UEFA Champions League 100: Ranking the Top 100 Players Before Kick-Off
Welcome to B/R's definitive ranking of the Top 100 UEFA Champions League players, brought to you on the eve of Europe's premier competition kick-off.
We've analysed every player set to strut their stuff and listed them in order of their ability and skill. Players at the peak of their powers are high, while those very much out of form do not feature.
The ranking does not take into account potential or possible impact; it merely orders the stars on how good they are right now.
With so many top performers set to converge upon the competition this year, we've made some tough decisions when leaving players out. Keep in mind that 100 isn't a large number; even the honourable mentions list is stacked with talent.
Selecting 100 players is tough, and you'll soon realise that 100 spaces aren't enough to incorporate all of the quality that will be on show.
With that in mind, the following players were not included.
No Reserve 'Keepers
Competition for places is harsh in this Top 100, so we have no room for "wasted" spots going to reserve goalkeepers. Petr Cech and Keylor Navas miss out for this reason only.
Theo Walcott, Arsenal
Returning from an ACL tear, we simply do not know how good he will be. His game relies on pace, and that particular injury can harm that. No one can categorically state what he'll be like when he's back.
Ilkay Gundogan, Borussia Dortmund
Ilkay Gundogan hasn't played a game for more than a year. While fans of BVB expect him to slot back in and perform within a month of returning, we're not willing to award him a place on faith alone.
Jakub Blaszczykowski, Borussia Dortmund
He sustained ligament damage earlier this year and has now torn a muscle in training. It's common to sustain more injuries as you return, so, like Walcott, who knows how "Kuba" will shape up?
Kevin Strootman, Roma
An ACL tear in January ruined his FIFA World Cup dreams and puts him in limbo as he edges closer to a return.
Shinji Kagawa, Borussia Dortmund
Having been misused by Manchester United for the last two years, Shinji Kagawa's football isn't where it should be. How long will it take Jurgen Klopp to coax the best out of him?
Javi Martinez, Bayern Munich
Due to a freshly torn ACL, Martinez will likely play no part in this year's competition, so there's no point putting him in here.
Kwadwo Asamoah, Juventus
Maxwell, Paris Saint-Germain
Lasse Schone, Ajax
Dante, Bayern Munich
Selcuk Inan, Galatasaray
Ezequiel Garay, Zenit St. Petersburg
Gerard Pique, Barcelona
Sven Bender, Borussia Dortmund
Marcelo Diaz, Basel
Darijo Srna, Shakhtar Donetsk
Isco, Real Madrid
Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid
Layvin Kurzawa, Monaco
Lars Bender, Bayer Leverkusen
Raphael Varane, Real Madrid
William Carvalho, Sporting
Mario Suarez, Atletico Madrid
Claudio Marchisio, Juventus
Iker Muniain, Athletic Bilbao
Julian Draxler, Schalke 04
Alan Dzagoev, CSKA Moscow
100. Edin Dzeko, Manchester City
Edin Dzeko hasn't hit top gear yet this season, but he's playing well despite a lack of goals.
You get the feeling he's still superior to Stevan Jovetic in the pecking order, so he should partner with Sergio Aguero if City play a two-man strike force.
The Bosnia and Herzegovina international is underrated in some parts of the world despite his excellent record and knack of nabbing goals at key moments.
99. Willian, Chelsea
Willian was a standout performer for Jose Mourinho last season, complying with rules and tactical restraints we didn't think possible of the Brazilian.
Never before had we seen him engage in tackling, tracking and marking while plying his trade for Anzhi Makhachkala or Shakhtar Donetsk, so to see him committing to the team cause for Chelsea was very pleasing indeed.
He's a fantastic runner with the ball at his feet, aiding the Blues' transition-based football, but he may struggle to strike a partnership with Cesc Fabregas due to Andre Schurrle performing so well.
98. Enzo Perez, Benfica
With Nemanja Matic starting a fire sale of epic proportions at Benfica, Enzo Perez is perhaps the only top-tier player left at the club.
The Argentine did not show his best form at the FIFA World Cup 2014, despite coming in and filling a clear need for Alejandro Sabella, with his trademark box-to-box game distinctly restricted.
Some Benfiquistas believe Perez was more integral to the Eagles than Matic ever was, and from a neutral perspective, that's arguable given the consistency of his showings.
97. Per Mertesacker, Arsenal
It's a big season for Per Mertesacker, newly crowned champion of the world, as the defensive climate at Arsenal has changed—and not in a way that suits him.
Bacary Sagna used to provide him with protection, but now Mathieu Debuchy is in town, and the former Newcastle defender's forte lies in surging forward. That leaves the lanky German isolated, which can be a recipe for disaster against quick strikers.
We've no doubts about Laurent Koscielny, but how will Mertesacker stack up in 2014-15?
96. Thiago Motta, Paris Saint-Germain
Thiago Motta is an underrated player in world football, and though he did disappear for a little while post-Internazionale 2010, he should be firmly on your radar now.
His 2013-14 at the heart of Paris Saint-Germain's midfield was superb, and not only was his traditional tackling firmly on point, his passing was also excellent.
Right now it's Yohan Cabaye, not Motta, who stands to lose their place in the PSG midfield once everyone's fit and firing for Laurent Blanc.
95. Ezequiel Lavezzi, Paris Saint-Germain
Against Chelsea last season, Ezequiel Lavezzi showed how devastating he can be, using his pace and movement to torture full-backs cutting in off the flank.
The problem is that he's inconsistent, and his €30 million price tag appears to weigh on him in this regard. "El Pocho" has never reached the level Paris Saint-Germain expected of him after he excelled in Italy with Napoli, and his place in the team is under threat if Laurent Blanc moves away from the 4-3-3.
A season of excellence is badly needed for the Argentine, who should be keen to prove his worth.
94. Bacary Sagna, Manchester City
Manchester City secured one of the Premier League's best right-backs free of charge this summer, with Bacary Sagna travelling north on a Bosman deal.
He's not guaranteed first-team football due to Pablo Zabaleta's presence, but the Argentine plays so many games he's expected to be phased into a rotating role soon enough.
