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Premier League 2018-19 review: failures and surprises

From Manchester United to Shkodran Mustafi, some of those who may well wish to forget this past campaign

Welcome to the review of the 2018-19 Premier League season. We have nominated some contenders for this category but this is just to get the discussion going: offer your suggestions below the line …

Manchester United

A purple patch following José Mourinho’s sacking aside, it has been a truly disastrous season for United. There are any number of overriding images from this latest sorry damp squib – Alexis Sánchez, whose £490,000-a-week wages translate to an hourly rate of around £2,900, skulking around nonplussed, Fred floundering in countless midfield duels, Paul Pogba strutting round and simultaneously causing Roy Keane to self-combust, an off-colour David de Gea making yet another uncharacteristic error or the grimace on the face of Phil Jones. Take your pick, it has been a torturous time. The final descent of Mourinho’s reign was spectacularly sullen but, six months on, things are not much better. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has declared this as the end of the road for some players – Sánchez’s limp down the tunnel at Huddersfield was symptomatic of an entire campaign – and, in truth, the chance to start over cannot come soon enough.The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh

Signed for £17m last summer, the winger is Brighton’s club-record signing but has badly struggled to live up to that fee. A quick glance at his numbers says it all: this time last season, Jahanbakhsh was heading into the World Cup with Iran off the back of a glittering campaign in which he scored 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar. Not only have the goals dried up, they have been non-existent, with Jahanbakhsh still to register a single goal or assist for Chris Hughton’s side. He has completed 90 minutes just three times in what has been a difficult season, punctuated by niggling injuries and compounded by conceding a soft penalty at Arsenal earlier this month. The 25-year-old studied to become an auto mechanic before turning professional in the Eredivisie and, despitestalling in his maiden season in Sussex, Hughton has expressed confidence Jahanbakhsh will fare better second time around.

Jahanbakhsh is challenged by Spurs’ Danny Rose last month. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP


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Yerry Mina

For an entourage of Everton officials, deadline day last August was spent in Spain. A lot of effort went into frenetically arranging meetings, medicals and signing off paperwork as they got a £28m deal for Mina and a season-long loan for André Gomes over the line. Everton are yet to fully reap the rewards of that labour. Mina formed a trio of headline arrivals from Catalonia, with Lucas Digne having already signed from Barcelona. Gomes and Digne have enjoyed excellent campaigns but the same cannot be said for the towering Colombia defender. Mina did not start a game for Marco Silva’s side until November because of a foot problem and has not featured since March following a hamstring injury picked up on international duty. Mina has not become useless overnight but his first season at Everton has been desperately disappointing.

Yerry Mina reacts after a goal for Manchester City during their 3-1 home win over Everton in December. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

Shkodran Mustafi

That there is, a rather cruel, 10-minute montage of Mustafi’s mistakes doing the rounds speaks volumes. The Arsenal defender has too often proved a defensive liability, typified by his hopeless display in defeat against Crystal Palace, when he gifted away not one but three goals. On the face of it, signing Mustafi for £35m three seasons ago appeared a masterstroke, a player Arsène Wenger had been crying out for. Arsenal had snapped up a World Cup winner, someone with – stereotypically at least – all of the desired attributes synonymous with a German centre-back. He seemed a cure to their decade-long defensive woes. What Arsenal really acquired was a flimsy imitation of a top-quality defender. For Mustafi, along with Denis Suárez, who mustered up just four substitute appearances after being borrowed from Barcelona in January, it has been a poor campaign.

Shkodran Mustafi on his way to a hat-trick of Palace gifts. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Jean-Michael Seri

After being touted for a move to Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, when the £25m midfielder rocked up at Aldershot Town last summer for a Fulham pre-season friendly, his arrival was greeted with considerable fanfare. Seri’s signing was supposed to be a major coup but, barring the odd glimpse of class, Fulham must feel short-changed. Before a ball had been kicked, Fulham fans were giddy at the prospect of Seri, and the raft of new faces, catapulting them into the upper echelons of the Premier League. Therein lies the problem. Seri has little appetite to play in England’s second tier, and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, another who endured a miserable debut season, led to the break-up of a trusty three-man midfield that had Fulham purring in the Championship: Tom Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen. They could do worse than leaning on that trio again next season. For Seri, signed from Nice, a return to Ligue 1 surely beckons.

SOURCE: The Guardian, UK

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Wigan’s Will Grigg shocks Manchester City and ends quadruple dream

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola refused to blame his players after the runaway Premier league leaders, reduced to 10 men at half-time, were knocked out of the FA Cup by third tier Wigan Athletic.

FA Cup Fifth Round - Wigan Athletic vs Manchester City
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were beaten 1-0 by Wigan Athletic in FA Cup. Photo: Reuters


Monday’s 1-0 fifth round defeat at the DW Stadium, a repeat of the 2012-13 final won by Wigan when the Latics were in the top tier, ended City’s hopes of an unprecedented league and cup quadruple this season.

“Congratulations for Wigan for the qualification,” Guardiola told BBC radio. “We did absolutely everything, we made a mistake and this kind of game is like a final. OK, we accept the defeat,” added the Spaniard.

“Wigan won, congratulations to them and now we rest to prepare for the League Cup final.” City play Arsenal in the final of that competition at Wembley next Sunday.

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Manchester City fans start to launch advertising hoardings on to the pitch and in the direction of the police after the final whistle in a dark reminder of the in 1970s. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters

The overwhelming favourites against opponents fighting for promotion from League One, City were always wary of Wigan’s proud reputation as a ‘bogey team’ in the world’s oldest and most romantic domestic cup competition.

Apart from beating them the 2013 final, Wigan had also dumped them out at the quarter-final stage of the competition at the Etihad Stadium a season later just as City were heading for the league title under Manuel Pellegrini.

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Pep Guardiola and Paul Cook clash after Fabian Delph is sent off. Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

City started with their Argentine top scorer Sergio Aguero, and had Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne waiting on the bench but neither were able to make the most of their side’s dominant possession.

In the end, the match turned on the sending off of Fabian Delph on the stroke of half-time with the City midfielder shown a controversial red card for a sliding tackle as team mates crowded around the referee in protest.

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Wigan Athletic’s Jay Fulton celebrates with fans on the pitch after the match. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Wigan’s prolific goalscorer Will Grigg then fired in a 79th minute winner.

Despite his obvious anger at the time, Guardiola steered clear of criticism of the official after the final whistle. “Red card. It was the decision,” he said. “They had one shot on target, I don’t have regrets with the way we played, the performance, the heart,” continued the manager. “I judge my players on intentions and not results and the intentions were good.”

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Will Grigg celebrates with Ryan Colclough. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images


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The 100 best footballers in the world 2017

There were only four goals, and no assists, in Messi’s seven international appearances this year as Argentina laboured through World Cup qualification, but three of them came in a win-or-bust final group match against Ecuador in Quito, in which the visitors found themselves a goal down inside 45 seconds. What followed was a brilliant individual performance, which dragged an underperforming team to Russia. “Today luckily the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinian,” said Jorge Sampaoli, their manager, afterwards. “Messi does not owe a World Cup to Argentina – football owes a World Cup to Messi. He is the best player in history.” This has not been Messi’s most gilded year: last season Barcelona came second to Real Madrid in La Liga and were knocked out of the Champions League by Juventus in the quarter-finals, with the Copa del Rey – in which Messi scored and was named man of the match in the final, won 3-1 against Alavés – their only silverware. But still he has shone, outscoring and out-assisting Cristiano Ronaldo over the calendar year by a comfortable margin, and in November he signed a massively lucrative new contract that will keep him at the Camp Nou until the summer of 2021. The voting among our 169 judges was incredibly close but Messi just edged his great rival Ronaldo and retakes the No1 spot in this year’s top 100. Simon Burnton


02 – Cristiano Ronaldo
Those who doubted whether, at 32, the best days were behind Portugal’s talisman have been provided with a definitive answer as Ronaldo continues to set new standards. Rounded off the year by winning a record-equalling fifth Ballon d’Or ahead of Lionel Messi a few days after becoming the first player to score in every Champions League group stage match. That he misses out on top spot to his arch-rival in this year’s Guardian list having taken the plaudits 12 months ago probably owes much to the fact that his overall goals tally is slightly down on this time last year, although it is still the seventh year in a row that he has topped the half-century mark for club and country. In any case the voting among our 169 judges was incredibly close. Having guided Portugal to a surprise victory at Euro 2016, Ronaldo’s next challenge is to inspire them to a repeat performance at the World Cup, although a treacherous group that includes Spain may represent too much to ask for even a player of his ability. Before then, Real Madrid’s tie against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 of the Champions League will provide an intriguing comparison between him and two of the players tipped to take his mantle one day – Neymar and the teenager Kylian Mbappé. Ed Aarons
03 – Neymar
The most expensive player in the history of world football and the man esteemed by many to be the next best thing after the joint phenomena of Messi and Ronaldo, for Neymar 2017 will go down as the year of the move. In swapping Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain for the neat yet mind-boggling sum of €222m, he was at the centre of a transfer that provoked a new round of debate about the relationship between salaries and sporting virtues. Neymar’s status in the PSG project is vast. Leaving the Messi-Suárez-Neymar trident at Barcelona naturally asks different questions of the Brazilian. He has not had many problems scoring and creating goals for his new club. No doubt he can enjoy the fact that in the Champions League group stage from last season to this season Barcelona dropped from 20 to nine goals scored. Paris Saint-Germain’s trend over the same group stage went from 13 goals to 25. The Neymar effect has been an interesting one. Remarkably, aged 25 he is not so far away from a century of caps for the Seleção, and he will be the poster boy for Brazil at the World Cup once again. Amy Lawrence


