#1: Cristiano Ronaldo, POR
Considering his sustained brilliance for Real Madrid -- 84 goals and 22 assists in 67 games over the past two seasons -- it's a wonder that the world isn't running out of adjectives to describe the Portuguese forward's play. Whether deployed on the flanks or through the middle, exhibiting his lethal skills and swagger from set pieces or close range, Ronaldo is the best there is in the European game today. (And the richest, too; $17.06 million in reported salary, as of 2010.)
Though his club side has plenty of world-class talent to surround and support him, Ronaldo's record with Portugal is far less clear, and makes him an intriguing case heading into Euro 2012. Largely expected to single-handedly lift and lead A Seleccao, CRon did manage five goals in qualifying but watched his side struggle, losing to Denmark and Norway but scraping through to a playoff with a superior goal difference. From there, a Ronaldo brace anchored a 6-2 playoff win over Bosnia & Herzegovina, giving the mercurial forward a chance to impress in Poland and the Ukraine.
Such is Ronaldo's career; no matter how incendiary and brilliant he is with globally worshiped teams like Manchester United -- he won three consecutive Premier League titles, a Champions League title, a Ballon D'Or and two PFA Player of the Year awards -- and Real Madrid -- a La Liga title, European Golden Shoe and the inaugural FIFA Puskas Award for "most beautiful goal" -- there is still the sense that he has something to prove. With his country drawn in the toughest group alongside Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, all eyes will be watching.
#2: Andres Iniesta, SPA
There is little more to add on Andres Iniesta that has not already been reeled out on numerous occasions during Barcelona's recent period of dominance. The Spaniard is one of the finest midfield technicians of modern times and his abilities have been showcased at the highest levels of the game for the past five years.
The 27-year-old had been tipped for stardom from an early age, with Barcelona legend and now manager Josep Guardiola famously telling a young Xavi: "You will retire me, but Iniesta will retire us both.” Iniesta may not have retired Xavi yet, but the two of them currently make-up the most feared midfield unit in football for both club and country, terrorizing opponents with their famed 'tiki-taka' style.
It is truly a thing of beauty as they slowly dismantle their opponents’ defensive structures by playing continuous short passes in the midfield until at some point a helpless defender is dragged out of position. Then, with a gap emerging, both Xavi and Iniesta are charged with supplying the defense-splitting pass that will seize upon the fault-line they have opened up with their earlier play. The strategy has led both Barcelona and Spain to unprecedented success.
Alongside future Spain teammate Fernando Torres, Iniesta was part of a successful youth generation who won the European Championship at Under-17 and U-19 level in the space of twelve months. Shortly after, first-team football came calling for the prodigious young midfielder and he has not looked back since, winning every trophy in the game over the last ten years.
It has not always been easy for the Spaniard, who nearly didn’t make it at Barcelona because of his homesickness and has often been shifted out of the center to make room for others for his country, but Iniesta has made up for those struggles with career-defining moments, such as his World Cup-winning goal in 2010.
Whilst Xavi may take the plaudits for his orchestration of the Spanish side, it is Iniesta who for club and country has stepped up with a defining contribution when most needed. En-route to World Cup glory, Iniesta picked up no less than three Man of the Match awards for his performances, including the award for the best player of the World Cup final. All eyes will be on Spain once more this summer, but if the Iberian giants are to retain their European Championship title, much will depend on Iniesta.
#3: Xavi, SPA
Though the phrase “the straw that stirs the drink” has been applied to countless mercurial footballing talents over the years, when one looks at the Barcelona and Spain midfielder, it has never seemed more appropriate. Packed into an incandescent club team with the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, it can be easy to overlook the diminutive (Xavi stands, unassuming, at five foot seven) playmaker, but the quality and efficiency of his play always stands out.
