Tuesday, May 31, 2011

There's Only One Paul Scholes

It was coming, and now it has come. After months of rumors, meetings with Sir Alex, and David Gill hints, Paul Scholes has finally called time on an illustrious career at the top.

As shy as he was brilliant, Paul Scholes lit up the English game for seventeen glorious years. Part of the "class of '92," (which also included Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Gary Neville) Scholes broke into the first team in 1994, scoring twice against Port Vale in the League Cup.

Known for his blaster of a shot, terrific vision and unassuming personality, Paul Scholes has come to define Manchester United for the last fifteen years. Noticeable on the pitch due to his ginger hair, Paul Scholes has been a master of the long ball, a consistent player with a rocket of a shot, though not the world's greatest tackler...

Ask any United fan to list their favorite Paul Scholes moments, and you'd likely be conversing for hours. The blasters against Bradford, Aston Villa and Barcelona were brilliant, the late header against City even better. For years, Paul Scholes has been the only English player of his kind, the only one able to spot an eighty yard pass, the only one always a threat around the edge of the penalty box.

Scholes is one of the only players who has managed to carve out a career on the finest footballing stage, yet managed to avoid the temptations and pitfalls that come with the celebrity lifestyle. While teammates like Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs spent nights frolicking with prostitutes and TV models, Scholes stayed home with the kids, ever the role model, ever the man to look up to.

A high up official at Inter Milan once said "I told Morrati Scholes is a "mission impossible" man. It's more than money with him. He was born just a few blocks away from Old Trafford. It's about wearing United's colors." It's about wearing United's colors. That was really all it was ever about for Paul Scholes. He shunned the media and shied away from the limelight, concentrated on not furthering himself, but on furthering the team. England need more players like Paul Scholes, men that would never be caught urinating in parking lots, sleeping with teammates women nor brawling in nightclubs. England need more players creative enough to break down the most resolute of defenses, more players capable of picking out passes in the dying embers of important matches. 

Perhaps the reason for England's lack of success over the years has been a dearth of players of the caliber of Paul Scholes. Lampard and Gerrard have both had their moments, but total inflexibility has inhibited their progress, while maestros like Hoddle, and in particular Le Tissier, have lacked the mettle and the desire to make it at the top. 

As indicated in the title, there is only one Paul Scholes, and as long as that statement remains true, English international football will remain very much second best .

INFTH Top 100: Numbers 98 and 97

98. Giorgio Chiellini- Lets face it, 2010-11 was another hugely disappointing season for Giorgio Chiellini's Juventus team. From being one of the best in Europe several years ago, Juventus face a season without playing in any European competition, all courtesy of their seventh place finish.

However, Juventus' season did contain its bright spots, including one player who shone out above the rest. Coming into the season as a key member of Italy's squad of World Cup flops, pressure was heavy on Chiellini but the defender managed to play through it, and has been impressive all season long.

Chiellini is an absolute rock at the back for Juve, his bravery and commitment has prevented many a goal from flying into the back of the Old Lady's net. Due to a contract extension signed in late 2010, Chiellini is likely to be playing for Juventus in the Serie A next season, an unfortunate happening, football needs players like the monstrous Chiellini plying their trade at big time Champions League clubs.

Handanovic.JPG97. Samir Handanovich- After an impressive World Cup showing for Slovenia, the world was keen to see Samir Handanovich continue his form for Udinese in Serie A. To be honest, Udinese will not be remembered for their terrific defensive play in 2010/11, their attack won most of the headlines. However, fourteen clean sheets in thirty-five games for Handanovich is nothing to be scoffed at.

While his clean sheet record is a fairly impressive statistic, Handanovich's ability to save penalties is his most noteworthy achievement of 10/11. A late save which denied Mauro Zarate in a crucial win over Lazio equalled a league record of six penalty saves in one season, the Slovenian is now only five saves short of an all time gong. 