04 – Kevin De Bruyne
José Mourinho explained that Chelsea had to sell Kevin De Bruyne to Wolfsburg in 2014 because the then 22-year-old, who made only five starts during his time at Stamford Bridge, was “an upset kid … crying every day that he wanted to leave”. Understandable, perhaps, but it is now Chelsea who must think back to that and weep. At Manchester City De Bruyne has evolved into one of the world’s best creative midfielders. “He is world class because he can do absolutely everything,” says Pep Guardiola. Perhaps the most remarkable thing that the Belgian can do is coax the attacking intent out of any team-mate by rewarding any run with an impeccable quick pass that demands a similar finish. No one pulled strings in midfield as well as him during 2017. There is still scope for him to score more goals even though he is making progress on that front, as he demonstrated by walloping in the winning goal for City at Chelsea in September. De Bruyne’s quest for fulfilment also involves his country and, as he helped Belgium canter to the World Cup, he has called on his national team’s manager, Roberto Martínez, and players to improve if they are to achieve what they are capable of. Paul Doyle


05 – Harry Kane
When Pep Guardiola described Tottenham Hotspur as “the Harry Kane team,” it went down predictably badly but there is little doubt that the talismanic striker has threatened to transcend his club. The 24-year-old has made no secret of his desire to rival Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s top player and, during a jaw-dropping 2017, he has posted Messi and Ronaldo-type numbers. He finished last season with his second straight Premier League Golden Boot – he had been the runner-up to Sergio Agüero in 2014-15 – and he has carried his consistency into the Champions League, where a wider audience have come to appreciate his power, deceptive pace and dead-eyed instincts in front of goal. One of the special things about Kane is that he is not a confidence player. Missed chances do not affect him and nor do barren spells, such as his now traditional dry August. He scored 13 goals in eight matches for Tottenham and England in September. Zinedine Zidane called him the “complete No9” and nobody was arguing while, at Tottenham, they can see from the data that he is in the best physical condition of his career. The consummate professional, Kane continually strives for the marginal gains in areas like nutrition and recovery. His trends are inexorably upwards. David Hytner


06 – Luka Modric
Has Modric got better with age, or has his brilliance simply been taken for granted? This is his first appearance in the top 10 and you would be forgiven wondering why it has taken so long. His influence on games has rarely fluctuated: it is near-impossible to find a footballer with comparable passing range and, just as importantly, with such finely-tuned instinct as to when a game needs speeding up or slowing down. The latter was shown in a masterful dousing of a raging Atlético Madrid fire during last season’s Champions League semi-final second leg; Modric went on to be influential in the second half of the final, upping the ante on a Real performance that took time to get going. Perhaps it has become easier to focus on his gifts now that Cristiano Ronaldo, the star of the show for so long, has become less explosive outside the penalty area. A single goal for Real in this calendar year hints at one reason for his lack of presence in the headlines; they would be an entirely different side without him though, and so would the Croatia team he captains, although that relationship has not quite been as simple. Modric and company qualified for the World Cup via the play-offs after the sacking of Ante Cacic, who he had notably refused to support as the national team tottered. Next summer’s tournament will probably be the last he competes in: 20 years since Croatia reached the last four, a similar performance would be befitting of his ability. Nick Ames


07 – Robert Lewandowski
An astonishing record that has seen Lewandowski score 53 goals in just 54 matches for club and country since the start of the year sees Poland’s talisman maintain his place in the top 10, although he is no longer the highest-ranked traditional No9 on the list having been overtaken by Harry Kane. Nonetheless, a new record that saw the 29-year-old become the first player to score 16 goals in a major European international qualifying campaign and yet another Bundesliga winners’ medal was just reward for a man who has now found the net more than 15 times every season since in 2011. In any other era, that would be enough to make him a contender for the top spot every season but, as he acknowledged in an interview this year, the presence of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has always restricted his chances. “It might be every hundred years that two such good players play at the same time, so I’m happy to be playing in that same period,” he said. Lewandowski also admitted in an interview last month that he could follow in the footsteps of André Villas-Boas when he retires and take up motor racing. Yet, with his instincts in front of goal showing no signs of diminishing, that may still be a few years away. Ed Aarons

08 – Kylian Mbappé
If 2017 belonged to anyone outside of the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly, it is hard to look beyond Kylian Sanmi Mbappé Lottin, who began the year as a bright young thing causing a stir at Monaco, and ended it as the most expensively transferred teenager of all time in a deal that will cost PSG around €180m. As whirlwinds go, not many match the year Mbappé’s career caught fire – a flurry of big and brilliant goals, league title, Champions League starring roles and an international debut came suddenly. Occasionally a player comes along and possesses the charisma of a generational talent and Mbappé has that. Compared by pundits to the Brazilian Ronaldo and his compatriot Thierry Henry because of his attacking power and panache, expectation is weighty. Coveted by all last summer after his sensational burst with Monaco, the natural ease with which he excelled in the Champions League, and his accelerated promotion to the French national team, Paris Saint-Germain won the prize. The only other teenager to make this top 100 is Christian Pulisic, ranked at 77. For Mbappé to be the highest new entry, straight into the top 10, is testament to the quality of his explosive arrival. Amy Lawrence


09 – Toni Kroos
Toni Kroos is a massive Robbie Williams fan, but that doesn’t mean he’s not cool – on the pitch, at least. As Real Madrid evolved into a more technical, controlling team, their game focused more on control, so Kroos played an ever more central role. Although it is not really his aim, he got more noticed, too – he’s up 12 places from last year – as he kept the ball always moving with pace and precision on route to Madrid winning a league and European Cup double for the first time in 59 years. Precision may just be the word that best defines him, in fact. There’s an elegant efficiency about everything he does from his role just to the left of a midfield three (although it is true that he has occasionally suffered on those rare occasions when he is forced to play a less natural, more defensive role in the absence of Casemiro or when Madrid are under pressure). Kroos doesn’t score many but there is something of a signature goal emerging when he does: running on to the ball, struck cleanly, first time, curling along the floor, almost like a bowling ball on a polished lane, and going in by the post. Sid Lowe


10 – Eden Hazard
Eden Hazard has been the creative inspiration for Chelsea’s two Premier League title successes in the last three years, all scuttling dribbles and sumptuous touches, and boasts a ruthless streak in front of goal which adds to his armoury. His significance to his club side was illustrated by Chelsea’s initial toils in their title defence while the Belgian was recovering from ankle surgery, undergone over the summer . Yet Antonio Conte has now effectively challenged him to break the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly when it comes to the Ballon d’Or. “I like to call it a ‘sacred fire’, when you have it inside you, the will to win every game to score goals,” said the Italian when asked recently about Hazard’s motivation to further his game. “At this level you must have this type of situation. The flame can be big or little. When you have an inferno it means you are like Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar. Eden has right characteristics to fight with these giants.” That is a measure of his talent. Chelsea’s only real concern is whether they can convince the 26-year-old to sign a contract extension at Stamford Bridge in an attempt to snuff out the interminable rumours of Real Madrid’s interest. Hazard has always wanted to play for Zinedine Zidane. Should the Frenchman ever depart the Bernabéu, the Chelsea hierarchy would breathe a collective sigh of relief. Dominic Fifield


11 – Sergio Ramos
In the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Napoli in March, Real Madrid found themselves in peril. Real were leading 3-2 on aggregate but the Italians were pushing for the strike that would give them the lead on away goals. Then Real won a corner, Toni Kroos centred and Sergio Ramos headed in. Six minutes later Ramos scored again (though some put this down as a Dries Mertens own goal), and Real were safely through. That weekend Real were being held at home by Real Betis when they won an 81st-minute corner. Kroos took it, Ramos headed in, and the game was won. The 31-year-old’s defensive abilities are nothing new, but in the last year he has seemed more vital to his team than ever. Simon Burnton


12 – Isco
This will go down as the year Isco made the leap towards greatness. For some time he had been knocking on the door of the top bracket, not quite doing enough to convince Carlo Ancelotti or Rafa Benítez that his playmaking wiles matched his all-round contribution. Under Zinedine Zidane everything has fallen into place to the extent that he re-enters this list a lofty position; his rise has been a defining characteristic of the coach’s tenure and it says plenty that his form in the second half of last season rendered Gareth Bale’s absence inconsequential. At his best Isco shows shades of Zidane the player, a pure footballer with the workrate on top: there have been enough high-level contributions in 2017, including a crucial Champions League semi-final strike against Atlético Madrid and a marvellous two-goal performance for Spain against Italy, to make the prospect of a longer-term comparison seem not entirely fanciful. Nick Ames


13 – Edinson Cavani
The departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from PSG last year finally handed the Uruguay striker the central role he has craved since joining from Napoli in 2013 and the result has been a remarkable return of 52 goals from only 56 matches so far in 2017. That puts Cavani in elite company and means he is also poised to overtake Ibrahimovic’s all-time record for PSG – not a bad return considering he is no longer on penalty duties for his club following the very public clash with Neymar. After climbing 34 places up our poll this year, quite whether Cavani can force his way into the top 10 will probably depend on how deep PSG can go into the latter stages of the Champions League, which looks a lot harder since they were drawn to face holders Real Madrid in the last 16Ed Aarons

14 – Paulo Dybala
The next Lionel Messi? Dybala pleaded with reporters not to force that label upon him before a Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona in April, then promptly gave them fresh cause to do so with two magnificent strikes in a 3-0 win. He subsequently took over Juventus’s No10 shirt at the start of this season, and scored 12 times in his first eight games wearing it. But the goals have dried up somewhat since, and consistency remains elusive. It was Messi who shone brightest when the two men met again in this year’s Champions League group stagePaolo Bandini


15 – Luis Suárez
The darkest predictions had Barcelona falling away after Neymar’s departure called time on the fabled “MSN”. Not if Suárez had anything to do with it. After starting 2017 by scoring his 100th goal for Barça and finishing last season prolifically, his return has been a shade lighter since the summer, but to focus on that would be to ignore the importance of his all-round play. He has had to make sacrifices but there are few who can match his intensity and vigour; Suárez raises everyone around him with his work ethic and will get another chance to show it at the World Cup with Uruguay. Perhaps he can make headlines for more wholesome reasons than at Brazil 2014. Suárez will be 31 next month and there will not be many similar opportunities left; the hope is that his drop in this year’s ranking is not the start of a longer-term decline. Nick Ames