His style is cerebral and full of intent; with the ball at his feet, Xavi thinks several moves ahead of the one that starts at his instep, forever looking for space in which to thread a pass and decimate a well-organized defense. (In a 2011 interview, Xavi outlined his thought process: “Think quickly, look for space ... I’m always looking.”) With Iniesta at his side and their on-field telepathy in full effect, the rampant, all-conquering Barcelona side of the late 2000s will never be forgotten.
Making him even more admirable is that in the modern era, a period of hundred-million-dollar transfers and club loyalty for a price, Xavi is a one-club player. Joining Barca’s vaunted La Masia youth academy at age 11, his 15-year professional career (began in 1997) is hard to match: six La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies, two FIFA Club World Cups and a slew of individual honors.
But unlike other luminaries high up this list, Xavi has matched these exploits at the international level. The cool, metronomic midfielder was a vital part of La Furia Roja’s cruise to the 2008 European Championships – even named player of the tournament -- and repeating the feat in 2010 when Spain edged its way through a tightly-contested World Cup en route to the trophy. With no title or accolade left to collect and his age (32) betraying his extraordinary technical skill, the 2012 European Championships will likely be Xavi’s last international tournament. What will he do for his swansong?
#4: Robin van Persie, NED
The past 12 months have been dream-like for Robin van Persie. For so long the 28-year-old Dutchman had been regarded as a rather injury-prone talent, but after his recent goalscoring feats with club side Arsenal, RvP has firmly placed himself in the upper echelon of strikers that world football has to offer.
Van Persie has been central to the Dutch side since the Oranje's Euro 2008 campaign, when he supported Ruud van Nistelrooy from the left flank. However, since the former Manchester United forward's international career came to an end, van Persie has graduated to become the first-choice striker in his own right and led the line for the Netherlands at the FIFA World Cup in 2010, when the side reached the final before losing to Spain.
Since the World Cup, van Persie's scoring at club level has soared to nearly a goal-per-game pace. The transformation to become one of the world's most complete center forwards is complete and now, to Arsenal fans’ dismay, van Persie is in the sights of Europe's giants as his club contract nears its end. Technically, the former Feyenoord man has always been capable of the sublime, but now he’s matching those skills with an intelligence and consistency that had not always been visible in previous years.
With van Persie, it’s all about his majestic left foot, which he has shown is capable of finding the back of the net from pretty much anywhere within 30 yards of goal. While some players may be driven onto their weaker foot, van Persie's intelligent movement when dropping deep into midfield means it is nigh-on impossible for defenders to predict when the Dutchman is going to appear in the box. When he does, it is then almost as difficult to prevent him moving the ball onto his prolific left peg.
With four goals against San Marino in qualifying in September 2011, van Persie moved onto 25 goals for Netherlands and into the top 10 on the all-time international goalscorers list for his country. With a brilliant season for his club under his belt, few would bet against the striker adding a few more to his tally this summer.
#5: Mesut Ozil, GER
As with several of his Germany teammates, Mesut Ozil burst on to the international scene at the 2010 World Cup where his creativity and invention earned the twinkle-toed Werder Bremen midfielder a nomination for the Golden Ball award. Suitably impressed with what they had witnessed, the mighty Real Madrid made its move and Ozil's career has skyrocketed.
At international level, Ozil has continued to inspire his Germany side to outstanding, free-flowing attacking performances. The Madrid star contributed five goals to Germany's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, but it is his dynamic link-up play with the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze that really sets the tone for this current Germany side. This is a side of pace, vision and movement in attacking areas and one that many consider capable of emerging from the tournament with the ultimate prize.
For Real Madrid it has been a similar story, with the German going from strength-to-strength in his link-up play as a part of one of football's best attacking units. Some of Ozil's skills this season have been nothing short of exquisite, with a selection of flicks, tricks and exquisite passing to rival any of the world's best in his position. Starting from either flank or a central berth, Ozil is always able to find an avenue to influence the game, wandering freely from his starting position into areas where he can receive the ball and make an impact.
