World Cup 2014 Qualifying 50: Ranking the Best 50 Players in WC2014 Qualifying

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2013

World Cup 2014 Qualifying 50: Ranking the Best 50 Players in WC2014 Qualifying

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    Welcome to the B/R World Cup 50, where we've graded and ranked the best international players in the entire world according to their abilities and importance to their respective national sides.

    This ranking system encompasses every player or nation who has taken part in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for the 2014 event in Brazil, splits them into their respective roles and uses a proven methodology to grade them against each other.

    You'll be able to find out how many players your country managed to sneak into the Top 50, where your club's representatives ended up, which players for each position came out on top and who might be key to hopes of success at the finals themselves next year.

    As always, we've left room to factor in a player's relative importance to his national team, along with using the ranking system rather than leaving the scoring as an absolute indicator of ability. 

Exemptions and Methodology

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    Before we go any further, we'll remind you that this is a World Cup qualifiers ranking system. As such, don't expect to find Neymar, David Luiz or Lucas Moura in here. Brazil qualify automatically for the 2014 World Cup as hosts and therefore do not feature in the CONMEBOL qualifying campaign.

    On the other hand, the defending champions no longer qualify automatically. Therefore, Spanish players are included, with several to be found at the higher end of the rankings, as you might expect.

    To produce the end list of players, around 100 of the finest internationals were initially selected. These were then split into their main roles—not just defender or forward, but by position type: goalkeeper or sweeper keeper, inverted winger or wide forward and so on.

    Those of you familiar with Sam Tighe's EPL 100 will be familiar with the setup.

    The most important five attributes for each role were decided upon, weighted and then graded for each player before totals and averages could be drawn up—totalling thousands of calculations and comparisons to give the eventual Top 50. Check out the EPL 100 "Method" slide for further explanation.

    As with the Premier League version, in the event of a tie between players, priority on the listing is given to the player with more importance to his national team. 

60-51: Just Missed the Cut

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    The following 10 players narrowly missed the cut for the top 50:

    60. Marek Hamsik

    59. Gonzalo Higuain

    58. Laurent Koscielny

    57. Daniel Agger

    56. Christian Eriksen

    55. David Alaba

    54. Heung-Min Son

    53. Edinson Cavani

    52. Didier Drogba

    51. Jan Vertonghen

50. Robert Lewandowski, Poland

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    Position: Target forward

    Score: 82.4

    Polish forward Lewandowski is one of the standout strikers in domestic football in Europe, having excelled for Borussia Dortmund over the past couple of seasons.

    He featured at the European Championships in 2012 for Poland but is unlikely to make it to next year's World Cup, with his nation fourth in Group H and needing two big results to even sneak a playoff spot.

    Technically impressive and able to find room for a shot in tight spaces, Lewandowski is an all-round very good front man who finds the back of the net on a regular basis.

    Considering he brings up the rear of our Top 50, you can get an idea of the kind of quality this list will hold. 

49. Eden Hazard, Belgium

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    Position: Inverted winger

    Score: 82.4

    Chelsea's dynamic attacker Eden Hazard has yet to really display his most blistering form on a regular basis for his country. However, with such a range of attacking talents available to Marc Wilmots, it's only a matter of time before they find the balance to allow Hazard's talents to flourish.

    Capable of running at defenders at pace to open up the defence or making straight runs down the flank to run on to through balls, Hazard excels at one-on-ones with defenders and isn't fazed by being double-marked.

    His lightning pace is also a real attribute at his position. However, with the likes of Dries Mertens to contend with for a place in the team, he might need to up his goals tally to be a starter in time for the World Cup.

    Belgium need just a point against Croatia or a win in their last game against Wales to be certain of a spot in Brazil next year. 

48. Pedro Rodriguez, Spain

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    Position: Wide forward

    Score: 82.9

    Barcelona's Pedro has proven himself a big talent on account of his superb movement and composure in front of goal.

    Neither the flashiest with his skills on the ball nor a genuine creative wide forward, he will nonetheless find spaces between full-back and centre-back to exploit, giving his teammates continual penetrative runs to look for.

    Pedro can finish with either foot and play off either flank and is relatively reliable as an impact sub on account of his game intelligence and willingness to work hard for the team.

    He's an almost certainty to make the Spain squad if fit, but winning himself a regular spot at the club level would certainly help his cause this year of all years.

47. Miralem Pjanic, Bosnia-Herzegovina

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 83.0

    AS Roma midfielder Miralem Pjanic is one of a clutch of Bosnian stars who are on the cusp of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time.

    They are level on points with Greece in Group G heading into the final round of qualifiers, and they have a great chance of reaching Brazil 2014.

    Pjanic is a key element in the team with his technical ability and vision to open up defences, contributing to Bosnia-Herzegovina having one of the highest goals tallies in Europe during these qualifiers.

    He is certainly capable of scoring important or spectacular goals himself, though he has never been a regular name on the scoresheet—something which he could certainly improve upon.

    Even so, in using space well, holding his position or dropping off to receive the ball, there are few more impressive young playmakers than Pjanic. 

