Considering his sustained brilliance for Real Madrid -- 84 goals and 22 assists in 67 games over the past two seasons -- it's a wonder that the world isn't running out of adjectives to describe the Portuguese forward's play. Whether deployed on the flanks or through the middle, exhibiting his lethal skills and swagger from set pieces or close range, Ronaldo is the best there is in the European game today. (And the richest, too; $17.06 million in reported salary, as of 2010.)
Though his club side has plenty of world-class talent to surround and support him, Ronaldo's record with Portugal is far less clear, and makes him an intriguing case heading into Euro 2012. Largely expected to single-handedly lift and lead A Seleccao, CRon did manage five goals in qualifying but watched his side struggle, losing to Denmark and Norway but scraping through to a playoff with a superior goal difference. From there, a Ronaldo brace anchored a 6-2 playoff win over Bosnia & Herzegovina, giving the mercurial forward a chance to impress in Poland and the Ukraine.
Such is Ronaldo's career; no matter how incendiary and brilliant he is with globally worshiped teams like Manchester United -- he won three consecutive Premier League titles, a Champions League title, a Ballon D'Or and two PFA Player of the Year awards -- and Real Madrid -- a La Liga title, European Golden Shoe and the inaugural FIFA Puskas Award for "most beautiful goal" -- there is still the sense that he has something to prove. With his country drawn in the toughest group alongside Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, all eyes will be watching.
Expert's take: A wonderfully talented footballer whose mesmeric qualities know no bounds. The asterisk against him has more to do with his personality. Ronaldo at times is the personification of arrogance. He carries himself in a manner than suggests he has a fair old conceit of himself. Also like Robben, he has a history of tumbling amid the slightest contact. Yet there are few better sights in modern football than the Portuguese attacker outthinking and outdoing opposing defenders. -- Derek Rae
Stats That Matter:
• Scored 100th La Liga goal in 5-1 victory over Real Sociedad on March 24, 2012. He reached the century mark in 92 league matches, making him the second fastest player in La Liga history to the 100-goal mark (Isidro Lángara, 82)
• Owns second and third highest single-season goal totals in La Liga history with 46 goals in 2011-12 and 40 goals in 2010-11 (Lionel Messi scored 50 goals in 2011-12)
• Has only two international goals in his past three major international competitions (2006 FIFA World Cup, Euro 2008, 2010 FIFA World Cup)
• Has six goals directly from free kicks in league play since the start of the 2010-11 season, most in La Liga
• 86 La Liga goals over the past two seasons, more than any other player. He scored 61 goals with his right foot, 14 with his left foot and 11 with his head
There is little more to add on Andres Iniesta that has not already been reeled out on numerous occasions during Barcelona's recent period of dominance. The Spaniard is one of the finest midfield technicians of modern times and his abilities have been showcased at the highest levels of the game for the past five years.
The 27-year-old had been tipped for stardom from an early age, with Barcelona legend and now manager Josep Guardiola famously telling a young Xavi: "You will retire me, but Iniesta will retire us both.” Iniesta may not have retired Xavi yet, but the two of them currently make-up the most feared midfield unit in football for both club and country, terrorizing opponents with their famed 'tiki-taka' style.
It is truly a thing of beauty as they slowly dismantle their opponents’ defensive structures by playing continuous short passes in the midfield until at some point a helpless defender is dragged out of position. Then, with a gap emerging, both Xavi and Iniesta are charged with supplying the defense-splitting pass that will seize upon the fault-line they have opened up with their earlier play. The strategy has led both Barcelona and Spain to unprecedented success.
Alongside future Spain teammate Fernando Torres, Iniesta was part of a successful youth generation who won the European Championship at Under-17 and U-19 level in the space of twelve months. Shortly after, first-team football came calling for the prodigious young midfielder and he has not looked back since, winning every trophy in the game over the last ten years.
It has not always been easy for the Spaniard, who nearly didn’t make it at Barcelona because of his homesickness and has often been shifted out of the center to make room for others for his country, but Iniesta has made up for those struggles with career-defining moments, such as his World Cup-winning goal in 2010.
Whilst Xavi may take the plaudits for his orchestration of the Spanish side, it is Iniesta who for club and country has stepped up with a defining contribution when most needed. En-route to World Cup glory, Iniesta picked up no less than three Man of the Match awards for his performances, including the award for the best player of the World Cup final. All eyes will be on Spain once more this summer, but if the Iberian giants are to retain their European Championship title, much will depend on Iniesta.
