; it reminds one of what the very best in the world are capable of with the ball at their feet and inspiration in their minds. If Germany make it to the final, it will largely be because of him.
When you watch Barcelona play their incomparable passing football, you are watching Xavi at work.
Of course, he is surrounded by some of the world's best players, but nobody contributes more to the astoundingly intricate technical play of his club or country than Xavi.
No one possesses the range of skills that he does. His dribbling and control is a thing to behold. He never stops moving or looking to create. Of course, his passing range, instincts and accuracy are unparalleled in his generation and perhaps in the history of football.
Xavi is the ultimate metronome. No one completes more passes than him, and no one completes them at the stunning rate that he does. He is peerless even in the greatest generation of midfielders the world has ever seen. Despite the rash of injuries that Spain are suffering, they still have Xavi, who never gets injured. That alone is enough to see them through the tournament.