46. Gareth Bale, Wales

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    Position: Inverted winger

    Score: 83.1

    He may be the world's most expensive player at domestic football level, but Gareth Bale hasn't quite exploded onto the international scene just yet. Perhaps that has something to do with the level of his teammates with Wales.

    The Welsh national side have been rather atrocious during the qualifiers—ranked bottom of Group A at present—and Bale will have to hope they can be far more consistent with their relatively small resources if he is to play at a major international tournament.

    Of course, Bale's searing pace and ability to drive past players helps him considerably in terms of scoring well in the ranking system, but his crossing and overall technique still require more work. A season at Real Madrid, playing with genuine top-class talents, is certain to up his game considerably.

    It wouldn't be a surprise to see him dip a little this term with his form before really exploding later in the season. 

45. Steven Gerrard, England

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    Position: Regista

    Score: 83.1

    England's Steven Gerrard is one of several players who don't quite fit perfectly into any one position, but his major talents are largely recognised by grading him as a regista.

    That is almost the role he takes up now for club and country, sitting rather deeper than he did in his younger days to control play and possession from in space—where he can seek out his running teammates with his usual pinpoint passing.

    As a defensive midfielder, Gerrard needs a little help now and again from those around him to carry the hard miles, but his creativity and vision are in more than good nick. He also remains a threat on goal and will hope to lead his nation to the World Cup finals this week, with England needing two home wins to guarantee top spot in their group.

    Gerrard, as England captain, is ranked ahead of Bale by virtue of his importance to the side. 

44. Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina

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    Position: Full-back

    Score: 83.2

    Pablo Zabaleta isn't always an automatic pick for Alejandro Sabella, as he has been noted to frequently change systems for Argentina during World Cup qualifying.

    When utilising a flat back four, however, Zabaleta is usually the right-back in place, and deservedly so. He is, in fact, one of the most experienced international defensive players available to the coach, and his reliability and consistency—when fit—means he is certain to be part of the eventual travelling squad next summer.

    Zabaleta scores highly all-round in reality, with special noteworthy attributes being his terrific engine and willingness to get forward to support buildup play without neglecting his defensive duties. 

43. Kwadwo Asamoah, Ghana

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    Position: Wing-back

    Score: 83.4

    Versatile Ghana midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah covers a whole range of positions, from attacking central player to wing-back, but it is in the latter role where he has become such a key player for club side Juventus, so that is where he has been graded.

    His impressive physical attributes and ability to track back into defensive positions help negate the threat of opponents, aiding his score significantly.

    A greater ability to deliver telling balls from wide areas would help his case, but in truth he also often opts—or is instructed—to pass short infield, which is a quality he uses at international level more often when asked to play centrally.

    Ghana face a two-legged playoff against Egypt to determine whether they will reach Brazil 2014. 

42. Marco Reus, Germany

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 83.7

    Marco Reus is another who could have been graded in different positions, but his instincts on the ball and ability to create danger mean he is best suited to the attacking midfield bracket.

    For Germany, he often plays cutting in from the left flank to have an impact, where his pace breaking into space can be a real asset. Not only that, but as a regular provider of goals and chances, defenders can never be sure whether Reus will shoot from range on his right foot or play a clever through ball for his forwards.

    A great first touch, excellent vision and a knack of hitting the back of the net at international level all contribute to his fine overall score. 

41. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Armenia

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 83.7

    Armenia are not traditionally associated with producing top-class footballing talent, but they have two or three players in their ranks now who are real match-winners on their day.

    At the head of that list is Henrikh Mkhitaryan, an attacking midfielder who had been tearing up the Ukrainian Premier League for Metalurh and later Shakhtar Donetsk before Borussia Dortmund signed him in the summer.

    Mkhitaryan's excellent runs off the ball and ability to break beyond the attacking line mark him out as a real threat, while his regular goal contribution for club and country are further proof of his quality.

    Armenia put up a good fight in Group B in Europe, running the likes of Denmark and Bulgaria close for a playoff spot, but have ultimately fallen just short. Barring a miracle last two games, Mkhitaryan and company will not be at the World Cup next year. 

40. Jakub Blaszczykowski, Poland

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    Position: Traditional winger

    Score: 83.9

    Jakub Blaszczykowski is a live-wire wide midfielder with a terrific tactical understanding of the game, which allows him to perform multiple functions within the team setup.

    Playing most often from the right wing, he is a constant outlet for Poland on the counterattack and has the quality to provide deliveries for Robert Lewandowski.

    "Kuba," as he is known, has searing, direct pace and enough ability to beat a man with the ball at his feet, while he also offers nonstop teamwork and support of his fellow midfielders when not in possession.

    Far from a typical, touchline-hugging winger who contributes little to buildup play, Blaszczykowski is almost an all-round midfielder who merely starts from the right flank. 

39. Sergio Aguero, Argentina

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    Position: Deep-lying forward

    Score: 84.0

    Sergio Aguero operates in a supporting role for Argentina, cutting in off the flanks to exploit the space left by the centre-forward.

