Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric will once again be one of Europe's most sought-after talents this summer after another fine season at White Hart Lane. On arrival in the Premier League four years ago, the 26-year-old quickly brushed off doubts about his size and physical strength to become widely acknowledged as one of the best midfielders in English football.
When on form, Modric is a delight to watch. Having arrived as an attacking midfielder, the Croat quickly dropped into a deep-lying playmaker position for Spurs, where he can use his ball-retention abilities to the greatest possible effect. The change in position has also allowed Modric's work rate and combative nature to shine through, skills that have undoubtedly developed during his time in the Premier League.
Modric is central to Croatia's plans at international level. Required to be the side's creative inspiration, a lot of pressure and expectation will fall upon his shoulders this summer and how he reacts to this mantle will be key to the side's chances of progression. Although, given his central role to the rise of Tottenham over recent years, it would be no surprised to see the diminutive playmaker guide his side to an unexpected result.
Expert's take: The Croatian was one of the pleasant surprises of the past Euro and has kept his level ever since. He generates play both for Tottenham and his national teams due to his vision and accurate passing, but he is also a great finisher. Will be key to the chances of success of his team in Poland/Ukraine. -- Damian Didonato
Stats That Matter:
• 8 goals in 54 appearances for Croatia since his debut in 2006
• His fourth-minute penalty against Austria at Euro 2008 was the fastest penalty ever awarded at the European Championship
• Named to UEFA Team of the Tournament at Euro 2008, becoming the second Croatian to achieve the honor
• Named Prva NHL (top eague in Croatia) Player of the Year in 2007 for Dinamo Zagreb
• Named One Hotspur Player of the Year for Tottenham in 2010-11
Announced as the successor to Zinedine Zidane after the latter retired in 2006, it took Ribery, 28, some time to find his way, partly because he isn’t a playmaker like the man he was tabbed to replace. But a meandering club career and a slow start for France finally rolled to a full boil in recent years as Ribery has emerged as one of the world’s foremost attacking players.
Featuring as an inverted winger on the left for Bayern Munich, Ribery is a scourge to defenses with his unstoppable dribbles. He often plays more centrally for France and orchestrates from the heart of the field, combining with teammates. As with Zidane, most of France’s attacks now originate from Ribery, provided that he doesn’t help start another revolt -- like he did at the 2010 World Cup -- and gets himself suspended from the team.
Expert's take: Despite a stellar season for Bayern, Ribery has plenty of convincing the French public to do, as he so frequently disappoints in the blue jersey. The realization that his place is under threat from the likes of Jeremy Ménez may, at last, coax his best international form from him. -- Andy Brassell
Stats That Matter:
• Signed by Bayern Munich for club-record $33 million in 2007
• 7 goals in 57 appearances for France, though his last goal was in April 2009
• Two-time French Player of the Year (2007, 2008)
• 2008 German Footballer of the Year
• Second most UEFA Euros appearances on French squad, with 18 including qualifying
If goalkeepers are supposed to be crazy, how is that the best among them is the antithesis of that? San Iker , as his nickname suggests, is a saint for his otherworldly saves and consistency and his unassuming, even-keeled demeanor.
Casillas joined Real Madrid when he was 9, made his senior team debut at 16 and became its starter when he was 18, in 1999, and in 13 invariably tumultuous seasons since, he has only tightened his grip on the job, save for a brief blip in 2002. He made his Spain debut in 2000, became its No. 1 in 2002 and captained it to EURO 2008 and World Cup 2010 titles.
At just 30, he is already the most-capped Spaniard ever with 128 appearances. What makes that even more impressive is that he’s done it while holding off Liverpool and Barcelona’s excellent goalies Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes, who have had no choice but to watch Casillas go years on end without committing a major mistake.
