La Liga: The Top 25 Players
Picking the top 25 players in La Liga is no easy task. For a start, when looking at the league that possesses more talent than any other in the world, how do you limit the list to just 25? Even more difficult, how do you decide between players of different positions? How can you compare Iker Casillas with Leo Messi or Gerard Piqué with Cristiano Ronaldo?
That said, I’ve decided to take on the challenge on the following premise. If the entire league was drafted from start to finish for one season only (therefore taking age out of the equation), who would go in the top 25?
That should help look at the players purely on their ability in their given positions. Form is temporary, class is permanent and these are 25 of the classiest players on the planet.
25. Nilmar (Villarreal)
The Brazilian struggled during his first time in Europe with French giants Lyon, but has been very impressive in La Liga since joining Villarreal. The forward has formed a potent strike partnership with Giuseppe Rossi that has seen the Yellow Submarines return to the top level of Spanish football, as well as earning him a place in the Brazilian national team.
Nilmar has pace, technical ability, great vision and finishing ability, which has seen him notch five goals and three assists in Villarreal’s first eight league games. At the age of 26, there is plenty to come from Nilmar, and he may well be one of La Liga’s top strikers for many years.
24. Ever Banega (Valencia)
The pint-sized playmaker arrived in Spain with huge expectations when Valencia paid €18m to bring the then 19 year old Banega to the Mestalla in January 2008. Unfortunately for Banega, he came horribly short of those expectations during his first six months with the club, prompting Valencia to loan him out to La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid for a year before trying to sell him to English club Everton in the summer of 2009.
The move fell through due to the lack of a visa, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for both Valencia and Banega, as the Argentine midfielder was a key player in Valencia’s third-place finish last season. Banega’s clever passing and technical quality have made him a key creative cog in the Valencia team, and even with plenty of midfield competition, he is the number one choice.
23. Carles Puyol (Barcelona)
What can you say about Puyol? He may not be the most technically gifted, he’s doesn’t always read the game perfectly, he’s shorter than most centre backs and is sometimes rash, but what he lacks in textbook proficiency, he makes up for with his own brand of commitment. At least that’s what his detractors would have you believe.
Let’s not do Puyol a disservice here; he is a top player. It’s just that while he may not be as naturally gifted as many of his club and international teammates, he possesses an almost superhuman level of intensity that raises the performance of everyone around him. The man known simply as "El Capitan" is one of the greatest leaders in Barca’s history.
Puyol has captained the team since 2004, leading them through the most successful period in the club’s history. Puyol has lifted four league titles and two Champions League trophies during his six years with the armband, and there is no prouder man during Barca’s recent achievements than its inspirational captain.
22. Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal)
Rossi is the second Villarreal striker on the list and another who is blessed with great technique and intelligence. The US-born Italian international is one of the players who makes his strike partner better, with clever passing and movement, making him the perfect foil to both Diego Forlan and Nilmar during his time with the Yellow Submarines. Rossi has scored in double figures in each of his three La Liga seasons, and what he lacks in height and strength, he makes up for in technical brilliance and great vision.
Rossi has made murmurings about wanting to return to Serie A, due in part to his desire to become a starting striker for the Italian national team. Rossi’s departure would be a huge loss for Villarreal and indeed the league as a whole, and the Villarreal fans will be hoping that their impressive start becomes a season impressive enough to convince Rossi to stay. If they are to reach that success, it’s likely that his quality and ability to score goals will play a big part in anything they achieve.
21. Jesus Navas (Sevilla)
There have never been any doubts over Navas’ ability; his dazzling footwork and lightning pace left Sevilla convinced he was going to be a star from his first year with the first team as an 18 year old. The doubts with Navas were always over his psychological fragility and the consistent anxiety issues that reportedly cost him a move to Chelsea as a 20 year old, which prevented him from making his international debut until last year.
Now that he seems to have overcome those issues, as showcased by his contributions to Spain winning the World Cup this summer, there appears to be no holding Navas back. How long the winger will stay with Sevilla remains to be seen, but the precociously talented 24 year old deserves to be playing on the Champions League stage, whether it be with Sevilla or elsewhere.
20. Luis Fabiano (Sevilla)
Fabiano is the second Brazilian striker (see number 25) on this list whose career in European football looked to be over after one disastrous year in French football. In this Brazilian’s case, it was a move from Ponte Preta to Rennes which proved so difficult and prompted a swift return home to play for São Paulo. His time at São Paulo saw him score a stunning 61 goals in 87 games and earn a €10m move to FC Porto. A difficult year in Portugal had many doubting his ability once more, but a move to Sevilla the next year was the catalyst needed for Fabiano to prove himself as one of Europe’s top strikers.