    While that's a role he might prefer to play himself, given the competition for places in Argentina's attack, Aguero is probably happy to feature anywhere close by.

    Kun scores extremely highly with his exemplary movement and linkup play, though in truth he is a top-class all-round forward who can operate in a variety of roles, from out-and-out striker to supporting man behind the front line.

    He is a goalscorer, but that doesn't mean that his finishing couldn't use a little bit more care and consideration at times.

    Aguero has all the tools to be perhaps the top centre-forward in the game, if only he could add more consistency and ruthlessness to his play in and around the penalty box. 

38. Shinji Kagawa, Japan

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 84.0

    He might be somewhat out of favour at club level, but Shinji Kagawa is one of the great hopes for Japan heading to Brazil 2014.

    Japan will indeed be there, having finished top of the Asia standings in Group B, losing just one of their eight final-round matches and scoring more goals than any other nation in the process.

    Kagawa's contribution to that progress should not be understated, with his first touch, creativity and ability to execute passes under pressure all important assets which help Japan break down opposition defences.

    At the World Cup, he'll get the chance to pit his game against tougher defences than the likes of Jordan and Oman, but Kagawa has the tools to open them up.  

37. Juan Mata, Spain

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 84.1

    Juan Mata being relatively low on the list is reflected by an important factor: He hasn't been able to command a regular place in the Spanish squad over the past year or so, meaning his score has been adjusted accordingly.

    That he still ranks in the top handful of players in World Cup qualifying is testament to his ability, but with at least three more players from the same nation and similar positions ahead of him, it's possible to see why he doesn't quite fly as high as he might.

    Mata is a match-winner, no two ways about it.

    His movement on and off the ball is exceptional, he can play across the entire attacking line, and he drops off to find space where others might make an unthinking run or leave themselves marked. Excellent touch and technique and a good range of passing are amongst his other top attributes, and it would really be a shock if Spain made it to the finals—it's almost certain they will—and he wasn't on the plane. 

36. Toni Kroos, Germany

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 84.2

    Toni Kroos is only 23 years old, yet he seems to have achieved almost everything in the game. At international level, he is a vital component of Germany's midfield. At times, Kroos plays centrally and from a slightly deeper role than at club Bayern Munich, but he is no less effective.

    He can operate in almost any role from the middle of the park and is as sure-footed technically as they come. He also has a good reading of the game tactically.

    Kroos will work as hard for the team as anybody, pressing from the front to win the ball back before making his quick, clever passes and finding space around the edge of the penalty area.

    Often a 90-minute player for Germany, he's a certainty to be at the finals if he remains fit, with Germany able to seal their spot in Brazil with one win from their remaining two games. 

35. Jordi Alba, Spain

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    Position: Full-back

    Score: 84.4

    Few attacking full-backs are as attack-minded as Barcelona's Jordi Alba at the very top end of the game, and even fewer have the capacity to still be making 50-metre bursts up the pitch in the final moments of games.

    Alba's great asset is his nonstop movement, contributing heavily to pressure at both ends of the field.

    He's a constant outlet for the national team and is often the one to "break" play with his sudden accelerations from deep through the opposition defence after a bout of keep-ball. He chips in with a fair few goals as well.

    An automatic selection at left-back when fit, Alba is clever in possession and can hold up the ball when needed or cross or pass with good accuracy.

    He'd also probably be a pretty damn good starter from the right side of attack, if Spain didn't have roughly a dozen other players to pick from for that role. 

34. Cesc Fabregas, Spain

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 84.5

    Cesc is an attacking midfielder, no doubt about that, but he plays the important role of almost being a forward for Spain when they don't quite feel like actually utilising one.

    The Barcelona man certainly knows where the goal is, so his knack of playing just off the front man—even when there isn't one—and getting into advanced positions comes in handy for Spain when constantly circulating possession and searching for their chance to play through an opposition defence.

    Cesc scores highly on his touch and ability to use the ball, as well as his capacity to exploit space—something in which all Barca and Spain attackers are highly proficient in.

    He's not the most creative of No. 10's, but given the players feeding the ball to him in the red shirt of his nation, it's a barely noticeable downside. 

33. Ashley Cole, England

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    Position: Full-back

    Score: 84.5

    Level on score with Cesc, Cole is ranked higher as he is an automatic pick for England at left-back, while Cesc mixes game time with a place on the bench.

    Cole is a classic attacking full-back, mixing determined defensive ability with a natural inclination to raid down the flank, providing width in the final third as he moves up the pitch and an outlet for his midfielders to use to push play forward.

    A recent centurion of caps at international level, Cole's experience lends itself to his usual good positional play and tactical reading of the game, while he has always been an impressive performer going forward with crosses and passing.

    His reserves of stamina are of course an important trait for an overlapping full-back, and he makes great use of that for club and country. 

32. David Silva, Spain

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 84.7

    David Silva has won the lot at international level, but his influence is no closer to waning as he looks for a fourth major title next year with Spain.

    A gifted, tricky, left-footed technician who can find a way through the tightest of gaps with his passing and control of the ball, he is equally capable of beating a defender with a quick dribble or by swapping passes with a teammate within a five-metre triangle.