16 – Gianluigi Buffon
Only a heart of flint would have been left unmoved by the sight of Buffon, devastated by the realisation that he would never wear the Azzurri’s No1 jersey again, in tears after Italy’s World Cup play-off defeat to Sweden. When he did so against Albania last March it brought up 1,000 career appearances for a 39-year-old who, although the end is nearing, remains as brilliant as ever. The big question that remains is whether he can inspire his beloved Juventus to the Champions League victory that would fill the only significant void in his medal collection. He came so close this year, performing wonders to keep out Kylian Mbappé and Monaco en route to the final; Juventus fell short though and if they do so again then Buffon, such an eloquent and dignified ambassador for the sport, looks certain to retire. Nick Ames


17 – N’Golo Kanté
The France midfielder, rather mystifyingly, has dropped a place in the rankings despite his dynamism in Chelsea’s midfield having been so key to securing the club’s Premier League title. That was the second claimed in successive years by the 26-year-old, and his impact has been as significant at Stamford Bridge as it was with Leicester City. Witness how the side virtually fell to pieces as soon as he succumbed to a hamstring injury in September this time around. Antonio Conte, while conceding Kanté’s game lacks glamour, has even suggested “every coach would say N’Golo has to win the Ballon d’Or”, though his credentials will no doubt go the same way as those of Paolo Maldini and Gianluigi Buffon. Dominic Fifield


18 – Antoine Griezmann
It tells you something about the soaring standards Griezmann set in the past as a leading forward for club and country, and how quickly football can gnaw at form, that he only just makes the top 20 having been in fourth place in these rankings this time last year. The Frenchman’s form in 2017 has been modest compared to the freescoring enjoyment and audacious ambition he possesses when at his best. Speculation that he might leave Atlético Madrid for a Premier League club won’t go away, as his suitors follow the creed that form is temporary and class permanent. Amy Lawrence


19 – Marcelo
Included in FIFPro’s team of the season for the third time in succession, the Brazilian has enjoyed yet another stellar year after helping his club side retain the Champions League. A new contract signed in September that will take the 29-year-old deep into his second decade at the Santiago Bernabéu was recognition of his status as one of the club’s most influential figures, even if he has been singled out as a scapegoat for this season’s slow start. Despite a patchy international record that has yielded a surprisingly low number of caps – 47 – he is likely to begin the World Cup as first choice for Brazil but could face a fight with Alex Sandro of Juventus. Ed Aarons


20 – Sergio Agüero
Manchester City’s current abundance of brilliant attackers has perhaps made Agüero come to seem a little less vital. Already this season he has spent four league games as an unused substitute, something he never had to endure in the previous campaign, and the sense that for all his brilliance he is no longer essential explains his slip down our rankings. He scored six goals in City’s first six league games, before he flew to Amsterdam for a concert and fractured a rib in a car crash, further denting his prestige. He remains, though, a phenomenal goalscorer, as of November statistically the finest in City’s history. Simon Burnton


21 – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Any striker with 31 goals in the calendar year by early December deserves his place among the elite. So how can the Gabon international’s decline from eighth last year to 21st this year – one of the biggest fallers in our poll – be explained? Having seen off Robert Lewandowski in a hotly-contested race to finish as the Bundesliga’s top scorer last season and begun this campaign with 12 goals in his first 13 league matches, Aubameyang could justifiably point to an improvement yet still finds himself well below his Polish rival in this list. A series of disciplinary problems that culminated in the 28-year-old being dropped from the Borussia Dortmund squad to face Stuttgart in November has fuelled rumours that he may be ready to leave BVB this summer, with Liverpool and Milan among his potential suitors. Ed Aarons


22 – Mohamed Salah
It has been quite a year for the player once deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea by José Mourinho. Eight goals in November saw Salah voted as the Premier League’s player of the month to cap an astonishing start to his career at Anfield and came just a few weeks after his two goals helped Egypt qualify for the World Cup for the first time in a generation. In total, Salah has accumulated an astonishing 28 goals and nine assists the past 12 months to underline his status as one of the most clinical finishers in world football having also guided the Pharaohs to the final of the African Cup of Nations in January. Even Jürgen Klopp admitted he has been surprised by Salah’s swift adaptation to the Premier League but now the question is how high up this list can he go? Ed Aarons


23 – David de Gea
For the first time in four years the 2016-17 season ended with someone other than De Gea being named Manchester United’s player of the season, and the week after that announcement he was left on the bench for the Europa League final. But he remains a masterful shot-stopper, as he proved as the year drew towards its conclusion. In all he made 74 saves in the league last season, only five times more than the 14 he was forced into during December’s victory over Arsenal, a match that ended with José Mourinho beaming that “what I saw today was the best from a goalkeeper in the world”. It is a view that seems to be shared by Real Madrid, who continue to covet him. Simon Burnton
24: Philippe Coutinho
In 2016-17 Coutinho scored as many Premier League goals as in the two previous seasons combined, ending it with a run of seven in Liverpool’s last nine games and a prominent position on Barcelona’s shopping list. His summer was clouded by rumour and uncertainty, and he made clear his preference was to leave for Spain, but there has been no hint of disappointment in his subsequent performances for Liverpool. In his first game of the season, delayed by a back injury, he scored a glorious goal for Brazil and he has proceeded to sparkle in his club’s effervescent attack, culminating in the first hat-trick of his career against Spartak Moscow in DecemberSimon Burnton


25 – Christian Eriksen
Last year’s voting placed Eriksen well outside the top 100, but his performances in 2017 have propelled him into the top 25. The Dane ended last season with 15 Premier League assists and eight goals, a record almost identical to the previous year’s 15 and six, but perhaps he has been rewarded for his role in his country’s World Cup qualification. In nine international appearances in 2017 Eriksen scored nine goals, created four and never experienced defeat, culminating in a decisive second-leg hat-trick in the play-off against Republic of Ireland, “an incredible performance and probably his best international game”, according to Nicklas Bendtner. Simon Burnton


26  – Dani Alves
Having defined his position on the pitch for several years, Alves has now also taken on an accompanying role off it; that of elder statesman, leader, motivator and winner. Having done almost the same at Juventus as he did at Barcelona two years before – excelling to push them to the final of the Champions League, saving his best form for the competition – he is now already a dressing room cornerstone at Paris Saint-Germain, with his closeness to Neymar making his presence pivotal. He still weighs in during the biggest games, too, as he did for Juve against Monaco last season and this term for PSG versus Bayern Andy Brassell


27: Dries Mertens
Mertens’ transformation from decent winger to unstoppable striker has been stunning – more than earning him such a lofty position for his first inclusion in this list. Until October 2016 he had essentially been a backup to Lorenzo Insigne at Napoli, showing flashes of quality but rarely looking like a player to build a team around. Since taking his chance up front he has been lethal for Mauricio Sarri’s side, second in Serie A by a point at the time of writing; by December his calendar year had brought 33 goals for his club and the Belgium national team, and a slight dip in the autumn cannot mask his importance to one of the slickest attacking units in Europe. At his age, Mertens could have been excused for thinking his day in the sun would not quite come – but there was life in the “street dog”, as he has called himself, yet. Nick Ames


28 – Casemiro
“He’s the best in the world in his position,” was how the former Brazil player Mauro Silva, who knew a thing or two about the holding midfield role, described Casemiro recently. There is a compelling case to be made and his rise in this year’s ranking mirrors another stellar year in which he packed a punch further up the field, too. His long-range effort, albeit deflected, put Real 2-1 up in the Champions League final and three months later he opened the scoring against Manchester United in the Uefa Super Cup final. Those were vital contributions but his general contribution, providing such a calm and steady presence behind Real’s more forward-thinking players, continues to be the glue for everything Zinedine Zidane’s side do. Nick Ames


29 – Andrés Iniesta
There were times last season when, in Iniesta’s words, “it looked like I might have been finished”. Tellingly the midfielder’s 23 league appearances was his lowest tally since 2003-04, and though Luis Enrique praised him – “Iniesta is Harry Potter, he makes magic, and it’s difficult to find another,” he said in January – he also marginalised him. Iniesta has slipped down our list a little, but the 33-year-old has been integral once again under Ernesto Valverde this season, and declared it was “like I have been reborn” when he signed a lifetime contract in October, the first time Barcelona had ever offered such terms. Simon Burnton


30 – Paul Pogba
Perhaps feeling unshackled by no longer being the word’s most expensive footballer, Pogba has shone for Manchester United this season, influencing matches on a regular basis as well as scoring the odd goal. Overall he is down 13 places on this year’s list, however, because of his less than stellar form during the back end of the previous campaign, during which the Frenchman stood out more for his changing hairstyles than ​for what he did on the pitch. ​He also helped France qualify for the World Cup this year and could be one of the standout performers in Russia next summer. Sachin Nakrani


31 – Dele Alli
One of the great hopes of English football has jumped 59 places on this year’s list, despite periods of inconsistency, and it is because when he is good, he is spellbindingly good – when he is on his game, he does things that elevate him to a higher plane. His talent is impish, precocious and he can sometimes give the impression that his priorities are feints, nutmegs and putting on a show. But the 21-year-old can sting where it matters – he finished last season with 22 goals in all competitions for Tottenham Hotspur – and, with his ability to rise to the big occasion, it is little wonder that he has been linked with Real Madrid. David Hytner


32 – Alexis Sánchez
The combination of Chile’s failure to qualify for the World Cup and Arsenal’s drift out of the Champions League has impacted perceptions of the dynamic, hurtling attacker – he drops 23 places in this year’s list. Sánchez remains capable of brilliance, and he was decisive in helping Arsenal to win their third FA Cup in four seasons. But his moods, and carelessness in possession, have been noticed more as he winds down his contract. His determination, hard running and strike return means he will still be an asset, wherever he plays his football. Amy Lawrence