One of a fast growing Slovenian contingent in Serie A, Handanovich is quickly becoming one of the Serie A's hottest goalkeepers, keeping company with the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Christian Abbiati. If Handanovich keeps up his headline making performances, and shines in the Champions League next season, then who knows, maybe he'll make the leap to the top fifty next year.

Five Things We Learned From This Week's MLS Action

1. Philadelphia can score goals too- Before Saturday, May 28th the Philadelphia Union had scored a grand total of eight Major League Soccer goals. However, in a performance of perhaps more shock value than actual brilliance, the Union managed to put six past Toronto FC. Gabriel Farfan opened the scoring, before braces from Mapp and Mwanga as well as a lone Nakazawa goal, put Toronto the sword. That result, a 6-2 win, combined with New York's failure to claim victory at Vancouver, has put the Union in a strong position atop the Eastern Conference, somewhere they will stay if they keep on producing performances like Saturday's.

2. Portland are beatable on home turf- Timbers fans must have known that their home run would end eventually, but that won't have made them feel better after Sunday's galling loss to DC United. In a match highlighted by penalty controversy, Portland were just outplayed by a resurgent DC team. After a run of great defensive form, Portland simply fell apart at the weekend, as two quick fire goals from Wolff and Pontius breached the Jeld-Wen fortress. A brilliant result in itself, DC's win was made even more remarkable by the absence of injured American star Charlie Davies. Without one of the top scorers in the league, United were still able to find the net three times against a defense which has been watertight in recent games.

3. RSL are no longer a team to fear- If you weren't worrying for them after Concacaf Champions League disappointment, and you still weren't worrying after Javier Morales' injury you're certainly worrying for them now. Going into the game with only one win since that aforementioned injury, RSL's terrific undefeated run at Rio Tinto was ended by Zhiggi Schmidt's Seattle Sounders. Two nil to the good and a man up, Seattle did make things interesting for themselves with the concession of a late own goal, but managed to hang on for a precious three point haul.

4. Columbus' clean sheet days are well and truly over- Remember the days when Columbus were being lauded for boasting one of the best back fours in the league? After conceding only three goals in seven games, the Columbus Crew have conceded seven in their last three. The defense manned by veteran Chad Marshall and star goalkeeper Will Hesmer seems to have lost its touch, and the results have digressed too. From challenging for first in the East, Columbus' recent defensive woes have seen them drop to fifth, a lowly position which, if not built upon, could see them drop out of the play offs.

5. New York don't know how to defend inside the penalty area- Three penalties conceded in their last three games, straight after a disastrous series of set piece debacles... New York simply cannot defend inside their own area. First it was Justin Braun who was the beneficiary with three goals at Red Bull Arena, followed swiftly by Brad Davis, then Jeff Larentowicz and finally Eric Hassli. During that series of matches, the Red Bulls have lost one and drawn three; a run which has seen them slip behind the Philadelphia Union in the race for the East. Unfortunately for Backe's side, things are not likely to get better soon, Tim Ream and Rafa Marquez have already left for the Gold Cup, and their replacements... nothing particularly inspiring.

Monday, May 30, 2011

INFTH Top 100: Numbers 100 and 99

100. Andy Carroll- With only a handful of Premier League appearances to his name heading into the season, Andy Carroll wasn't seen as a man capable of making a mark in the top division. However, in Newcastle's second match of the season Carroll hit a hat trick against Aston Villa, forcing himself into the minds of football fans everywhere. Having forged a useful partnership with Kevin Nolan, Carroll continued to push forward; scoring eight more goals until he was injured at the halfway point in the season. Impressed by his form, Kenny Dalglish elected to purchase Carroll in January as a direct replacement for the departing Fernando Torres. Injured at the time of the deal, Carroll had to wait until March for his Liverpool bow, when he came on as a late substitute against Manchester United.

Carroll's prowess in the air and fine finishing ability also attracted the attention of England manager Fabio Capello, who gave the Englishman his first cap in a 2-1 friendly loss against France. Carroll was England's best performer on the night, and several weeks later he was given a second chance against Ghana; a game that he found the net in.