    While not a sprinter, Silva has good initial acceleration and envisages play opening around him well enough to take advantage of tight spaces. He has also been a good source of goals for Spain, hitting 20 internationally so far.

    If—or should I say, when—Spain make it, he'll be on the plane.

    Silva is ranked as the fourth-highest attacking midfielder.  

31. Thomas Muller, Germany

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    Position: Wide forward

    Score: 84.9

    Muller can fill any role in attack for club and country, but he is often at his best operating from the right side of attack with licence to come infield to get involved in the play.

    A wonderfully capable footballer, Muller doesn't quite fit the description of any normal wide forward; he's not lightning quick, he doesn't beat players for fun by dribbling, and he's not a terribly strong, athletic type.

    None of that, however, prevents him from being hugely effective, thanks to his innate game intelligence and great technical ability. One-touch passing, a simple ball released into space or simply knowing where to be and when all combine to make Muller awfully difficult for opposition defenders to tie down.

    Give him half a yard, and he'll probably sneak behind the full-back to score at the far post, while in buildup play he rarely seems to waste a pass. Muller is a regular starter for Germany and will be a dead certainty for their starting lineup once the finals are underway. 

30. Wayne Rooney, England

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    Position: Deep-lying forward

    Score: 84.9

    While Muller and Rooney tie on their score, Rooney places ahead on account of his importance to the side. While Germany have plenty of alternative attacking options from the flanks, Rooney has been perhaps England's one true top-class talent in the final third of the pitch over the last few years.

    A bustling, energetic and often frustrated attacking talent, Rooney pops up all over the pitch thanks to his prodigious work rate and competitiveness, often dragging the team with him as he tries to salvage some sort of hope that England might eventually surpass a tournament quarterfinal.

    Having put a lean couple of years behind him in terms of international goals, Rooney scored five important goals for England in World Cup qualifying matches last season. A couple more in their last remaining two games might see them to the finals.

    Rooney scores highly for his excellent ability to link play in the final third, though his heading and even finishing at times leave something to be desired. Arguably the most consistently impressive technical player the nation has, even now. 

29. Vincent Kompany, Belgium

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    Position: Surging centre-back

    Score: 85.0

    Another Belgian representative, Vincent Kompany is just one win away from his first World Cup—and if Belgium make it, he will lead the nation into Brazil.

    Capped more than 50 times, Kompany now has plenty of experience and a real winning mentality to go with his bucketloads of defensive ability. A good reader of the game, Kompany uses his positional sense to preempt dangerous situations at the back, while he's also dominant aerially.

    A powerful figure when running forward, he can make up an extra body in attack at short notice by covering ground before the opposition can take note and assign a marker to him. 

28. Mario Goetze, Germany

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    Position: Attacking midfield

    Score: 85.1

    Just where Mario Goetze will end up playing most regularly is anybody's guess, but last season he featured in all four attacking roles for Germany—right wing, left wing, attacking midfield and centre-forward. It may well be in the latter position that he excels greatest in time, but with his career having been mainly spent in the second line of attack until now, that's where he's been graded.

    As such, he comes out an impressive third among all attacking midfielders, largely thanks to his excellent close control, first touch and ability to utilise space well.

    Goetze should ideally contribute a few more goals than he does, though his goals against Kazakhstan in qualifying games last year might be a sign of things to come if he plays the more advanced role.

    The Bayern Munich man is almost assured of a place in the squad for the finals, though there will be an element of caution there as he has yet to cement himself a place in his new team's regular XI as a result of injuries and competition.

27. Daniele De Rossi, Italy

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    Position: Surging defensive midfielder

    Score: 85.2

    Daniele De Rossi basically brings everything to the table that you want in a central midfielder: He's strong and fiercely committed and has a great range of passing and a more-than-adequate beard.

    The AS Roma star is basically a permanent fixture in the Italy side, dictating play and helping win the ball back in equal measures—a perfect physical and tactical foil to other technique-based teammates.

    While he is certainly an all-round midfielder, his ability to break from deep and join the attack, win headers in the opposition box and find the back of the net with timely strikes all mark him out as a big threat, even when he is not hugely involved in the initial buildup play of a move.

    Italy have easily qualified from Group B, and De Rossi will be a big part of their plans for Brazil 2014. 

26. Arjen Robben, Holland

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    Position: Inverted winger

    Score: 85.3

    A treble winner with Bayern Munich and indeed the match-winner of the Champions League final last season, Arjen Robben is at the peak of his career right now and will view the World Cup as his perfect opportunity to prove just how good he is.

    Holland made it through Group D at a canter, scoring freely and conceding few. Robben's role in the team is to provide chances and support from the right flank for the centre of the national team attack.

    Robben's greatest attribute is arguably his ability to run with the ball past defenders, cutting infield onto his favoured left foot and looking to sweep passes into the penalty box—or, more often than not, attempt to bend a shot toward the far top corner.

    Spectacular when it comes off and frustrating much of the rest of the time, Robben's decision-making process has been scrutinised and warrants questioning, but he has the pace and real ability to trouble any defence. 