Expert's take: Quite simply the best that there is. Spain's most capped international is also its insurance policy, with his temperament and wide range of reflexes ready to save the day on the rare occasions when his side cedes possession. -- Andy Brassell
Stats That Matter:
• Spain’s all-time leader with 128 caps
• Spain’s all-time leader with 72 clean sheets, tied with Edwin van der Sar for most in international soccer history
• Captained Spain’s winning sides at Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup. Also won Under-20 World Cup with Spain in 1999
• Has won 93 matches with Spain, one away from tying Lilian Thuram’s record with France for most wins in international soccer history
• Became the youngest goalkeeper to start a Champions League Final (age 19) in 2000
He may be a small by Dutch standards at 5-foot-7 but Sneijder is a giant among playmakers. One of a dying breed, a traditional “10” playing in the shadow of the strikers, Sneijder dictates the tempo of a game and can switch the point of attack in the blink of an eye.
His through balls, long balls and set pieces are uncannily precise and for a midfielder he scores a huge amount of goals -- he was joint top scorer at World Cup 2010 with five. That said, he goes through extended phases of being either very good or ineffectual -- like his 2011-12 season for Inter Milan -- and recedes markedly in a system that isn’t designed specifically for him. He’s also been known to be trouble behind the scenes, reportedly almost costing him his spot on the Dutch team that reached the final in South Africa.
Expert's take: If it weren't for his inconsistency this season, the Dutch playmaker would undoubtedly be one of the top five players in the world. He won a treble with Inter Milan (Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League), later on adding the World Club Championship to his collection of titles. His creativity and vision make him a game winner, but more than that, when on form he can decide championships, so influential is his play in midfield. -- Federico Manfredo
Stats That Matter:
• Second most right-footed chances created (62) in the 2010-11 Champions League
• 6 assists were tied for the third most in Euro 2012 qualifying
• Scored two goals in Netherlands’ comeback win over Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup
• Won league title in three different European top-flight competitions (Eredivisie, La Liga, Serie A)
• Won all three Italian trophies with Inter Milan in 2010-11 (Serie A, Coppa Italia, Italian Super Cup)
The boy with 'Barca DNA' made a triumphant homecoming last summer, after eight years away from the Camp Nou with Arsenal. The 24-year-old has so far returned to his childhood club in fine style, quickly reaching double figures for both goals and assists in the colors of the Blaugrana.
As with Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Fabregas is likely to be restricted to a substitute role this summer, although there is still a chance that he will be utilized in the much-discussed 'false-nine' position, if Vicente Del Bosque so chooses. The problem for Fabregas is that club colleagues Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are also in direct competition for midfield places. But every time Fabregas has been called upon from the bench he has made an impact -- most notably to supply the assist for Iniesta's World Cup-winning effort in 2010.
Playing regular first-team football since the age of 16, Fabregas' vision and talent were clear for all to see from an early age. Injury dampened the end of his Arsenal career, but the Spaniard developed at the Emirates into one of Europe's elite midfielders under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger. Now back at Barcelona, alongside his idols Xavi and Iniesta, he is showing signs of moving up a level once more and looks set to eventually displace his older colleagues both for Barcelona and Spain.
Expert's take: "Complete" is the word that best suits Cesc, who can defend, attack, score and assist with the same efficiency and class. It is difficult to dub him midfielder, playmaker or forward, since all tags fall short with him, a perfect interpreter of total football. -- Vito De Palma
Stats That Matter:
• Became youngest player to appear for Spain at the World Cup when he faced Ukraine in 2006, aged 19 years and 41 days
• Has scored 8 goals for the national team, including one against Russia at Euro 2008
• Was youngest ever to play and score for Arsenal when he debuted, though both marks have since been broken by Jack Wilshere
• Second on Barcelona with 15 goals and third with 11 assists in 2011-12
• Ninth in passes completed in the 2011-12 Champions League with 519
Since making his Germany debut in 2004, Philipp Lahm has consistently been one of the top performers for his country in either full back position. It is this versatility that separates Lahm from many of his contemporaries, with the right-footed defender perfectly capable of producing top-class performances on either side of the defense.