Still struggling with injuries, Carroll was unable to ever put together a coherent run of games for the Reds, but he did score his first two goals for the club against Manchester City at Anfield. Overall, Carroll's season was a good one, and on the basis of his form from August to December, Carroll would be sitting much higher up on these rankings. Unfortunately, the latter part of his season was blighted with injuries, ruining his chances of a top seventy-five finish.

99. Michael Carrick- Much criticized early on in the campaign, Michael Carrick burst his way onto the scene with a series of brilliant performances for Manchester United, both in the Premier League and in Europe.

In the fall out of Manchester United's 2009 Champions League final loss to Barcelona, Michael Carrick was cast as a villain, unable to survive in a midfield dominated by Xavi and Iniesta he had "blown" the game for United. Left out of squad after squad in 2010, it seemed as though the Englishman's Manchester United career would be coming to an end, only for the former Tottenham man to come into form when it mattered most.

In easily the weakest part of Manchester United's championship winning team, Michael Carrick shone as the one truly consistent player. His performances against Chelsea in the Champions League Quarter Finals were particularly awe inspiring, as was his protection of the back four all season long. Certainly, Michael Carrick will not be remembered as one of United's all time greats, but as a steady influence in midfield, and a key contributor to Number Nineteen.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Barcelona Too Good For United

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28:  Eric Abidal of FC Barcelona lifts the trophy after victory in the UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United FC at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)Was it really ever in doubt? Even while United pressed and probed, trying to force an opening in the first few minutes, did anyone ever see a United victory as a plausible result? Barca are simply the best, and the proved it again on Saturday night with a performance of sheer sublimity.

Their passing was mesmerizing; Iniesta to Xavi to Messi back to Iniesta... Every shot was on target and every clearance solid. Constantly changing the tempo, Barca caused the United midfield all sorts of problems, Ferguson's men just couldn't cope with the fabulous combination of Xavi and Iniesta.

Their first goal was perhaps avoidable from United's point of view, but in all honesty, even if Pedro had fluffed his lines from eight yards out, a goal would eventually have arrived. Many watchers on accused United of lacking a "Plan B" or failing to have an answer to Barcelona's wondrous tiki-taka. However, those who look to United for the reason behind Barca's success miss the point. Barcelona are a team of such quality, and such togetherness that I doubt a World XI, the best not playing for Barca, would even come close to victory.

United's goal, a powerful finish from Wayne Rooney was a blip on the radar, a footnote to what was a stunning page of football history, all written by FC Barcelona. Even after Rooney's goal, Barcelona maintained composure. Continuing to play their game, they fought on; refusing to let United have even the faintest sniff of the ball. Lionel Messi, the greatest player on the planet, wove his dribbling patterns around the pitch, and though he was stopped on occasion by the likes of Vidic and Park, it was only ever a matter of time before he struck.

For those waiting for confirmation of Messi's brilliance, one game which stated his case to be placed alongside Pele, Maradona and Cruyff, they have finally found it. Breathtaking in the dribble and clever in his passing, Messi combined subtlety with brutality, a blaster of a goal to go with his agglomeration of nutmegs. Post match, Pep Guardiola described Messi as "probably the best ever" and I think now, few would argue with that.

Manchester United keeper Edwin van der Sar not to blame, Barcelona  we're just too hot, says Alex StepneyFrom back to front, top to bottom, Barcelona oozed brilliance. Valdes, always comfortable on the ball, made several last ditch clearances to deny Chicharito, who could have been replaced with an actual pea. I doubt anyone would have noticed the difference. Eric Abidal, just two months after having a cancerous tumor removed from his liver was immense, as he silenced the considerable threat of Valencia. Upfront, the three pronged attack of Villa, Messi and Pedro continued to operate effectively, all three were on the score sheet.