25. Hugo Lloris, France

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    Position: Sweeper keeper

    Score: 85.6

    Over to France and national goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who is also the national team captain.

    Lloris is a superb goalkeeper in his own right, but he also fulfils the extra duty of allowing his team to maintain a high defensive line on account of his alertness, good starting position and willingness to race to the edge of his own box or beyond to clear out through balls.

    The Spurs goalkeeper is adept at making reflex saves, but his major strength is often in one-on-one situations, where his reading of the game, bravery and decision-making all make him a formidable opponent.

    He played every minute of France's World Cup qualification campaign last season. As their last line of defence, he will be key in determining whether they make it through the playoffs to reach the finals in Brazil. 

24. Iker Casillas, Spain

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    Position: Goalkeeper

    Score: 86.0

    World Cup winner, double European Championship winner, Spain national captain and national hero.

    And Real Madrid substitute.

    So far, Casillas has been able to hold down his starting spot with his country in the absence of regular first-team football, but it remains to be seen if that is the case if Diego Lopez—not a teammate in the national team—holds onto his place for the rest of the season.

    In any case, Casillas is easily experienced enough that the selectors of the teams know what they're getting with him. He brings great dexterity and reflexes, is impressive in one-on-one situations and directs and communicates very effectively with his back line.

    Casillas is a save-making goalkeeper at its finest.

23. Radamel Falcao, Colombia

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    Position: Poacher

    Score: 86.0

    Radamel Falcao is placed ahead of Spain's Iker Casillas as the striker is the greatest hope for Colombia to taste anything approaching glory in next year's finals on their home continent.

    Falcao is the archetypal penalty-box forward. He is always looking to play facing goal and attacking the ball as it is played to him through the centre or from the flanks.

    His movement in and around the penalty box, coupled with his power and anticipation, lends itself to letting him beat defenders to crosses—high or low—and getting on the end of through balls. His finishing, of course, is one of his greatest strengths, whether the ball comes to him at his feet or in the air.

    Having qualified for the World Cup, Colombia will look to play a quick, direct attack to get the ball close to Falcao near the opposition penalty area in the hope that he can finish off moves for them in the way he knows best. 

22. Petr Cech, Czech Republic

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    Position: Goalkeeper

    Score: 86.1

    There isn't an awful lot to separate the top goalkeepers in the game, but Petr Cech has a terrific dominance inside his six-yard box that few others can match.

    His excellent aerial and shot-stopping abilities mean he is extraordinarily difficult to beat, while he also presents an impassable barrier to the best of forwards when one-on-one with them.

    He's not the quickest with his movements or reflexes like Iker Casillas, for example, but he is a sure-handed keeper. He's reliable and safe and directs his defence well.

    We won't be seeing Cech at the World Cup, though. The Czech Republic need two wins from their final games as well as other results to go in their favour just to reach the playoffs. 

21. Ilkay Gundogan, Germany

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    Position: Surging defensive midfielder

    Score: 86.3

    Another top-quality midfield addition from the German national team, Ilkay Gundogan has the potential to be ranked even higher, but he is not enough of a regular for his national team at present to warrant it.

    Gundogan can play any role through the centre of midfield, but he perhaps functions best as a deep player who can quickly break forward from time to time to support the buildup and attack phases of play, most effectively during a rapid transition.

    He's technically sound, possesses good passing traits and is conscientious about his defensive duties, with a terrier-like ability to make up ground and win back the ball. He's no mindless chaser of opponents, though, with good reading of the game to take up intelligent positions to protect his back line and wait for the opportune moment to strike.

    Given the competition for places in Germany's midfield, it's no surprise he doesn't start every game, but his quality and reliability means he'll certainly have a role to play in the squad in Brazil. 

20. Gianluigi Buffon, Italy

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    Position: Goalkeeper

    Score: 86.3

    Into the top 20 now. Gigi Buffon gets us started, ahead of Gundogan by virtue of being Italy's long-term No. 1 stopper.

    Buffon is a vastly experienced member of the Italian squad, with more than 130 caps to his name and the national team captain's band on his arm.

    Buffon might be a little slower than he was a half-dozen years ago, but he still shows great dexterity and an ability to pull off reflex saves. Another great reader of the game, his leadership and ability to command his defence is a key attribute, along with his positioning and ability to take high balls into his penalty area.

    It's almost certainly his last tournament, but barring injury, he's the undisputed No. 1 for his country. 

19. Mats Hummels, Germany

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    Position: Surging centre-back

    Score: 86.6

    Borussia Dortmund central defender Mats Hummels has all the assets to be perhaps the world's best "defensive" defender, lacking just concentration at vital moments to become a true great.

    He's phenomenally strong both on the ground and in the air in making challenges, knowing that he boasts the physicality to match any striker and has the pace to beat plenty of them over short distances too.

    Having previously played in midfield, he's comfortable with the ball at his feet and knows how to spot the opportunity to surge forward to support the players in the centre of the park.

    Good anticipation and marking skills make him a top player already, and the hope for Germany will be that—with more experience—he will cut out those lapses which could prove costly.  

