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Friday, 31 December 2010

End of year awards - 2010

First of all, let me just say, I don't like end of year awards.

I find the idea of judging teams and players on their performances in calendar years to be a clumsy and inadequate system for rewarding continued good form in football, for the simple reason that the football season does not begin in January and end in December.

Consequently, voting panels for these awards are invariably forced to judge players and teams on their performances in two halves of different seasons with an unhelpful summer-long gap in between. Or in the case of 2010, a World Cup.

The 'Greatest Show on Earth' rightly takes centre-stage every four years, but the rigid calendar year system for awards means that it takes on an unjustified level of importance in the minds of voting panelists. Hence we have Uruguay's inspirational talisman Diego Forlan on the 23-man Ballon d'Or shortlist ahead of Diego Milito, who fired Inter Milan to an historic treble.

And as much as Sunderland fans may wax lyrical about the virtues of Asamoah Gyan, even the most ardent Mackem would be hard pressed to convince me that Ghana's World Cup hero was one of the 23 best footballers in the world in 2010.

That said, the end of the calendar year is the time when we look back and evaluate in all walks of life, and it can come as no surprise that football is not excluded from this. Also, seeing as I have absolutely no power to change Fifa, there seems no sense in letting football's governing body have all the fun.

Here then, are my end of year awards. The World Cup has played a significant role in my choices, but I have been careful not to let it completely overshadow my judgment. I have looked to reward the individuals and teams who have shone on all fronts in 2010, as well as a couple who, well, didn't.

So here goes. Have a read and let me know what you think, regardless of whether you agree or not.

Player of the Year - Wesley Sneijder, Inter Milan and Holland

This decision may surprise many who favour the Ballon d'Or shortlist nominees Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, but there are several reasons why I believe the Dutch midfield maestro is the most deserving. 

First, while most observers (myself included) consider Barcelona's dream trio to be better footballers, they also have the benefit of playing with each other every week. The genius of each makes it easier for the other two to shine all the more brightly. 

Sneijder, by contrast, shouldered almost the entire creative burden of Jose Mourinho's defensive-minded Inter Milan side, crafting the devastating counter-attacks which contributed just as much to the Italian giants' success as defensive steel.

He then went to South Africa and almost repeated the trick with his country, leading another side built on solidity and work-rate to Holland's first World Cup final in over 30 years.

As well as creating opportunities for team-mates, Sneijder also rose to the challenge of taking them himself, finishing tied at the top of the tournament's scoring charts with five goals.

Messi, Xavi and Iniesta are great players who play in great teams. Sneijder's greatness this year stems from the fact that he inspired good teams on to great things. 2010 was his year.

Honorary mentions:

Cristiano Ronaldo - Blistering scoring form undermined by lack of trophies/World Cup exploits
Arjen Robben - Best season of his career, but finished on losing side in his two biggest matches of 2010
Bastian Schweinsteiger - Star for Germany and Bayern, but his less glamorous style works against him in awards like these 

Breakthrough of the Year - Pedro Rodriguez, Barcelona and Spain

2010 has seen the blossoming of numerous exciting new talents in the world of football, but there can be no breakthrough story quite so astonishing as that of Pedro Rodriguez Ledesma.

In July of 2009, Pedro was a 22-year-old still plying his trade in Barcelona's B team. By the age of 22, most prodigious young talents have already begun to make their mark on world football. Those who haven't broken through by then will most likely never do so, becoming consigned instead to a less distinguished career lower down the unforgiving football pyramid.

But far from being condemned to obscurity, Pedro took his first-team chances and has, in the last twelve months, achieved as much as many would be content with in an entire career.

With an indefatigable work-rate, impressive tactical versatility and keen eye for goal, this Tenerife-born youngster has established himself in what is widely regarded as the greatest football team in the world, with his tally of 24 goals including strikes in every single competition last term.

Such eye-catching form ensured a place on the plane to South Africa with World Cup favourites Spain, where Pedro quickly became Vicente Del Bosque's go-to man when a misfiring Fernando Torres failed to find his form, ahead of Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas and Man City's £25million summer recruit David Silva.

By last July, only six weeks after his first international cap, Pedro could add a World Cup winners medal to his already-formidable collection, and the footballing world could herald the arrival of a genuine world-class talent.

