Ranking the Best 50 Players in La Liga in 2018

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 31, 2018

Ranking the Best 50 Players in La Liga in 2018

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    It has been another momentous year for football in La Liga, with the shock departure of one of the greatest players in the history of the league, Cristiano Ronaldo, leading the headlines.

    For this year's list of La Liga's best performers, the former Real Madrid goal machine is omitted because he left mid-2018. We've also taken national-team duty into account for our criteria, as several players won FIFA World Cup winners' medals with France, for example, but we've weighted players' positioning in favour of their performances at club level.

    The list will no doubt ruffle a few feathers. It has some notable omissions. Diego Costa, for instance, returned to Atletico Madrid at the start of the year, but his form has fallen off a cliff since the spring.

    It also has some surprises, such as Marcos Llorente, who we predict could be in the top 20 next year if he continues playing so effectively.

    Most of all, we believe our top 50 will prompt some heated debate. Hope you enjoy it. ¡Viva La Liga!


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    Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images

    50. Marcos Llorente (Real Madrid)

    The early-season performances of Marcos Llorente, a Real Madrid blue blood (both his father and his grand-uncle, Paco Gento, played for Los Blancos), suggest a Spain star is in the making.


    49. Borja Iglesias (Espanyol)

    Borja Iglesias is now a different man after scoring a lot of crucial goals for Espanyol since moving from Celta Vigo during the summer.


    48. Marco Asensio (Real Madrid)

    Marco Asensio's stock is tumbling at Real Madrid, but he still has shown moments of genius during the early part of the year. He needs to find his confidence again.


    47. Inigo Martinez (Athletic Bilbao)

    After his controversial move from Real Sociedad to Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao, Inigo Martinez has been kept busy in a defence that has been leaking goals.


    46. Aleix Vidal (Sevilla)

    He couldn't find his feet at Barcelona but has been reborn at Sevilla, where he is an essential part of their rapid counter-attacking play.


    45. Roger Marti (Levante)

    Roger Marti has been around a long time—having spent several seasons playing in Spain's second division—but he is finally grabbing the headlines with the goals that have pushed Levante into the top half of the table.


    44. Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid)

    The Brazilian full-back has been on the road for a long time, but he is as energetic (and tenacious in the tackle) as ever.


    43. Mario Hermoso (Espanyol)

    The former Real Madrid youth academy player has been so solid in the middle of the Espanyol defence that he earned the first of possibly many full international caps with Spain in November.


    42. Jose Gaya (Valencia)

    Having come through the youth academy ranks at Valencia, Jose Gaya is set to be another great Spanish wing-back.


    41. Andre Silva (Sevilla)

    After a difficult time at AC Milan, Andre Silva—who is hugely regarded in his homeland, Portugal—has found his way to goal with Sevilla.


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    40. Maxi Gomez (Celta Vigo)

    Celta Vigo will find it difficult to hold on to the young Uruguayan striker, who has been in scintillating form for the Galician side.


    39. Diego Llorente (Real Sociedad)

    He become such a dependable defender since moving from Real Madrid to Real Sociedad that he is pressing for a starting place with the Spain national team.


    38. Ever Banega (Sevilla)

    The elegant Argentinian midfielder has been excellent this season, and he is an important element in Sevilla's tilt at the title.


    37. Keylor Navas (Real Madrid)

    Although he has fallen out of favour with Real Madrid coach Solari—for political reasons, according to El Confidencial (h/t Sport)—Keylor Navas will always be remembered by fans for helping the club win three European Cups in a row.


    36. Rodrigo (Valencia)

    Rodrigo has been excellent all year for Valencia and could become a regular starter for Spain given Diego Costa's struggles for form and Iago Aspas' advancing years.


    35. Geoffrey Kondogbia (Valencia)

    Put in such a sterling season in a rejuvenated Valencia side on loan last term that the La Liga club emptied the bank to buy him from Inter Milan.


    34. Koke (Atletico Madrid)

    Koke endured a disappointing World Cup with Spain but is still an essential element of Simeone's drive for a Champions League final spot.


    33. Marc Bartra (Real Betis)

    Discarded by Barcelona and following a spell with Borussia Dortmund, Marc Bartra has helped solidify Real Betis' shaky defence.


    32. Dani Ceballos (Real Madrid)

    Dani Ceballos is turning into one of the best midfielders in La Liga after muscling his way into the starting XI at Real Madrid.


    31. Pablo Fornals (Villarreal)

    An exciting wide player who—with a bit more consistency—could find himself being coveted by Barcelona or Real Madrid.


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    30. Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid)

    A big year for the full-back—including a starting position in France's World Cup-winning team—who may well be on the move to Bayern Munich, per F.J. Diaz of AS.