33 – Mauro Icardi
A section of Inter’s support insisted that they could never again recognise Icardi as the club’s captain following his ill-advised autobiography last year. Fourteen months later, those voices have fallen rather quiet. Week by week, the sceptics are being won over by Icardi’s strike-rate – which sits close to one goal per game – but also his increased work-rate and willingness to sacrifice himself to the cause. Such efforts were noted by the Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli, who handed the striker his first international call-up in three-and-a-half years back in May, and now looks likely to take him to Russia next summer. Paolo Bandini


34 – Gonzalo Higuaín
When Argentina played Brazil in a friendly in June Higuaín was substituted at half-time and Jorge Sampaoli has not named him in his squad since, having “established his presence was not ideal for him or the national team”. Lionel Messi insists “he is vital, one of the best forwards in the world”, but, though he remains important for Juventus, Sampaoli’s decision has had significant reputational damage. Statistics show that on the greatest stages he stalls: over his career Higuaín has averaged 0.6 goals per league game but less than half that (0.28) in the Champions League and in major finals, including last season’s Champions League showpiece, he has repeatedly disappointed. Simon Burnton
35 – Jan Oblak
One of only three goalkeepers to make the 30-man 2017 Ballon d’Or shortlist, the 24-year-old Slovenian is a reassuring presence who is as adept at cutting off opposition passing lanes as he is at organising his own defence. His distribution is excellent and he is capable of pulling off astonishing saves. Following his near-perfect performance against Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League semi-final, he further frustrated German opposition in March with a breathtaking triple save against Bayer Leverkusen. While the Slovenian’s club may be having a rough trot of it at the moment, their shortcomings have little to do with him. Barry Glendenning


36 – Sadio Mané
Mané’s year began with the low of a quarter-final defeat courtesy of his penalty shootout failurewith Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations but ended with the high of him helping ​the nation qualify for the World Cup. In between the forward has continued to be a consistently excellent performer for Liverpool, with his pace, work rate and ruthless finishing helping Jürgen Klopp’s side not only qualify for the Champions League but progress to the last-16 stage. It is no surprise to see the 25-year-old move up 33 places in this year’s list​. Sachin Nakrani


37 – Romelu Lukaku
Romelu Lukaku is 24. That’s worth remembering from time to time because the Manchester United centre-forward is, for whatever reason, a footballer around whom discussion frequently centres on what he can’t do, rather than what he can. Of course, that first touch can be a problem and he scores goals in bunches. But think of it this way: if he is such a limited footballer, it’s pretty impressive that he has a career scoring record at little over one every two games. A new entry to the top 100 (he was 101st last year), a convincing second half of the season at Manchester United might silence the remaining doubters. Nick Miller


38  – David Silva
A gentle rise in the rankings for the man with a gossamer touch who has been landing knockout blows for Manchester City for seven years. Since Pep Guardiola’s arrival he has added captaincy to his skillset, without diminishing his creative impact. In May Vincent Kompany called him “the wizard”, pointing out that “as much quality as we have in the team, there is only David that can pick certain passes”, and he is set to create more goals this season than ever before. In November he extended his contract to 2020, with Txiki Begiristain, director of football at the Premier League leaders, describing him, to little dissent, as “the best creative midfielder in English football”.​ Simon Burnton


39 – Gabriel Jesus
Jesus has not just been an outstanding performer for club and country in 2017, he has also been their lucky charm. Prior to Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk this month, the forward had not lost a single competitive match, in the process helping City establish themselves as the outstanding team in England and Brazil qualify in style for the World Cup. It’s remarkable to think Jesus is only 20 such is the composure and class he regularly displays. Up 25 places in this year’s list, he will be challenging for a top-10 spot before too long. Sachin Nakrani


40 – Manuel Neuer
Still seen by many as the best goalkeeper in the world, Neuer only just scrapes into the top 40 after a miserable, injury-hit year in 2017. With only three Bundesliga games played this season – no goals conceded – for a grand total of 13 in the calendar year – four conceded – the Bayern mainstay’s aura remains as imposing as it ever was. The 31-year-old still found the time to win a fifth Bundesliga title and take part in his team’s agonising Champions League quarter-final exit to Real Madrid. He has no doubt he’ll be fit for the World Cup, in which he is set to be hugely influential again. Andy Brassell
41 – Radamel Falcao
Few would have imagined Falcao being back among the cream of the list after his efforts to make the World Cup in 2014, following serious injury, precipitated two years of misery in England. That he will be at the 2018 edition in Russia, unforeseen circumstances notwithstanding, is his richly deserved reward. The 31-year-old has found peace back at Monaco, recovering all of his goalscoring instincts as they won an improbable Ligue 1 title, and is now continuing to lead the club’s young players with his dignity and productivity after the summer exodus. He was also key in the club’s thrilling ride to the Champions League semi-finals. Andy Brassell


42 – Marco Asensio
“We just have to let him keep improving with calmness and not allow his head to be filled with little birds,” was Isco’s analysis of his Real Madrid team-mate, who has been tipped by most pundits in Spain as the next superstar of world football. Having burst onto the scene last season following loan spells at Mallorca and Espanyol, Asensio has maintained his progress under Zinedine Zidane but is yet to fully establish himself as a first choice despite scoring seven goals in all competitions before December. That should come with time for a player who possesses a wand-like left foot and mesmerising dribbling skills, with a new six-year contract signed in September testament of how highly he is rated at the Santiago Bernabéu. Ed Aarons


43 – Edin Dzeko
Back among the top 100 and rightly so given his form during 2017. Dzeko has been outstanding for Roma, finishing the 2016-17 campaign as top scorer in Serie A with 29 goals and continuing to consistently find the back of the net as the club put themselves firmly in the title race and qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League. At 31, the Bosnian is arguably playing better than ever and was justifiably named on the 30-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or. Sachin Nakrani


44 – Lorenzo Insigne
A generation of Italians will never forgive Gian Piero Ventura for his scant use of Insigne as the national team crashed to a World Cup play-off defeat against Sweden. A prolific goalscorer and provider of assists from the left wing, he is sufficiently indispensable to Napoli that he started 60 consecutive games across all competitions before injury finally forced him to the sidelines this December. The only Italian footballer valued at over €100m by the CIES Football Observatory, he is a new entry on our list, but hardly a fresh discovery to fans watching on the peninsula. Paolo Bandini


45 – Leonardo Bonucci
Bonucci’s move to Milan has not exactly gone to plan. The curious transfer from Juventus in the summer came as a shock to most, not least because in Turin Bonucci was part of a unit, a defensive dynasty with Giorgio Chellini and Andrea Barzagli that still had a few years left. If he had stayed at Juventus he might have climbed our list, but as it is he falls 19 places. Which is not to say it is over for him: Bonucci is still clearly a class act and, while he has not shown it this season, he still has plenty left in the tank. Nick Miller


46 – Sergio Busquets
In October the former Barcelona midfielder Xavi described Busquets as “the best midfielder in the world … vital to the prospects of the national team, Barcelona and all who love football”. And yet here he is, slipping down seven places to No46. Busquets is a player whose game is almost designed not to catch the eye, scorer of seven goals in nearly 300 league games and never more than once in a season, but he remains the metronome who makes Barcelona tick. At 29 he continues to improve: sixth in the rankings last term and never higher than third at a season’s end, as of mid-December he had played more passes than any other player in La Liga. Simon Burnton


47 – Álvaro Morata
Morata could have remained at his hometown club, Real Madrid, where he had won the Champions League as a bit-part player last term, but instead chose a very new kind of challenge: that provided by regular first-team football. Chelsea only truly turned to him after missing out on Romelu Lukaku, but he has been their first-choice over the first half of the campaign and, particularly in the air, has looked the part in English football. He is obviously very different to the departed Diego Costa, but Chelsea have looked fluent and incisive when Morata and Eden Hazard have combined at pace. There is promise in that partnership. Dominic Fifield


48 – Marco Verratti
It has been a strange 2017 for Le Petit Hibou, who was profoundly affected by Paris Saint-Germain’s humiliating exit from the 2016-17 Champions League and strongly considered leaving the French capital during a summer of soul-searching. Exactly why Barcelona were so desperate to sign him and PSG flatly refused to sell is clear; few midfielders in the world have his sense of vigour and incredible range of passing. With Blaise Matuidi gone and Thiago Motta in the twilight of his career, Verratti is more vital than ever to PSG, where he has also taken up the role of dressing-room leader since Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s departure. Andy Brassell


49 – Thiago Alcântara
Bayern’s collective excellence has long since made it difficult for some of their players to get individual recognition (take Franck Ribéry’s failed run at the 2013 Ballon d’Or, for example), and that is perhaps true today of Thiago, the perennial German champions’ standout player of 2016-17. He is the complete midfielder; a passer, a tackler, a goalscorer and unbelievably adaptable, and deserving of cracking the top 50 this year. The Bayern players’ public reaction to the muscle injury that curtailed his year shows exactly how vital and valued he is on and off the pitch at the Allianz Arena. Andy Brassell


50 – Gareth Bale
It has been a frustrating 12 months curtailed by injury for the Welshman, whose lack of game time means he drops 44 places from last year’s lofty position of sixth. Bale was restricted to a 13-minute cameo in Real Madrid’s Champions League final win over Juventus in Cardiff and denied a fairytale goal in his hometown final by the human portcullis that is Leonardo Bonucci. Occasionally the target of unfair derision from Real fans, his future at the Bernabéu no longer looks assured. He was also largely consigned to a watching brief as his country’s bid to qualify for the World Cup came off the rails. Barry Glendenning


51 – Karim Benzema
Benzema scored 11 league goals in 2016-17, less than half as many as the previous season and his lowest tally since 2009-10, and is on course to lower the bar further this term, with just two to his name by mid-December. It is just as well, then, that his manager does not consider goals to be this striker’s primary contribution. “We want Karim to score, but the most important thing is the way he helps others to play better,” Zinedine Zidane said in February. He remains essentially static in our rankings, thanks to his contribution to Real’s bulging trophy haul last seasonSimon Burnton