There is a supreme intelligence to Ozil's game, with his movement and vision central to everything he has achieved. Signed to give Real Madrid's attack more of a delicate touch, Ozil goes about his business with a grace and style similar to many of the legendary players that the Santiago Bernabeu has come to worship over the years. For these very reasons, Ozil has quickly become a fan favorite at a club that has come to appreciate true talent.
European football is currently blessed with the type of creative playmakers that were for a long time considered the domain of South America. Alongside the likes of David Silva, Mario Gotze and Eden Hazard, Ozil is leading the charge. For Germany to win this summer Ozil will need to be close to his best for the latter stages of the tournament and if he is, the German side will be a pleasure to watch regardless of where it finishes.
#6: Wayne Rooney, ENG
Ever controversial off the field, there is only consensus about Rooney’s on-field ability. Although he can be hot-tempered and rash, like the last-minute kickout at a Montenegrin in England’s last qualifier that will cost him the first two games of the Euro, all is inevitably forgiven on account of Rooney’s footballing splendor.
A hybrid of a striker, attacking midfielder and winger, Rooney roams far from his spot as a central forward, thoughtfully connecting with teammates, helping in the buildup of attacks, running at defenders, shooting from distance or getting on the end of balls to score himself. Hard-working and blessed with a body that can act on his inspiration, Rooney could be as good and complete a forward as England has ever produced. In recent years, even his heading has improved.
He bears a mighty burden, though. Since Michael Owen’s precipitous drop-off in form in the mid-2000s, Rooney has easily been England’s outstanding striker, flanked by a revolving door of mediocre men. Thus he has shouldered an outsized share of the crushing hype surrounding every England appearance at a major international tournament. Heading into Euro 2012 at age 26, having appeared in two World Cups too, Rooney has yet to really shine at one of the game’s quadrennial bonanzas. The argument has been made that being out for his team’s first two games could improve Rooney’s odds of making an impact at the business end of the tournament, when he’ll be fresher than his peers. That’s if England makes it that far without him, of course. And that is a big if.
#7: David Silva, SPA
It’s taken a long time for David Silva, 26, to get his due after coming through at Valencia, where his father was responsible for stadium security. A crafty playmaker or left winger who started for Spain when it won Euro 2008 but receded on to the bench for the 2010 World Cup, has perhaps grown into Spain’s finest dribbler. Highly creative and incredibly hard to dislodge from the ball, Silva’s runs and penetrating passes and through balls have been a scourge to English defenses all year.
In his second year with Manchester City, Silva’s game has continued to mature and he is finally being recognized as one of the world’s premier attacking midfielders, scooping up more than a dozen assists in a small sampling of the evidence of the services he supplies for City’s grateful corps of strikers. And whereas a slew of his club teammates have gotten themselves embroiled in one quagmire or scandal after another, Silva is as much the model citizen as he is the model midfielder.
Silva has long stood in the shadow of fellow Spanish attacking midfield luminaries like Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. But, to Silva’s immense credit, it’s come time to ask if he hasn’t eclipsed the Barcelona men.
#8: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, SWE
"I am Zlatan" was the chosen name for the Sweden star's autobiography last year and the title encapsulates the AC Milan striker perfectly. Ibrahimovic is a one-off, a prodigious talent who divides opinion like few other players in the world game. To some he is one of the very best; to others he is an over-hyped egomaniac.
Languid and elegant, at his best Zlatan is one of the finest sights in football. Despite his sizable frame, the Swede is capable of the kind of deft touches that one would expect from a player half his size. This makes Ibrahimovic a fearsome opponent and his career so far suggests there are few better. There are those who believe he does not perform to his usual standard when the pressure is on and that he is not a "big game" player, but the Swede's incredible haul of titles in the past few years would suggest the opposite.