Sagna's debut against Stoke City outlined how poor a crosser he is to his new fanbase, but aside from that and his hair, there isn't a lot to criticise.
93. Fabio Coentrao, Real Madrid
Fabio Coentrao would start for almost any side in the world at left-back, but he continues to fight for his place at Real Madrid.
Getting forward, he's fantastic, links superbly with Cristiano Ronaldo and fires in crosses for fun on the overlap. Defensively, there are some questions, but if he got a little more playing time, those might be ironed out.
Either way, Carlo Ancelotti has the best left-back duo in the world at his disposal.
92. Miranda, Atletico Madrid
It was great to see Miranda get a good, lengthy opportunity to play for Brazil over the international break, and his performances—in addition to the two clean sheets he picked up—did his long-term chances no harm.
He's a rock for Atletico Madrid, too, and although he's not the most intuitive or tactically aware centre-back, he excels in a system built for him, where his heading and clearance strengths stand out.
Miranda, 30, has seen his career creep by with little recognition for the most part, but now, finally, he's turning heads.
91. Mario Mandzukic, Atletico Madrid
Mario Mandzukic has big boots to fill at Atletico Madrid, and he'll likely fall short of Diego Costa's standard, but he's a strong striker all the same and a good interim selection to keep the team ticking over.
He's big enough and strong enough to lean on, he holds the ball up very well, and Antoine Griezmann will thrive playing off him. He's not quick enough to spark the fear Costa did, but he's a good bet for 15 La Liga goals and a couple in the UEFA Champions League.
Is Mandzukic too low?
A lack of pace prevents the Croat from being labelled "complete."
90. John Terry, Chelsea
Many believed John Terry would be finished by now, but at 33 years of age he's still strong as ever and leading by example in Chelsea's back line.
Jose Mourinho's system suits him, and it has, to an extent, expanded the half-life of his career at the top of the game. The fact that England fans were clamouring for his international return speaks volumes of the all-round ability he retains.
Watch and learn, Kurt Zouma.
89. Jackson Martinez, FC Porto
Jackson Martinez continues to show his value, and the good news for him is that he won't be on his own this season.
Julen Lopetegui has made wholesale changes at FC Porto, who now look a much, much stronger outfit. Martinez dragged the Dragons into UEFA Champions League contention last season, but this year he'll have help from a stronger midfield.
Expect another 20 domestic goals for the target man, who combines size and power with a natural finishing ability.
88. Juanfran, Atletico Madrid
Those who questioned whether Diego Costa was a product of a system should refocus their accusations to Juanfran, a more fitting target.
That's not to say he's a bad player—he's in our Top 100, after all—but he's certainly the type of grafter who will naturally succeed in a system like Diego Simeone's.
Still, good on Juanfran: He's getting international looks and has a Liga title under his belt.
87. Leonardo Bonucci, Juventus
Leonardo Bonucci has always been the weakest of Juventus' defensive trio, but he's now catching up to Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli after making great strides over the past two years.
He's emerged as the passing defender, playing centrally and dipping to his left to help work the ball out from the back in tight situations. His positional understanding with Andrea Pirlo is top-notch, and at just 27, the Old Lady have his best years to come.
Is Bonucci too low?
Bonucci is improving fast, but he's not quite at Giorgio Chiellini's level. In 12 months, however...
86. Andre Schurrle, Chelsea
Andre Schurrle excels at making the most of his opportunities, and he looks primed to take over the starting winger role from Willian at Chelsea after a superb FIFA World Cup 2014.
The German started sporadically last season but still returned an excellent goal tally, and he emerged as a key impact player off the bench for Joachim Low this summer due to his knack for scoring at key moments.
He's direct, quick and difficult to dispossess.
85. Hulk, Zenit St. Petersburg
Hulk fluffed his lines at the FIFA World Cup 2014, but at Zenit St. Petersburg under Andre Villas-Boas' stewardship, he's nothing short of demonic.
He rifles in shots from left, right and centre, links up play superbly and punishes defenders with unrivaled power and speed. It's the same Hulk we saw at FC Porto, and we love it.
84. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool
Steven Gerrard's influence in this Liverpool side is waning a little, but there's enough left to give him one last UEFA Champions League hurrah (or two!) and see him off in appropriate fashion.
We may see the Reds' famous No. 8 saved in the league to ensure he's fit to play on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, with his experience and leadership set to be key in a young side.
He still plays with a passing range most cannot come close to, and his defensive skill set appears to be improving late in the day.
83. Jordan Henderson, Liverpool
Jordan Henderson is a player Brendan Rodgers loves managing as he's a very specific type who needs to be used in a certain way.
Liverpool have extracted his athletic, buccaneering best in a midfield diamond, allowing him to open his lungs and contribute all over the pitch, but England have struggled to craft a similar role for him despite switching to the same formation.
He was once universally seen as a bust, but credit to Rodgers for turning the £20 million-man's career around.
82. Marcelo, Real Madrid
Marcelo divides opinion at every turn, with some enamoured with his freestyle attacking tendencies and others unconvinced by the holes he leaves in the defence.
He disappointed immensely during the FIFA World Cup 2014, failing to produce the offensive verve in the Selecao shirt we're used to seeing from him in La Liga. The knock-on effect hurt Neymar and especially Fred, both of whom suffered at the tournament.
At domestic level, he faces another year of trying to keep Fabio Coentrao out of the side.
81. Tiago, Atletico Madrid
Tiago signed a two-year contract extension at Atletico Madrid this summer, ensuring he'll be a Rojiblanco until he's at least 35 years of age.
His game is built on tactical nous and positional excellence, and the way Diego Simeone shrinks his midfield means Tiago doesn't have a lot of ground to cover.
All that results in longevity for the Portuguese, who can easily continue at this level for the next two seasons. Mario Suarez might get a little frustrated in truth.
80. Arda Turan, Atletico Madrid
The only slight on Arda Turan is he's seemingly a little bit injury prone, suffering multiple strains and pulls over the last 12 months.
When he's fit and firing, though, he's fantastic at moving the ball forward over longer distances and dribbling at the heart of defences.