18. Robin van Persie, Holland

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    Position: Deep-lying forward

    Score: 86.7

    Manchester United and Holland forward Robin van Persie has become a great scorer of goals, having in his youth been noted as merely a scorer of great goals.

    One of Europe's most feared forwards when at his peak, Van Persie needs only a moment or half-yard of space to shift the ball to his left foot and shoot—whether a searing strike, a curled effort or an opportunistic poke back across goal, he has the lot in his locker.

    While his finishing is up there with the best, his movement and ability to drop deep and link play with other attackers is often what makes him stand out, being as natural a predator in the area as an on-the-shoulder striker but also having a finesse and care about his approach play which many midfielders lack.

    Along with Arjen Robben, he'll be Holland's best hope for success in Brazil next year, having come so close at the 2010 World Cup in finishing as runners-up. 

17. Arturo Vidal, Chile

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    Position: Shuttler

    Score: 87.0

    All-action midfielder Arturo Vidal can play as a defensive protector or an attack-minded player making late breaks forward, or he can do everything in between from a box-to-box role.

    The Juventus player has a vital role for Chile in linking midfield to attack, but also in working hard off the ball to protect the back line. In the South American qualifiers, Chile have almost done enough to guarantee their spot at the finals, but one more big push is required. They face the teams directly above and below them in the standings, Colombia and Ecuador, in the last two games. Ecuador, currently fourth, also play Uruguay, fifth, meaning those two nations in addition to Chile have everything to play for.

    It's going to be close, and Vidal will be one of those Chile turn to in order to ensure they get across the finishing line and make it to Brazil.

    Defensively, he breaks up play well and hounds opponents into giving away the ball needlessly, while his relentless approach to closing down high up the field also leads to chances to get an early shot away. 

16. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden

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    Position: Deep-lying forward

    Score: 87.0

    Level on scoring points with Vidal but ahead of him in the rankings is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Vidal is of paramount importance to his nation, but nobody comes close to Zlatan for Sweden.

    Of course, if you asked the man himself, he'd probably say that nobody comes close to Zlatan on the entire planet.

    Supremely gifted with a football, with a killer first touch and an ability to use any part of his body to control the ball, Ibra's tall, powerful frame makes it almost impossible for defenders to take possession from him.

    He brings others into play before attacking the box from deep in buildup phases, but he can also lead the line and break quickly ahead of play to spearhead the attack.

    Ibrahimovic is outrageously skilful, can score with both feet and with his head and is a set-piece enthusiast if not necessarily a specialist.

    The World Cup would be a poorer place without his presence, but Sweden will have their chance to make Brazil 2014 via the playoffs if they take four points from their remaining two games or simply beat Austria in their next one. It will be close, but with Zlatan in the side, it's certainly a possibility. 

15. Sergio Busquets, Spain

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    Position: Anchor defensive midfielder

    Score: 87.1

    Sergio Busquets plays a prominent and important role for club and country, as the holding midfielder behind a raft of players who are often free to roam, interchange positions, construct attacks and ultimately win the game.

    Busquets is perfectly adapted for that with a great sense of position and an ability to recover well against counters and drop into a central defensive position when required.

    On the ball, he rarely wastes possession. He makes simple passes often—true enough—but also effective ones which allow his team to once again begin building an attack.

    He'll make challenges—sometimes rashly and sometimes conceding needless free-kicks—and has a propensity to feign injury, but ultimately, he does an extraordinary job of protecting the back line of his team. 

14. Franck Ribery, France

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    Position: Inverted winger

    Score: 87.2

    France are going to have to travel the difficult route of the playoffs, in all likelihood, to reach the World Cup, but it won't be because of a lack of talent from the wide areas of their attack.

    Franck Ribery is one of the premier talents in world football, capable of winning a game on his own in a moment of genius and pure skill.

    A fixture in France's starting XI, Ribery operates from the left flank, cutting in on his right foot to create chances for himself and others on a regular basis. His dribbling ability, which he shows with style and at pace, is up there with most attackers in the game today.

    He's technically a very good player with close control, good decision making and the ability to go inside the defender or outside on his left foot.

    His crossing and shooting can at times be improved upon, but his movement and presence alone causes problems for defences as they know his capabilities when he receives the ball close to goal. 

13. Javier Mascherano, Argentina

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    Position: Anchor defensive midfielder

    Score: 87.3

    A central defender these days at club level, Mascherano continues with his national side in the position which made him such a top-class player as an anchoring defensive midfielder.

    The Argentine has captained his country and is arguably the most important player on the team—after one certain other individual—as he protects and prowls the back line to stop opposition attacks before they gain traction, letting the offensive players ahead of him do their job.

    Mascherano boasts a wealth of experience and is ferocious in the tackle and quick across the ground, with a simple but effective approach to passing after winning the ball back.

    He performs his job to perfection, sets the platform for Argentina to attack and will be a pivotal man in the unfriendly surroundings of Brazil next summer. 

