2014 is nearly in the books, and with FIFPro, the world players' union, in the midst of releasing its shortlists for the World's Best XI, it's time to consider which players stood out above their peers in a year to remember. An epic World Cup in Brazil saw Germany get crowned for a fourth time, while Real Madrid completed its quest for La Decima and captured a 10th European title.
Bayern Munich captured another Bundesliga title, doing so in record time; Atletico Madrid was a surprise champion in Spain; Manchester City won its second title in three seasons in England; Juventus won a third straight crown in Italy and PSG went back-to-back in Ligue 1 to headline Europe's major leagues.
Along the way a number of individual superstars helped their clubs and countries achieve success, and a select group stood tallest in doing so. Here's our pick for the world's Best XI, taking into account performances on club and international levels, following another memorable year of soccer around the globe:
GK: Manuel NeuerBayern Munich, GermanyIt’s not just Neuer’s shot-stopping that has marked him out this year, superb as that has been: he is also vital to Bayern’s way of playing because of his capacity to play the ball out from the back. He spends long periods of games standing yards outside his box, sweeping up behind Bayern’s high line, which in turn allows it to press with greater intensity. He is not just an exceptionally good goalkeeper, he is also redefining the position.
RB: Philipp LahmBayern Munich, GermanyThe year has ended badly for Lahm, as he had surgery on a serious ankle injury, but until he suffered that blow, this had felt like the culmination of a stellar career. He ended up spending much of the season playing in midfield, with his Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola describing him as the most intelligent player he’d ever worked with, but he proved he’s still the best right back in the world when he returned to the position during the World Cup, a turning point in Germany's run to a fourth title.
CB: Vincent KompanyManchester City, BelgiumKompany was perhaps the most difficult selection of the XI. He has not had a flawless year by any means – the error that gifted Liverpool a winner at Anfield stands out – but his composure and captaincy in leading Manchester City to the Premier League title and guiding Belgium to the quarterfinal of the World Cup stands out as well.
CB: Diego GodinAtletico Madrid, UruguayThe Uruguayan has for some time been the best defensive central defender in the world, a tough, ruthless presence for club and country who also poses a significant threat from set plays. He was a key figure in Atletico Madrid’s success in La Liga, scoring the goal against Barcelona that secured the title, and then put Atletico ahead in the Champions League final.
LB: David AlabaBayern Munich, AustriaBayern’s way of playing relies on the fullbacks to be able to operate as midfielders, always looking to get forward and providing an attacking threat. Alaba has done that superbly, and is so comfortable on the ball that he plays as a central midfielder for Austria, behind whose rise to probable qualification for Euro 2016 he has played a vital role.
DCM: Javier MascheranoBarcelona, ArgentinaWhen Lionel Messi was presented with the player of the tournament award after the World Cup final, he looked downcast, and understandably so: he probably hadn't even been Argentina’s best player in the tournament. The best was Mascherano, who was a mighty presence at the back of Argentina’s midfield at the World Cup, most notably when he made the vital late tackle on Arjen Robben in the semifinal that, in his own words, “split my anus.”
RCM: Luka ModricReal Madrid, CroatiaFor a long time last season, Carlo Ancelotti struggled to find the right formula at Real Madrid, fiddling with shapes and personnel until he happened on the idea of pairing Modric with Xabi Alonso, with Angel Di Maria breaking alongside them. Modric was the calm creator, rarely losing possession, always working new angles.
LCM: Xabi AlonsoReal Madrid/Bayern Munich, SpainIt was Xabi Alonso who provided the balance at Real Madrid, quite prepared to make tackles (even if one poorly timed one caused him to miss the Champions League final), but he is also a fine distributor with a tremendous range of passing. His move to Bayern Munich has given him a new lease of life at the center of Bayern’s complex webs of passing.
RF: Luis SuarezLiverpool/Barcelona, UruguayYes, he disgraced himself at the World Cup, but he was sensational in the other game he played at that tournament, scoring twice against England to cap an extraordinary few months in which he had dragged Liverpool far closer to the league title than had ever seemed possible with a Premier League record-tying 31 goals. The fall of Brendan Rodgers’s side since his departure has magnified his achievements, and he’s already showing signs of settling at Barcelona.
LF: Cristiano RonaldoReal Madrid, PortugalIt’s been a long time since Ronaldo has had a clearly better year than Lionel Messi, but he did in 2014, winning the Champions League and scoring goal after goal after goal: 20 through 12 games already this league season. His World Cup was disappointing, but that was more about Portugal than it was him.
CF: Diego CostaAtletico Madrid/Chelsea, SpainThere is, of course, a strong case to be made for Sergio Aguero, all the more so after his stunning hat trick against Bayern Munich on Tuesday. Injuries towards the end of last season and during the World Cup, though, meant he just missed out to Diego Costa. He, too, had a poor World Cup, but his goals, awkwardness and battling spirit were central to Atletico Madrid winning the Spanish title and reaching the Champions League final, and he has maintained his fine form at Chelsea this season.
GK Thibaut Courtois; Atletico Madrid/Chelsea, Belgium
RB Pablo Zabaleta; Manchester City, Argentina
CB Thiago Silva; Paris St.-Germain, Brazil
CB Mehdi Benatia; Bayern Munich, Morocco
LB Cesar Azpilicueta; Chelsea, Spain
MF Paul Pogba; Juventus, France
MF Yaya Toure; Manchester City, Ivory Coast
MF Toni Kroos; Bayern Munich/Real Madrid, Germany
F Arjen Robben; Bayern Munich, Netherlands
F Neymar; Barcelona, Brazil
F Lionel Messi; Barcelona, Argentina