His attractive play, high work rate and magnificent beard make him rather popular at both the Vicente Calderon and in Turkey.
79. Dani Alves, Barcelona
Dani Alves has confirmed he will leave Barcelona at the end of his current contract, signalling the interest of Juventus and a host of Premier League clubs, per fichajes.net (h/t Football Italia).
He's been a special player for the Calatan club, rampaging up and down the right flank and owning it by himself. His end product has always been a little disappointing, but his runs open up so much for his wingers.
He's by no means past his best and still has a lot to offer; whoever picks him up for free are a lucky club.
Is Alves too low?
Alves is declining a little, and those holes he leaves in defence are becoming more and more frequent.
78. Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus
Giorgio Chiellini continues to embody the heart and soul of Juventus and Italy's defensive ethic, putting his body on the line in every match as if it were his last.
He's earned the reputation of a bruiser and a battler, and while that's not inaccurate, it sometimes takes away from the other facets of his game. He's tactically very strong, able to play left-back as well as centre-back, and he wins plenty of battles in clean fashion.
77. Andrea Barzagli, Juventus
Andrea Barzagli's value remains sky-high despite turning 33 years of age recently; his importance to the national setup was outlined by the fact he started all three Italy games at the World Cup, and he remains a linchpin in Juventus' back line.
His tactical intelligence allows him free reign to step in and intercept onrushing runners, with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini always there to fill in when he steps forward, maintaining solidity.
He's not flashy in any sense, but he's still woefully underrated by many.
76. Raul Garcia, Atletico Madrid
Raul Garcia is an incredibly likable footballer, with his passion and work rate shining through in his play, endearing him to the fans.
He's as versatile as they come, capable of playing defensive midfield, attacking midfield, on the left and on the right, his goal tally last season (18, per ESPNFC) was key to Atletico securing crucial, nail-biting wins.
Vicente del Bosque is giving him a deserved chance on the international scene post-FIFA World Cup 2014.
75. Mehdi Benatia, Bayern Munich
Arjen Robben got a lot of stick for admitting he had no idea who Mehdi Benatia was (upon signing for Bayern Munich), but don't let the Dutchman's ignorance lessen your opinion of the defender.
The former Roma man became the most expensive Moroccan player in the history of the game when he transferred to Pep Guardiola's project for €26 million.
He led a rock-solid Giallorossi defensive line in 2013-14, is capable on the ball and looks demonic in the air. An all-round great centre-back.
74. Radja Nainggolan, Roma
Radja Nainggolan is a very underrated midfield presence, with many legitimately questioning why the Belgian didn't go to the 2014 World Cup.
He pushed through a move to from Cagliari to Roma in January to try and force Marc Wilmots' hand, but the Red Devils coach still took Steven Defour instead. Laughable.
Nainggolan filled in superbly for Kevin Strootman after he tore his ACL in January, but he's not limited to a coverage role deep in midfield. He's well rounded and physically excellent.
73. Pedro, Barcelona
Pedro has a big season ahead of him. Despite Alexis Sanchez leaving the club, it's clear he's got a fight on his hands to keep hold of a spot on the wing.
He's lost the "untouchable" status he enjoyed under Pep Guardiola, and with players such as Rafinha and Munir El Haddadi coming through, he needs to hit peak form early.
Pedro is direct, versatile and well versed in the Barca passing game. He's ideal in any situation thanks to his diverse skill set, and it'd be a shame if he's forgotten at Camp Nou any time soon.
72. Samir Nasri, Manchester City
Samir Nasri found his groove for Manchester City last season. Despite sustaining a knee injury late on that halted his run of form, he established himself as the No. 1 right winger under Manuel Pellegrini.
That leaves 2013 summer signing Jesus Navas a little underused, but it's difficult to argue with the Frenchman's production since taking over the role, and he appears to be moving from strength to strength.
71. Koke, Atletico Madrid
Koke's development is well worth following, as there's a chance he straddles two very different roles as his career progresses.
At Atletico Madrid, he largely plays wide as an auxiliary winger, tucked in and willing to defend yet also happy to stretch his legs and trundle forward.
For Spain, he's being looked to by some as the natural successor to Xavi, who keeps the ball, plays a flatter role and moves it quickly from line to line.
If you can smoothly switch between these tasks, you're a better midfielder than most.
70. Thiago Alcantara, Bayern Munich
Thiago Alcantara's knee injury has been a big problem for Pep Guardiola. With Toni Kroos gone, the Spaniard was expected to pick up the slack and control the midfield.
He has suffered a set-back on the ailment that caused him to miss the FIFA World Cup 2014, per The Guardian, and he will not be back until October at the very earliest.
We can't wait for him to return. When you see him slaloming between tackles and playing inch-perfect through balls for forwards, he takes your breath away.
Is Thiago too low?
Like many young players, Thiago has his ups and downs. For every highlight-reel pass, there's an off game, so don't get too sucked in by the YouTube videos.
69. Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea
Branislav Ivanovic was expected to be sidelined a little this season as Filipe Luis and Cesar Azpilicueta took over the full-back roles for Chelsea, but the Serbian is fighting tooth and nail to keep his spot.
He grabbed the start away to Burnley due to his physicality and experience, and from there he's played superbly to hold his Brazilian rival at arm's length.
His goalscoring knack is very, very helpful in his quest to retain the spot.
68. Filipe Luis, Chelsea
Filipe Luis has had a tough start to life at Chelsea, but it's a risk he knew he was taking when he left a team who require him to join one who would be happy to acquire his services.
He remains arguably the most complete left-back in world football, with not even David Alaba able to boast the defensive and offensive skill set the Brazilian offers.
Dunga seems to like him in his national starting XI, and he stands a smart choice for the tactician's careful setup.
Why is Luis Above Branislav Ivanovic?
Ivanovic started away to Burnley due to his experience and physicality. He's continued due to his goalscoring exploits, not because he's "better." It's a close call, as you can see.
67. Vincent Kompany, Manchester City
Vincent Kompany is a heavily scrutinised player, with many rival fanbases unhappy with the fact he is frequently labelled as the best centre-back in the Premier League despite some recent off-colour displays.