Since 2003-04, Ibrahimovic has amassed an incredible eight consecutive league titles in three countries, with five different clubs. From Ajax to AC Milan, via Juventus, Internazionale and Barcelona, the Swede has left a trail of success in his wake. Indeed, at every stop on his wandering journey, he has quickly become a hero for the fans of his chosen club, with the notable exception of his one season at the Camp Nou where Zlatan never quite seemed a fit for Pep Guardiola's new Barcelona side.
At AC Milan this season, Ibrahimovic has been supreme once again. A three-time Italian Footballer of the Year, he will enter this year's European Championship off the back of his best career goal return to date. The striker sailed to a 30-plus goal haul with ease and also contributed an astonishing number of assists to the Milan effort over the past 12 months, all boding well for a star showing in the colors of Sweden this summer.
With Ibrahimovic though, nothing is a certainty. He is Sweden's best hope of achieving any kind of success this summer and his goal return for his country is strong, but there will still be lingering doubts for many over his ability to shine. The 30-year-old will be on the big stage at international level for what could be the last time and will need to take this opportunity to finally cement his status as one of European football's elite strikers.
#9: Bastian Schweinsteiger, GER
The latest incarnation in a long and highly decorated line of fire-breathing Bayern Munich and Germany midfielders, Schweinsteiger, 27, is a far more regal player than his family name would suggest. After first winning his place in the Bayern squad at just 18, Schweinsteiger drifted widely through the team sheet. Mostly he was a winger. But it was when he was converted to a full-time central midfielder three summers ago that he found his calling.
A hard-nosed and physical player with a remarkable lust for work, Schweinsteiger combines his laborious ways with an underappreciated finesse on the ball. Frequently drifting out wide or sitting deep, many of Germany’s more promising attacks originate from one of his feet, if only you bother to trace them back to their start. You won’t catch Schweinsteiger pulling out intricate step-overs or other flashy moves. But if you look closely, you’ll discover a player with some of the finest set pieces, dribbles, long shots and passes in the game, underpinned by a remarkable vision.
Positioned deep in Germany’s midfield, likely beside Sami Khedira and behind Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller, Schweinsteiger is the engine room and command center of the best young midfield in international soccer.
#10: Arjen Robben, NED
Unfortunately, due to long spells on the sidelines, Arjen Robben has at times been one of the most underrated players in European football. Having been extremely influential in Chelsea's early success before succeeding (in the beginning) at Real Madrid, Robben was seemingly the forgotten man by the time he arrived at the Allianz Arena in 2009. However, since guiding both FC Bayern and Netherlands to major finals in 2010, he is now earning the plaudits he deserves on a regular basis.
Robben has been so good that the 28-year-old has made himself a template for the role of the inverted winger. Starting from the right flank for both club and country, Robben is granted freedom to venture inside and use his magical left foot to devastating effect, or continue on the outside to provide a cross for one of the strikers lingering in the middle. During his three years at FC Bayern, Robben has developed this role to suit his game and made himself a fearsome goal threat from the flanks.
It is not simply the act of cutting inside and shooting that makes him such a difficult proposition for opposition defenders, it is the fact Robben can turn on either side and make the decision at pace. The wide man has his fair share of tricks at his disposal, but it is often the sheer speed with which he attacks the opposition that creates the opening.
Of course, creating shooting chances alone is not enough if they are not converted, and finishing prowess is another area in which Robben separates himself from the competition. On countless occasions in the past few seasons the Dutchman has proved himself to be a lethal finisher with his left foot from anywhere in and around the area. A golden opportunity wasted in the World Cup 2010 final will linger in the memory of Netherlands fans, but there is no doubt he will be looking to silence those critics this summer.
Unfortunately for his country, since his golden performances at the World Cup, Robben has only pulled on the Oranje jersey a handful of times and this is the problem he presents to his coaches and managers. When fit, he is outstanding and transforms a good side into a great side. Yet, fitness is never assured for a player who last managed 30 league games during the 2002-03 season at Ajax.
#11: Luka Modric, CRO
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.