The 28-year-old captain of both FC Bayern and Germany will be attending his fifth major international tournament this summer and has performed to a high standard on every occasion he has been tested at this level. A relative veteran, Lahm will be expected to guide a youthful, but prodigiously talented, Germany side to success in Poland and Ukraine. Under his captaincy since the 2010 World Cup, the side has performed at a level that suggests it will be a serious contender for international honors for several years to come.
Germany coach Joachim Low has only recently revealed that his captain will play left back for this year's tournament, giving Lahm the chance to cut infield to devastating effect. While some younger stars may have question marks next to their names on the big occasion, Lahm's temperament is one thing that has never come into question and he is firmly established as one of football's best in his position.
Expert's take: A remarkably consistent full back, Lahm has the added dimension of being able to play either at right back or left back. A natural leader and hence captain for club and country, you won't find Lahm screaming maniacally at teammates. Rather, Lahm leads by example and lets his performances speak for themselves. Don't be surprised if Lahm is the man lifting the trophy on July 1. -- Derek Rae
Stats That Matter:
• Captain of the national team since the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when he became the youngest captain in Germany’s World Cup history
• Completed more passes overall (2,358) than any player in the Bundesliga this season
• Named to the FIFA World Cup All-Star Team for both the 2006 and 2010 tournaments and was the only Germany player to appear for the maximum 690 minutes in 2006
• 85 appearances for since his debut in 2004 and has scored four goals (through May 18)
• Germany’s record with Lahm in the lineup is 61-12-12 (through May 18)
If France is to be successful at Euro 2012, the goalscoring of Karim Benzema will be crucial. Top scorer for the French in qualifying, the 24-year-old does face some threat for his place from the in-form Olivier Giroud, but his form at Real Madrid should ensure that he remains first choice.
Benzema is a predator who combines strength, power and finishing prowess to devastating effect. The attacking trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain has smashed all records this season with its goal-scoring returns and although Benzema is not always guaranteed a start, he has generally performed when given the opportunity. His performances have once more attracted interest from around Europe, but for the moment the French star appears happy in Spain.
At international level, Benzema's return has not been spectacular, but neither has France over the same span. However, fans who witnessed the Real Madrid star’s all-action performance for Les Bleus at Wembley last season will be in no doubt as to what he can do when given the right support from midfield.
Expert's take: After a relatively underwhelming first two years at Real Madrid, Karim Benzema has been transformed by Jose Mourinho. Not only has he provided up to four key, game-changing goals in the Spanish league -- one of the highest such returns in the division -- but he has done so while performing a selfless role akin to Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez at Manchester United in the 2007-08 season. Very often, it’s Benzema’s industry and willingness that creates the space for Cristiano Ronaldo to wreak havoc. And, after a very trying past few years for the French national team, that attitude is exactly what Laurent Blanc needs to restore prestige. -- Miguel Delaney
Stats That Matter:
• 2011 French Player of the Year
• Currently France’s leading active scorer with 13 goals
• Scored in international debut in a 2007 friendly versus Austria
• Ligue 1 Player of the Year in 2008 after leading league with 20 goals
• Tied for first in UEFA Champions League with 5 assists in 2011-12 season
The 22-year-old attacker introduced himself to many at the 2010 World Cup, winning the Best Young Player and Golden Boot awards, though soccer experts saw his five goals and three assists in South Africa as his natural next step.
Blessed with the speed and instinct of many great German strikers, what sets Muller apart is his versatility: used all over the attacking third as false nine, second striker or wide midfielder, he featured in all of Bayern Munich's 54 games in 2010, scoring 18 and setting up 15 more in an incredible season.
