To mark the conclusion of the 2013-14 Premier League season, ESPN FC brings you its Team of the Year. Our panel of experts have carefully selected 11 star performers along with a manager who showed excellence over the duration of the campaign
Do you agree or disagree? You can have your say on those picked or overlooked in the comments section at the foot of the article or on Twitter using the hashtag #TOTW.
Goalkeeper: Without David Marshall, Gab Marcotti says, Cardiff City "would have been relegated by Valentine's Day." Time and again the Scot pulled his side out of the mire, compiling a water-tight portfolio of impressive saves -- and that was just in the games against Aston Villa and Everton. Had the side in front of him demonstrated such character and skill, perhaps the Bluebirds might have been safe by St Patrick's Day. Paul Mariner's selection of Petr Cech deserves a nod, given the Czech's consistency throughout the season. But Steve Nicol sums Marshall's campaign up perfectly when he says: "Goalkeepers are there to make big saves; no one made bigger or more important ones consistently all season than David Marshall."
Right-back: This position is a straight fight between Seamus Coleman and Pablo Zabaleta. Let's face it, you can't go wrong with either, but that won't stop us snubbing one. Manchester City's Argentine stalwart is put forward by Steve Nicol, who underlines his power and strength at both ends of the field. Zabaleta is also mentioned in dispatches by Paul Mariner, who then goes on to justify his selection of Everton's 25-year-old thus: "High energy levels, a true wing/full-back in the modern game who supplements the attack with assists and his goal-scoring prowess." Gab Marcotti also plumps for Coleman, whom he says is thriving as an attacking force under Roberto Martinez.
Centre-back: Having become accustomed to a demolition derby in terms of centre-back places, it's something of a surprise we (almost) have unanimity among our panel. The heart of our back line is all Blues, led by Chelsea captain John Terry. The former England skipper may or may not be your cup of tea but he's had an undeniably strong campaign. As Gab Marcotti points out: "Jose Mourinho says he's back to 2007 levels. It's hard to disagree." Paul Mariner thinks he has been "magnificent" this season and has made those around him better players, which brings us neatly on to his partner ...
Centre-back: .... who is Gary Cahill. There's no doubt Terry's protege has benefitted enormously from both his new coach and his erstwhile central defensive brother-in-arms. Steve Nicol calls them the "best defensive partnership in the Premier League" and he's not far wrong. The irony probably won't be lost on Terry that he is playing an instrumental part in preparing Cahill to fill the role of "leader, legend" that he has enjoyed for so long. Cahill certainly possesses the full package required to excel for both club and country, neatly embodied by Gab Marcotti's description: "A steady, physical athletic presence."
Left-back: Another tight battle in which a Toffee comes unstuck. Leighton Baines will hope it isn't a precursor for the World Cup too, given that he's been pipped to a place in our Team of the Year by Southampton's Luke Shaw. Steve Nicol opted for Everton's left-back largely because of his maturity on the ball going forward, something Shaw has displayed well beyond his tender years. Gab Marcotti -- a long-time champion of Shaw -- thinks the 18-year-old's 2013-14 term has been "the best debut season in the Premier League by an English youngster in ages." Paul Mariner, who knows a thing or two about representing England at the World Cup, thinks Shaw is a "joy to watch" and is right to go to Brazil.
Centre midfielder: How unfair that one spontaneous team talk and one ill-timed slip is how Steven Gerrard's 2013-14 season will ultimately be remembered by a whole lot of people. Liverpool may have fallen just short in the title race but that shouldn't obscure Gerrard's efforts in a thrilling bid to claim the championship. Gab Marcotti applauds the 33-year-old's ability to "reinvent himself in a new role," and undoubtedly it has better suited Gerrard's ever-evolving game. Paul Mariner goes so far as to say Liverpool's skipper has no equal in the role, while Steve Nicol trumpets his ability to turn defence into attack "in the blink of an eye."