Pep GuardiolaOn the sideline, a proud but beleaguered looking Pep Guardiola looks to have aged much since his last meeting with Sir Alex, the strains of managment have clearly effected him greatly. However, in a post match interview Guardiola stated in no uncertain terms that he plans to fulfill his contract, guaranteeing Barca at least another year of domination.

As the United players trooped off the pitch, watching sorrowfully as their Catalan rivals danced around the center circle, they must have wondered what they had to do to beat them; what feat of alchemy it would take to find the winning formula. Barcelona are not unbeatable, they are a brilliant team but not invincible. Real Madrid defended stoutly in the Copa Del Rey final, and won. Hercules were opportunistic against a poor Barca side, and won. But United, for all their planning, all their talk of maturity and development were still lacking something. The mediocrity of competition in the Premier League this year threw a veil over United's glaring deficiencies, they are a team which must rebuild or risk being left in the others' dust.

So while Barcelona celebrate another season of brilliance, United once must again ponder how best to combat that seemingly invincible force. Perhaps United fans, as well as Sir Alex Ferguson, should take solace in the fact that they are not the only ones who will be left praying for solutions to the plethora of problems posed by Messi and company. In Madrid, Jose Mourinho has already started his preparations for 2012 with three signings in no time at all. But, as all who plot against Barca will soon realize, their battle is eternally futile. Barca are just too good.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Champions League Final Preview

The stage is set for an absolutely magnificent final. There is no doubt that the best two teams in Europe will contest Saturday's showcase, and that if one team can stop Barca, it's United.

Why Barcelona will win:

The Messi factor- Even if Barcelona come out flat, unexciting and predictable, they will still have hope of victory due to one little man from Argentina. Unlike United, Barcelona possess a player capable of breaking through a tight game; turning a match on its head with one moment of magic. Messi is by far the best player in the World and he will be, by an even further distance, the most talented player on the field at Wembley. Messi has scored an absolutely ridiculous number of goals this season; United will find it very difficult to prevent him from increasing that total.

The Midfield- By far Manchester United's worst department, happens to be Barca's best. The midfield, as ever, will be absolutely crucial in this game; it was Barca's dominance in that area back in 2009 which tipped the balance in Rome. Players like Xavi and Iniesta will likely walk all over the Carrick centered Manchester United midfield, making Rooney's tracking back absolutely pivotal. Ferguson will be ruing the absence of a fully fit Darren Fletcher, though his dream pick would surely have been the chronically injured Owen Hargreaves.

Why Manchester United will win:

Wembley- For a match played at a neutral ground, United have are as close to a home advantage as they could possibly be. Large portions of the United squad have played a myriad of times at Wembley, whether it be in FA Cup semi-finals or on England duty. United's familiarity with the stadium will no doubt hand them an advantage, as will a crowd that is likely to be bursting with United support.

The Arsenal blueprint- Barcelona have played only one other match in London this season, a 2-1 first leg loss at The Emirates. In that game, Arsenal held on for sixty minutes, keeping the deficit at one, before hitting Barcelona hard in the last thirty; scoring twice to win the game. Even the mighty Barcelona tire out, and Manchester United must make sure that they take advantage of that in the last thirty minutes.

Form, form, form- As we know, there is always a great deal of furore which exists around weakened team selections late in the season. However, interestingly, Ferguson elected to start a strong line-up against Blackpool last weekend; something which will insure that the vast majority of the team are sharp as can be heading into the final. On the other hand, Barcelona have been resting players left, right and center for the last three games, and unsurprisingly, they have won only one of their last four. Obviously, it is not as though the Barcelona starting XI has quit football for three weeks, but that lack of form and match sharpness could hand United an edge.

The ghost of 2009- Given the high standards maintained by Ferguson over the years, I find it doubtful that the Scotsman will have let his troops forget about Rome 2009. United were played off the park on that occasion, and redemption will be a major driving force for the United playing staff. Moving away from the mental side of it, Ferguson and the rest of the coaching staff will have learned from their tactical mistakes; including a collection of ill advised substitutions and line up decisions.