Another element: his unfailing humility. His career to date? "I just enjoyed all the big moments," he said. His success in the 2010 World Cup? "I basically got lucky," he said. Muller's cool, down-to-earth approach to the game betrays his predatory nature on the field: three goals and seven assists in Euro 2012 qualification augur what should be a great summer for Muller and Die Mannschaft.
Expert's take: The best young German footballer today was recognized as such in World Cup 2010. The Bayern Munich forward is a very complete player, who has deadly finishing but also deft footwork and is able to play outside of the box and also on the wing. His tactical intelligence also makes him very dangerous. -- Federico Manfredo
Stats That Matter:
• Named “Best Young Player” at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and also won the Golden Boot (overall leading scorer) with five goals and three assists
• Three goals and five assists during Euro 2012 qualifying
• He has scored 10 goals in 26 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2010. (through May 18)
• Germany’s record with Müller in the lineup is 19-4-3. (through May 18)
• Scored his first two Bundesliga goals in a 5-1 win at Borussia Dortmund in September 2009
Perhaps best remembered for getting sent off for elbowing the U.S. striker Brian McBride in the face during the 2006 World Cup group stage, De Rossi, 28, has since developed into one of the best central midfielders in the game for AS Roma and Italy.
Well-rounded in the Italian tradition, he is hard-nosed, hard-working and armed with a hard shot from long distance which is among the best in the game. Technically sound, De Rossi can do just about anything on the field, including planting a well-aimed elbow in an opponent’s face every now and then. He’s equally capable of quietly pushing a rejuvenated Italy far into an international tournament as one of the last holdovers of the 2006 World Cup-winning team.
Expert's take: In his prime, tactically sound, positioning and a solid passing game make him an important leader in Italy's midfield. Has the ability to shoot from distance and pop up in key situations. -- Andrew Orsatti
Stats That Matter:
• Signed a new five-year deal with Roma in 2012, making him the highest paid Italian player in Serie A
• Led Italy in successful passes completed at the 2010 FIFA World Cup
• Collected at least 10 cards in all competitions for six consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2010, finishing as Roma’s most disciplined player four times
• Italian Footballer of the Year in 2009
• Scored Italy’s third shootout goal in the 2006 World Cup Final, following a four-match ban for a straight red card against the United States in the group stage
Another of Spain's strong Barcelona contingent, Pique perhaps has the most to prove this summer after a disappointing domestic season by his standards. The 25-year-old has already been a regular starter for club and country for some time but, after a rocky patch of form, has found that status questioned.
Still, the rise of Pique at Barcelona has been astronomic. Within a year of his arrival from being a reserve at Manchester United, the defender was playing an instrumental role in a historic treble for Barcelona that eventually saw the side end the year with an unprecedented six trophies. A year later, a first World Cup was claimed and Pique's status at the top of the world game was assured.
At his best, it is easy to see why Pique has made such an impact. Tall, strong and powerful, he has led the way for an entire generation of ball-playing center backs now emerging. Barcelona may have started to try midfielders like Javier Mascherano in central defense but from early on, Pique played with the touch and composure of a more advanced player. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to the attention now that the spotlight is starting to focus on some of his weak points this season.
Expert's take: Together with Carles Puyol, is the heart and soul of the rearguard for Barcelona, the most offensive team in the world. Hence, his defensive skills are put to the test regularly, and he gets excellent marks due to speed, intelligence, strong aerial play and good feet. The last two qualities make him one of the best in one-on-one situations and also allow him to become a threat when he ventures into the opposing box. -- Damian Didonato
Stats That Matter:
• Has 38 caps with the senior national team (also represented Spain in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup)
• Has scored four goals with the national team, but none since Oct. 14, 2009
• Third on Barcelona with 40 aerial challenges in 2011-12
• Has won 16 trophies at the club level: three with Manchester United and 13 with Barcelona
• One of three players to have represented two different clubs that have won the Champions League in successive years. The others are Marcel Desailly (Marseille and AC Milan) and Paulo Sousa (Juventus and Borussia Dortmund)