The 29 year old has enjoyed a highly fruitful five seasons with Sevilla so far, scoring at a rate of one every two games in his 200 games for the club. Fabiano is another with pace, power, and technical ability, and he is also a tremendous finisher. He also seems to have matured greatly from his younger days, and delighted the Sevilla supporters by signing a new contract this summer despite admiring glances from some of Europe’s top clubs. Sevilla fans will be hoping that with those transfer rumours behind him, Fabiano can regain his top form and get back to doing what he does best, scoring the goals that make Sevilla a contender in La Liga and in Europe.
19. Angel Di Maria (Real Madrid)
Di Maria has been a revelation since his move to Real Madrid, providing dynamic wing play with his dribbling and crossing ability, as well as popping up with a couple of goals already. At the age of 22 and in his first season in La Liga, Di Maria could have been forgiven for taking time to adjust to playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs. Yet the young Argentine has settled in perfectly and is now an integral part of Madrid’s superb attacking quartet.
The winger is an already a regular starter for the national team and was a key player for Argentina in this summer’s World Cup. His form early on for Madrid suggests he is ready to go from strength to strength and make the €25m (+add ons) that the club paid for him look like a bargain.
18. Juan Mata (Valencia)
Mata is the jewel in the crown of a talented Valencia side that have somehow managed to improve this year despite the big money departures of David Villa and David Silva. Mata was a World Cup winner with the Spanish national team this summer, and at the age of 22, is likely to be a big part of Spain’s future.
The young winger, who can also play up front, has bags of ability with pace, trickery, great dribbling and passing ability, and he averages a goal every four games. If he continues his progression and eye catching play, Valencia may face a battle to hold on to one of the most talented youngsters in La Liga.
17. Fernando Llorente (Athletic Bilbao)
Llorente was already a very good player, but this year is one of La Liga’s most improved players, with his performances for both club and country reportedly sparking a battle between Barca and Madrid to secure his services. The 25 year old is fantastic in the air, perhaps predictably given his height (6’5”), but also has great technical qualities and is increasingly deadly in front of goal.
The forward has been a first team player with Bilbao for over six seasons, but has made vast improvements over the last two years. The improvements have certainly been reflected in his goalscoring totals, with Llorente scoring at a rate of almost one in two over the last two years and even better than that so far this season. Llorente seems set to get even better, and could place a lot higher on this list by the end of the year.
16. Mesut Özil (Real Madrid)
Plenty of people knew about him before, but Özil really hit it big with his impressive performances for Germany at this summer’s World Cup and his subsequent move to Real Madrid. The gifted playmaker has been superb since joining Los Blancos, combining brilliantly with the team’s other attacking players, particularly in recent weeks.
Özil’s left foot is simply magical, and the youngster is already making a habit of laying on clever assists for teammates as well as scoring on a regular basis through a series of clinical finishes. Having only just turned 22, the sky is the limit for Özil, who looks to be a mainstay in this Madrid side for years to come.
15. Pepe (Real Madrid)
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when Madrid splashed out €30m to sign the Portuguese centre back in the summer of 2007, but Pepe has gone on to cement himself as one of the top defenders in La Liga. Madrid retained the La Liga title in his first season at the club, with Pepe’s phenomenal performance in a 1-0 victory over the Barca at the Nou Camp earning him a special place in the Madrid fans’ hearts.
Pepe has endured some difficult times during the past two years, some of which were self-inflicted (a 10-match ban for a moment of madness against Getafe in April 2009) and some of which were beyond his control (his absence for most of last season after a cruciate ligament injury in December 2009).
This season though, Pepe seems back to his best and is a key part of a Madrid defence that now looks watertight under new boss Jose Mourinho. There are few better centre backs in the world right now than Pepe, and at the age of 27, his best is still to come.
14. Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid)
A teenage prodigy, Agüero became the youngest player ever to play in the Argentine First Division (15 years, 35 days), breaking Diego Maradona’s record. Agüero’s shares certain similarities to El Diego, particularly in his low centre of gravity and abundance of technical ability. Of course, Agüero is not Maradona, but the striker is still supremely talented, with superb dribbling, passing and shooting abilities that convinced Atletico to pay Independiente over €20m for him when he was only 17.