52 – César Azpilicueta
Beyond the tiresome “Dave” moniker, Azpilicueta is Chelsea’s Mr Reliable and has returned to the top 100. His versatility is the stuff of head coach’s dreams, whether at right wing-back, either full-back berth or centre-half, and he has been the mobile and streetwise performer on the right of Antonio Conte’s back three over the last 18 months. Added to that is the 28-year-old’s delivery. Diego Costa used to thrive from his trademark diagonal centres, and Álvaro Morata has merely tapped into the same source of opportunities this time round. The defender’s omission from the teamsheet feels like a proper event these days and, given an exemplary injury record, is usually born of Conte desperately seeking to give him a breather. Chelsea invariably feel fragile without him. Dominic Fifield


53 – Naby Keïta
His move to Anfield may still be a few months away but anticipation of Keïta’s impending arrival has been building steadily in Liverpool ever since a fee in excess of £50m was agreed with RB Leipzig in August. That will make the midfielder from Conakry the most expensive African footballer of all time – quite an achievement for a player who is in only his second season at the highest level. Is he worth all the fuss? Only time will tell if the performances that guided Leipzig to the runners-up spot behind Bayern Munich last season can translate to success in a new league, although all the evidence is that Jürgen Klopp has landed a versatile player who is comfortable in several midfield positions and also has an eye for goal. Ed Aarons


54 – Timo Werner
At just 21 years of age, Werner is in the 100 for the first time after an astonishing 2017. Having been on the radar for a while after debuting for Stuttgart at 17, his career has skyrocketed since he made the controversial choice to join Leipzig. Werner was the top German goalscorer in the Bundesliga last season with 21 as he delivered the promoted side to the Champions League and has established himself as Germany’s centre-forward in a prolific start to his international career, despite public criticism branding him a diver and mocking him for his choice of club. Andy Brassell


55 – Marc-André ter Stegen
When a beaming Ter Stegen walked away with the man of the match award after Germany’s Confederations Cup final win over Chile, the thought occurred that this must surely be just the start. It has taken time for him to be recognised among the top bracket of goalkeepers globally but surely that moment has come: he has been outstanding in Barcelona’s fine start to their La Liga season, keeping eight clean sheets in the league by mid-November and shining at a time when, despite their lofty position, they have sometimes wobbled defensively. Footwork and ability on the ball, which attracted Barça to him back in 2014, remain huge assets for a player making a first appearance on this list. There is next to no chance of it being the last. Nick Ames

56 – Giorgio Chiellini
When Chiellini hangs up his boots, one suspects that the last six years will be remembered most prominently – the part where he joined together with Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli in front of Gigi Buffon to form the great BBC. But the first of those team-mates left Juventus this summer, and the latter two are approaching retirement. Chiellini, at 33, is graduating now into a different role: the continuity man who must keep things steady as fresh combinations are tested around him. After a shaky start, a run of clean sheets through the early winter suggested he was succeeding. Paolo Bandini


57 – Ivan Rakitic
As Barcelona have adapted in the post-Neymar era, so has Rakitic. He has so many strings to his bow and that has been particularly evident since August, with Ernesto Valverde often fielding him in a deeper midfield role. Rakitic can handle it: he is one of the side’s mainstays, a nailed-on performer who can pull the strings and put in a tireless shift anywhere on the pitch. The goals, usually a reliable addition to his game, have dried up this season but his influence for both club and country remains unimpeachable. There have been some fraught moments with the latter but Croatia eventually made it to the World Cup and how Rakitic performs will be key to the fortunes of a lavishly talented squadNick Ames


58 – Gerard Piqué
Mr Shakira is seemingly always in the firing line when he joins up with the national team. Whistled by Spain’s fans because of his defence of Catalans’ right to hold a referendum on independence and, before that, his mischievous winding up of Real Madrid and his identification with Catalonia, Piqué is outspoken and honest – which is rarely a good tactic if you seek popularity. But then there’s the bottom line: the way he plays. No one doubts that when it comes to the football itself he is irreplaceable. Arguably Europe’s best centre-back, yet curiously it’s an argument very few seem to make. Sid Lowe


59 –Ousmane Dembélé
The second most expensive player in history has been frustrated by injury since his move to the Camp Nou for an initial €105m, with the insatiable Catalan press providing daily updates on his recovery. He should be worth waiting for. In just one season in the Bundesliga, Dembélé showed why there had been such a scramble for his signature the previous summer as he found the net six times and provided 12 assists – meaning he was involved in a goal every 113 minutes he was on the field last season. Whether he can live up to the tag as Neymar’s long-term replacement remains to be seen but the 20-year-old showed he is not fazed by high expectations with a brilliant performance in France’s 3-2 friendly win over England back in JuneEd Aarons


60 – Zlatan Ibrahimovic
The scorer of 11 goals in 19 games for Manchester United between the turn of the year and his season-ending knee injury against Anderlecht in April, Ibrahimovic’s long – but considerably shorter than expected – convalescence means he has dropped 40 places in 12 months. If not for that injury, the 36-year-old would almost certainly have broken the 30-goal mark in his first season in English football and he is clearly something of an inspirational figure around United’s training ground. Fit again and getting precious minutes under his belt, it remains to be seen if the iconic Swede will come out of international retirement for one last World Cup hurrah. Barry Glendenning


61 – Leroy Sané
As 2017 dawned Sané had made little impact on the Premier League; he started only four times in 2016 following his August arrival at the Etihad, never completed a game and had contributed one goal and an assist. But having been on the field for just 21% of Manchester City’s first 21 games of last season, he was there for 91% of the last 17, a run that began days after his 21st birthday in January. After starting this season once again on the bench – Pep Guardiola said “he didn’t make a good pre-season and he didn’t deserve to play” – since September he has been in phenomenal form, and an integral member of England’s leading side. Simon Burnton

62 – Raheem Sterling
If you ever require a rejoinder to anybody doubting Pep Guardiola’s chops as a coach, simply observe Raheem Sterling’s improvement over the last year. It was interesting that Guardiola rejected out of hand Arsenal’s suggestion of a swap deal with Alexis Sánchez in the summer, because to that point Sterling’s Manchester City career had been at best a moderate success. But this season he has exploded, turning into a sort of winger-poacher, popping up with goals aplenty, and at crucial times. He’s already having the best season of his career, and you suspect there is plenty more to come too. Climbs 26 places. Nick Miller


63 – Diego Godín
No player epitomises the sheer heart and soul of Diego Simeone’s time with Atlético Madrid quite like Godín, a warrior of a centre-back who forms the axis of a back line that has defied more decorated opponents time and again. A year in which he passed 300 appearances for Atléti ended trophyless although their latest appearance in the Champions League’s latter stages owed plenty to the spirit he radiates. There will be no repeat performance in 2018, and indeed the manner in which Álvaro Morata dominated him during September’s critical group stage defeat to Chelsea added to the impression he is slowing up slightly. That partly explains the 31-year-old’s fall on this list but it would take startling ignorance to write off Godín, who will captain Uruguay at next summer’s World Cup, just yet. Nick Ames


64 – Joshua Kimmich
Barring accidents, this could be Kimmich’s last time outside the top 20 on the Guardian list. He is that good. Converted into a central defender by Pep Guardiola, who fancied him as his mini-Mascherano, the 22-year-old was returned to midfield to fine effect by Carlo Ancelotti. Since, he has been converted to right-back (where he already played for Germany), doing the near-impossible in replacing Philipp Lahm. Kimmich has even added to the role by chipping in with goals from his new spot. He has reached 100 Bayern appearances little over two years since his debut and played in 23 successive Germany games, a national record. Andy Brassell
65 – Thibaut Courtois
In February Courtois was asked who he considered the finest goalkeeper in the Premier League. “I’m the best,” he said. “I always think I’m the best. I feel good this year and think I’m playing better than ever before at Chelsea.” Courtois shoots up 27 places on the back of his club’s title success, and his manager at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte, says he is “one of the best, maybe the best goalkeeper in the world”, but then Conte also said he was a very good penalty taker, which is why he allowed Courtois to take a spot-kick in Chelsea’s shootout defeat to Arsenal in the Community Shield in August. He missed. Simon Burnton


66 – Arturo Vidal
It has been a tumultuous year for the all-action Chilean midfielder. He was a key figure in Bayern’s Champions League exit to Real Madrid – opening the scoring and then missing a crucial penalty in the first leg, before being red-carded in the second. He then missed out on reaching the World Cup with Chile, who also lost to Germany in the Confederations Cup final, and decided to retire from international duty before a swift backtrack. Still, Vidal has finished on a title-winning side for six successive seasons with Juventus and now Bayern, and is highly likely to make it a seventh. He will be integral, too, with Jupp Heynckes pulling him into line and drawing the best out of him again since his autumn arrival. Andy Brassell
67 – Mesut Özil
Such an enigmatic, flitting talent. While those on the extremes regard him as uniquely cerebral or unnecessarily lazy, there is a consistent creator of chances in there who remains one of the best around when it comes to laying opportunities on a plate for team-mates. Sometimes Özil looks comfortable, especially at a club like Arsenal who tend to indulge that kind of thing, and in a team that is not built to do much dirty work for him to free him up. But he still produces moments of elite skill in the glorious mould of an old fashioned No10. Amy Lawrence
68 – Diego Costa
Despite being restricted to just 24 appearances for club and adopted country, 2017 has been a rather eventful year for Costa. Despite finishing Chelsea’s title-winning season as the club’s top scorer and snarler-in-chief, the striker was informed by text he was surplus to requirements and promptly went into self-imposed exile in his native Brazil. Having flirted with a big-money move to China in January, Costa secured a £57m return to Atlético Madrid in September. Ineligible to play for the Spain side because of their transfer ban, he last played competitively in June but is expected to return for Atlético in January. Barry Glendenning