#12: Franck Ribery, FRA
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.
#13: Iker Casillas, SPA
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.
#14: Wesley Sneijder, NED
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.
#15: Cesc Fabregas, SPA
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.
#16: Philipp Lahm, GER
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.
#17: Karim Benzema, FRA
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.
#18: Thomas Muller, GER
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.
#19: Daniele De Rossi, ITA
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.
#20: Gerard Pique, SPA
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.
#21: Mario Balotelli, ITA
There are powder kegs that have started fewer fires than Balotelli has. The eccentric 21-year-old Manchester City striker has been as likely to score a brilliant goal as he has to incur a red card or set alight his bathroom with fireworks.
After being turned down by Barcelona, Balotelli made his professional debut at age 15. Ever since, managers have had to reconcile their ire at his endless antics and their reliance at his improbable combination of size, skill and imagination. So it is, too, for Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, who has taken to leaving Balotelli, who has a mere seven caps, off his roster for his antics in Manchester but will rely on him heavily during Euro 2012, short as he is on young, healthy, quality strikers.
#22: Nani, POR
Nani is both a source of huge frustration and of joy to many of his supporters, with his outstanding goals and assists records offset by the regularity with which the Portuguese winger fails to play the easy ball or convert a relatively simple opportunity. Thus, the winger continues to divide opinion amongst even his own club's supporters.
At his best, Nani is a match-winner and has proved unplayable on occasions, with his trickery, pace and ability to shoot with either foot a potent combination. The problem, though, and the reason that he is still often overlooked for bigger games at club level, is that these occasions do not arrive with the regularity that his talent deserves. Talent, though, is one thing that the Portuguese have never traditionally been short of.
At international level, Nani is a key part of the Portugal setup and boasts a more than reasonable goal return in the colors of the Selecção. Five goals during qualification as part of an attacking trio with Cristiano Ronaldo and Helder Postiga bode well ahead of this summer's tournament, but Portugal fans will be hoping that it is this productive version of the Manchester United star that shows up.
#23: Joe Hart, ENG
Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart has been firmly established as England's No. 1 ever since England returned from the 2010 World Cup. Hart's return from a loan spell at Birmingham, which had shot him into international contention, also saw the young stopper propelled into the first team at title-chasing Manchester City, and the 24-year-old has not looked back since.
Physically, Hart is a giant between the sticks, and his massive frame means that he is amongst the best one-on-one stoppers in the European game. But it is his utter command of the penalty area and security from crosses that truly belie his age that, in international goalkeeping terms, is still remarkably young.
With just 11 goals conceded in his first 17 international games, Hart has adapted to the biggest stage with relative ease, while his first taste of the Champions League at club level should mean that he is fully prepared for the pressure of his first major tournament as England's first choice keeper. He will just be hopeful he can avoid the issues that some of his predecessors have faced in the jersey.
#24: Sergio Busquets, SPA
Few players in football’s upper echelons generate quite so much contention as Busquets, holding midfielder and do-all workhorse in the Barcelona midfield. Oft criticized for his occasional foul play and tendency to dive or simulate, those darker elements of his career are footnotes to his functional, composed play for club and country.
Breaking into the Barca squad in 2008, Busquets’ purpose in midfield is unsavory to some but essential for his team. Acting as both shield for his defenders and catalyst for any forward moves, it is Busquets’ aggressive, tenacious presence that frees up creators such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi to bomb forward in search of goals.
With Spain, Busquets is impressive in a similar role; alongside the more expansive Xabi Alonso in the heart of midfield, he was instrumental in his nation’s first winning World Cup campaign, playing all but 30 minutes. But the highest praise for Busquets comes not from Catalans, teammates or his former Barca coach Pep Guardiola, but from Spain’s national team boss, Vicente Del Bosque: “If I was a footballer, I would like to be like Busquets.” High praise from the man trusting the 23-year-old Catalonian to anchor La Furia Roja’s search for a third consecutive international title dating back to the 2008 Euros.