    29. Isco (Real Madrid)

    Isco is out of favour with Santiago Solari at Real Madrid, with his tendency to slow up the play seemingly at odds with the new coach's style, but he can still be mesmerising when he's on his game.


    28. Dani Parejo (Valencia)

    An old-school central-midfield playmaker—great passer, great vision and never ruffled—Dani Parejo was instrumental in getting Valencia back into the Champions League.


    27. Jose Maria Gimenez (Atletico Madrid)

    Jose Maria Gimenez is another teak-tough centre-half hewn from the Uruguayan quarry, and he is turning into one of the world's best defenders.


    26. Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)

    Raphael Varane was immense in France's World Cup triumph, but he has been prone to conspicuous lapses of concentration (and injury) at club level.


    25. Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid)

    Diego Godin has been struggling with injury (at 32, his age might finally be telling, and he has been playing international football for Uruguay since 2005), but he remains one of the world's greatest defenders.


    24. Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona)

    The German goalkeeper has been one of Barcelona's three best players over the last 18 months, and he will be vital for the club's push for a Champions League title this season.


    23. Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona)

    Philippe Coutinho started brightly with Barcelona and has scored some fantastic goals, but he has yet to fully realise the promise of his hefty price tag.


    22. Rodri (Atletico Madrid)

    Rodri has settled in perfectly at Atletico (the club where he was coached as a youth player) and could well become a mainstay of the team for the next decade.


    21. Casemiro (Real Madrid)

    Casemiro was the linchpin for another Real Madrid success in Europe, chopping into tackles as well as scoring some eye-catching goals.


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    20. Cristhian Stuani (Girona)

    Cristhian Stuani might come behind more vaunted compatriots Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in the affections of Uruguay fans, but he has become an icon at club level with Girona after only a couple of seasons. His goals are helping the Catalan club to dream of European competition next season.


    19. Gerard Pique (Barcelona)

    After several years of abuse from Spain fans for his support of Catalans' right to a referendum on independence, Gerard Pique has retired from the national team, following a poor World Cup. At club level, though, he has been excellent for Barcelona, and he has chipped in with several goals this season.


    18. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)

    It's as if Gareth Bale never scored that bicycle kick in Kiev, Ukraine, which is possibly the best-ever goal in a European Cup final. He gets a torrid time from the Spanish press and Real Madrid fans because of his injury profile and his inability to lead the team in Ronaldo's absence. However, he is still a wonderful player to watch when he's fit.


    17. Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona)

    The young French winger is La Liga's great enigma. His insubordination—arriving two hours' late for training, for exampleis baffling. When he turns out for Barcelona, his link-up play is often poor. He doesn't play with the interoperability of a typical Barca player, but he has been devastating in stages, including scoring several match-winning goals in the 2018-2019 season and that golazo against Tottenham Hotspur at the Camp Nou.


    16. Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid)

    With the departure of Gabi to China, Saul Niguez has become Simeone's most important midfield player (and occasional utility defender). He is such a thrilling player: He has a tireless appetite for work, is a scorer of important goals and a captain-in-the-making with a contract at the Wanda Metropolitano until 2026.


    15. Jordi Alba (Barcelona)

    Jordi Alba has taken over the role Dani Alves used to have at Barcelona—running up and down the flank, working one-twos with Messi and finding him with assisted pull-backs in the box. He's also back in the fold with the Spain national team after being unaccountably dropped by Luis Enrique.


    14. Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid)

    Dani Carvajal has struggled with injury and illness over the last 15 months. It shows when he's missing from Real Madrid's line-up. He's a tyro, a voracious tackler and arguably the best right-back in the world. It will be no surprise if he becomes club captain once Sergio Ramos steps down.


    13. Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona)

    Samuel Umtiti's performances for Barcelona were outstanding in 2018. It is easy to see why he has become such a crowd favourite at the club. A World Cup win with France crowned a special year for him, although his long-term knee injury is deeply troubling for Barca and could scupper their hopes of a sixth Champions League.


    12. Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona)

    What a player Ivan Rakitic is and what an effective servant for Barcelona. He clocked more games (71) than any other top-flight player in Europe last season and has managed to come back as strong as ever this term. He does a lot of unseen, clever work in midfield as well as chipping in with some great goals.


    11. Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)

    Toni Kroos has been, arguably, the best bit of business Real Madrid have done during the Florentino Perez regime, having arrived after Germany's World Cup win in 2014 for just €25 million. Modric might have won all the individual prizes this year, but Kroos has been equally effective, albeit in a less conspicuous manner.


