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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

2010/11 Season Review Part 2: European Team of the Season

And so, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve come to the end of another season, and it was a decidedly mixed bag.

In England, we we lured into predicting the tightest Premier League race in years only for the rest of the pack to limply fade away and leave Manchester United to amble over the line to a record 19th title.

Spain lived up to its billing as the most glamorous two-team league on the planet, Italy was competitive but short on elite quality teams, while Germany and France both yielded surprise champions.

And in the Champions League final, Barcelona left almost everyone except Sir Alex Ferguson feeling all warm and fuzzy inside with a virtuoso display that surely confirms the Catalans’ place among the all-time great club sides.

With all this in mind, I’ve compiled my team of the season. I’ve elected to play 4-3-3 because, as you all surely have heard, it’s like, so in right now.

In the first XI I’ve chosen who I think have been the best players in each position over the last year, and on the bench I’ve tried also to be representative of the players who shone outside England and Spain, and who invariably spurred their teams on to great things.

WARNING: Neither PFA Player of the Year Gareth Bale or FWA Player of the Year Scott Parker have made it into my squad – Bale because he only dazzled intermittently in an injury-disrupted season, and Parker because I feel that, with all due respect, being the best player in the worst team in the Premier League doesn’t actually count for all that much.

Have a read and let me know your views.

Goalkeeper - Edwin Van Der Sar, Manchester United

It is easy to forget that before Van Der Sar signed for United in the summer of 2005, Sir Alex Ferguson’s ill-fated search for a worthy successor to great Dane Peter Schmeichel between the Old Trafford sticks had become a source of comedy for rival fans.

The Dutchman has more than put paid to that though, oozing calm and consistency for the last five years and providing a reliable platform for Ferguson’s latest era of success at United. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic have looked so imperious as a defensive pairing not least because of the confidence they share in the man behind them.

Van Der Sar’s place in my team is not assured by the fact he is retiring this summer, but simply as a result of him being the best keeper in the world this season (Champions League final blip aside). Mr De Gea, you have some big shoes to fill.

Right-back - Dani Alves, Barcelona

I don’t think there can be any arguments with this one. The decline of Maicon at Inter has given Alves the opportunity to assume the mantle of best right-back on the planet, and it is one he has grasped with both hands.

Rarely has a full-back carried such tactical influence on any team, let alone one of the greatest club sides in history, but Alves is undoubtedly crucial to the way Barcelona play.

A supreme athlete, his ability to ally potent attacking threat – he has 15 (yes, 15) assists in La Liga this season - with defensive awareness provides the Catalans with much needed width going forward without exposing themselves too much at the back. A worthy edition to any side.

Centre-back - Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United

Comfortably the best centre-half in the country this season and, as his inclusion here categorically proves (ahem), one of the two best in the world. The big Serb has symbolised everything which has marked United out as deserving Premier League champions through his confidence and unerring determination.

With regular partner Rio Ferdinand suffering from persistent injury problems, Vidic has regularly held makeshift defences together and occasionally stopped his team conceding through what seems nothing more than sheer force of will.

Despite Barcelona tearing him a new one in the Champions League final, there are still few people other than Vidic who you would stake your life on making a goal-saving block or tackle, and he brings much needed grit to this flamboyant team. The defensive lynchpin and natural captain of this mythical team.

Centre-back - Gerard Pique, Barcelona

A tall, elegant, ball playing centre-back, Pique would complement Vidic in this team in much the same way as Ferdinand does at United.

But make no mistake, the young Spaniard can also mix it in physical terms against the very best, as his astonishingly dominating display in the Champions League final proved.

Like Vidic, Pique earned his place in this team by holding his defence together for long periods in the absence of an illustrious partner, and at only 24, he can remain one of the best in the world for many years to come. 

And he’s doing it all with the added distraction of dating Shakira…

Left-back - Marcelo, Real Madrid

Marcelo just edges out Patrice Evra for my left back berth on the strength of what has comfortably been the best season of the young Brazilian’s career to date.

Long renowned for his exceptional attacking gifts, Marcelo had been regarded as something of a defensive liability by a succession of Real Madrid managers until Jose Mourinho arrived at the Bernebeu.

But the Special One appears to have corrected this issue, and now his young charge balances responsibilities on the left flank at both ends of the pitch almost as well as fellow Brazilian Dani Alves on the right.

Defensive Midfielder - Sergio Busquets, Barcelona

The biggest complement you can pay to Sergio Busquets is that Barcelona have not missed Yaya Toure since the big Ivorian moved to Manchester City last summer.

In fact, the Catalans’ midfield is actually stronger, with increased La Masia connections facilitating their suffocating possession football, and Busquets’ defensive talents improving the team’s ability to win the ball back deep in the opposition’s half.