69 – Emil Forsberg
“He’s so damn cool,” said former Sweden forward Kennet Andersson about his compatriot Emil Forsberg recently. A slightly curious choice of words, conjuring images of Forsberg playing in a leather jacket with a cigarette hanging from his lips, but you can see what Anderson means. Forsberg is the creative hub of the RB Leipzig team that pushed Bayern Munich as close as anyone last season, contributing more assists than any player in Europe’s top five leagues. He has also taken over from Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the man his national team looks to for inspiration: he might be one of the stars at the World CupNick Miller


70 – Mats Hummels
“It’s been a very good year,” said Hummels at the end of last season, his first back at Bayern. “I’m highly satisfied with the way things have gone for me personally. I played incredibly often and consistently turned in good displays.” His fine form has continued into this season, in which he has also captained his country for the first time, in the friendly against England at Wembley, after which Joachim Löw said he “made us solid in defence” and “cleared up lots of situations”. Still, he falls 19 places in our rankings, surely more a reflection of Bayern’s lack of impact in Europe and the problems that led to Carlo Ancelotti’s dismissal in September than his own performances. Simon Burnton


71 – Ciro Immobile
A first appearance on this list for Immobile, who scored 23 Serie A goals in 2016-17, and was already two-thirds of the way to matching that figure in this campaign by the end of November. Although not the most technically refined striker, his instincts and timing mark him out as an elite poacher, and he has thrived under Simone Inzaghi at Lazio. Immobile’s goals sank Juventustwice in three months at the start of this season, but he could not deliver for Italy when they needed him most in their World Cup play-off against SwedenPaolo Bandini
72 – Radja Nainggolan
The driving force behind Roma’s success dropped out of the top 100 last year but a series of brilliant performances for his club meant the 29-year-old chainsmoker could not be ignored this time. Eleven Serie A goals in 2016-17 from his more advanced position, including several from long distance, was a reward for his loyalty having turned down an approach from Chelsea and Nainggolan has continued in the same vein this season, leading coach Eusebio Di Francesco to describe him as a “superhero”. Was finally recalled to Belgium’s squad in November after announcing his international retirement two months earlier following a dispute with Roberto Martínez, only to pull out due to injury. Ed Aarons


73 – Samuel Umtiti
A striker when he first joined Lyon’s youth team, Umtiti is now a typical Barcelona defender: an intelligent reader of the game, composed and creative on the ball and, despite toughening up since joining from Lyon in 2016, not totally dominant in duels. He made a smooth transition from Ligue 1 to La Liga and has become even more important in his second season at the Camp Nou, his continued improvement earning him an entry into the top 100. He has also become more significant for France, whose manager, Didier Deschamps, called him up to Euro 2016 only because of injuries to others. He scored his first goal for his country in the friendly win over England in JunePaul Doyle


74 – Nemanja Matic
The Serbian midfielder’s summer move from Chelsea, with whom he won his second Premier League title last season, was seen to represent quite the coup for José Mourinho in so far as it bolstered Manchester United’s squad while appearing to weaken that of a fellow title contender. It was seen as a strange decision, despite Chelsea’s traditional willingness to sell good players – Daniel Sturridge, Juan Mata, Petr Cech – to English rivals. Matić has made the transition to Manchester United seamlessly and helped Serbia qualify for the World Cup; whether or not he is missed at Stamford Bridge is open to debate. Barry Glendenning


75 – Marcus Rashford
José Mourinho said in February that for Rashford 2016-17 was “a season of growing up, being strong – physically strong, mentally strong, tactically strong”. “Obviously,” Mourinho added, “he has an amazing future.” His present is pretty remarkable as well: despite having to fight for attention in one of the most expensively-assembled squads in the history of football he was, as of mid-December, the only United player to have appeared in every one of their first-team fixtures this season, and has appeared in all but one of his country’s 10 matches in 2017, starting four of the last five. Simon Burnton


76 – Thiago Silva
Even in a game not exactly stuffed with world-class centre-backs these days, few but the most committed Silva fans would argue that he is still the undisputed best. At 33 the muscle injuries that sporadically remove him from the lineup persist, and there have been questions over his leadership abilities in Paris for the first time, which reached fever pitch after the Champions League capitulation to Barcelona. With that said, he is still outstanding on his day and his neutering of future team-mate Kylian Mbappé in the Coupe de la Ligue final earlier this year underlined there are few better than the veteran Brazilian. Andy Brassell


77 – Christian Pulisic
“I’m not a prodigy – or a ‘wonderboy,’ as some have put it,” wrote Pulisic in the aftermath of the United States’ disastrous failure to reach the World Cup in October. Some Borussia Dortmund fans would beg to differ. Still only 19, and one of only two teenagers on this year’s list, the forward made 29 Bundesliga appearances last season and has been a regular this term under the now sacked Peter Bosz having moved to Germany in February 2015. The departure of Ousmane Dembélé to Barcelona in the summer placed even more responsibility on his young shoulders but he has not looked fazed despite his side’s struggles. Signed a contract extension last January that keeps him at the Westfalenstadion until 2020, and BVB would do well to tie him down for a longer term as soon as possible. Ed Aarons


78 – Keylor Navas
Last season it took until November for Navas to keep a clean sheet, as injury and then some rocky form disrupted his season, but he has been more consistent in 2017. He still has to cope with constant speculation about his future – as last season ended in triumph his team-mates petitioned the club not to replace him. “After a difficult season he has finally reached his highest level,” said Sergio Ramos. “He is an extraordinary goalkeeper, in my opinion one of the best in the world.” He is particularly treasured in his native Costa Rica, who he has once again helped to World Cup qualification; a film about his life, Hombre de Fe (Man of Faith) is slated for pre-Christmas release in his homeland. Simon Burnton


79 – Arjen Robben
Just adding this year’s Bundesliga title and DFL Supercup to his trophy cabinet seems almost a modest year for the 33-year-old, but that is just a mark of the remarkable career he has had. After a 2016 disrupted by niggling injuries, Robben is up 10 places after a year of stellar performances. Full-backs have always known that Robben tends to cut inside, but have still found it impossible to stop, as was to Arsenal’s detriment in last season’s Champions League, with the Dutchman scoring spectacularly as Bayern defeated the Gunners 10-2 on aggregate. Retired from international duty in October after Holland failed to qualify for the World Cup despite Robben scoring six goals in seven internationals this calendar year. Ed Aarons


80 – Saúl Ñíguez
Outstanding for Spain at the Uefa Under-21 Championship until their surprise defeat to Germany in the final, the versatile midfielder is a new entry in this list and can be expected to feature many more times if he continues his progression. Saúl signed a nine-year contract to commit his future to Atlético in July having starred for Diego Simeone’s side in their run to the Champions League semi-final and it will be a tough task for any of Europe’s heavyweights to prise him away from the club he joined from Real Madrid as a 13-year-old. Adept in central midfield or in a more attacking role, he has struggled at times to replicate last season’s form so far this campaign but will be a key member of Spain’s squad in Russia next year. Ed Aarons


81 – Hugo Lloris
The captain of France and Tottenham Hotspur exudes quiet authority, commanding respect with his intelligent reading of situations both on and off the field. The prototype modern sweeper-keeper, he allows his club to play a daringly high defensive line but it is his consistency and dependability that mark him out. Blessed with incredible reflexes, he makes difficult saves look routine and, as such, his work is sometimes taken for granted. Mauricio Pochettino knows that Tottenham cannot be without him. The manager’s trust in him is such that Lloris has come to feel like a member of the coaching staff. David Hytner


82 – Toby Alderweireld
Has dropped 24 places in this year’s list, perhaps standing out less because of Jan Vertonghen’s fine performances and the emergence of Davinson Sánchez. The Belgium defender, however, has still been a colossus for Spurs, particularly in this season’s Champions League. Alderweireld put in near-perfect displays as Spurs survived enormous pressure in key games against Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid, playing a vital role in their progression as group winners. Also vital in last season’s title push, the Belgian would probably get into any defence in world football, and will again be important for Tottenham when he returns from injury in the new year. Ed Aarons


83 – David Luiz
What did Chelsea do with the old David Luiz? The one-time “Playstation footballer” is another player to re-enter our top 100 and does so on the back of a rebirth that was fundamental to last season’s title win. His return from PSG last year had been controversial but a liability blossomed into a linchpin: the old rushes of blood were consigned to the past and replaced by mature, constructive displays at the heart of Antonio Conte’s back three. He deserved his place in the PFA’s team of the year although it may prove difficult to repeat the feat: his relationship with Conte has been the subject of speculation recently and he has been linked with a second move away from Stamford BridgeNick Ames


84 – Bernardo Silva
After missing his country’s victorious Euro 2016 campaign because of injury, Silva returned to fitness in spectacular style, helping Monaco become one of the most thrilling teams in Europe as they blew away Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1 and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Silva may be waifish in stature but he exerted huge influence thanks to his exceptional vision and a deft touch that led Monaco team-mates to dub him “Chewing Gum” because the ball seemed stuck to his foot. He has yet to become a regular starter at Manchester City since joining the club for £43.6m in the summerPaul Doyle


85 – Miralem Pjanic
It took Pjanic a little while to find his role in the Juventus midfield following a 2016 switch from Roma, and he has slipped 15 places down our rankings accordingly. Yet he still ended last season as a Champions League finalist and Serie A champion, not to mention Juventus’s leading provider of assists. At his best, he is an exceptionally tidy footballer whose passes cut through defences with the calm precision of a surgeon’s knife. As a Gazzetta dello Sport editorial put it recently: “If the Bosnian could just add continuity to his game, he would be a little [Luka] Modric.” Paolo Bandini