It makes it difficult to gauge his skill level and form an opinion on him, but we can all agree that we'd like to see him replicate his Belgium displays for Manchester City.
It's time Kompany led from the back and shoved the Citizens deep into the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. We know he's capable of doing so.
66. Dani Carvajal, Real Madrid
Dani Carvajal is playing proof of how very astute Real Madrid can be in their transfers.
He was sold to Bayer Leverkusen but had a buy-back clause of just £6.5 million, and after excelling in the Bundesliga for one year, he was bought back at the first available opportunity.
Carvajal is defensively mindful, superb in the passing game and runs beyond defences to give his side an option in attack. An all-action, impactful right-back.
65. Iker Casillas, Real Madrid
Iker Casillas is no longer the lock-in top-five goalkeeper we can all rely on, with too many blunders coming in such a short space of time.
Carlo Ancelotti saw fit to add Keylor Navas to Real Madrid's ranks this summer in order to ensure the Spaniard stays on top of his game (or is easy to replace), while Vicente del Bosque has toyed with other options, such as David de Gea, on the international scene.
All in all, a massive year for "San Iker," who must stay error-free to continue at the top.
Is Casillas too low?
We don't trust him—barely anyone does.
64. Fernando, Manchester City
Fernando has settled in superbly at Manchester City, locking down the centre of midfield in Fernandinho's absence and dominating in each game he has played.
The former FC Porto man is renowned as the perfect "sole" anchor, boasting the agility and range to drop between the centre-backs and do the dirty work on his own.
In a midfield two and as a rotation option, he's a real luxury for City and a very astute buy.
63. Ivan Rakitic, Barcelona
Ivan Rakitic was a peculiar signing for Barcelona at the time, but Luis Enrique's new model appears to suit him just fine.
Barca will always have their doubters—those who suggest their playing style is too careful and not penetrative enough. Rakitic launches early passes into channels and finds runners superbly, giving Neymar, Lionel Messi and (eventually) Luis Suarez plenty of chances to scoop up one on ones.
He's like the anti-Luka Modric, but not in a bad way.
62. Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus
Gianluigi Buffon is still a pillar of excellence for both Juventus and Italy.
There are times on the pitch for when he has little to do for the Bianconeri, but he will spring into action at a moment's notice to keep his side's sheet clean regardless.
Those concentration levels are rare, and few goalkeepers boast them.
61. Mario Balotelli, Liverpool
Mario Balotelli's turbulent second spell in Serie A was ended by Liverpool, who poached the striker for £16 million from AC Milan. At 24, he's already played for Milan, Internazionale, Manchester City and, now, the Reds.
Brendan Rodgers seems like the perfect man manager to change his tune. He'll put an arm around the Italian and tell him he's brilliant, then laugh off his failures and antics as if they're no big deal.
Balotelli, when he's on his game, is as lethal as they come. Germany's Euro 2012 team knows exactly what we're talking about.
Is Super Mario too high?
All sorts of odd statistics are used to blemish Balotelli's record, but take them with a pinch of salt. He was the one man in Milan's one-man team.
60. Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal
Laurent Koscielny is a player who divides opinion in the Premier League, with some believing him to be the best in the league, while others wonder if he's even top 10.
The reason for that is that he plays riskily. He goes for balls that other centre-backs would let bounce, roll out or be won at the second attempt.
Every now and then he makes an error, but he plays 1.5 games per weekend as he covers for Per Mertesacker and his lack of pace.
59. Blaise Matuidi, Paris Saint-Germain
If it weren't for Paul Pogba's emergence for France and Paris Saint-Germain's habit of spending big, perhaps Blaise Matuidi would get a little more credit for the consistency of his showings over the past year.
He's a powerful, channel-running central midfielder who specialises in creating overloads in a 4-3-3, joining the attack and slingshotting himself into advanced positions.
Integral for both club and country, Matuidi will continue to raise his own profile this season.
58. Miralem Pjanic, Roma
European heavyweights seemed hot on the heels of Miralem Pjanic this summer, but Rudi Garcia convinced the playmaker to sign a new deal and commit his future to the capital club.
"I signed a new deal because I believe in Roma's project, in this team and in this coach," the midfielder told Corriere dello Sport upon signing on the dotted line for the Giallorossi (h/t Goal.com).
He was the playmaker everyone seemingly wanted, and after turning in three excellent showings for Bosnia and Herzegovina at the World Cup, his price tag shot through the roof.
At 24 years of age, he's in no rush, but you get the feeling he's the next big name out of the door for Roma all the same.
57. Gary Cahill, Chelsea
Gary Cahill is Chelsea's first defender on the team sheet, and many believe he should have been England captain in place of Wayne Rooney.
Aerially excellent and great in tight spaces, Jose Mourinho's low-block system suits him down the ground and doesn't ask too much of him in the passing game. Cesc Fabregas' introduction means the Blues have added fluidity starting from deep, allowing Cahill to focus on his defensive skill set.
56. Fernandinho, Manchester City
Fernandinho's magical debut season at Manchester City came as a surprise to some, but the £30 million man had long been an excellent player just waiting for a club to extract him from Shakhtar Donetsk.
He played a very reserved role for the Citizens last season, stabilising the midfield as Yaya Toure embarked upon mazy, punishing dribbles, but the Brazilian has that same offensive ability in his locker.
If he's paired with Fernando in a game, expect Fernandinho to be the one breaking forward and making the difference.
55. Jordi Alba, Barcelona
“I am having one of my best times at the club. The arrival of Luis Enrique has been a very good change. The team needed that change," Jordi Alba said September 11, via Football Espana.
The Spaniard's arrival at Barcelona coincided with their decline. Pep Guardiola left, and Alba is left one of the few members of the changing room with few medals to boast. He's also struggled with his fitness, having missed more than 15 games due to injury last season.
We've seen what a monster he is at his best, but he's not been able to tie it in with domestic success as yet.
Roaring forward on the left, he is in many ways similar to right-back Dani Alves—a fact that has caused more than a few to question if they are too similar for it to work out for Barcelona.