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    10. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)

    Sergio Ramos continues to hog the limelight at Real Madrid. With the departure of Ronaldo, he has assumed even more power at the Bernabeu, even as far as taking the team's penalties. His form—particularly in the league—has been patchy and perhaps symptomatic of his side's inability to find consistency. However, his ability to dig out a big performance in the games that matter remains unrivalled, even if it extends to the execution of the dark arts. He will finish his career as a club legend and one of the GOATs in Spanish football.


    9. Sergio Busquets (Barcelona)

    This has been the year in which Sergio Busquets, the unsung hero of Barcelona's team for the last decade, registered over 500 official games for the club. He has been a remarkably consistent performer for Barca, providing the oil that greases the wheels of the team from his deep-lying position as a pivot. There is a reason why Messi says he always wants him on his team and why Pep Guardiola plucked him from the club's youth academy to form one of the greatest midfield trios in the history of club football alongside Xavi and Andres Iniesta.


    8. Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)

    It's hard to believe Jan Oblak is only 25. He has already won the Zamora Trophy as La Liga's best goalkeeper for three seasons in a row, and in theory he has yet to reach his peak as a 'keeper. He has been imperious for Atletico and was a decisive character in their successful Europa League campaign. And he is proving as mean as ever for opposition attacks in 2018-19. He could go down as one of the all-time greats, given he has already surpassed the achievements of Thibaut Courtois and David De Gea at the club.


    7. Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo)

    No other player is as valuable for his club in La Liga as Iago Aspas. He has been sensational over the last few seasons at Celta Vigo—making goals, hassling defences, jawing in the ears of referees and scoring goal after goal. After a wretched time at Liverpool, it's great to see he has found his mojo again back home in Galicia. He's the best centre-forward Spain has at the moment, as his late crucial goal against Morocco (from off the bench) proved during the nation's forgettable World Cup in Russia.


    6. Luis Suarez (Barcelona)

    Luis Suarez continues to fight against nature. He turns 32 in January, and has played through injuries throughout his career. His goalscoring returns in the Champions League have been diminishing over the last couple of seasons, with only four scored in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 campaigns. But his hat-trick in the October Clasico against Real Madrid reminds us he should never be written off. His fighting spirit—and telepathic on-field relationship with Messi—is one of the reasons why Barcelona have scored twice as many goals as most other teams in La Liga in the 2018-2019 season.


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    5. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)

    The French centre-forward is in his 10th season at Real Madrid. It is only when he is gone that we will perhaps fully appreciate his value to their historic series of Champions League wins, including match-winning goals against Bayern Munich in last season's semi-final. He is, after all, already fourth on the list of all-time top scorers in the history of the European Cup, ahead of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alfredo Di Stefano and Thierry Henry, and his selflessness and intelligence helped Cristiano Ronaldo rack up 450 goals for Los Blancos before he left for Juventus.


    4. Marcelo (Real Madrid)

    Marcelo remains one of the great players of his generation despite his occasional defensive frailties (and consequent targeting by opposition teams). No other defensive player is as deadly—for scoring goals and breaking between defensive lines on the counter-attack, which was a key factor in Real Madrid's third Champions League win in a row. His ball control—the result of a childhood playing futsal—remains breathtaking, as does his eye for an assist. However, with his chunky physique and now in his 12th season at Madrid, he may be part of a clear-out at the Santiago Bernabeu next summer, though.


    3. Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid)

    Antoine Griezmann had a memorable year (excluding his absurd La Decision documentary about his preference to stay at Atletico rather than join Barcelona). He floundered early last season but hit his stride after Christmas, and his goals were decisive, including two in the Europa League final triumph. During France's march to the World Cup title, he was the team's reference point. He has an insatiable appetite for work, which is inevitably fostered by working at club level with Simeone. One wonders, though, if he concentrated more in the final third of the pitch, would he be a greater player?


    2. Luka Modric (Real Madrid)

    Luka Modric has had the greatest year of his life in football terms. Along with hauling Croatia to the World Cup final, he added a fourth Champions League title to his resume and broke the 10-year Messi-Ronaldo stranglehold on the Ballon d'Or. He remains captivating to watch, with his effortless ball control and ability to find the telling pass. At 33 years of age, it is difficult to see him maintaining his high standards for much longer, so we'll enjoy him while he lasts.


    1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

    Lionel Messi keeps astonishing us. Before he made his debut for Barcelona's first team in 2004, the club had won eight league titles since 1960. He's dragged them to nine more since then and will likely add a 10th this season. It is difficult to isolate single moments from 2018, but his free-kick against Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou in March (his third free-kick in a row in La Liga) killed off Los Rojiblancos' charge for the title. Atleti manager Diego Simeone said afterwards Messi was the difference between the two teams—if he had been wearing an Atletico shirt, they would have won. In cold terms, that's the difference he makes.