86 – Dani Carvajal
A floppy blond-haired kid with freckles from the satellite town of Leganés 13km south of the Spanish capital, Dani Carvajal laid the first stone at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground alongside Alfredo Di Stéfano and then graduated from there, via a year in Germany with Leverkusen, to become arguably the best right-back in the world now. Fiercely competitive and conscious that his first duty is to defend, that does not stop him bursting up the pitch, where he rarely wastes the ball and his delivery is often decisive. First choice for club and country. Sid Lowe


87 – Thomas Lemar
One of the highlights of Monaco’s swashbuckling 2016-17 season was the combination on their left flank between Benjamin Mendy and Thomas Lemar, with the latter often cutting infield to use his astute passing to deadly effect. He is also a handy dribbler and possesses a fearsome shot, as he showed when scoring his first two senior international goals in France’s 4-0 demolition of Holland on the same day in August during which Arsenal made a belated attempt to try to buy him from Monaco for a record fee. There are likely to be more big bids for Lemar in January. Paul Doyle


88 – Koke
Koke is down 47 places on last year and may well be likely to fall further over the next 12 months because Atlético are out of the Champions League – except that the World Cup could bring him back into the collective eye. He will probably start alongside Sergio Busquets in the middle of Spain’s midfield in Russia, offering energy to go with the passing. Diego Simeone still tends to play him slightly to the side of the midfield rather than right in the middle but he is still the player who leads and through whom the ball most often passes. Sid Lowe


89 – Jordi Alba
“To build an understanding with the best player in the world is easy,” admitted Alba this month. But while many have come and gone in Lionel Messi’s decade of dominance at the Camp Nou, the Spain defender has now established himself as the Argentina forward’s new partner in crime on Barcelona’s left flank having provided four assists for him in La Liga already this season. Alba has successfully seen off the challenge of the Frenchman Lucas Digne to become Ernesto Valverde’s first choice and remains a regular for his country. Was 72nd on this list in 2015 and is capable of hitting those heights again next year, particularly with a World Cup in which to impress. And he has previous in major tournaments, having scored in the Euro 2012 final against Italy. Ed Aarons
90 – Alex Sandro
What better education could a full-back ask for than the one that Sandro has received at Juventus? After serving for a year as Patrice Evra’s understudy on the left of defence, last season he had the opportunity to start regularly on the opposite flank to Dani Alves. Like his compatriot, Sandro is an attack-minded player and excellent crosser of the ball, but demonstrated during the run to the Champions League final that he could hold his line and defend diligently when Juventus required greater balance. Indifferent form at the start of this season has fuelled speculation that he may be unsettled in TurinPaolo Bandini


91 – Fabinho
After losing so many star names during the summer there was only one thought in Monaco’s corridors of power when Manchester United came calling for another: keep hold of Fabinho at all costs. There were flashier components of a team that won the Ligue 1 title and turned heads during a thrilling Champions League run but none more important. Fabinho operates with a maturity far beyond his years and, since converting to central midfield from right-back, has been the tactical brain of a side better known for its swashbuckling. A vital goal against Manchester City in March showed he can contribute on the latter front, too; whether he holds the fort at Stade Louis II for much longer may hinge on the continued interest of United or one of his other suitors. Nick Ames


92 – Henrikh Mkhitaryan
Mkhitaryan excelled during Manchester United’s run to the Europa League title last season, scoring in five of their eight knockout fixtures including the final, but beyond that competition this has been a year to forget. There have been three league goals in 27 appearances, and a worrying slide towards the margins of his club squad. He has not completed 90 minutes for United since their first Champions League game in September, and as the year comes towards its conclusion has drifted out of the first-team picture altogether. In November José Mourinho criticised him in the harshest terms, saying “his performance levels were decreasing” and that “he was disappearing”, the latter an accusation which seems literally to be true. Simon Burnton


93 – Cesc Fàbregas
It is amazing now to consider that, by December 2016, Fàbregas had started only one Premier League game under Antonio Conte and was very much a backup performer to whom the head coach turned to unlock packed defences. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried,” admitted the midfielder, who at least knuckled down, regained his place and has made himself integral since. His creativity, either delivered from alongside N’Golo Kanté or, this season, in a midfield five, has eked the best from Eden Hazard and Álvaro Morata, with the 30-year-old’s career enjoying an Indian summer. A player who once felt surplus to requirements has reminded all of his class on the ball. Dominic Fifield


94 – David Alaba
Alaba is a whole 33 places lower than in the 2016 edition, which seems harsh for a 25-year-old who already numbers almost 300 matches for one of Europe’s standout clubs. If anything has slightly dented his reputation, it is his versatility. Both Bayern and Austria used him all over the pitch, as if his quality is too great to be hidden at left-back, and it has not always done him too many favours. Under Carlo Ancelotti and now Jupp Heynckes, he has been finding consistency in his old position, and this should make for a more stable future for an outstanding talent. Andy Brassell


95 – Raphaël Varane
There is something smooth about the way that Raphaël Varane runs that disguises just how quick he is. Tall and graceful, he never, ever gets outrun, making him a centre-back who stands out for his recovery and ability to sweep up behind as players seek to break through the defence. Brought to the club by Zinedine Zidane when he was an 18-year-old at Lens, he scored on his debut against Barcelona with a towering header and is always a threat in the air. Always unflustered and unfussy, neat and tidy too, but does have a tendency to suffer injury. Will also start for France in the summer. Back in the top 100 after missing out in 2016Sid Lowe


96 – Jamie Vardy
This has been a turbulent year for Leicester, featuring three permanent managers and a couple of caretakers, and it started unhappily with Claudio Ranieri’s dismissal in February. Vardy, blamed by many for the Italian’s departure and out of form at the time, received death threats in the aftermath. But his performances have improved since and Claude Puel, who took over from Craig Shakespeare at the end of October, declared that Vardy was “the complete player” who “works hard for the team and always has a positive attitude”. Nevertheless, amid his team’s travails he has plummeted 77 places down our rankings. Simon Burnton


97- Benjamin Mendy
When an athlete reveals themselves to have a personality, it can often overshadow appreciation of their sporting ability. That is sort of the case with Benjamin Mendy, one of the better footballers to follow on social media, but there can be little doubt about how good the French left-back is and can be after his sensational season for Monaco. The knee injury that has curtailed his yearcould not have been more unfortunately timed, because his start at Manchester City suggested he was going to carry on that excellence in the Premier League. Hopefully, he will be just as good when he returns. Nick Miller


98 – Mario Mandzukic
The secret to sticking around as the years advance is adaptability. Mario Mandzukic knows that, which is why a man who was previously a classic No9, a target man who thrived on service, has sometimes found himself out wide for Juventus, playing a supporting role rather than a leading one. With colleagues like Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala he might not have much of a choice, but Mandzukic remains one of the wiliest forwards around, earning a re-entry into the top 100 after a two-year absence. And if none of that convinces you, simply observe his phenomenal, inventive, acrobatic goal in the Champions League finalNick Miller


99 – Adrien Rabiot
At a club whose response to adversity was to spend even more outrageous sums than before, it is sometimes tricky to get yourself noticed. Rabiot has managed that at PSG though; his more understated stylings have not made as many highlights reels as Neymar or Kylian Mbappé, but a stellar 2017 has seen the young midfielder establish himself as the hub of Unai Emery’s side. In many ways the perfect modern midfielder, Rabiot’s combination of power and efficient distribution meant PSG were confident enough to let both Blaise Matuidi and Grzegorz Krychowiak leave in the summer. Nick Miller


100 – Ángel Di María
It has been an up-and-mostly-down year for the Argentinian, summed up by the fact that he scored twice in Paris Saint-Germain’s annihilation of Barcelona in February and was then dropped for the away leg, which ended in humiliation for PSG. His inconsistency for the French club has cost him a regular place in the side but did not stop Barcelona trying to buy him in the summer, only for their bid to be turned down. During Argentina’s stuttering but ultimately successful World Cup qualification campaign he became the most substituted player in his country’s history when he was withdrawn for a 45th time on his 88th appearance, in September’s 1-1 draw with Venezuela. Paul Doyle

Who will be crowned Kenya’s best football player of 2017?


Who will be crowned the 2017 SportPesa Premier League Most Valuable Player when the league holds its awards gala Friday night in Nairobi?

Five nominees are in the running for the prestigious accolade that comes with cash prize of Sh1 million.

They are John Oyiemba (Kariobangi Sharks), Patrick Matasi (Posta Rangers), Michael Madoya (Zoo Kericho) and Lawrence Juma (Nzoia Sugar) and Meddie Kagere (Gor Mahia).

In the running for Coach of the Year award are, William Mluhya (Kariobangi Sharks), Bernard Mwalala (Nzoia Sugar), Sam Ssimbwa (Sofapaka), Sammy Omollo (Posta Rangers) and Mike Muruli (Kakamega Homeboyz).

The league will also name Midfielder of the Year, Defender of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year amongst other awards

Former Harambee Stars coach James Nandwa expects either Kagere or Matasi to walk home with the MVP award.


SOURCE: Daily Nation, Kenya

Thierry Henry crowned ‘Igwe of football’ in Lagos

Former Arsenal and France international striker Thierry Henry who is in Lagos for the Guinness Made of Black programme has been crowned the, Igwe of football’ in Nigeria.

Thierry Henry crowned 'Igwe of football' in Lagos
Thierry Henry crowned ‘Igwe of football’ in Lago. Photo: Vanguard

Henry who is in Lagos to meet the ‘Be a Front Row Fan’ winners; a consumer promotion of the company also watched the West Brom v Manchester United EPL game at Landmark Event Centre, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Aside receiving the ‘igwe of football’ title, Henry also participated in the cooking of Jollof rice.

The 40-year-old Frenchman retired from football in 2014.


SOURCE: Vanguard, Nigeria.

Cameroon 1 – 1 Nigeria – 2018 World Cup Qualifiers | Cameroon manages a draw against Nigeria at home

The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon and the Super Eagles of Nigeria are back for a testy clash in the 2018 World Cup qualifying series.