Agüero is still only 22, but has been one of La Liga’s top performers for years, with over 20 goals in all competitions in each of the last three seasons. There is far more to Agüero’s game than just goals, and his all-around game have made him an ideal partner to both Fernando Torres and then the prolific Diego Forlan during his time in Madrid. Agüero and Forlan are truly one of the top strike partnerships in world football and their goals fired Atletico to a Europa League win last season.
Agüero is a regular in the transfer gossip columns, with many believing it is only a matter of time before one of Europe’s top clubs make Atletico an offer they can’t refuse to secure Agüero’s services. Chelsea have been frequently linked to the player, but for now he remains an Atletico player, and the Atletico faithful will have the pleasure of seeing Kun Agüero lighting up La Liga for at least one more year.
13. Diego Forlan (Atletico Madrid)
It’s hard to believe that the player who won the Golden Ball as the 2010 World Cup’s best player (not to mention two Golden Shoe awards as Europe’s top goalscorer) is the same player who struggled for so long to find his first goal as a Manchester United player. Forlan has come a long way since his days in Manchester, and however odd it may seem to those who saw him in England, he has been one of the world’s top strikers for several years now.
Forlan’s scoring record in Spain has been simply stunning, as the numbers illustrate: 25, 13, 21, 23, 35, 28. These are the number of goals Forlan has scored in Spain, with five out of the six years seeing Forlan score over 20 goals in all competitions. Forlan has scored better than one in two in La Liga with both Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, and with all due to respect to those clubs, it is frightening to think how many he may have scored if he had played for Barca or Real Madrid.
His pace, aerial ability, technique, movement, cleverness and tremendous shot, both in open play and from set pieces, make him a continual goal threat and a perennial contender for the Pichichi trophy for La Liga’s top scorer.
12. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
Ramos is the prototype of the modern defender. He is physically stronger than most opposing strikers and quicker and more technically gifted than most opposing wingers, allowing him to dominate at both ends of the pitch. The Spanish international is comfortable at centre back or full back, but is probably better suited out wide as it allows him to indulge his attacking tendencies. Playing out wide also means the team is less likely to be hurt by the occasional lapses in discipline or misreading of play that still pops up from time to time.
Such was Ramos’ ability as a teenager that Madrid paid Sevilla €27m for his services when he was only 19 years old. In the five years since then, Ramos has won league titles with his club as well as being a key part in both of Spain’s international triumphs of the last two years. He’s already racked up over 200 games (and scored almost 30 goals) with Madrid and is a veteran at the age of 24.
Ramos has cut out the rash decisions that saw him receive several red cards early in his career, and is a much smarter defender than he was a few years ago. Combine that with his technical and physical qualities, and you have one of the top defenders in world football.
11. Dani Alves (Barcelona)
Alves is without a doubt one of the world’s best full backs, providing dominant play at both the attacking and defensive ends. Alves led La Liga in assists during his time with Sevilla, where he occupied the entire right flank almost single-handedly. Since his move to Barca, Alves has formed a devastating right wing pairing with Leo Messi, with both players arguably the best in the world in their position.
Alves is very gifted technically, able to beat wingers and full backs almost at will, and is also one of the best crossers of a ball in world football. The Brazilian would probably get even more assists were Barca to play with a striker who was dominant in the air, with a player like Llorente almost guaranteed to score several goals from Alves crosses were they on the same team.
Alves is also a tenacious competitor defensively, coming out on top in the physical battle against most opponents due to his superior strength, speed and ability to read the game. He is known for more than a few theatrics and play-acting, which is a shame, but more often than not it is Alves’ quality football that catches the eye.
10. Kaka (Real Madrid)
It seems almost inconceivable for the man who won the Ballon D’Or less than three years ago to only scrape into the top 10, but such is the talent in La Liga that Kaka is perhaps fortunate to place this high. The Brazilian superstar is without doubt one of the world’s most gifted players, but ever since joining Madrid last summer, he’s found it difficult to show that ability with any sort of regularity.
On a more positive note, individuals as talented as Kaka do not become bad players overnight, and there’s still plenty to come from the playmaker. When in full flow, Kaka is a joy to behold, with a touch, poise and dribbling ability that make it seem as if he simply glides across the pitch. Even in a season full of struggles last year, Kaka still managed eight goals and six assists in 25 games.