#25: Manuel Neuer, GER
Having seized an opportunity (an injury to Rene Adler) to enter the 2010 World Cup as Germany's first-choice goalkeeper, Neuer never looked back and used a magnificent showing at the tournament as a springboard to further success. The 26-year-old caught the eye of many during the event in South Africa and has retained the German No. 1 spot ever since.
In 2011, Neuer made the leap from Schalke 04 to rival Bayern Munich, leading to a hostile reception from his new supporters upon arrival. But a new record set for the longest unbeaten run in the club's history soon saw fans getting behind their new stopper, who is undoubtedly Germany's best keeper since Oliver Kahn.
Neuer is an imposing figure and commands his area brilliantly to deal with balls crossed in from the flanks. Despite his broad frame, he is a remarkably agile shot-stopper and has over the past couple seasons produced memorable saves to deny opponents on a regular basis. Now, for the first time in his career, the Bayern keeper will have the opportunity to display his talents at a European Championship, with his Germany side amongst the pre-tournament favorites for the title.
#26: Steven Gerrard, ENG
Often told he was too small to make it as a professional when he was young, Gerrard nevertheless grew into a giant among footballers -- not to mention 6-foot tall. Never forsaking his beloved Liverpool from the age of 9 onward-- except for a few trials elsewhere when the Reds dawdled on signing him to his apprentice papers at 14 -- he will be remembered as one of the Merseyside icons who enrich club lore.
At 31, Gerrard still very much has a part to play for England. Even if the blueprint for successfully deploying him alongside Frank Lampard in the England midfield was never properly developed, his attacking verve, technique and engine remain cherished weapons in the English arsenal. There perhaps never has been an English player as readily able to will his team to win games as Gerrard, and having been named as the Three Lions' captain by Roy Hodgson, this summer provides him perhaps one final chance to do so.
#27: Christian Eriksen, DEN
Although Christian Eriksen played two games at the 2010 World Cup, this will be the Dane's first major tournament at international level since becoming a first-team regular for club and country. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has been turning heads over the past couple seasons, and the stage is now set for him to show that he is ready to take the next step in his career.
The talented midfield playmaker has come of age at Ajax in the past two seasons as the latest wunderkind to roll off the Dutch side's renowned production line. Signed from OB Odense in 2008, Eriksen’s rise has been long-awaited, but worth every second. Under Frank de Boer, Ajax has developed a system that is based upon the club's traditions of possession and passing football, with the young Dane serving as the side's creative linchpin in midfield.
Voted the Danish Player of the Year in 2011, Eriksen has started to make an impact on the international scene, including opening his goal-scoring account during the side's qualification campaign. The youngster has shown he is not afraid of the big stage; now he must prove that he has the quality to consistently perform against high-class opposition.
#28: Mario Gomez, GER
Since a disappointing Euro 2008, Gomez has emerged as Germany’s next great target forward in the mold of Oliver Bierhoff and Miroslav Klose. Tall at 6-foot-3, strong and lethal in the air, the 26-year-old Bayern Munich striker is rounding into the peak of his career.
His goal-scoring record has followed suit. Gomez has scored a shade under 20 league goals per season in the hard-hitting Bundesliga over the past six years, tallied against each of Germany’s Euro qualifying opponents and already has 21 international goals -- more than Klose, who will probably become Die Mannschaft’s all-time leading scorer, had at his age.
Disclaimer: Gomez has never been a full-time starter or scored a goal at a major international tournament.
#29: Samir Nasri, FRA
One of the most talented midfielders in Europe on his day, Nasri hasn’t enjoyed the best of times since joining Manchester City last summer. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the 24-year-old, who has shown throughout his career that he can perform at the top of the game, even if consistency is not always a strong point.