Mental Strength- No team in the World has a greater winning mentality than Manchester United Football Club. The team just keeps on going and going no matter the circumstances, so don't be surprised if they score an important late goal on Saturday. Over the course of this season, United have proved that they posses a unique ability to come back from adversity, whether it be during the course of one match or a series of matches.

Van Der Sar's final bow- Obviously, the whole of the United squad would love to win the Champions League, but none more than one brilliant Dutchman. At age forty, Van Der Sar has elected to terminate his career at the end of this season, and Saturday's final will be his last professional appearance. Van Der Sar will no doubt be put under immense pressure by the Catalans, but when on form (and he will be on Saturday) VDS is a tough man to beat.

Wayne Rooney- Despite everything that has gone on in his personal life over the last twelve months, Wayne Rooney is Manchester United's best player. In his press conference today, Ferguson identified a "mature" Rooney as the man who can win the final for United, and I couldn't agree more. Obviously, Rooney's attacking role will be pivotal, but his defensive responsibilities could prove to be the defining aspect of Saturday's match. If Rooney can make an extra man in midfield when Barca have the ball, then United will be well on course to frustrating the Catalans. And oh yeah, Rooney plays pretty well in the attacking third too...

The Verdict/Prediction: One thing that we must constantly keep in mind when analyzing a final is that on any given day, anything can happen. I think we can all agree that in a series of ten games, Barcelona would win most of them, but that doesn't necessarily guide us towards an obvious decision here. United have numerous things going their way, most of which are detailed above. However, I still can't really see past a Barcelona victory, they have a superior playing staff and will pass the life out of even this most determined United side.

The battle between managers will be another key aspect to the game, Ferguson lost the tactical duel quite badly in '09, a fate he will be desperate to avoid this time around. All the word coming out of United seems to be that the Red Devils will play their game and not bow to Barca; I'm not sure whether that will offer them an advantage or a disadvantage.

Both teams are brilliant, both boast world class talents, but one is better and that team is Barcelona. The Catalans are arguably the greatest club side of all time, and I just see them pipping this one.

Prediction: Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United

Thursday, May 26, 2011

INFTH MLS Predictions

Toronto vs Philadelphia- After a very odd midweek outing against Vancouver, Toronto will be relatively fresh for the visit of the Union.

Joint top in the East, the Union will be looking to pull away from the Red Bulls, as they travel to Canada in the day's early match. However, a Union defense which has been stupendously solid this year, will have quite a job on its hands due to the brilliance of youngster Plata. Before Plata's arrival, Toronto had been missing a bit of inspiration in the final third; the Ecuadorian's ascent into the first team couldn't have been more welcome.

I'm going to go for a draw in this one, that result wouldn't be too bad for either team, Philly will see this match as a tough away assignment and Toronto know that at this anything garnered is a good return.

Prediction: 1-1

Vancouver vs New York- After frustration midweek, both team will be looking for a good result on Saturday.

Luck got just about as bad as it good get for the Whitecaps when, on Wednesday, they were denied a likely place in the Concacaf Champions League due to the weather. 1-0 up away at Toronto, Vancouver looked to be well on their way to the Canadian Championship, only for the game to be called thirty minutes in. Now the expansion side will have to start from scratch in a rematch; a huge blow for all involved at the club.

New York are going through a sticky patch at the minute, no wins in their last four games and questionable defending to boot. Concentration seems to be a major issue in the New York camp, but I think they will get over their problems and win on Saturday.

Prediction: 1-3

Columbus vs Chivas- It has been a highly interesting week for the Crew, who will have suffered from bitter sweet feelings upon seeing star man Robbie Rodgers called into the US Gold Cup squad. Rodgers didn't make the cut for the World Cup team in 2010, so the winger will be delighted to have the opportunity of playing at a major tournament for the US national team.

Last week's Super Classico defeat was a bit of a blow to the Chivas camp; they had been in fine form going into that one. However, coach Robin Fraser will take heart at the return to form of Justin Braun; he could be a key man in weeks to come.