Expert's Take: As an attacking midfield player, the best there is. Incredibly skillful & creative. His vision & awareness & ability to combine with other technical players make him a constant threat to all teams & opponents. One of the top 5 players in the world. -- Robbie Mustoe
Stats That Matter:
• 10 career goals for Spain, including game-winning goal in extra time at 2010 World Cup final.
• Barcelona is undefeated in 46 of 48 matches in which Iniesta has played this season.
• Iniesta’s streak of 42 consecutive unbeaten matches with Barcelona was snapped by Chelsea in the Champions League semis.
• Played for Spain’s U-20 side that reached the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship final in the United Arab Emirates, and was named to the All-Tournament team.
• Ninth in La Liga with 51 successful one-on-one take-ons in 2011-12.
Though the phrase “the straw that stirs the drink” has been applied to countless mercurial footballing talents over the years, when one looks at the Barcelona and Spain midfielder, it has never seemed more appropriate. Packed into an incandescent club team with the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, it can be easy to overlook the diminutive (Xavi stands, unassuming, at five foot seven) playmaker, but the quality and efficiency of his play always stands out.
His style is cerebral and full of intent; with the ball at his feet, Xavi thinks several moves ahead of the one that starts at his instep, forever looking for space in which to thread a pass and decimate a well-organized defense. (In a 2011 interview, Xavi outlined his thought process: “Think quickly, look for space ... I’m always looking.”) With Iniesta at his side and their on-field telepathy in full effect, the rampant, all-conquering Barcelona side of the late 2000s will never be forgotten.
Making him even more admirable is that in the modern era, a period of hundred-million-dollar transfers and club loyalty for a price, Xavi is a one-club player. Joining Barca’s vaunted La Masia youth academy at age 11, his 15-year professional career (began in 1997) is hard to match: six La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies, two FIFA Club World Cups and a slew of individual honors.
But unlike other luminaries high up this list, Xavi has matched these exploits at the international level. The cool, metronomic midfielder was a vital part of La Furia Roja’s cruise to the 2008 European Championships – even named player of the tournament -- and repeating the feat in 2010 when Spain edged its way through a tightly-contested World Cup en route to the trophy. With no title or accolade left to collect and his age (32) betraying his extraordinary technical skill, the 2012 European Championships will likely be Xavi’s last international tournament. What will he do for his swansong?
Expert's Take: Xavi is the heartbeat of the Spanish side. His skill is in controlling the tempo of the game via his wonderful touch and control, dictating the pace at which both Spain and Barcelona (two of the best teams in the world) play. Now, in the twilight of his career, he's starting to get the credit he deserves. -- Steve McManaman
Stats That Matter:
• 19 titles with Barcelona, most in club history
• Third all-time in appearances with the Spanish national team with 108
• Has scored 11 goals with the national team, including two in Euro qualifying
• Won Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup with Spain, and was voted player of the tournament at Euro 2008
• Xavi led the 2011-12 La Liga in passes completed with 2,716
The past 12 months have been dream-like for Robin van Persie. For so long the 28-year-old Dutchman had been regarded as a rather injury-prone talent, but after his recent goalscoring feats with club side Arsenal, RvP has firmly placed himself in the upper echelon of strikers that world football has to offer.
Van Persie has been central to the Dutch side since the Oranje's Euro 2008 campaign, when he supported Ruud van Nistelrooy from the left flank. However, since the former Manchester United forward's international career came to an end, van Persie has graduated to become the first-choice striker in his own right and led the line for the Netherlands at the FIFA World Cup in 2010, when the side reached the final before losing to Spain.
Since the World Cup, van Persie's scoring at club level has soared to nearly a goal-per-game pace. The transformation to become one of the world's most complete center forwards is complete and now, to Arsenal fans’ dismay, van Persie is in the sights of Europe's giants as his club contract nears its end. Technically, the former Feyenoord man has always been capable of the sublime, but now he’s matching those skills with an intelligence and consistency that had not always been visible in previous years.
With van Persie, it’s all about his majestic left foot, which he has shown is capable of finding the back of the net from pretty much anywhere within 30 yards of goal. While some players may be driven onto their weaker foot, van Persie's intelligent movement when dropping deep into midfield means it is nigh-on impossible for defenders to predict when the Dutchman is going to appear in the box. When he does, it is then almost as difficult to prevent him moving the ball onto his prolific left peg.
