ESPN FC Player of the Season: 2013-14
CRISTIANO RONALDO (Real Madrid)
He may have caused some raised eyebrows when he flashed his abs after punctuating Real Madrid's Champions League triumph with the last goal of the final, but it has been Cristiano Ronaldo's consistent flashes of brilliance for which his 2013-14 campaign will be best remembered. A clear front-runner among our panel of experts, Gabriele Marcotti says he has "had the kind of season that reopens the conversation over who the best player in the world might be," while Graham Hunter reckons "it'll be a complete travesty" if Ronaldo doesn't emerge victorious in the vote. Hunter adds: "He is the team leader at Madrid -- more complete, more devastating every year. We can talk about trophies [two so far] but to break a Champions League scoring record which even Messi hadn't managed to overtake and which has stood since 1963 when the Beatles were beginning... that's remarkable."
Ronaldo's stats make for remarkable reading with 31 goals and nine assists in 31 La Liga games, 17 goals and four assists in the Champions League, and 10 in seven internationals. His form for Portugal was a major contributing factor to winning the 2013 Ballon d'Or and Andy Brassell says he has "not seen a better individual performance this season" than Ronaldo's against Sweden in November, when a hat trick in the World Cup playoff second leg sent his nation to Brazil. As Michael Cox notes: "Ronaldo is on his best-ever run of form for Portugal. He single-handedly won the playoff but before that had produced a great 15-minute hat trick against Northern Ireland when they were 2-1 down, a man down and struggling badly. The past 18 months is the first time his international scoring record has matched his goal-a-game standard at club level."
LIONEL MESSI (Barcelona)
Apparently Lionel Messi has had a "bad season." The Argentine has clearly become a victim of his own unbelievably high standards as by anyone else's it has been another remarkable campaign for Barcelona's brilliant forward. Despite suffering injury problems around Christmas and New Year, Messi has still managed to score a grand total of 41 goals in 44 games. To put that into context, legendary forwards including Thierry Henry (39), Raul (32) and Alan Shearer never managed to once pass the 40-goal mark, while Brazil icon Ronaldo managed the feat just once across his 18-year career. A supposedly below-average Messi has just managed it for a fifth straight season. Messi may have only won the Spanish Supercopa but without his goals, Barcelona would have been off the pace in La Liga and the Champions League. As ESPN FC's Barcelona blogger Dermot Ledwith says: "In a season riddled with injuries and off the field problems at his club, Lionel Messi still managed to hit 41 goals in what was a poor season by his standards. For me that record justifies he is still the best player in the world and we will see a lot more from him in the years to come."
LUIS SUAREZ (Liverpool)
The English PFA Player of the Year, Luis Suarez's virtuoso displays took Liverpool to the brink of the Premier League title, and after being enthralled by his performances in England, the football world is hoping he will recover from injury in time to play at the World Cup. Suarez's biting of Branislav Ivanovic in 2013 seems like an age ago, and he achieved redemption in some style by scoring 31 goals in 33 games after missing the first five games of the season through suspension. "It's a sheer pleasure to work with someone with that desire and will to win," Reds boss Brendan Rodgers recently reflected. "His maturity on the field is there for all to see and his performances speak for themselves."
The Uruguayan is only the third man in the 38-game Premier League era, after Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo, to score more than 30 goals and he forged arguably the most devastating strike partnership in European football with Daniel Sturridge. ESPN FC's Liverpool blogger says: "Luis Suarez deserves to win the award because of his all round brilliance. He plays every game as though it's his last, he plays through pain. He's improved each year and last season was his finest yet. He matched Cristiano Ronaldo goal for goal but unlike the Real Madrid man, none of his 31 Premier League strikes came from the penalty spot. As well as being the Premier League's leading goalscorer he also finished second in the assist chart (to teammate Steven Gerrard) by creating 12 goals."
FRANCK RIBERY (Bayern Munich)
Like Messi, it may not have appeared a vintage season for Franck Ribery as injuries took their toll in the second half of the campaign. But in the first half, or Hinrunde as it is known in Germany, he was unstoppable. Carrying on the form that had helped Bayern Munich to a Treble in 2012-13, Ribery earned himself a Ballon d'Or nomination -- the Frenchman eventually finishing third in the voting -- while he also became the first Frenchman since Zinedine Zidane in 2002 to be named UEFA Club Player of the Year. Some of his most influential moments were reserved for matches against English sides, with an equaliser against Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup, a goal in the away victory over Manchester City in the Champions League group stage, plus crucial assists in the round of 16 vs Arsenal and quarterfinal vs Manchester United.
Defeat in the Ballon d'Or and a bizarre buttock injury blighted his January, but Ribery still managed to score 16 and set up 13 in 39 games for Bayern and, when hungry enough, was able to bring his superior qualities onto the pitch. As his club coach Pep Guardiola noted in April: "Franck Ribery is very important and necessary for us. He has been at Bayern longer than me. I am happy of course when he plays well, with energy and motivation. He sometimes needs an angriness... He has this fighting spirit. He always wants to fight, that's why the people love him. He is one of the most fantastic players in the history of Bayern."
RICARDO RODRIGUEZ (Wolfsburg)
Quite comfortably the most unlikely name on our shortlist, Ricardo Rodriguez's consistent performances for Wolfsburg saw him earn the left-back spot on ESPN FC's Bundesliga team of the season and a spot in Switzerland's World Cup squad. He played every minute of every game for the Wolves, creating eight goals and even scoring a copuple himself. ESPN FC's Germany Correspondent Stephan Uersfeld describes him as "a revelation," adding that "he is a modern full-back, who has been key to Wolfsburg's return to Europe [in the Europa League]. Easily the best in his position in the league, it comes as no surprise that he has been linked with all big clubs in Europe."
WhoScored.com's Editor-in-Chief Alistair Tweedale explains that Rodriguez's stats made him the preeminent defender in Europe this season, saying: "Rodriguez provided a solid defensive side to his game, averaging 3.1 tackles and 1.9 interceptions per appearance while also attacking with the verve of a winger. He dribbled past 87 opponents, making him the best in that regard of all Bundesliga defenders, while the 78 chances he created leaves him behind only attackers Max Kruse and Marco Reus. An all-rounder in ever respect, Rodriguez had a vastly impressive season that is set to extend into the World Cup in Brazil this summer."