With their terrific defensive record, and a winger buzzing with excitement, it's difficult to see past a Crew victory in this game.

Prediction: 2-1

New England vs Los Angeles- Shalrie Joseph's decision to leave the Revs and to help out Grenada at the Gold Cup has been a heated talking point in recent days. No doubt Steve Nicol's team will miss their captain, and with Feilhaber playing for the US, New England will be left with only bare bones in midfield.

LA will be effected even more by the Gold Cup. Key player Landon Donovan is set for a long time away from MLS with the United States and the breakaway candidate for MVP will be sorely missed. However, the Galaxy may take heart in the fact that they have retained the services of Omar Gonzalez; he was given the snub by Bradley and co.

LA are in great form, and rest assured Landon Donovan will want to make an impact on the occasion of his last appearance before Gold Cup duty. However, travelling coast to coast is never easy, so I'll go for a draw from this one.

Prediction: 2-2

Chicago vs San Jose- Both these teams will feel somewhat upset at the news brought to them by the newly released Gold Cup rosters. Chicago's key man Marco Pappa is set to play for Guatemala in the competition, and San Jose's Chris Wondolowski has been called up to Bradley's squad.

Those losses are likely to be pivotal, but both managers will be given ideal opportunities to blood some youth. I've always said that there aren't enough young players coming through MLS academies, but with an all time high of 32 MLSers leaving, maybe youth will get a chance.

San Jose are an inform team at the moment, so I'd tip them to scrape past the Fire, with Chris Wondolowski getting on the score sheet!

Prediction: 0-1

Houston vs Dallas- The Texas derby, and a match that really could be something special. Historically, Houston have been Texas' best team, but in recent years the balance of power has shifted.

Unbeaten since Ferreira's injury, Dallas boast a terrifically inform defense, bolstered by players like George John and Ugo Ihemelu. Men of that calibre in the back line is exactly what Dallas will need if they are to combat Davis' superb set piece deliveries.

It will be interesting to see how Houston play in this game considering they will be returning from an energy sapping midweek trip to LA. Despite defending stoutly, Houston were denied any share of the spoils in that match a result which probably compounded disappointment about the late goal conceded last week.

To be fair, Dallas are also coming off a trip to the far West too, so Houston's midweek exploits won't hand Hyndeman's side a huge advantage, but nevertheless, I see them taking all three points.

Prediction: 0-2

Colorado vs Kansas City- Just two more road games left before a match in Kansas, and two tough road games they are likely to be. Colorado showed a few signs of life midweek at New York, and if they can keep up that kind of form than victory over struggling Sporting will be easy.

Teal Bunbury has already spoken of his disappointment at not be included in Bob Bradley's Gold Cup squad, but hopefully he'll use that snub as a spur to get his season back on track. With the forward line fit, Sporting still should pose a problem to most teams; it's getting them all fit at the same time which has been tough though.

I'm going to tip Gary Smith's boys for a win here, a result which would give them only a second three point haul in their last ten outings.

Prediction: 2-0

RSL vs Seattle- After that great start, RSL seem to have fizzled out already and are now without a win in their last two. However, Seattle also enter the game on not the best foot; the Sounders lost at home to Dallas midweek.

Since Javier Morales' injury, RSL have struggled to score goals, only one in their last three, and that was against a team with just nine men on the park. Admittedly, Kreis' team has been unlucky with injuries, but they are going to still have to find a way to score without their talisman.

Seattle seem to be blowing hot and cold at the minute, one week scoring last minute winners, and the next being shut out at home. However, we all know that they have the potential to turn on at any moment; all teams boasting the likes of Fredy Montero do.

Prediction: 1-0

Portland vs DC United- One of Major League Soccer's best defenses against one of its worst, as a team with a 100% home record take on a team struggling for consistency.

It is still unclear whether Charlie Davies will be fit to play or not in this one; the striker will be keen to get back as soon as possible and prove his worth following Gold Cup rejection.