Having been discarded under former French coach Raymond Domenech, Nasri has come back strong under Laurent Blanc to become an important member of this new iteration of Les Bleus. The question, as always, is where and how to play him to get the best out of his abilities. It is an issue that has never fully been answered at club level and one that is currently hindering the Frenchman's progression.
At his best, Nasri is a match-winner, and the agony of Arsenal fans at his departure last season is testament to that fact. Graceful across the ground and with a fantastic ability to pick the right pass, he has terrified top sides when on form, while the former Marseille man is more than adept at breaking into the area late to get onto the score sheet. Euro 2012 presents a big chance for Nasri to deliver a message to his doubters.
#30: Andrea Pirlo, ITA
Any biography of Pirlo, perhaps the greatest playmaker of the 2000s, is bound to have more words dedicated to the things he’s won -- everything but the Euro -- than to his personality and what makes him tick. Pirlo is an inconspicuous man in all arenas of life but the field. There, he is nicknamed l’architecto and il metronomo for his capacity to orchestrate the offense and set the pace of a game.
Sitting very deep in the midfield, where he can collect the ball from his defenders, Pirlo’s long balls and set pieces are without equal. In Poland and Ukraine, as ever, Italy’s forwards will only be as strong as the service Pirlo provides them, which propelled the team to the 2006 World Cup, for starters.
#31: Mario Gotze, GER
The young Borussia Dortmund playmaker has enjoyed a dizzying ascent through German football since joining his club’s academy at age 8 and making his first-team debut for the Bundesliga winners in 2009. Quick and equally comfortable with the ball on either foot, Gotze is a once-in-a-generation talent -- as German icon Franz Beckenbauer said of Gotze, “he is an instinctive footballer, just like Messi” -- whose best is clearly yet to come.
Winning league titles with Dortmund in back-to-back seasons, Gotze also won the 2011 Golden Boy award -- given to the top football player in Europe under 21 years old -- following in the footsteps of other Euro 2012 stars Wayne Rooney, Cesc Fabregas and Mario Balotelli in addition to being present for Germany’s successful UEFA U-17 side in 2009. But what sets him apart is his vision and awareness in the attacking third, as reflected in his haul of 12 goals and 16 assists in 49 league appearances the past two seasons.
With Die Mannschaft, Gotze has managed 12 outings since 2010 and, with striker Andre Schurrle, was the first German player born after the reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall to represent the national team. Furthermore, Gotze’s goal in a 2-0 friendly win over Brazil earned him the honor of being the joint-youngest goal scorer for the German national team in the post-World War II era, all hinting at his preternatural abilities as an attacking midfielder or wing threat.
#32: Gianluigi Buffon, ITA
One of football's goalkeeping greats returns for another major tournament this summer as World Cup winner Gianluigi Buffon is set to appear for Italy in his fourth European Championship. Injury-riddled the past few seasons, Buffon, 34, has enjoyed a marvelous 2011-12 campaign for Juventus and will hope to bring his imperious form to Poland and the Ukraine.
Buffon's reflexes remain among the sharpest around, and he has turned in performances this season that show he is still capable of performing at the level that people have come to expect from the eight-time Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year. As with all great stoppers, parts of Buffon's game also have improved with age, and the Juventus man now exudes an aura of dominance when the ball enters his area.
Apart from his World Cup win in 2006, Buffon's experiences at international tournaments have been far from outstanding, with both his Euro 2000 and World Cup 2010 cut short by injury before, or during, the opening game. With a quarterfinal his best finish in a European Championship, Buffon will look to improve his record in 2012.
#33: Juan Mata, SPA
Another product of Spain’s little revolution of dribbling dervishes, Juan Mata, who was discarded by Real Madrid when he was 19, has become a hybrid of ideologically opposite soccer cultures. Getting his education in Spain’s technique-obsessed youth ranks, Mata has had to learn to combine the wondrous things his feet can do -- pass, dribble and shoot with devastating efficiency and creativity -- with getting his mere 5-foot-7 stature to function in the rough-and-tumble English Premier League for Chelsea to become the model modern footballer.