54. Raheem Sterling, Liverpool
Liverpool's midfield diamond is no longer a way of maximising Steven Gerrard's output; it's a way of optimising Raheem Sterling's.
The 19-year-old is already considered by some to be England's best and most impactful player, and although he's naturally a winger, moving him inside to the tip of the diamond brings out his explosive, dribbling best.
He's got some work to do on his finishing, but he looks a near-complete prospect already.
53. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern Munich
Bastian Schweinsteiger may be a little lower than you'd expect a man who's been nominated as Germany's newest captain to be, but we're not the only ones who find Joachim Low's decision to replace Philipp Lahm with him as odd.
Questions have to be raised over the durability of "Schweini," with his performance in the World Cup final something of a warrior-like one-off.
He's slowing down physically and won't play all the games. His ranking with us takes a hit as a result.
52. James Rodriguez, Real Madrid
James Rodriguez runs the risk of being expected to do too much too soon, but when you're a Galactico signed for around €80 million, that's simply the burden you shoulder.
He played out of his skin at the FIFA World Cup for Colombia, and it's important for fans to note that that's not his regular, everyday performance level.
Playing off the left, off the right or through the middle, he's irresistible. Some even believe he can progress to play as a false nine.
Is James too low?
We need to cool our jets on James. His cost doesn't reflect his ability; it reflects his hype.
51. Mario Gotze, Bayern Munich
Mario Gotze's debut season with Bayern Munich was a little quieter than expected, and he failed to nail down a starting role in the first XI under Pep Guardiola—injuries or not.
For Germany, again, he struggled to impact at the FIFA World Cup, and if he hadn't scored the winner in the final (and what a goal it was!), we'd be remarking upon a "poor" campaign for the youngster.
The 22-year-old is primed to break out and find a level of consistency that should make him unstoppable. Guardiola will hope it occurs early in the season, setting him up for a great run of form.
50. Gabi, Atletico Madrid
Gabi is the heart and soul of Atletico Madrid, commanding from a central position and stitching the defensive and midfield lines together.
He seems to be getting better (technically) with age, and he bailed Los Colchoneros out a number of times on their way to a rare La Liga title last season.
He's almost the replica playing form of Diego Simeone. They've embraced the same philosophy, and Gabi carries it out on the pitch.
49. Mesut Ozil, Arsenal
Mesut Ozil has some convincing to do after starting slowly for Arsenal this season, but that cannot be considered solely his fault.
If Arsene Wenger persists in playing the German genius on the left flank, then he won't get any form of production. If he restores him to a No. 10 berth, he should see the magic flow.
We know Ozil can pull the strings, release runners and wreak havoc, so why is Wenger stopping him from doing so?
He's too low:
He needs to prove it before he regains his status as an elite player, even if he has to wait for Wenger to snap out of it.
He's too high:
Patience is needed. He's a very specific player, and we know he can produce if used correctly.
48. Sami Khedira, Real Madrid
What role will Sami Khedira play for Real Madrid this season?
Florentino Perez has shuffled Los Blancos' pack by recruiting Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez and selling Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria. Khedira was also expected to go but has stayed, perhaps thinking the two sales would see him grab more minutes.
Ultimately, this is yet another player dogged by the knee concerns that are so in vogue right now. If a player has had surgery, they're a huge question mark, regardless of the stacked evidence to the contrary.
47. Paul Pogba, Juventus
Paul Pogba was our No. 1 player to watch in 2014 back in January, and over the last nine months he's moved into a position of rare strength and skill for a 21-year-old.
He earns just £23,000 per week at Juventus, per Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t the Daily Mail), but that's certain to change soon enough. The Old Lady were wise enough to give an obvious prospect enough money to commit his short-term future to them, and he'll either sign a bumper deal soon or leave for an astronomical sum.
The bidding for this midfield maestro should start at around £40 million.
46. Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool
With Luis Suarez gone, this is Daniel Sturridge's chance to prove he's a fantastic striker in his own right and not a product of the former's ability.
Liverpool fans may find that statement strange, but the feeling from the outside looking in is often that Sturridge benefited from the double- and triple-marking of Suarez, giving him more time and space to operate.
The Englishman is now the main focus—at least until Mario Balotelli settles in—and the fact he clearly enjoys playing in a partnership shouldn't affect his stock negatively.
He's a fine finisher, is epic at dragging defenders around and excels in creating space.
45. Cesar Azpilicueta, Chelsea
Is Cesar Azpilicueta better at left-back than he is at right-back now? The natural right-sider built a career in his original position, but since switching to the left for Chelsea, he's been simply sublime.
Defensively, he's very stable—a part of the game many full-backs forget or ignore nowadays—and once he's sure he has his zones locked up, he progresses forward and joins in the build-up play.
He'll never be a Marcelo type, but perhaps that's a good thing on balance.
44. Pepe, Real Madrid
Pepe's 2014 was going superbly until he senselessly headbutted Thomas Muller at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, getting himself sent off and putting Portugal in a hole.
Going into the match, he was arguably in the form of his life, partnering with Sergio Ramos for Real Madrid, keeping Raphael Varane on the bench for half a season and playing superb football.
But the silly streak will always get the better of the Portuguese, and he's a risk to play every week as a result.
43. Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal
Such is Aaron Ramsey's rapid rise over the past 12 months or so that he can now challenge for the title of best Arsenal player on the books.
His wonderful blend of dynamism, athleticism, close control, technique and canny eye for a goal makes him one of the finest central midfielders in world football, yet he was scorned for underperforming on a weekly basis as recently as 2013, per Squawka.
He, not Jack Wilshere, is the golden boy at the Emirates Stadium, and he's the first name on the team sheet in midfield.
42. Pablo Zabaleta, Manchester City
Manchester City likely thought they were well stocked at right-back following a recruitment spree this summer, but Pablo Zabaleta's occasional injury absences still leave a sizable hole in the team.
There are few—if any—players in world football who can replace the all-round excellence of this Argentine, with his defensive aptitude matched by his wicked overlapping runs and attacks.