His play-acting frustrates and even disgusts at times, but his quality and place in this team cannot be denied.

Midfielder - Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona

No justification needed here. Xavi is the greatest midfield playmaker of his generation and one of the best of all time.

His passing is metronomic in its accuracy, his technique flawless, his awareness almost supernatural. Xavi not only sees gaps in opposing defences before they appear, he then has the poise and ability to find them, time and again.

He is also the man for the big occasion, having now dictated two Champions League finals and last summer’s World Cup showpiece against Holland in South Africa. Simply a joy to watch whenever he takes to the field.

Midfielder - Andres Iniesta, Barcelona

There's a reason they're the best team in the world, you know. Completing my midfield triumvirate is the third member of what will surely go down as one of the best footballing units in history.

Iniesta possesses vision if not quite on a par with Xavi, then at least in the same league, and combines this with the dynamism and skill to get into attacking positions and contribute goals for his team.

The 27-year-old earns his place in the team on his own merits, but the fact remains that when Xavi and Iniesta play together, their almost telepathic understanding allows them both to reach new plains of greatness.

Right-winger - Mesut Ozil, Real Madrid

Ozil won his big move to Real after a series of star-making performances for Germany at the World Cup last summer, but the odd question still remained about his ability to produce his best in the pressure cooker environment of the Bernebeu.

The young playmaker could not have answered those questions more emphatically. Not only has he matched the heights of South Africa this season, he has improved and matured into a consistently world class performer.

Ozil has created a chance on average every 22 minutes this season – the best ratio of anyone in the top five European leagues. It’s no wonder, then, that former World Player of the Year Kaka has been relegated to the role of understudy to the German.

Centre-forward - Lionel Messi, Barcelona

Who else? Messi has once again confirmed his status as the greatest player of his generation with the best season of his career to date.

53 goals and 23 assists yielded La Liga and Champions League winners’ medals, and the little Argentine capped it all with a masterful performance at Wembley.

The Messi has achieved all he has achieved is exceptional. That he is still only 23 is, frankly, frightening. No ultimate team would be complete without him.

Left-winger - Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid

His trophy haul might not have been as impressive as Messi’s this season, but Ronaldo appears to have been inspired by the astonishing feats of his rival to reach new levels of greatness.

The Portuguese superstar broke the all-time scoring record in La Liga, recording 40 goals over the course of the campaign, and matched Messi’s total of 53 in all competitions. 

Those who accuse Ronaldo of being more individualistic than the Barcelona man might also be interested to know he has 15 assists in all competitions this term, the third highest in the team.

He may not be the best in the world, but he’s certainly done enough to ensure he’s still in the debate.

Manager - Pep Guardiola, Barcelona

As great as this Barcelona team is, it does not, as some like to believe, manage itself. 

Pep Guardiola has been just as integral to the club's phenomenal success over the past three seasons as the players he trains, and an astonishing haul of ten trophies from a possible 13 in that time reflects just as much upon him as it does his team.

For all he has achieved in his time in Catalonia, this season's triumphs may be his greatest yet. Managing a small (albeit exceptional) squad, the 40-year-old had to deal with the lengthy absences of  key players Eric Abidal and captain Carles Puyol. 

He also had to negotiate an unprecedented period of four intense El Clasicos in less than a month which defined the Catalans' season, and tested their young coach's resolve as well as his talent.

Guardiola has hinted he may take a break from football when he finally leaves the Nou Camp. After this season, you'd have to say he's earned one.


Edinson Cavani, Napoli – his 26 goals fired Napoli to an unexpected title push and eventual Champions League place.

Jack Wilshere, Arsenal – went from prodigious youngster to key man for both club and country in the space of a season. A superstar in the making.

Manuel Neuer, Schalke – brilliant all season for Schalke and produced arguably the outstanding goalkeeping performance of the season in his side’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Manchester United.

Thiago Silva, AC Milan – Marshalled an aging Milan defence to 20 clean sheets on their way to a first Serie A title since 2004, as well as establishing himself as first choice for Brazil.

Eden Hazard, Lille – provided the skill and class which enabled his club to win its first top flight French title in 57 years as part of an historic league and cup double. Is all but assured of a move to a top club this summer.

Nuri Sahin, Borussia Dortmund – While boy wonder Mario Gotze attracted the headlines, it was Sahin who linked defence and attack for the surprise Bundesliga champions with his excellent vision and awareness. Deserves his move to Real Madrid.

Antonio Di Natale, Udinese – the very reason why Edinson Cavani’s phenomenal season still wasn’t enough to win the Serie A golden boot. Still outstanding at 33, Di Natale’s experience and quality was integral to an Udinese side which secured Champions League qualification for only the second time in the club’s history.

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