Centre midfielder: "The boss. Simply devastating." There really is very little to add to Gab Marcotti's astute summary of Yaya Toure, is there? The Ivorian is a true Premier League powerhouse and this season became only the second central midfielder to score 20 goals in a top-flight season (along with Frank Lampard). Steve Nicol's verdict is simply "the middle of the field belongs to him," while Paul Mariner is equally gushing: "Toure has everything that the modern midfielder should have; he can create, destroy, assist, score, doing it with class and aplomb." Search and destroy -- I bet that is imprinted on Toure's eyelids. What a player.
Centre midfielder: The only real discord in our front six concerns the final midfield slot, and it is Gab Marcotti who has thrown a spanner in the works. It comes in the shape of Aaron Ramsey, whom he thinks was so impressive in his 20 starts he deserves a place, that sublime volley at Norwich on the final day only advancing his cause. His view is not shared by his fellow pundits, however. They make the case for David Silva, who has fewer goals but more assists than his Welsh counterpart. Paul Mariner goes all gooey in his tribute, saying it is "beautiful to watch his artistry" and saluting his role as City's chief architect; Steve Nicol says Silva's "goals, movement and short, sharp passing make him untouchable in the final third." But it wouldn't be a TOTY without a dash of controversy, and my vote for the Gunner levels it at 2-2, so Rambo is in.
Forward: To the neutrals' dismay, injury curtailed the latter half of Eden Hazard's season, just when things were getting interesting. Firmly established as Chelsea's most consistent creator, the Belgian also took on board Jose Mourinho's tactical drilling (until the Atletico game at least) and earns praise from all our panel for his work at both ends of the field. "Quality on the ball, effort, work rate, and a bit of an edge too," is Gab Marcotti's verdict, while Paul Mariner agrees he is Chelsea's "go-to guy" in attack. Steve Nicol rightly surmises no defender in the top flight wants Hazard bearing down on him.
Forward: "Do I really need to tell you why?" Er, no Gab Marcotti, you don't. That rather terse sentence is in relation to his selection of Luis Suarez, Liverpool's unrivalled Uruguayan, who pushed through the 30-goal barrier this season. He's been a joy to watch, especially as he's toned down his rage-fuelled, hard-done-by-child act. Suarez has scored all sorts of goals: tap-ins, dribbles, headers, free kicks and screamers (his third in the 5-1 win over Norwich my personal favourite). Paul Mariner eulogises thus: "The cream of the crop, the king, the man, overcome the trials of last year in a huge way." Steve Nicol is similarly smitten.
Forward: Two Blues at the heart of our defence and now two Reds dovetailing in attack -- now that's what I call symmetry. I can think of no better chap to partner Suarez than his Liverpool teammate Daniel Sturridge. Every double act needs a straight man -- if you can call someone who has bagged 21 goals himself the straight man. He hasn't matched Suarez in terms of quantity, but he most certainly has in the quality department -- the chip at home to West Brom, anyone? Gab Marcotti calls Sturridge "one half of one of the best strike partnerships in Europe" while Paul Mariner and Steve Nicol are united in their summary that he and Suarez are the reason Liverpool came so agonisingly close to title glory.
Manager: The panel have spoken. The two words they have uttered in the race to be crowned ESPN FC's Manager of the Year are (holds for drum roll ...) Brendan Rodgers. Yes, Liverpool may have fallen just short, but you can't deny it was thrilling while it lasted. After setting out with a top-four place their chief goal, Liverpool's 2013-14 fast turned into a hunt for the title as teams were chewed up and spat out by a whirlwind of attacking brio. As Paul Mariner reports, Rodgers has brought all his players on and employed a "bright brand of football that every lover of the game wants to watch." Gab Marcotti says the Northern Irishman deserves the nod for "jumping from seventh to second against better-funded, deeper opposition." Steve Nicol concurs with both his pundit chums to end on a truly harmonious note. And that, my friends, is a wrap.