12. Luis Suarez, Uruguay

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    Position: Deep-lying forward

    Score: 87.4

    Luis Suarez, at just 26 years of age, is already Uruguay's all-time top goalscorer and is the man the nation will look to in order to get them over the line and playing in Brazil next summer.

    Uruguay looked out of the running for an automatic spot at the World Cup before two recent victories put them level with Ecuador—the nation they can overtake into fourth with a victory in their next game.

    A gifted dribbler of the ball who can work his way out of the tightest of spaces and past the most committed of defenders, Suarez seems to bobble and bounce his way through on goal half the time and fight his way through the rest.

    Able to turn on the head of a needle and create scoring chances for himself and others out of nothing, he's a forward that defenders hate to come up against, as much for his never-say-die character as his quality on the ball.

    There's no denying his greatness around the penalty area, though, and you'd back him to have an impact in Brazil next summer...if Uruguay get there. 

11. Yaya Toure, Ivory Coast

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    Position: Surging defensive midfielder

    Score: 87.7

    Yaya Toure is the all-action, powerful leader of the Ivory Coast midfield, one of the few genuinely world-class talents out of Africa at this moment in time and the nation's best hope of reaching the World Cup finals.

    Ivory Coast face Senegal in a tricky playoff match to determine who goes to Brazil next summer, and Toure will be a key player in the two-legged tie.

    While his first touch and passing of the ball, his all-round technique and his ability to win back the ball are all excellent attributes, it is his monstrous physicality, speed and power that make him such a formidable player.

    They take Yaya Toure to entirely another level, one where he can overrun an opposition midfield by himself and break a game by covering 30 or 40 metres in a single sprint, adding the extra body inside the penalty area to put the finishing passes on a move—or provide the thunderous finish of which he is so capable.

    His set pieces and defensive awareness are further reasons why he stands out as a class act. 

10. Mesut Ozil, Germany

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 88.4

    Completing Germany's ridiculously talented offensive line is Mesut Ozil, who operates as the fulcrum to his nation's entire attack, linking midfield to front line and providing chance after chance to those who run beyond him.

    Not a natural scorer of goals himself, Ozil's strengths lie in making great use of space, having a sublime first touch and being able to spot the right pass at the right time—and execute it accordingly.

    Try to close him down, and his clever footwork will see him dance out of reach before you realise which way he's going. Stand off, and he'll kill you with the time and space.

    Ozil is a nightmare for opposition defences to deal with, as they don't know whether to close him down or let him drop off into space. He'll be sure to be one of the key players at the World Cup in 2014. 

9. Philipp Lahm, Germany

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    Position: Full-back

    Score: 88.5

    One more for Germany: Philipp Lahm is almost without peer as a defender or as a midfielder—a role that his new club coach seems to be turning him back to.

    Seemingly since time began, Lahm has been raiding down one flank or the other from defence, sending over a succession of pinpoint deliveries at one end and stopping the opposition winger from having any joy at the other.

    His reading of the game and positional work is flawless, borne of years of experience of challenging for—and winning—the biggest trophies in the game. Technically, he is assured with the ball at his feet, can use either foot to good effect and can keep up a prodigious work rate for the entirety of a match.

    Lahm is a fixture in the German national side and will captain the team at Brazil 2014. 

8. Xabi Alonso, Spain

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    Position: Regista

    Score: 88.7

    Xabi Alonso's recent enforced absence through injury has reminded some of just how big his talents are, and just how important he is to club and country.

    Able to hold together a midfield on his own or act as a more offensive player in a double pivot, Alonso revels in receiving the ball in space and dictating the play ahead of him. He'll receive the ball and lay it off, again and again, without mistakes and with intelligence and reasoning.

    He's also capable of finding the back of the net—not especially regularly, perhaps, but when provided with the cover behind him, he loves to surge forward and look for a long-range shooting opportunity. Alonso recycles the ball intelligently, can make tackles to win the ball back for his team and has won everything going in the game, from the World Cup to the Champions League.

    Having won over a century of caps, it's hard to imagine Spain going to the World Cup without him. 

7. Andrea Pirlo, Italy

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    Position: Regista

    Score: 89.3

    The great bearded one, Andrea Pirlo, reigns supreme in Italy's midfield, even at the grand old age of 34.

    With the upcoming World Cup in Brazil almost certain to be his last—surely even he can't continue for another four years—Pirlo will want to have one final say on the world's biggest stage.

    He plays an important part in keeping the ball for Italy for long spells in the game, opening up defences from deep positions where he enjoys time and space on the ball to do untold damage to teams.

    Pirlo is far from fleet-footed and often needs a pair of younger legs around him to do the hard work in midfield, but he's no slouch at making challenges either, and he reads the game as well as any veteran centre-back.

    Italy's magic comes from the boots of Pirlo. If they are to challenge in Brazil, he will be key to everything they do right.

6. Xavi Hernandez, Spain

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    Position: Regista

    Score: 89.7

    Xavi is another who doesn't quite fit the established norms, positionally. He operates more or less as a regista, recycling possession and creating chances to open up the defence, but he does it a good 20 metres further up the field than the likes of Pirlo.