Honorary mentions:

Thomas Müller - The German Pedro. Brilliant breakthrough season for Bayern, and shone in South Africa, scoring five goals
Mesut Özil - Great form for Werder Bremen & a fantastic World Cup with Germany put him on the radar, moving to Real Madrid has given him the opportunity to establish himself
Nani - Has moved out of the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford. Just a little more consistency separates him from being truly world-class
Angel Di Maria - Great form for club & country secured a big money move to Real Madrid. Has impressed, but exploits not quite high-profile enough yet
Gareth Bale - Excellent form & consistency for Tottenham, but his resume doesn't compare with the other challengers - yet

Team of the Year - Spain

Now, it may seem I'm going back on my promise not to let the World Cup-inspired heart rule the head, but rest assured this was a very difficult decision. Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan deserve all of the credit they received for becoming the first Italian club ever to win the treble and reclaiming European Glory after more than forty years.

But it was Spain's first ever World Cup triumph and, in particular, the style with which they won, which caught the imagination of the footballing world.

2010 was the year of tiki-taka.

The achievement of this Spain side cannot possibly be overstated. They flew to South Africa shouldering the dreaded burden of the 'favourites' tag despite having no World Cup pedigree.

Confidence in their approach was tested in the very first group game, when they inexplicably lost to what was possibly Switzerland's only shot of the tournament. The hopes of key striker Fernando Torres were shattered by lack of form and fitness, with the Liverpool frontman failing to find the net in South Africa.

But Spain recovered, and passed their way to glory. It was an approach which no one, not even a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal or a dynamic young Germany, had an answer for. For any awe-struck spectator, the lesson on offer was plain to see: it doesn't matter how good your players are if they never have the ball.

Seeing that defensive organisation and counter-attacking endeavour were not enough, Holland resorted to rough-house tactics in the final. It almost worked, and Joris Mathijsen and Arjen Robben may be haunted for years by guilt-edged misses. 

But in spite of a game with a startling number of clear chances, there seemed to be a strange sense of destiny taking hold. When Andres Iniesta lashed home with penalties beckoning, the story was complete. It was not quite a tale of good triumphing over evil, but pure football was certainly the victor.

Honorary mentions:

Inter Milan - Historic treble-winning exploits made it a close run race. A truly great side, if not quite so pleasing on the eye
Barcelona - Likely the greatest football team of our generation, and provided the backbone of Spain's world-beaters. However, defeat to Inter in the Champions League means they are not the dominant story of the year
Bayern Munich - One final defeat away from a treble, Louis Van Gaal's side deserve their place in this list. But defeat to Inter and Germany's defeat to Spain means it was never going to be any higher.

Manager of the Year - Jose Mourinho, Inter Milan and Real Madrid

Despite recent setbacks at the Santiago Bernebeu, 2010 has a decent shout to be considered the greatest of Jose Mourinho's career. And with for a man who had already amassed one of the most impressive managerial CVs in world football, that is saying something.

In only his second season in Italian football, the Special One managed to forge a team equipped to take on all comers both domestically and in Europe.

In doing so, he gave the lie to the perceived superiority of England and Spain by defeating the best that La Liga and the Premier League had to offer, and brought European glory back to the blue half of Milan for the first time in more than forty years.

The zenith of Mourinho's glory undoubtedly came in the Nou Camp, where a 'beautiful' 1-0 defeat was nevertheless to see off a truly exceptional Barcelona side and ensure Inter's passage to the Champions League final.

It was a personal vindication for the brash Portuguese, who never felt appropriately valued in his own time at Barca. Now he had avenged himself on Catalans who contemptuously label him 'the translator'.

But not content to deny his former employers European glory at the Bernebeu, Mourinho then decided to take on the biggest challenge of his career: to revitalise Barca's arch-rivals Real Madrid and aim to usurp the greatest club side of their generation.

There have, somewhat predictably, been set-backs in Mourinho's latest quest - the 5-0 Clasico drubbing was the heaviest of the Special One's career - but with his side only two points behind Barca at the halfway stage, it would be a brave man who writes off Mourinho's chances of stunning Catalonia once more.