The Super Eagles were the better team when both sides clashed last Friday in Uyo, winning 4-0 at the Nest of Champions.

While World Cup qualification is seemingly out of reach for Cameroon, it is expected that the wounded Lions will battle for pride in Monday’s tie fixed for 6.pm at the Stade Omnisports Ahmadou Ahidjo in the heart of Yaoundé.

The Super Eagles Manager, Gernot Rohr, has said he would largely keep his winning team and only make few changes for the injured players.

One of those injured and a major doubt for Monday’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon is Odion Ighalo.

Rohr has hinted that either Kelechi Iheanacho or newbie, Anthony Nwakaeme will step in as a direct replacement for the injured former Watford star.

While the Lions have been largely invincible at their home ground in recent times, it is not impossible for the Eagles to shock the reigning African champions one more time, especially when the Eagles know that Nigeria could become the first African team to earn a slot in Russia as early as Tuesday.

If Nigeria defeat the Cameroonians on Monday in Yaounde and Zambia fail to beat Algeria at the Stade Mustapha Tchaker in Blida on Tuesday, the Super Eagles will seal their World Cup ticket with two games to spare.

As we expect another feisty encounter, stay with The Bloomgist for Live Updates from 6.pm.


7:52: Full time: Cameroon manages to hold a draw against the Eagles.


7:28PM: SUB: Mikel off Agu on. Nigeria trying to inject more energy into the middle


6:48: HT – Cameroon fans are seen leaving the stadium as the game comes to a half time with the Super Eagles still on the lead


6:30PM: Goal!

Simon Moses put Nigeria on the lead with a super strike. It’s Cameroon 0 – 1Nigeria


4:23 PM: The Super Eagles coach Genort Rohr has reeled out his starting XI for the game against Cameroon and he has opted to stick with his winning team.

The 11 players that started in Uyo are also starting in Yaounde as the Eagles will again play the 4-2-3-1 formation with skipper Mikel Obi handed a free role.

Kick-off is 6pm.

Eagles starting XI: Ezenwa – Elderson, Shehu, Ekong, Balogun – Ndidi, Onazi – Mikel, Victor Moses, Simon – Ighalo

Rooney back at Everton would be a story – but it may not end well

Romelu Lukaku was always going to leave a big hole to fill at Everton but few would have predicted a combination of, say, Wayne Rooney and Olivier Giroud, perhaps to take over in the likely event of the Belgian striker’s departure.

Rooney back at Everton would be a story – but it may not end well
Wayne Rooney poses with the Everton manager, David Moyes, right, and the deputy chairman, Bill Kenwright, following the signing of his first professional contract on 17 January 2003. Photograph: Getty/Getty Images

Reported overtures to Arsenal’s Giroud make perfect sense; he is a reliable goalscorer, proven in the Premier League, at 30 he will have a few good years left in him and he was no longer a regular starter under Arsène Wenger. Those imagining Everton would seek a like-for-like replacement for Lukaku, as if similarly built striking powerhouses were in plentiful supply, might have to think again. Giroud, should he move to Merseyside, could be just the cutting edge required for the quick-passing side Ronald Koeman is looking to put together.

Rooney is an entirely different story. Once upon a time, as Everton remember only too well, he brought a cutting edge like no other. He has also been spending too much time in the shadows at his present club and it is entirely understandable he should wish to seek more game minutes with his boyhood team, though there is a reason why Rooney dropped off the radar at Manchester United.

Whether used as a striker or a No10 in recent seasons, José Mourinho and before him Louis van Gaal found it difficult to incorporate the club captain into a system that worked. Mourinho actually began by saying he had complete faith in Rooney’s striking abilities and would resist the temptation to drop him back to midfield, though as the season wore on it became plain – not that the manager ever admitted it or said anything over-critical – that the solution he had come up with was to drop the player altogether.

At 31 Rooney is only a year older than Giroud – not to mention four years younger than Zlatan Ibrahimovic – though perhaps because he started out so young, his playing career seems to have caught up with him. Ibrahimovic stole all the goalscoring headlines at United last season, with Rooney barely getting a look-in, and whereas Giroud was also relegated to a substitute’s role at Arsenal he frequently came off the bench and made a scoring impact. Rooney’s impact in his last few seasons at United has been muted, to put it as kindly as possible, and for that reason it is tempting to wonder not only why Koeman wants him, when there will be money in the kitty after Lukaku’s departure, but also where he plans on playing him.

As a No10 seems most likely, if only as the most effective way of making it plain to Ross Barkley other options are available. At this rate the latest homegrown Everton wunderkind is going to be making way for the previous one, 13 years after the latter left Merseyside for Manchester. Though he has lost much of his pace, Rooney retains an eye for a pass and an ability to deliver from set pieces – witness his free-kick at Stoke last season to score his 250th Manchester United goal and break Sir Bobby Charlton’s record – yet Mourinho was also interested in speeding up the tempo of attacks and in the end he preferred Ander Herrera or Juan Mata.

Rooney back at Everton would be a story – but it may not end well
José Mourinho, like Louis van Gaal, has found it difficult to incorporate Wayne Rooney into a system that worked. Photograph: John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images

It is highly debatable whether Rooney is a better bet as a creative playmaker than Barkley, even if there are problems with the younger player’s contract. Gylfi Sigurdsson of Swansea is another player Koeman admires for the same position, and were Everton to be in a position to land the Iceland international it is hard to know what role Rooney may be asked to fulfil.

On the other hand, Everton stand to acquire a lot of leadership, experience and club tradition on a free transfer, even if the wage bill is likely to make Bill Kenwright’s eyes water. It should also be remembered Everton are in Europe this season, and are quite likely to opt for a significantly different lineup in cup competitions than the one they use for Premier League games. There is no problem about animosity from present Everton supporters towards a player who turned his back on the club in search of fame, fortune and trophies. Everton fans know better than most how the world works, and the famous (infamous?) “Once a blue always a blue” slogan is already being revisited approvingly rather than sarcastically.

Lots of United players have ended up at Everton in recent seasons, from Phil Neville and Tim Howard to Tom Cleverley and Morgan Schneiderlin, and looked at in such a way it is perhaps natural a player should wish to extend his career in the North-west without joining rivals such as Manchester City or Liverpool.

Yet City and Liverpool would not have been interested in signing Rooney anyway, and Neville, Howard, Schneiderlin et al still had plenty of career years left to contribute. Not everyone can keep up the peak performances United demand for the whole of their careers, and Everton have proved a useful alternative without dropping down the league too far. In one sense Rooney fits into that category and in another he does not.

Rooney has already spent all his peak years at United, that is precisely the point. To the naked eye he appears to have none left, but maybe Koeman knows better. Let us all hope so, for a homecoming hero is always a tale worth telling and it will be good to see Rooney in blue again rather than in China or on the front pages through some sort of boredom-related bother. Only a killjoy or a spoilsport would add a word of warning to such a feelgood story, but it is only a year since Mourinho had complete faith in Rooney’s undimmed ability and so did Roy Hodgson. Neither found a happy ending.

Champions League semi-finals: All you need to expect

We are just about 180 minutes away from confirming the finalists of this season’s UEFA Champions League. But barring any monumental collapses, we are almost sure the two teams that would qualify. Real Madrid threw down the gauntlet at Atletico Madrid as Juventus exploited the naivety of Monaco. These are six things we saw from those two matches:

Champions League semi-finals: All you need to expect
Gonzalo Higuain celebrates after scrong one of his goals

Higuain is a ‘fat’ goal scorer

Often derided on social media as being fat and lugging a big ass, Gonzalo Higuain answered in the most appropriate way on Wednesday by scoring the two goals away at Monaco to give the Italian champions a very comfortable first leg lead. The brace made it 31 goals for the season in all competitions. The Argentine can argue all he wants that he is not physically fat but he is definitely goals-fat.

Ronaldo is six steps away from the Ballon d’Or

If – and these are valid assumptions; Cristiano Ronaldo leads Real Madrid to a successful defence of the Champions League [getting through the second leg and the final] – something that has not been done since the tournament metamorphosed in 1992.  If he can also help Zinedine Zidane and Madrid to hold their nerves in their last four La Liga matches. Six successful matches and you are almost sure that next January, Ronaldo would win his fifth Ballon d’Or – equalling Lionel Messi’s record.

80% sure it would be a Real Madrid versus Juventus final

Can Diego Simeone inspire a comeback from 3-0? Yeah, possible, because anything is possible in football and this season we have already witnessed the minor miracle of Barcelona coming back from the dead against PSG. Would it happen is another question and you have to back Real to score at the Vicente Calderon if Atletico go all out in search of the needed goals. For Juventus, it should be assumed that it is done and dusted. Gianluigi Buffon has not conceded three goals in one match this season – Monaco indeed have to score three goals without conceding. Nah, almost impossible!

No refereeing controversies

Referees Martin Atkinson and Antonio Mateu showed good judgments throughout the first legs of the semi-final. In the 3-0 Real Madrid win over Atletico, Cristiano Ronaldo was supposedly in an offside position when the first cross was delivered by Sergio Ramos but he was not also interfering with play but when the second cross came in – he was onside.

Defensive base would always be a good foundation

The two semis witnessed shutouts from Real Madrid and Juventus – the basis of champions. Whilst many managers are throwing caution to the wind as they try to play beautiful football – the art of defending has supposedly been cast aside. But the two semifinal first leg winners showed that clean sheets would always be the foundation for comfortable victories.

Champions League draw made with new new surprises

The Confederation of African Football has completed the draw for the group stages of the Champions League.

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It is the first time that there will be four groups of four teams as up to now there have been just two groups of four teams.

One of the surprises this year is the presence of Zimbabwe’s Caps United. They went into the draw after defeating the much-fancied TP Mazembe from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

BBC Africa’s Nick Cavell says they have a tough group with three difficult games in North Africa to manage.

The draw has also thrown up a Sudanese derby with the country’s two top teams – Hilal and Merrikh – drawn in the same group.