    Nonetheless, his skills and strengths are best suited to be ranked as such, and there are few who would disagree with his passing and control of the ball being up there amongst the best on the planet.

    A player used to high-intensity pressing from his club, Xavi has a great work rate and an admirable on-pitch attitude which will see him fight back toward his own goal to win the ball when necessary, though of course the hard work often comes before that in winning the ball closer to the opponents' goal.

    His creativity, ability to spot a run through a crowded penalty area and technical brilliance to pull off the only pass that will work, among other reasons, are why he remains head and shoulders above many of his peers. 

5. Manuel Neuer, Germany

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    Position: Sweeper keeper

    Score: 89.9

    Into the top five now, and we kick off with our highest-ranked goalkeeper, Germany's Manuel Neuer.

    As confident in his own ability as the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Nicklas Bendtner in theirs, Neuer must be a horrid opponent to go up against for any international striker. Just as they finally work free from the shackles of Germany's centre-backs and afford themselves a millisecond to set themselves to shoot, the Bayern keeper will be upon them, sprawling, solid and massive, immovable and impassable.

    At 27 years of age, he has become arguably the standout stopper in world football, playing behind a hugely strong defence but with the personality and commanding presence to direct them and make them even better.

    His distribution and ability to take the ball in the air is excellent, his reflexes at times leave viewers confounded, and he has already had the experience of playing in major tournaments—not to mention of winning club-level trophies—which can take him another level up in Brazil 2014. 

4. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany

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    Position: Shuttler

    Score: 90.1

    The final German representative is Bastian Schweinsteiger, a truly world-class talent who has the ability to help his nation win the World Cup next summer.

    Schweinsteiger's drive and determination from the centre of midfield press the entire team forward, while he has the overall game to effectively defend the middle of the pitch, protect his back line and start attacks moving forward.

    As well as his great range of passing and a mentality which has long since forgotten what it means to lose, Schweinsteiger has the physical capacity to do the whole lot all game long.

    He directs, he runs, he presses, he passes, tackles and shoots. The German really does have it all, and he will be a key player at the tournament in 2014. 

3. Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

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    Position: Wide forward

    Score: 90.3

    Cristiano Ronaldo is almost a one-man attack for Portugal at times, firing off shots and dragging his nation toward the World Cup.

    He hasn't quite managed it yet. Portugal are in line for a playoff place unless Russia suffer a shock slip-up in their final two games. Nevertheless, he smacked a hat-trick against Northern Ireland at the back end of last season to all but seal his nation's spot in the top two after even that had looked a decidedly ropey proposition for a spell.

    Ronaldo's talents need no introduction. Cutting in from the left flank, there are few players more capable of running with the ball at speed and hammering a shot toward goal, but Ronaldo's shots come from all sorts of angles.

    Long-range efforts, set pieces, far-post tap-ins after yet another untracked sprint to get on the end of low crosses...the man knows where the goal is, and he'll get there either by quality or quantity of efforts on target.

    With incredible pace over long distances and perhaps the best reserves of stamina and power at the very top of the football game, Ronaldo is a specimen who will grace the World Cup—if his country makes it there. 

2. Lionel Messi, Argentina

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    Position: Deep-lying forward

    Score: 90.9

    Perhaps up there with the greatest forwards the game has ever seen, Leo Messi is a superstar whose success knows no bounds at club level. Goals, records and titles continue to come his way, but a World Cup title win for Argentina, on Brazilian soil, might just trump the lot.

    Could he possibly be capable of that enormous feat—to win the biggest prize in football in enemy territory?

    Messi possesses unbeatable footwork with the ball, surging acceleration and huge reserves of coolness and composure in front of goal.

    He'll drop into spaces to link midfield to attack, but even as others fill the space up front that he has vacated, Messi remains a threat on goal himself from deeper areas and from the flanks. Cutting in on his left foot or sprinting down the channels, he'll beat the goalkeeper if he's presented with a chance on goal.

    The one question mark at present has to be over his fitness, after calf and hamstring concerns during 2013.

    If he gets over those completely to play at his maximum level next summer, it could be Maradona '86 all over again. 

1. Andres Iniesta, Spain

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    Position: Attacking midfielder

    Score: 91.4

    Coming out on top of the rankings is Spain's attacking midfielder, Andres Iniesta.

    The magical playmaker possesses all the technical ability in the world, bundles of game intelligence and an end product to match. Not to mention his own extensive list of achievements, which include scoring the winning goal at the last World Cup.

    As an advanced creative player, he has everything: a wonderful first touch, great appreciation of space and how to best use it to his advantage, the vision and imagination to see play developing before it even happens and the silkiest of passes to find the gap through any defence.

    On top of all that, he possesses an underrated ability to dribble past opposition players, immediately creating space for himself and others to exploit. He works extremely hard for his team.

    Few players transcend clubs within an entire country, yet Iniesta is afforded the respect of every top-flight club every week in La Liga due to his performances and his title-winning goal in 2010.

    Iniesta is regularly Spain's best player, and as a key player for one of the favourites for the 2014 tournament, it's hard to argue against his scoring and deserved first-place status.