With the semifinals set for this week, it’s time to look at who has impressed the most in the 2010 World Cup (stats are through the quarterfinals):
The formation that I created for my best XI is an attacking Christmas tree – the 4-3-2-1 in front of the keeper. These may not necessarily be the best 11 players in the world right now, but they are the players that I think have played the best in South Africa and have been the largest inspiration to their teams with points given for creativity, imagination and the fortitude to go forward.
Center forward: Diego Forlan (Uruguay) – 2 goals, 1 assist
Honorable mention: Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina), Luis Fabiano (Brazil)
Sure, several players have scored more goals like Higuain (4 goals), Robert Vittek (Slovakia, 4 goals), and Fabiano (3 goals), but not one has been more important to their team than Forlan has been for Uruguay. The silky smooth forward has been a revelation in this tournament, and although his striking partner Luis Suarez also has more goals, Forlan has been the guy pulling the strings making Uruguay go with his beautiful passing and the attention he has drawn from opposing defenses. He opens things up and makes his teammates better unlike Higuain and Fabiano, who are more like trash-disposal players — the guys that clean up what their teammates create and put away easy goals.
Once the property of Manchester United, manager Alex Ferguson would probably say one of his biggest mistakes in the past decade was not giving Forlan a real shot. In 3 1/2 seasons with the Red Devils, Forlan only made 33 starts for United before he was sold to Villarreal (currently plays for Atletico Madrid) in Spain where he would go on to become a star in La Liga.
Left forward: David Villa (Spain) – 4 goals, 1 assist
Honorable mention: Carlos Tevez (Argentina), Landon Donovan (USA)
I’m not going to get into too much about Villa since I gave him all the pub recently, but for me the guy has been the best player in the tournament with an array of highlight reel goals. Spain should get to the semifinals, so Villa should get two more opportunities to add to his impressive haul to date.
Right forward: Lionel Messi (Argentina) – 1 assist
Honorable mention: Asamoah Gyan (Ghana), Robert Vittek (Slovaki)
You’re missing the boat if you think Messi’s impact is all about goals. He is always one of the most fouled players on the field leaving defenders lunging for their lives as the little man blows by with the left foot. He may not have any goals thus far, and truth be told, has missed a few that most schoolboys would bury. But Messi has been every bit the superstar for Argentina that he is for Barcelona.
He has been the engine of Diego Maradona’s explosive Argentine side — the highest scoring team in the tournament — setting up teammates with great passes, drawing defenders to him, and even hitting a couple of posts or forcing a couple of rebounds off saves that his teammates have finished off, which really are assists of a different nature. He’s had probably three or four of those, one reason why Higuain has four goals to date.
Left midfield: Mesut Ozil (Germany) – 1 goal, 2 assists
Honorable mention: Robinho (Brazil), Keisuke Honda (Japan)
The 21-year-old has been one of the Top 5 players in the World Cup, and that is not a homer pick just because I love my German team. He is quite simply the most dangerous man on the counter attack in South Africa with surprising speed — as John Terry and England found out when Ozil and company thrashed the Three Lions, 4-1. But Ozil’s game is very sophisticated — he plays beautiful simple-looking passes that often unlock opposing defenses without the need for a second pass. Coming into the tournament, I thought Ozil would be one of the big sensations (as I mentioned in my preview) and he has done nothing to disappoint unlike Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Center midfield: Wesley Sneijder (The Netherlands) – 2 goals, 1 assist
Honorable mention: Kaka (Brazil), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
Yeah, it surprised me to when I saw that Sneijder only had one assist through four games, but the maestro has picked up where he left off for Inter Milan when he led that team to the 2009-10 Champions League title and led the Netherlands into the quarterfinals versus Brazil (if you’ve got any interest in soccer don’t miss that match). Like the Steve Nash of soccer, right now there is just no one going that put balls on a dime like Sneijder — I give you as evidence the 55-plus yard ball he sent to Arjen Robben that led to the first goal for the Dutch vs. Slovakia in the round of 16. He is the epitome of total football and Clockwork Orange.