Now that Madrid seem to have found their identity and a system that works under Mourinho, Kaka would surely fit perfectly in the role just behind the striker in the attacking quartet. The challenge for Kaka is that the role is currently occupied by Mesut Özil, who is pretty special himself, so it’ll be a battle to get in the side. With Kaka’s ability, it’ll be a battle that can only be good for Madrid.
9. Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid)
Alonso has made an art form of finding teammates with the ball, displaying a passing range that few in world football can match. For all the flashy and eye catching play of his more spectacular teammates—Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres while at Liverpool, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain in Madrid—it is Alonso that makes the team tick. Just ask anyone at Liverpool what they think of Alonso, who has proved to be irreplaceable since he left to join Madrid for €30m in 2009.
Everything goes through Alonso from his deep lying central midfield role. He receives the ball from the defenders and then begins the attacking moves with the cleverness of his passing. Alonso probably doesn’t score enough goals for a player of his ability, but everything else in his game is of the highest level.
Alonso is also an important player for Spain, and when he and Xavi line up alongside each other in midfield, the Spaniards arguably have the two best passers in the world in their team. Alonso, at 28, is approaching his peak, and if Madrid are to win anything this season, it will likely have a lot to do with their pass master.
8. Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
When Gerard Pique returned to Barca from Manchester United in the summer of 2008, he joined the club as a youngster with plenty of potential, but who had failed to make the breakthrough into a team that featured Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Two years on, you’d be hard pressed to name a better centre back in world football, with Pique developing into a superb all-around defender.
The 23 year old is physically dominant, technically gifted, has great passing range and also poses a threat at the attacking end on occasion. Pique really came to the fore during the closing months of Barca’s treble winning season of 2009, when he was simply brilliant during Barca’s run to domestic and European triumph.
He has since gone on to establish himself as a key player in the Spanish national team and was a vital part of the team that conceded only two goals in seven games in winning their first ever World Cup. Pique is still young and looks set to get even better, and certainly has the potential to go down as the best defender of his generation.
7. Iker Casillas (Real Madrid)
Ever since Casillas made his Madrid debut at the age of 17, it was clear that he was destined for big things. Over the past decade, he has proved himself to be one of the top keepers in the world and may well go on to be recognised as one of the greatest of all time.
Casillas established himself in the Madrid side during the "Galactico" period of the early part of the last decade, a time when defence seemed almost an irrelevance for the team’s superstar attackers. Casillas’ ability as not only just a shot stopper, but a keeper gifted in every area of his craft, led to him often bailing the team out on a weekly basis and becoming recognised as the team’s most important player.
Casillas is one of the most respected players in world football and is a born leader, taking over from Raul as captain of Madrid and captaining Spain to European Championship and World Cup glory. Casillas is also only 11 caps short of the all-time Spanish appearance record, and at the age of 29, is a relative spring chicken in goalkeeping terms. It is certainly possible for Casillas to finish his career having broken every appearance record available to him, having won every major domestic, European and international accolade on offer and also being recognised as possibly the greatest keeper in history. He is that good.
6. Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid)
Higuain has overcome a shaky start and a barrage of criticism early on in his Madrid career to become the team’s top striker and one of the top young forwards in the world. Higuain has quick feet, great technical ability and an eye for goal, qualities that have seen him score 49 La Liga goals over the last two seasons.
Higuain had a number of doubters when he first arrived in La Liga, but at the age of 22 he has already proved himself to be an accomplished goalscorer in La Liga, the Champions League and at the international level with Argentina.
The youngster can surely only get better, but has already shown the quality required to lead the line at one of the world’s top clubs for the past three years. The thought of what Higuain could achieve over the coming years is exciting for Madrid fans, as well as frightening for opposing defenders across La Liga.
5. David Villa (Barcelona)
Villa may not have had the best start to his Barca career, but you’d be hard pressed to name a better striker in world football over the past three years. It’s a mark of Villa’s quality that four goals in 10 competitive games (as well as hitting the woodwork an astonishing nine times) is viewed as a disappointing run, but he is so good that we almost feel entitled to expect more.
He is technically brilliant, has bags of pace and quick feet, has brilliant movement and is the best finisher on the planet. The 28 year old is at the peak of his powers and is a nightmare for any defender to face. Villa pretty much guarantees 20 goals a season minimum, and it seems only a matter of time before he kicks into gear and scores a glut of goals with his new team.
Playing in this Barca team, Villa will be on the end of a number of chances in most of his games, and it will surely finish his career as one of La Liga’s all-time top scorers. He is already Spain’s all-time top goalscorer, not bad for a guy who only made his international debut five and a half years ago.