Portland have a magnificent record on home turf this season and their fast improving back four is a big reason for that. The Timbers' goals in all of their last three games have come from set pieces, so Jack Jewsbury's deliveries and Futty Danso's finishes are likely to be crucial once again on Sunday.

Prediction: 1-0

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Champions League Team Of The Season

Edwin Van Der Sar- A two time winner of the competition, Van Der Sar's experience has continued to benefit Manchester United. The Dutchman was an integral part part of a back five which has yet to concede a single goal away from home, and fittingly, he will play his final match on Saturday.

Marcelo- Much criticized during the Pellegrini era, Marcelo has come on leaps and bounds in 2011. Dangerous in attack, Marcelo scored twice in the 2011 competition; including a consolation strike at the Nou Camp. Marcelo's play this season will have come as a huge relief the Real Madrid hierarchy, the full back positions have been one of the Merengues' main weaknesses over the last few years.

Nemanja Vidic- Another member of that impressive Manchester United back five, Vidic has led by example all season long. No doubt relieved to have central defensive partner Rio Ferdinand back, Vidic enjoyed possibly his finest European campaign yet; one which could be capped by success at Wembley.

Gerard Pique- After another fine season with FC Barcelona, Pique will have the opportunity to claim his third Champions League winners medal on Saturday. Brilliant with the ball at his feet, Pique has triggered the start of a countless number of Barcelona attacks; Manchester United still must be ruing the day they allowed him to leave.

Patrice Evra- After rebuffing bids from both Inter Milan and Real Madrid, Evra has managed to put a poor World Cup behind him and propel Manchester United to European success this season. Evra's ability to attack as well as defend is vital to Manchester United's play; when in full flight he is a huge danger to the opposition.

Gareth Bale- In the group stage, Gareth Bale stunned the world with two brilliant performances home and away to Inter Milan. A hat trick at the San Siro was complemented by an unplayable showing at White Hart Lane, one which dented Inter's chances, not to mention Maicon's reputation. It will certainly be interesting to see whether Spurs can hold on to their star man amidst interest from a host of European giants this summer.

Luka Modric- Despite being brilliant in the Premier Leauge, Modric's game is perhaps even better equipped for European competition. Relishing the low pressure nature of the European midfield, Modric has sprayed passes two and fro with ease; controlling midfields stuffed with high class opposition. Without the Croatian's distribution, Bale's speed and skill would have become obsolete; something which could have hindered Spurs immensely.

Andres Iniesta- Spain's World Cup final hero has continued to impress this campaign, as he and his Barcelona colleagues have taken the club to new heights. The perfect foil for midfield partner Xavi, Iniesta's incisive passing and goal scoring capabilities have been a huge boon to Barca. Negating Iniesta's midfield effectiveness will be an immense challenge for United on Saturday, one which could prove fatal to their chances.

Ryan Giggs- Evergreen, Giggsy has been arguably Manchester United's best player this year in European competition. Providing assists for all three of Manchester United's quarter final goals, Giggs has proved inspirational in tough matches; a clutch performer even at the ripe old age of 37. Even though Giggs' goalscoring hasn't been spectacular, the importance of his flood gate opening strike against Schalke will not be forgotten.

Cristiano Ronaldo- As always, Ronaldo has been one of the Champions League's top performing players. One of the competition's leading scorers, Ronaldo was a big reason for Madrid's progression past the Round of Sixteen.

Lionel Messi- The best player in the world, and the tournament's top scorer, Messi is an obvious pick. With nine goals, Messi has walked the golden boot, and it appears likely that he will walk away with a winners medal as well.

Honorable Mentions:
Wayne Rooney
Javier Hernandez
Mario Gomez
Nicolas Anelka
Douglas Costa
Xavi Hernandez
Rio Ferdinand
Carlos Puyol
Mesut Ozil
Rafael Van Der Vaart
Samuel Eto'o
Raul Gonzalez
Jefferson Farfan