If he had a better final ball—say, one akin to Aleksandar Kolarov's—he'd be considered a top-three full-back with ease.
41. Jerome Boateng, Bayern Munich
Jerome Boateng emerged as Bayern Munich's best centre-back during Pep Guardiola's first season, stealing the title from Dante.
His versatility is a major asset, but the more often Boateng plays centrally, the better off Bayern Munich will be. He's big, he's quick, he's decisive and he makes the right choices—a great cocktail of strengths to boast at the top level.
Mehdi Benatia is his new competition. Can he see him off?
40. Carlos Tevez, Juventus
Juventus will benefit from a fresh Carlos Tevez this season after Alejandro Sabella refused to select him for Argentina duty at the FIFA World Cup 2014.
He's still one of the most talented, versatile and hardworking forwards around, combining spectacular technique and raw energy to wonderful effect.
He's a manager's dream.
Is Tevez too high?
Tevez is still phenomenal, but he's tucked away in Serie A so we don't see as much of him. He's head and shoulders above his teammates, and the pressure of dragging his side through the Champions League can take its toll.
39. Daniele De Rossi, Roma
Roma's successful 2013-14 season was built on defensive solidity first and foremost, so with Mehdi Benatia gone, Daniele De Rossi may just be the key player this season.
Rudi Garcia is happy to deploy him in a holding role or as a stand-in centre-back—two positions where his natural aggression and fitness stand out—while he can also be counted on to galvanise the team on the pitch.
He's a warrior, a leader and a model to follow.
38. Xavi, Barcelona
Xavi is now firmly on the other side of the footballing hill, and at 34 years of age, he's lost any semblance of the escapability he once had.
He's still ideal for controlling the tempo of a high-octane, dominant Barcelona attack, but expect to see him come in and out of games this year, reflecting his status as a non-key player in 2014.
That said, don't you dare underestimate him: His passing can still kill if you give him a yard.
37. Javier Mascherano, Barcelona
Javier Mascherano was Argentina's best player at the 2014 World Cup—quite the feat when you share a team with Lionel Messi.
Unfortunately, his path to the Barcelona first team is again riddled with blockades; Sergio Busquets is also an elite holding midfielder, and the centre-back issue has been solved with the acquisitions of Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen.
Where does "Masch" get his fix?
36. Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal
Alexis Sanchez is beginning to find his fitness and touch in an Arsenal shirt, and although he started slowly, early goals have helped fans get on board with his showings.
At his best, the Chilean will tear down the wing and latch on to through balls or simply run it upfield himself. He's dynamic, reliable and very potent in the final third.
If Arsene Wenger moves Mesut Ozil inside to pick him out, he'll have a field day.
35. Edinson Cavani, Paris Saint-Germain
Edinson Cavani is currently playing out of position on the right wing of a 4-3-3, but unlike last season, it feels like a short-term fix.
Paris Saint-Germain could be set to switch to a striking pair once all the FIFA World Cup players are back to full fitness, and Cavani alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic represents a mouthwatering prospect.
The Uruguayan has not shown his best form in Paris, but if his Napoli form is ever rediscovered, opposing teams are all in serious trouble.
Is Cavani too high?
Shades of Mesut Ozil here, as Cavani is playing out of position and looks a little awkward. Still, 26 goals in all competitions last season, per ESPNFC, shows much of the doubt is either in his or the fans' heads.
34. Mats Hummels, Borussia Dortmund
Mats Hummels took a big step toward the elite tier of centre-backs at the FIFA World Cup 2014 after a season or two of slight disappointment.
Once heralded as a true ball-playing centre-back and playmaker from the defensive line, his 2013-14 campaign saw him collate a few mindless errors and brain lapses to harm his stock.
He now looks in peak form again, though, organising, commanding and offering a set-piece threat. Fitness is always his biggest issue, and if he stays niggle-free, he can continue his rise to dominance.
33. Luka Modric, Real Madrid
Any doubts over Luka Modric's possible future with Real Madrid were dispelled when the Croatian was handed a new contract just under a month ago.
He was easily a top-three central midfielder in the 2013-14 La Liga season, with his creativity, safe passing and underrated defensive ability coming to the fore.
How he settles in a new-look "Galactico" side remains to be seen, but he has the support of the ownership and manager.
32. Neymar, Barcelona
Brazil collapsed without Neymar and Thiago Silva in the FIFA World Cup 2014, signalling how much of an effect both players have at their respective ends of the pitch.
There's no doubt, though, that Neymar isn't quite as strong a fit with Barcelona. His lack of defensive ethic and inability to press really hurt what Gerardo Martino was trying to do last season.
Considering he cost so much, a big, big year is expected from the former Santos star.
31. David Alaba, Bayern Munich
David Alaba is widely regarded as the world's best left-back, but he could be in for a rather varied role this year at Bayern Munich.
Pep Guardiola is switching between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3, meaning Alaba will be called upon to play any one of left-back, left wing-back, centre-back or central midfield.
The Austrian's versatility is just another string to his packed bow. Technically, physically and tactically, he is superb.
30. Andrea Pirlo, Juventus
Early in the year, it looked as though Andrea Pirlo might leave Juventus and quit the international scene, but as we enter the 2014-15 season, he's still firmly a part of both.
Antonio Conte has left an immense impression on the regista, and it will be interesting to see how he performs for the Old Lady now that Massimiliano Allegri—his former Milan coach—has replaced him.
Will Pirlo slowly tick down or will he continue as he always does?
Is Pirlo low?
He can be marked out of games, and that's an issue when contesting the Top 20.
29. Diego Godin, Atletico Madrid
Diego Godin's 2013-14 season for Atletico Madrid was absolutely remarkable, and it feels fruitless to expect another year of consistent dominance in defence.
The battle-hardened Uruguayan won almost every header he went for, organised the defensive structure superbly and popped up with key goals from corners and free-kicks.
His showings at the FIFA World Cup weren't perfect, but back home in Diego Simeone's system, the 28-year-old could star once again.
28. Karim Benzema, Real Madrid
Alarm bells would have been ringing inside Karim Benzema's head during Real Madrid's reported pursuit of Radamel Falcao this summer, but Javier Hernandez will pose no threat to his position.