4. Xavi (Barcelona)
Xavi Hernandez is the architect of everything that is good in the football of FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team. The Catalan star has been a mainstay in the Barca side for the past decade, has won every domestic and international trophy available, will soon break Barca’s all-time appearance record and may well go down as the greatest midfielder in the club’s history.
Xavi has made the deep lying playmaker role an art form; others like Andrea Pirlo, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas do it well, but Xavi is the master. It’s no coincidence that Barca and Spain dominate possession and play twice as many passes as most of the teams they play against; everything goes through Xavi, and he hardly ever gives the ball away. Xavi led La Liga in assists last season, and also pops up with key goals from distance on occasion, two huge factors in Barca regaining the La Liga title last year.
Xavi is now 30, but is still in incredible physical condition and plays more games than any other Barca apart from keeper Victor Valdes. Xavi will hopefully keep going for many years to come, as the day he finally hangs up his boots will be a sad day for Barca, Spain and the football world as a whole.
3. Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)
When Frank Riijkard said that watching Iniesta play passes was like “watching someone hand out sweets," he perfectly captured the essence of a player who combines outrageous ability with a simplicity and humility that makes his football a joy to watch. There’s a reason Barca fans affectionately dubbed Iniesta the "anti-galactico;" there is none of the flashiness or self-indulgence that dogs some of his more fame hungry counterparts, because he lets his football do all the talking.
Iniesta broke into the Barca first team in 2004 and has been an integral part of the squad ever since, particularly over the past three years when his continual brilliance has allowed the club to let go of superstars like Deco and Ronaldinho without much concern. Under Pep Guardiola, Iniesta has gone from strength to strength and proved himself as one of the top players in the world on the domestic, European and international stage.
Iniesta has also developed a knack for coming up big on the very biggest footballing stages; a last minute stunner that sent Barca to the Champions League final in 2009, a dominant performance in the victory of Manchester United in the final (a performance that led Wayne Rooney to proclaim Iniesta as the best player in the world) and of course the 116th minute goal that fired Spain to their first-ever World Cup win this past summer. Fans of Barca and Spain will be hoping that he has many more opportunities to make himself a hero in his team’s most important games for years to come.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
Ronaldo doesn‘t like to finish second in anything, but in a list of La Liga’s best players that is no mean feat. The Portuguese winger has been one of the world’s top players for several years now and is astonishingly gifted in almost every facet of the game. Ronaldo combines strength, speed and technical ability of the highest level, making him not only one of the world’s top dribblers, but also a supreme goalscorer. He has scored 26, 42 and 33 goals in all competitions over the last three seasons, and already has ten goals in eight La Liga games so far this year.
Ronaldo still receives criticism in some quarters for being overly selfish, which may be true, but he is certainly less self indulgent and wasteful than he was in his formative years. Ronaldo can perhaps be forgiven for sometimes wanting to keep the ball himself given that there are few players who can do what he can with the ball, but over time he has learnt to use his talents for the best of the team, and this season looks better than ever.
At the age of 25, Ronaldo has years of top level football ahead of him, and certainly has the potential to go down as one of the greatest players of all time, something Madrid fans will no doubt hope he does in the colours of Los Blancos.
1. Leo Messi (Barcelona)
This was an easy choice; at the age of just 23, Lionel Messi has already achieved more than most players do in their whole career and is widely recognised as the world’s best player. That recognition comes with good reason, as his combination of speed, technique and vision is simply unrivaled. He is probably in the top three in dribblers, passers and finishers in La Liga. It would not be a shock to see Messi lead the league in both goals and assists this year, as he came close to doing last year (first in goals with 34, second in assists with 10).
Forget statistics though, this is about pure quality. There is simply no better sight on a football field than the world’s most devastating attacking force setting off on another amazing run. Barca fans can only hope that he maintains his desire to spend his whole career with the Catalan club, as the prospect of Messi displaying his dazzling talents elsewhere is simply unthinkable.
Many maintain that Messi needs to dominate at an international level to truly be ranked alongside greats like Cruyff, Pele and Maradona, but that is harsh on a player who is looked upon to carry his national team with little support. Messi performed well at the World Cup this summer but was undone by playing on a team whose defensive ineptitude was out of his control. The ability Messi shows on a weekly basis in La Liga and the Champions League have many convinced that by the end of his career, he truly will belong in the company of the very greatest players in the history of the game.