Right midfield: Thomas Mueller (Germany) – 3 goals, 3 assists
Honorable mention: Dirk “Diggler” Kuyt (The Netherlands), Park-Ji Sung (South Korea)
This is the position of the workhorse, the man that must run box-to-box — meaning you provide defensive cover from your own defensive third going into your own penalty area while at the same time pushing forward and giving your team offensive production making runs into opposing team’s penalty areas. These guys often put in 10-12-plus miles a match easy, and the 20-year-old legs of Mueller have been the best of the bunch even bettering "Red, White and Blue Army" favorite Dirk “Diggler” Kuyt. No one in this tournament has more points than Mueller, and he showed he has more than just promise with his “Here I am, world” performance with the final two goals versus England to stick the knife in their backs.
Left back: Fabio Coentrao (Portugal) – 1 assist
Honorable mention: Carlos Salcido (Mexico), Gabriel Heinze (Argentina)
I don’t watch defense as closely as I do what’s going on up top, but it was hard to miss the flashy blonde left back for Portugal as my favorite World Cup analytical show – “Ticket to South Africa” on Fox Soccer Channel – pointed out. He made great, penetrating runs forward and was one of the few Portuguese players unafraid to attack. He was also part of the best defense in this tournament as Portugal only allowed one goal in South Africa to Villa in the round of 16, which knocked them out of the tournament.
Defensive center back: Lucio (Brazil)
Honorable mention: Per Mertesacker (Germany), Diego Lugano (Uruguay), Carlos Puyol (Spain)
Simply put, there is no more crunching tackler in football than Lucio. Believe me — Adrian Peterson wouldn’t want Lucio hitting him with a slide tackle. Lucio, like Sneijder, was a key cog on the Inter Milan team that won the Champions League, and now Brazil like always is the favorites to win the World Cup.
Offensive center back: Gerard Pique (Spain) – 1 assist
Quite simply there is no one on the planet with the ability at centre back like Pique, which is why there is no honorable mention for this position. He is of a similar ilk to legendary German defender Franz Beckenbauer, who revolutionized the position coming forward and providing a dramatic impact on offense from center defense. Pique is calm on the ball, great in the air, and another brutal tackler unafraid to pick up a card on a tactical foul for the cause of the team. It’s hard to pinpoint any signature moments for Pique to this point because there is so much fire power in front of him on Spain, but he has been one of the main reasons why Espania was able to get past its opening loss of the tournament to Switzerland and now appear to have a clear path to the semifinals.
Right back: Maicon (Brazil) – 1 goal, 1 assist
Honorable mention: Philipp Lahm (Germany), Dani Alves (Brazil)
The best right back in the world has belonged to a Brazilian going back quite a while now because of Cafu, who was the best right back in the world for almost 20 years helping Brazil win two World Cups, and the two guys currently on Brazil’s roster. Maicon is the best back because he is the one that is playing for Brazil – you may have seen his impossible angle shot, and it was a shot because he it with the outside of his foot, against North Korea in Brazil’s opening match of the tournament. But in my opinion he is not even the best right back on his team, that honor belongs to Dani Alves, who inexplicably has had to come off the bench in the Dunga era. Alves has played a lot at right mid with Elano out with an injury. Back to Maicon though, he was another member of the Inter Milan Champions League winners, and he like Cafu and Alves makes great runs forward.
Goalkeeper: Eduardo (Portugal) – 19 saves on 20 shots on net
Honorable mention: Julio Cesar (Brazil) Maarten Stekelenburg (The Netherlands)
His name isn’t as sexy as Gianluigi Buffon (Italy) or Cesar or Iker Casillas (Spain) or even the United States’ Tim Howard, but Eduardo has been the best keeper in this competition, no one can convince me otherwise. Portugal were largely disappointing attacking wise and relied heavily on their defense in the “Group of Death” in Group G with the Brazil and the Ivory Coast. Eduardo did not allow a single goal in the group stages and was terrific against the Brazilians outshining Cesar with several close range stops in that game that was a draw. He was even at his best against Spain forced time and again to come up with huge saves to keep his team in the game. He even made the initial stop on Villa point blank forcing Villa to score on the rebound where his defense was behind the play for a specific reason – Villa was offsides after Llorente had flicked the ball on from Iniesta’s first diagonal ball. I’m not disappointed Portugal is gone and Spain move on, but Eduardo was special.