With four goals against San Marino in qualifying in September 2011, van Persie moved onto 25 goals for Netherlands and into the top 10 on the all-time international goalscorers list for his country. With a brilliant season for his club under his belt, few would bet against the striker adding a few more to his tally this summer.
Expert's take: Both technically gifted and capable of the poetic. If a goal for the ages is scored at Euro 2012, odds are it will be struck by his left foot. -- Roger Bennett
Stats That Matter:
• 48 Premier League goals over the past two seasons, 10 more than any other player
• 132 goals for Arsenal, eighth-most in club history
• Arsenal was 19-3-3 in matches when Van Persie scored last season (all competitions)
• Scored six goals in six Euro 2012 qualifying matches
• Only goal at 2010 FIFA World Cup was against Cameroon in the Netherlands’ final group game
As with several of his Germany teammates, Mesut Ozil burst on to the international scene at the 2010 World Cup where his creativity and invention earned the twinkle-toed Werder Bremen midfielder a nomination for the Golden Ball award. Suitably impressed with what they had witnessed, the mighty Real Madrid made its move and Ozil's career has skyrocketed.
At international level, Ozil has continued to inspire his Germany side to outstanding, free-flowing attacking performances. The Madrid star contributed five goals to Germany's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, but it is his dynamic link-up play with the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze that really sets the tone for this current Germany side. This is a side of pace, vision and movement in attacking areas and one that many consider capable of emerging from the tournament with the ultimate prize.
For Real Madrid it has been a similar story, with the German going from strength-to-strength in his link-up play as a part of one of football's best attacking units. Some of Ozil's skills this season have been nothing short of exquisite, with a selection of flicks, tricks and exquisite passing to rival any of the world's best in his position. Starting from either flank or a central berth, Ozil is always able to find an avenue to influence the game, wandering freely from his starting position into areas where he can receive the ball and make an impact.
There is a supreme intelligence to Ozil's game, with his movement and vision central to everything he has achieved. Signed to give Real Madrid's attack more of a delicate touch, Ozil goes about his business with a grace and style similar to many of the legendary players that the Santiago Bernabeu has come to worship over the years. For these very reasons, Ozil has quickly become a fan favorite at a club that has come to appreciate true talent.
European football is currently blessed with the type of creative playmakers that were for a long time considered the domain of South America. Alongside the likes of David Silva, Mario Gotze and Eden Hazard, Ozil is leading the charge. For Germany to win this summer Ozil will need to be close to his best for the latter stages of the tournament and if he is, the German side will be a pleasure to watch regardless of where it finishes.
Expert's take: Ozil is a wizard in midfield, with great technique when the ball is at his feet. His passing and vision will split any defense wide open, such is his awareness of where his teammates are on the field at all times. -- Tommy Smyth
Stats That Matter:
• First in 2011-12 La Liga with 103 scoring chances created for Real Madrid
• Seven assists in Euro 2012 qualifying, tied with Sweden’s Kim Kallstrom for first overall
• Scored five goals during qualifying and 14 of his 20 shots were on goal
• Eight goals in 31 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2009 (through May 18)
• Germany’s record with Özil in the lineup is 22-5-4 (through May 18)
Ever controversial off the field, there is only consensus about Rooney’s on-field ability. Although he can be hot-tempered and rash, like the last-minute kickout at a Montenegrin in England’s last qualifier that will cost him the first two games of the Euro, all is inevitably forgiven on account of Rooney’s footballing splendor.
A hybrid of a striker, attacking midfielder and winger, Rooney roams far from his spot as a central forward, thoughtfully connecting with teammates, helping in the buildup of attacks, running at defenders, shooting from distance or getting on the end of balls to score himself. Hard-working and blessed with a body that can act on his inspiration, Rooney could be as good and complete a forward as England has ever produced. In recent years, even his heading has improved.
He bears a mighty burden, though. Since Michael Owen’s precipitous drop-off in form in the mid-2000s, Rooney has easily been England’s outstanding striker, flanked by a revolving door of mediocre men. Thus he has shouldered an outsized share of the crushing hype surrounding every England appearance at a major international tournament. Heading into Euro 2012 at age 26, having appeared in two World Cups too, Rooney has yet to really shine at one of the game’s quadrennial bonanzas. The argument has been made that being out for his team’s first two games could improve Rooney’s odds of making an impact at the business end of the tournament, when he’ll be fresher than his peers. That’s if England makes it that far without him, of course. And that is a big if.