Honorary mentions:

Vicente Del Bosque - Becoming Spain's first World Cup-winning manager certainly puts him in the debate, but the sheer wealth of talent at his disposal, together with a couple of dodgy results since the summer, rule him out
Carlo Ancelotti - Winning a League and Cup double in your first season in England is nothing to be sniffed at, but he was out-witted by Mourinho in the Champions League, and Chelsea's recent collapse means his very future is uncertain
Pep Guardiola - Another title-winning season with Barcelona has established Guardiola as one of Barca's all-time great managers, but this wasn't primarily his year
Louis Van Gaal - Added another feather to his already bird-like cap with a League and Cup double, but lost his Champions League final duel with Mourinho

Performance of the Year - Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid

It was never going to be anything else, was it?

With the match hyped as a meeting between the two best teams in world football, and with the subplots of Jose Mourinho's first Clasico and the ongoing duel between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the title of world's greatest footballer, the scene was well and truly set for an epic contest.

What was eventually broadcast to millions around the world was everything the neutrals hoped for: an absorbing, historic, beautiful advert for the beautiful game. It just wasn't competitive.

Barcelona destroyed their closest rivals with suffocating pressure, lethally incisive passing and movement, and clinical finishing. In doing so, the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and co. proved that, together, they are not simply the best team on the planet - they are among the greatest teams ever assembled.

Honorary mentions:

Barcelona 4-1 Arsenal - More of a solo show from Messi as he ripped through the Gunners defence with four goals
Germany 4-1 England - Not likely to be a popular choice among England fans, but this dynamic and devastating performance provided the first clue as to the true potential of this youthful German side
Germany 4-0 Argentina - Possibly the best performance of the World Cup. Germany stepped it up to defeat a more talented team than England by a similarly emphatic scoreline, after a clinical counter-attacking display
Spain 1-0 Germany - No game offered greater vindication of Spain's footballing philosophy, as Vicente Del Bosque's side prevented an impressive Germany from counter-attacking by never allowing them the ball

Now that the major awards are out of the way, here are some others who I believe deserve recognition for their exploits in the last year:

Goalkeeper of the Year

Julio Cesar - The Brazilian stopper was a formidable last line in Inter Milan's nigh-on impregnable defence last season, and continued to impress in Dunga's pragmatic Brazil side in South Africa. The best keeper in the world right now.

Defender of the Year

Carles Puyol - The Barcelona captain has been used to inspiring his team-mates at club level with his assured and uncompromising displays, but this was the year that Puyol made a decisive difference for his country. Marshalling a defence which conceded just two goals, the fuzzy-haired centre-back responded to his side's struggles to break down a solid Germany backline in the semi-final with the most emphatic header you are ever likely to see. A truly great defender.

Comeback of the Year

Arjen Robben - The flying Dutchman overcame rejection from the Bernebeu and persistent injury problems to put together the best season of his career. Unlucky to find himself on the losing side in both the Champions League and World Cup finals, but just being there is testament to his achievement.

Goal of the Year

Matty Burrows - There are never any shortage of top-quality contenders for any goal of the year awards, but the Northern Irishman's astonishing flying spinning back-heel thingy into the top-corner which gave his side a last-gasp victory over Portadown stands out as an example of pure instinctive inspiration. He will NEVER do that again.

Fail of the Year

Fahad Khalfan - The name might be unfamiliar to you, but if you've caught Sky Sports News at any point in the last three months, you probably know what I'm talking about. Khalfan's amazing open goal miss for Qatar in an Asian Games clash with Uzbekistan (which his team went on to lose) was, needless to say, not the high point of his country's footballing year. It never had any serious rivals for this award, except maybe the Uzbekistani keeper's incompehensible decision to dummy the ball which kicks off the video. If you haven't seen it yet, the link is here.


  1. doesn't holloway deserve a mention in the manager of the year bracket- granted he isn't as high profile internationaly as the ohers but he's had an awesome year.

  2. He certainly has - getting Blackpool into the Premier League and guiding them clear of the relegation zone at the half-way stage of the season is nothing short of miraculous, especially achieving it all by playing with an open and enterprising style.

    But in these awards I was concentrating primarily on achievements at the very top of the European game, and I think it's dangerous to start judging the likes of Mourinho and Holloway - two managers operating in vastly different circumstances - on the same terms.

    Of course, Holloway has done fantastically on next to no resources, but he is also in pretty much a pressure-free job. Likewise although Mourinho may have millions to spend and a squad Holloway would probably kill for, he also has egos, politics and the pressure to deliver trophies to deal with.

    There isn't really a way of knowing how either would do in the others shoes.