He disappeared when France needed him the most at the FIFA World Cup, despite rocking the group stages, and it's perhaps that tendency that is keeping him from reaching the very top shelf in the sport.
Regardless, when he's on his game, there are few superior complete forwards.
27. Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid
It's arguable that Sergio Ramos is the most complete football player in the world, as there's no position you can't imagine him playing to some extent.
His goalscoring knack (seven in 2013-14, per ESPNFC) is set to continue this year, after he netted with a header and hit the bar with a delicate free-kick in the club's second game of the Liga season against Real Sociedad.
Since returning to centre-back, he's been fantastic, and he's especially strong fanning out and dealing with danger out wide. Now if we could just cut down the red cards...
26. Toni Kroos, Real Madrid
Toni Kroos will go down as one of the biggest bargains Florentino Perez has ever picked up.
Carlo Ancelotti has already signalled his intent to have Kroos anchor his formation and essentially do the job Xabi Alonso did, floating around behind the ball and stabilising the system at every turn.
He's one of the cleverest football players in the game. He packs a punch with his long-range striking ability too.
25. Diego Costa, Chelsea
Chelsea have gone out and bought a striker who creates chances for himself and placed him in a system where chances are created for him.
The result? Diego Costa is on an unstoppable scoring streak, guaranteed to find the back of the net via his nous or others'.
With his new side, there's a distinct chance he'll top the achievements set last season with Atletico Madrid—a scary prospect for defenders who already wilt in his presence.
24. Xabi Alonso, Bayern Munich
The feeling among the footballing community is that letting Xabi Alonso leave Real Madrid was a big, big mistake by Florentino Perez.
He asked to go, fine, and the club were eager to reward him for loyal service, but he left because of the talent brought in during the summer transfer window. Alienating your key players is never a strong philosophy.
Bayern Munich have picked up a snip at £8 million and Pep Guardiola knows it. Alonso is one of the finest deep-lying playmakers and defensive midfielders in the world, combining long-range passing with underrated tackling and marking skills.
23. Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea
Thibaut Courtois has won the starting job at Chelsea, displacing Petr Cech.
He's made a strong start to the season, even if he does lack clean sheets, with two or three world-class saves keeping the Blues in tight games. One particular one on one against David Nugent prevented Leicester City from claiming an upset.
The Belgian's renowned reach, reflexes and aerial ability are all on show.
22. Nemanja Matic, Chelsea
Nemanja Matic can be a building block for both Chelsea and the Serbian national team, with his ability to dominate a midfield allowing managers to place peripherals around him.
He's a graceful, complete presence who can screen a back four or embark upon long, loping runs into opposition territory.
If he were to add goals to his game, he'd be the talk of the town.
21. Franck Ribery, Bayern Munich
Franck Ribery's international retirement helps Bayern Munich immeasurably, as without him they've been struggling to put teams away.
Everyone at the club bar Xherdan Shaqiri will be praying he returns to his best form. Admittedly, he's been lacking a little since around February 2014.
When he's on his game, though, he's a menace. Goals, assists, impact plays and immense dribbling talents frequently see Bundesliga right-backs tortured for 90 unfortunate minutes.
Is Ribery too low?
It's been a while since he's shown his best form, and injuries plague him.
20. Marco Reus, Borussia Dortmund
Marco Reus is now Borussia Dortmund's best player, but that doesn't make him immune to the apparent injury curse that haunts Signal Iduna Park.
He hurt his ankle on international duty and will miss four weeks, per Reuters (h/t The Guardian), capping a disappointing return to a Germany side who won the FIFA World Cup without him.
When fit, he's the left-sider you want in your team if you can't get Cristiano Ronaldo. Pace, guile, shooting ability and a terrific team understanding.
19. Thiago Silva, Paris Saint-Germain
Ah, the perils of playing glorified friendlies mid-Ligue 1 season.
Thiago Silva limped out of Paris Saint-Germain's exhibition game against Napoli early in August and hasn't been seen since. He's arguably the best central defender in world football, but he faces a fight to displace compatriot Marquinhos now.
His absence was truly felt during Germany's demolition of Brazil in the World Cup. It was 90 minutes in which his presence, leadership and impact moved to new levels of appreciation.
18. Thomas Muller, Bayern Munich
Thomas Muller remains a sort of jack-of-all-trades option. He's rarely allowed to stick to his preferred right-wing position, with his high footballing IQ in this instance sometimes more of a hindrance than a help.
He starred in a variety of roles and responsibilities at the 2014 World Cup, and that translates to his domestic football, with Pep Guardiola happy to field him left, right, centrally and in the hole.
Wherever he plays, he's damn reliable.
17. Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich
Finally, we see Robert Lewandowski in a Bayern Munich shirt after what seems like an eternity of waiting around.
He's still just 26 years of age—a fact easy to forget as he's been at the top level so long—and will make the difference for Pep Guardiola this season in place of the unwanted Mario Mandzukic.
As far as mobile target men go, he's in the very, very top tier. He can finish, hold it up and create with aplomb.
16. Arturo Vidal, Juventus
Arturo Vidal's whirlwind summer became an arduous follow for fans of Juventus, as they were constantly told by every available outlet that "King Arthur" was a broken man with a bum knee.
That's not true—Vidal has confirmed multiple times he's fine post-arthroscopic surgery—and he played superbly at the FIFA World Cup just five weeks removed from the procedure.
At his best, Vidal is arguably the best central midfielder in the world, combining pace, power, tenacity and a revamped goal threat in recent years.
15. Sergio Aguero, Manchester City
Sergio Aguero is without doubt the best striker in the Premier League—so long as he stays fit—and he even troubles for the title of best overall player.
Since he added heading to his game, he's been nothing short of unstoppable, but he's ineffectual when he's playing hurt because he lacks burst and commitment.
Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City seemingly go as far as Aguero takes them.
14. Yaya Toure, Manchester City
Yaya Toure has started the season very, very slowly. He looks a shadow of the man who tormented Premier League defences last season, but we're tipping him to snap out of it sooner or later.