Expert's take: The most dangerous player for England despite that he'll miss the first two games of the Euros. Young, aggressive and very talented. If he plays well, England plays well. If not, England tends to struggle. A real leader. -- Steve McManaman
Stats That Matter:
• Two goals shy of becoming the eighth English player with 30 international goals
• England’s youngest-ever goalscorer, striking at 17 years and 317 days in a Euro 2004 qualifying victory in Macedonia in 2003
• Only teenager ever to score for England at a European Championship, tallying four goals at age 18 in 2004
• Six career Premier League hat tricks, most by any Manchester United player
• Led Manchester United and was sixth in the Premier League with 623 passes completed in the final third of the field in 2011-12
It’s taken a long time for David Silva, 26, to get his due after coming through at Valencia, where his father was responsible for stadium security. A crafty playmaker or left winger who started for Spain when it won Euro 2008 but receded on to the bench for the 2010 World Cup, has perhaps grown into Spain’s finest dribbler. Highly creative and incredibly hard to dislodge from the ball, Silva’s runs and penetrating passes and through balls have been a scourge to English defenses all year.
In his second year with Manchester City, Silva’s game has continued to mature and he is finally being recognized as one of the world’s premier attacking midfielders, scooping up more than a dozen assists in a small sampling of the evidence of the services he supplies for City’s grateful corps of strikers. And whereas a slew of his club teammates have gotten themselves embroiled in one quagmire or scandal after another, Silva is as much the model citizen as he is the model midfielder.
Silva has long stood in the shadow of fellow Spanish attacking midfield luminaries like Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. But, to Silva’s immense credit, it’s come time to ask if he hasn’t eclipsed the Barcelona men.
Expert's take: "For the first half of the season he was arguably the best player in the Premier League. He's creative and tricky, with the ability to conjure up something out of nothing. When the ball at his feet, you know anything can happen. -- Gabriele Marcotti
Stats That Matter:
• 15 goals with the national team, including four in the past four games
• Played in five games at Euro 2008 and scored a goal against Russia
• Led Premier League with 851 passes completed into final third in 2011-12
• Third on Man City and 12th in 2011-12 Premier League with 1,822 passes completed
• Manchester City bought him from Valencia for $37.3 million in 2010
"I am Zlatan" was the chosen name for the Sweden star's autobiography last year and the title encapsulates the AC Milan striker perfectly. Ibrahimovic is a one-off, a prodigious talent who divides opinion like few other players in the world game. To some he is one of the very best; to others he is an over-hyped egomaniac.
Languid and elegant, at his best Zlatan is one of the finest sights in football. Despite his sizable frame, the Swede is capable of the kind of deft touches that one would expect from a player half his size. This makes Ibrahimovic a fearsome opponent and his career so far suggests there are few better. There are those who believe he does not perform to his usual standard when the pressure is on and that he is not a "big game" player, but the Swede's incredible haul of titles in the past few years would suggest the opposite.
Since 2003-04, Ibrahimovic has amassed an incredible eight consecutive league titles in three countries, with five different clubs. From Ajax to AC Milan, via Juventus, Internazionale and Barcelona, the Swede has left a trail of success in his wake. Indeed, at every stop on his wandering journey, he has quickly become a hero for the fans of his chosen club, with the notable exception of his one season at the Camp Nou where Zlatan never quite seemed a fit for Pep Guardiola's new Barcelona side.
At AC Milan this season, Ibrahimovic has been supreme once again. A three-time Italian Footballer of the Year, he will enter this year's European Championship off the back of his best career goal return to date. The striker sailed to a 30-plus goal haul with ease and also contributed an astonishing number of assists to the Milan effort over the past 12 months, all boding well for a star showing in the colors of Sweden this summer.
With Ibrahimovic though, nothing is a certainty. He is Sweden's best hope of achieving any kind of success this summer and his goal return for his country is strong, but there will still be lingering doubts for many over his ability to shine. The 30-year-old will be on the big stage at international level for what could be the last time and will need to take this opportunity to finally cement his status as one of European football's elite strikers.
