World Team of the Decade
In selecting a team of the departing decade, as opposed to players of the decade, as chosen by my colleague Dominic Raynor earlier this week, it would seem sensible to at least attempt to put the stars of the era into a recognisable framework.
Your selector, who could never proclaim himself as a tactical meister, has chosen the 4-2-3-1 formation that has been so popular during the latter half of the decade. Perhaps ten years ago, a 3-5-2 might be the set-up of choice but this has been ten years dominated by the lone striker, the raiding full-back, the interchangeable attack and the holding midfielder.
So, slim pickings for the strikers mean the likes of Fernando Torres, Raul and Andriy Shevchenko (Milan Mark 1 version) find themselves in the frustrating position of being left out. They should count themselves lucky we did not choose to go with the increasingly fashionable and surely-to-be-dreaded 4-6-0 approach. This team can switch wings, score from distance, be feared from the dead ball and win trophies by the truckload. It is just a pity they would have only one ball to play with.
Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. We are, as always, here to be shot at.
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon
Italy dominate our chosen back-line and when it came to who would line up between the sticks, only Iker Casillas threw down any challenge to "Gigi". A wonderful shot-stopper with a powerful command of the 18-yard box where he is a supreme organiser, Buffon outfoxed David Trezeguet for the penalty that handed Italy the 2006 World Cup and was his country's sole creditable performer at Euro 2008. Juventus paid 51.5 million euros to Parma for him in 2001 and even that huge outlay looks money well spent.
Right back: Cafu
This is the age of the attacking full-back and the man who captained Brazil to winning the World Cup in 2002 was one of its finest ever exponents, a true successor to Carlos Alberto. He began the decade as a mainstay of the revival of Roma, winning the 2000-01 scudetto under Fabio Capello, and gaining the nickname Il Pendolino ("The Express Train"). A move to AC Milan saw him become the latest ageing star to prolong his career at San Siro and he finally gained a Champions League winners' medal in 2007. Marrying defensive grit with attacking zeal, Cafu, who retired in 2008, was the model for players like Dani Alves and Maicon to aspire to.
Central defender: Fabio Cannavaro
Another World Cup-winning captain, Cannavaro achieved the notable honour of becoming the first defender to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award. That was given to him after his redoubtable displays at Germany 2006, where he marshalled the Azzurri from the back, making tackle after tackle and winning the aerial battles despite a supposed lack of height. His arrival at Juventus in 2004 brought two league titles - later discredited - and he won another two with Real Madrid. A born leader, how Italy missed him at Euro 2008.
Central defender: Paolo Maldini
One of the unimpeachable stars of the 1990s too, Maldini finally hung up his playing boots at the end of the 2008-09 season, putting an end to a career that may well be unmatchable. He captained AC Milan to two Champions League titles in 2003 and 2007, and also scored in the 2005 final after just 51 seconds. Remaining a model of consistency to the end, his place in this line-up may seem sentimental but few have bestrode the game in such a fashion, let alone over two-and-a-half decades.
Left back: Roberto Carlos
Twinned with Cafu for so much of his career, the same is true here because the Brazilian has easily been the best left-sided exponent of the art of the attacking wing-back who can also defend. While at Real Madrid, the presence of Zidane in front of him saw him awarded little defensive protection, yet the continuing excellence of his attacking contribution mark him out as one of the game's supreme athletes. His dead-ball skills are often mocked because he could be so hit-and-miss, but amid the folly of Real's Galacticos era, he was a rare model of consistency.
Central midfielder: Claude Makelele
The midfield anchorman is as much a part of modern football as the transfer window and one man came to symbolise this position best, a Frenchman who began his decade at Celta Vigo. A move to Real Madrid saw his club win medals by the truckload, with the Frenchman, confined to an area barely covering half the pitch, an ever present vital cog. Yet once Real foolishly cashed him in to Chelsea in the summer of 2003, medals dried up at the Bernabeu and he became the engine of Jose Mourinho's Blues. When Zidane returned to play for France in 2005, it was Makelele who he requested to be his on-field minder. There are few more ringing endorsements than that.
Central midfielder: Andrea Pirlo
The deep-lying playmaker has been another position very much in vogue during the decade. Its best exponent, ahead of the likes of Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Juan Roman Riquelme, Paul Scholes and Juan Sebastian Veron, has been AC Milan's Pirlo, whose conversion from support striker in the Baggio/Del Piero mould on joining the Rossoneri in 2001 from Inter saw Milan granted a player to dictate their attacking movement. Metronomic in his rhythm and balletic in his ability to get out of tight situations, Pirlo won two Champions Leagues with Milan and a World Cup with his country during the decade.