Perhaps it's a FIFA World Cup 2014 hangover, perhaps it's the start of a natural decline. Either way, he's got a clear season or two left at the very top, and no midfielder wants to meet him head-on mid-stride.
Power, pace, a nose for goal and some underrated, majestic passes easily secure Yaya's a place in our Top 20.
13. Cesc Fabregas, Chelsea
Cesc Fabregas, from a stylistic perspective, has always been a Premier League footballer.
He didn't fit back at Barcelona because he was taught a more direct, physical way of playing at Arsenal, and that's allowed him to slot straight in and wreak havoc at Chelsea.
He's creative and precise and looks on the same wavelength as Diego Costa. The two could form an epic pairing this year.
12. Sergio Busquets, Barcelona
Sergio Busquets is once again our top-rated defensive midfielder, as his excellence shows no sign of slowing down.
He's difficult to notice unless you train your eyes on him, but if you do fixate on his lanky, rangy frame, you see everything that happens on the pitch comes via his movement.
His anticipation and tackling, in addition to his passing between the lines, are key to Barcelona's play.
11. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paris Saint-Germain
Paris Saint-Germain will go as far as Zlatan Ibrahimovic takes them in the UEFA Champions League, and at 32 years of age, his window of opportunity to win the competition is closing fast.
Zlatan apologists will disagree, but the Swede has made a habit of going missing in the big, big games when he's needed the most. That's been especially true against English clubs, with his anonymous showing against Chelsea at the Parc des Princes last season the latest in a long line of disappointments.
Of course, at his best, he's without doubt one of the greatest strikers in the world. He needs to go up a gear in 2015 when the knockout stages begin, though.
10. David Silva, Manchester City
David Silva has enjoyed a brilliant start to the season, and Manchester City fans are optimistic we'll see another vintage year from the Spaniard.
Vicente del Bosque's new-look Furia Roja side has allowed Silva free reign of the formation—they know how influential he can be—and Manuel Pellegrini should continue to do the same in Manchester.
Silva's a wicked passer, sees angles other players do not and can flummox an entire line with one reverse ball. It's magic to watch.
Is Silva too high?
Silva's one of the most gifted players in the game. Sergio Aguero's injuries and Yaya Toure's beast mode draws most of the attention in Manchester, but Silva, to many City fans, is the best player on the team.
9. Eden Hazard, Chelsea
We ask a lot of Eden Hazard and perhaps treat him unfairly when he doesn't come up with a hat-trick of assists, but that's only because he's such a talented player. It's almost criminal to see him drift in and out of games.
This is the season in which many Chelsea fans hope he becomes a consistent game-winner—a presence like Cristiano Ronaldo, capable of sealing three points with a swish of the foot.
Hazard's currently in Gareth Bale's tier, but if it all goes to plan, he can hit the Ronaldo heights.
8. Gareth Bale, Real Madrid
Gareth Bale, the world's most expensive footballer, has developed a wonderful habit of impacting games at key moments.
That can mean he goes missing for short spells—hardly a trait expected of a transfer record-breaking signing—but his statistics are incredible as he continues to hone his craft.
A fantastic, shooting, dribbling and explosive complement to Cristiano Ronaldo.
7. Andres Iniesta, Barcelona
With Barcelona's recent decline comes criticism of their players, and while for the most part many are culpable for an error or two, Andres Iniesta remains a cut above.
He's still one of the most wonderful playmakers in world football, and his level hasn't dropped as Xavi's has. He also boasts the turn of pace and agility many do not, making him a rare athletic dribbler as well as a pinpoint passer.
6. Manuel Neuer, Bayern Munich
Manuel Neuer was crowned top of our FIFA World Cup 2014 player rankings after seven magnificent showings, and we're expecting him to carry on making a difference in 2014-15.
It's rare to see a goalkeeper make such an impact on games in which his side are by far the superior, but Neuer's eye-popping highlight-reel moments never cease to amaze.
He's the man every young shot-stopper should model themselves on.
5. Philipp Lahm, Bayern Munich
Philipp Lahm's retirement from the international scene, confirmed by BBC Sport, after winning the FIFA World Cup with Germany will only help Bayern Munich.
A fresher Lahm means more consistent showings and a reduced risk of injuries. He's 30 years of age and has just won world sport's biggest prize, so it's perhaps fitting for him to wave farewell on the highest of highs.
Pep Guardiola probably can't believe his luck; Lahm stands the best right-back in the game, and now he gets him all to himself.
4. Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich
Is it us, or is Arjen Robben actually getting quicker with age?
His fearsome performances at the 2014 FIFA World Cup had him in most "Team of the Tournament" selections, and he was the player of the tournament for some. Despite playing out of position in a striking duo alongside Robin van Persie, he excelled and was arguably the Netherlands' best player.
With question marks over Pep Guardiola's system of choice in Munich this season, that versatility and malleability could keep him in excellent standing.
3. Luis Suarez, Barcelona
Luis Suarez's time out of the spotlight will be healthy, and for those of you who believe his skill set will diminish, check his rapid return for Liverpool following his ban last season.
It took him around two games to recover his touch, and his tenacity and great footballing instincts never left. He's absurdly difficult to tackle, finishes like a predator and weaves his way into space superbly.
In short, damn annoying to play against.
2. Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Lionel Messi already looks to be enjoying himself under new manager Luis Enrique, netting two goals and two assists in three games to begin the season.
The feeling around Camp Nou is positive and refreshed, which can only be good for Messi as he seeks a bounce-back season. His 2013-14 was riddled with injuries and saw him concede the crown of world's best player to his archrival. How will he respond in 2014-15?
We're not sure defences are going to like the answer.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
Questions remain over how Carlo Ancelotti's new toys will affect the play of many Real Madrid players, but for Cristiano Ronaldo, the brief remains the same.
Be it a 4-3-3, 4-2-2 or 4-2-3-1, he's nailed on to start on the left wing and will be looked to to carry the goalscoring load.
After a miraculous season for Los Blancos, helping them win the coveted "Decima", the focus will be on whether CR7 can continue at this level as he turns 30 this season.
We think he can.