Lewandowski, Messi and CR7 still at the top

THE Guardian top 100 players is always an interesting end-of-year exercise and almost always reflects the shape of the past 12 months. But this year’s top 20 has a very disconcerting look about it – of the 20, seven are over 30 years of age and the first three are well into their fourth decade.

It is not so much that Lewandowski, Messi and Ronaldo have a combined age of 100, but the concern has to be that these outstanding players are at the top at an advanced stage of their careers and are not being challenged by up-and-coming younger talent.

Admittedly, the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are exceptional players whose careers are only just running down now. They’re supremely skilful, very fit and still scoring goals. Robert Lewandowski is an incredibly consistent goal-scorer and is enjoying a late career flourish. He is also the centre forward of the European and German champions. The year 2020 belonged to Bayern Munich and Lewandowski. 

Where are the heirs to these iconic players? Kevin De Bruyne is in fourth position, but he is 29, he’s not going to get any better. Liverpool’s Sadio Mane and Mo Salah are both 28 and players like Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane are 27. In other words, these are players in their prime, we are seeing, or have seen, the best of them. Kylian Mbappe (22), who was the great hope to assume the role of the world’s number one, dropped in the Guardian list this year, but the big newcomer is the Norwegian Erland Haaland of Borussia Dortmund, who is just 20 and has leapt from 53rd to number six.

In total, 27% of the top 100 are over 30 years of age, with the evergreen Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 39, the oldest of them all. He’s scoring and AC Milan are riding high at the top of Serie A. Zlatan’s influence is huge in Milan, but even the great Swedish maverick cannot thwart father time and he has become a little injury prone. But to still being among the games best demonstrates just how unique Ibra is. As for the rest of the list, 27% are under 25 and 46% are in their prime years of 25-29.

Liverpool and Bayern Munich are the leading clubs, contributing 12% and 11% respectively to the top 100 and Real Madrid have eight players in the list. Germany is the top nationality, followed by Brazil, France and England. Interestingly, the highest-placed English player is a defender, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Barcelona have just six representatives in the list, highlighting the club’s diminishing influence. In 2019, they had eight, in 2018 nine. Tottenham have also declined, their 2020 presence is just two players (Harry Kane and Son) four fewer than in 2019.

Unsurprisingly, the top five European leagues account for 98% of the top 100, with the Premier League providing 35 players. The Premier League is followed by La Liga (20), Serie A (19) and the Bundesliga (15). 

Will the three old-stagers be at the top in 2021? You wouldn’t bet against it, but sooner or later, younger guns will surely be trying to claim their places on the podium.

Photo: PA Images

Football Media Watch: Neymar’s Lament

DEPENDING on which newspaper or website you read, Neymar looks set to leave Paris Saint-Germain in the coming weeks. Or maybe not. There are rumblings from the French capital that Brazil’s troubled talisman has had enough of life in Ligue 1, that he’s longing for a move back to Barcelona.

It has been a fractious few months for Neymar, whom Barney Ronay of the Guardian called, “a footballer made from feathers and sherbert who has become  a deeply irritating superstar”. There is something of the diva about him, for sure, but his ill-discipline is threatening to get the better of him – the accusations of sexual assault, the fracas with Rennes supporters, the injuries and the underlining feeling that being a giant in Ligue 1 is not good for his status. Ronay says that a move to Barca, may make sense for all concerned. He says the Spanish champions are ”a super club than can still take the weight of another royal visit”.

Of course, when a player like Neymar wants a move, he usually gets it and there are suggestions he will go on strike during PSG’s forthcoming tour of China in order to finesse his exit from the club.

There’s trouble brewing, though, as the Scottish Daily Record reports. PSG have said they will not let him go and have publicly stated that they expect Neymar to “respect his commitments”. There’s another side to this in that PSG have twice tried to sell Real Madrid their prize asset. Barca and PSG are not close pals, largely because the Catalans worked on trying to sign Marco Veratti a couple of years back. Marca added that PSG have not forgotten this and that is undoubtedly behind Nasser Al-Khelaifi offering Real Madrid the player.

Neymar was seen hugging Lionel Messi just before the Brazil v Argentina Copa América game and some cynics believe Messi is behind the Barca bid to bring him back. Club president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, reacted to this: “let’s end the myth, Messi doesn’t ask the club to sign certain players, he asks for a competitive team”. Bartomeu, speaking to ESPN, said Ousmane Dembele is a better player than Neymar. Who is he trying to kid?

France’s L’Equipe calls the stand-off between Neymar and PSG as “Le Grand bluff” and said the situation is irreversible, but also revealed that the rumoured clause allowing him to leave Paris after two seasons does not exist.

Goal reported that Neymar is unhappy that the wonder boy Kylian Mbappe has overshadowed him. One of the reasons that Neymar wanted to leave Barcelona was to have a better chance of winning the Ballon d’Or. That dream looks like it is fading – he was third in 2017 but fell to 12thin 2018. CIES Football Observatory’s data shows that his stock has fallen over the past year and his transfer valuation is now € 124.7 million.

But has Neymar’s time in Paris truly been successful? As far as Ligue 1 is concerned, he has played only 37 games out of 76, with injury contributing to that total. His goalscoring, as you would expect, has been impressive, 34 in those 37 games. On top of that, he has provided 20 assists. PSG have, predictably, won two league titles, one Coupe de France and one Coupe de la Ligue. The real problem for PSG has been Europe, where they have been eliminated in the Champions League last 16 in both Neymar campaigns. Europe’s top prize was the reason PSG bought Neymar. Sam Pilger of Forbes explained why Neymar opted for Paris: “this was a move motivated by naked ego; he wanted to be the main man, the star attraction and remove himself from Lionel Messi’s sizeable shadow at the Camp Nou”.

Pilger says Neymar has been on an adventure in Paris, but may be ready for the “greater challenge on offer in La Liga. “It is hard to see Neymar remaining in his gilded cage in Paris for the best years of his career, but this summer might be too early for him to flee back to Spain.”

Sources: The Guardian, Daily Record, ESPN, Goal, Marca, AS, L’Equipe, Bleacher Report, CIES Football Observatory.

Photo: PA