Attacking midfielder: Zinedine Zidane
Surely the first name on most people's teamsheets, Zizou's exit from football in 2006 robbed the game of the best player of the last two decades. The best players are marked by their performances and nerve on the big occasion. An utter domination of Euro 2000, a thrilling volley to win the Champions League in Glasgow in 2002 and a penalty chipped off the bar in a World Cup final are proof of his place in the pantheon. No-one else had a 90-minute film solely focused on him to a post-rock soundtrack and no-one else deserved it. A personal memory: in the flesh, no-one has yet matched his 45 minutes of unadulterated genius against Luis Figo's Portugal during a Paris friendly in 2001.
Right winger: Lionel Messi
Compared to the power and height of Zidane and Ronaldo, Messi looks something of a throwback to the old-style diminutive ball-players of a previous era. Though the man he is most compared to would surely shine in any era. Comparisons to Maradona are somewhat previous, yet Messi has already achieved arguably more in club football. Since dominating the 2005 World Youth Championship and his monkeying of Chelsea's Asier Del Horno in February 2006, his rise to the top has been inexorable, with only growing pains getting in the way. A headed (!) goal in the Champions League final of 2009 and the winner in the recent Club World Cup reflect an ability to rise to the grandest of occasions.
Left winger: Cristiano Ronaldo
Arrogance and the ability to make fools of opponents rarely win friends in football. Yet Ronaldo's status as the most barracked player in football will be taken by him as proof as his arrival as a contender for the crown of the world's best. In his mid-twenties he is a very different proposition to the amusement arcade of his early days as a Manchester United player. Once he was fully grown, his height, pace and power complemented the skills he had long honed on the training ground to turn him into a goal machine, a player worth £80 million. A destroyer, and one who believes he will get better.
Striker: Ruud Van Nistelrooy
This has been the era of the lone striker, a one-man target who must hold up the ball and play in opponents as well as plunder goals. Strong, determined and usually deadly from the penalty spot, nobody has been as rife a plunderer as the Dutchman who, from his arrival at Manchester United in 2001 until injury began to derail him at Real Madrid in early 2008, collected goals at a bewildering rate, with the Champions League a particular speciality. They came via a range of very different strikes, though most came from inside the 18-yard box, which marked him out as the decade's primary predator.
Iker Casillas' consistency behind an ever-changing defence and his performances at Euro 2008 make him the sub keeper. Roberto Ayala's excellence and leadership for Valencia and Argentina over such a long period made him a notable contender in the backline, while Roy Keane can snarl as he rides pine after being edged out in the deep-lying midfield. Thierry Henry's wonderful spell as an Arsenal player and Indian summer at Barcelona see him able to fill in as either winger or lone striker while Ronaldinho perhaps hit heights that the others could not match between 2003 and 2006, yet is relegated as a result of his inconsistencies and loss of condition since.
Dominic Raynor: (3-4-3) Buffon; Cannavaro, Ayala, Maldini; Figo, Gattuso, Zidane, Giggs; C. Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Henry. Subs: Kahn, A. Cole, Gerrard, Nedved, Keane, Messi.
Mark Lomas: (3-5-2) Buffon; Cannavaro, Ferdinand ,Maldini; Keane, Makelele, Ronaldinho, Zidane, Messi; Henry, Ronaldo. Subs: Casillas, Carlos, Giggs, C. Ronaldo, Van Nistelrooy.
Tom Adams: (4-3-3) Buffon; Cafu, Cannavaro, Nesta, A. Cole; Vieira, Xavi, Zidane; Messi, Henry, C. Ronaldo. Subs: Casillas, Maldini, Figo, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo.
Jon Carter: (4-1-3-2) Buffon; Cafu, Puyol, Maldini, Roberto Carlos; Makelele, C. Ronaldo, Zidane, Ronaldinho; Ronaldo, Henry. Subs: Kahn, Cannavaro, Rivaldo, Messi, Eto'o.
Dale Johnson: (4-4-2) Buffon; Cafu, Nesta, Cannavaro, Maldini; Messi, Makelele, Zidane, C. Ronaldo; Ronaldinho, Henry. Subs: Casillas, A. Cole, Figo, Beckham, Eto'o.
Robin Hackett: (4-2-3-1) Buffon; Cafu, Nesta, Cannavaro, Maldini; Makelele, Roy Keane; C. Ronaldo, Zidane, Messi; Ronaldo. Subs: Casillas, Zanetti, Gerrard, Ronaldinho, Henry.