Expert's take: Zlatan Ibrahimovic continually proves one of the biggest single-handed game-changers in European football. Still has more doubters than he should, still to prove he can truly affect the big games. -- Shaka Hislop
Stats That Matter:
• 29 goals in 75 appearances for Sweden, tied for seventh all-time with Martin Dahlin
• Led Serie A with 28 goals in the 2011-12 season, four ahead of Inter’s Diego Milito. Ibrahimovic’s previous single-season career high was 25 (2008-09 with Inter)
• Caught offside 22 times in Champions League play, most in the competition and seven more than the next player (Gonzalo Higuain, 15)
• Completed 513 passes in the final third this season, most of any player in Serie A
• Successfully beat defenders in one-on-one situations 71 times in 32 games during Serie A play (2.2 times per game). In Champions League, Ibrahimovic successfully took on defenders five times in eight games (0.6 times per game)
The latest incarnation in a long and highly decorated line of fire-breathing Bayern Munich and Germany midfielders, Schweinsteiger, 27, is a far more regal player than his family name would suggest. After first winning his place in the Bayern squad at just 18, Schweinsteiger drifted widely through the team sheet. Mostly he was a winger. But it was when he was converted to a full-time central midfielder three summers ago that he found his calling.
A hard-nosed and physical player with a remarkable lust for work, Schweinsteiger combines his laborious ways with an underappreciated finesse on the ball. Frequently drifting out wide or sitting deep, many of Germany’s more promising attacks originate from one of his feet, if only you bother to trace them back to their start. You won’t catch Schweinsteiger pulling out intricate step-overs or other flashy moves. But if you look closely, you’ll discover a player with some of the finest set pieces, dribbles, long shots and passes in the game, underpinned by a remarkable vision.
Positioned deep in Germany’s midfield, likely beside Sami Khedira and behind Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller, Schweinsteiger is the engine room and command center of the best young midfield in international soccer.
Expert's take: Every team needs a ferocious midfield presence, and Schweinsteiger is that terrier for club and country. Yet there's an artful elegance to his game that transcends his defensive duties in front of the back four. A box-to-box player with the skill and ability to do whatever's required. -- James Tyler
Stats That Matter:
• He has scored 23 goals in 90 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2004 (through May 18)
• Germany’s record with Schweinsteiger in the lineup is 59-16-15 (through May 18)
• Helped Germany to third-place finishes at both the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups
• Scored two goals in the 2006 third-place victory against Portugal
• Won the domestic double with Bayern Munich five times (2002-03, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2007-08, 2009-10)
Unfortunately, due to long spells on the sidelines, Arjen Robben has at times been one of the most underrated players in European football. Having been extremely influential in Chelsea's early success before succeeding (in the beginning) at Real Madrid, Robben was seemingly the forgotten man by the time he arrived at the Allianz Arena in 2009. However, since guiding both FC Bayern and Netherlands to major finals in 2010, he is now earning the plaudits he deserves on a regular basis.
Robben has been so good that the 28-year-old has made himself a template for the role of the inverted winger. Starting from the right flank for both club and country, Robben is granted freedom to venture inside and use his magical left foot to devastating effect, or continue on the outside to provide a cross for one of the strikers lingering in the middle. During his three years at FC Bayern, Robben has developed this role to suit his game and made himself a fearsome goal threat from the flanks.
It is not simply the act of cutting inside and shooting that makes him such a difficult proposition for opposition defenders, it is the fact Robben can turn on either side and make the decision at pace. The wide man has his fair share of tricks at his disposal, but it is often the sheer speed with which he attacks the opposition that creates the opening.
Of course, creating shooting chances alone is not enough if they are not converted, and finishing prowess is another area in which Robben separates himself from the competition. On countless occasions in the past few seasons the Dutchman has proved himself to be a lethal finisher with his left foot from anywhere in and around the area. A golden opportunity wasted in the World Cup 2010 final will linger in the memory of Netherlands fans, but there is no doubt he will be looking to silence those critics this summer.
Unfortunately for his country, since his golden performances at the World Cup, Robben has only pulled on the Oranje jersey a handful of times and this is the problem he presents to his coaches and managers. When fit, he is outstanding and transforms a good side into a great side. Yet, fitness is never assured for a player who last managed 30 league games during the 2002-03 season at Ajax.
Expert's take: Supremely gifted wide operator but a player with the capacity to annoy as much as enthrall. For all his gifts, he has always been injury prone. -- Derek Rae
Stats That Matter:
• Scored game-winning goal against Uruguay in semifinals of 2010 FIFA World Cup.
• After his contributions with Bayern Munich in 2010, he was named Footballer of the Year In Germany, the only Dutch player to ever win the award.
• Won league title in four different European top-flight competitions (Eredivisie, Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga) over a span of eight years.
• His teams have won 7 of 9 domestic cup finals across 6 different competitions.
• Has been sold to four clubs for a total of 82.3 million Euros.