Toiling behind Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso and David Silva, however, Mata more than likely will play a role off the bench during Euro 2012, re-energizing games with his peerless runs as opponents start to flag under Spain’s pressure.
#34: Xabi Alonso, SPA
This 30-year-old Mark Wahlberg look-alike displays all the versatility of a gifted actor on the field. As a central midfielder he can play the tough guy or the hero, shielding his defenders or spraying around pinpoint passes, including some of the best balls over the top out there.
Coy but eclectic off the field -- he became a fan of Gaelic football after going on a school exchange to Ireland -- Alonso seems to be one of those rare players who seldom has a bad game on it. And it is his coverage of extensive real estate and positional diligence that allow attacking string pullers Xavi and Andres Iniesta to stalk forward without having to worry very much about the space they’re vacating.
#35: Giorgio Chiellini, ITA
The Italian national side has enjoyed a long succession of genuinely world-class center backs, and following on from the likes of Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta is Juventus star Giorgio Chiellini. The 27-year-old, alongside club colleague Andrea Barzagli, forms a fearsome partnership that will be the foundation of any Italian challenge this summer.
Uncompromising and rugged, Chiellini uses every inch of his frame to make life difficult for opposition attackers, while his impressive reading of the game means that he often deals with potential danger without having to get physical with an opponent. The advantages of having a familiar center-back partnership are numerous, and given Juventus' form this season, few would bet against Italy proving rock-solid in defense at Euro 2012.
In his first international tournament at Euro 2008, Chiellini impressed after he received an opportunity midway through the group stage, putting in his best performance against Spain in the quarterfinals. However, the Confederations Cup and the World Cup have been a disappointment for Italy in the years since, and the defender and his colleagues will hope to right some wrongs in Poland and Ukraine.
#36: Ashley Cole, ENG
Another player coming into the tournament off the back of a below-par league campaign, Ashley Cole will want to impress this summer. For a long time, the 31-year-old has been considered the prototype of the modern fullback, but he must now prove that his powers are not waning.
Cole always has been a fine outlet on the left flank. His overlapping runs and link-up play with those in midfield positions mean that opposition sides often find themselves outnumbered down the wings, opening up space for those around him. Defensively, Cole always has been solid for someone of such attacking intent, but with his pace fading, the defender must stand up to increased scrutiny on that side of his game.
For England, Cole has been reliable, and the country’s left-back position has been almost his personal possession; however, this summer could well be his final fling at international level. The Chelsea man will be crucial to anything England plans to achieve this summer, and in a time of such insecurity for the underachieving Three Lions, at least they know they can bank on one consistent performer.
#37: Sami Khedira, GER
Alongside Germany teammate Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira was one of the revelations of the 2010 World Cup, and unsurprisingly, Real Madrid came knocking for the pair shortly after the tournament. Khedira, now 25, has enjoyed an up-and-down first two seasons at the Bernabeu but remains an important player in Jose Mourinho's plans for Los Merengues.
A combative force in midfield, Khedira has developed into more of a box-to-box player in his second term in Madrid after being granted a predominantly defensive role on arrival. Given his height and strength, he is always an aerial threat in attack and similarly proves useful in dealing with set pieces in defensive areas.
Khedira's international career has been nothing short of exceptional so far, with an impressive World Cup followed by a qualification campaign that saw Germany stroll to 10 consecutive wins. An often unsung hero, the midfielder will be integral to any success that Germany achieves this summer, even if the attention falls on some of the side's more attacking players.
#38: Sergio Ramos, SPA
It would be easy to conclude that Ramos’ accidental dropping of the 2010-11 Copa del Rey from atop an open double-decker bus, only for it to be run over by said bus, is the perfect metaphor for the long-maned man -- a boorish act by a brutish player. But that would overlook the skill hiding beneath the brawn of the hard-as-nails central defender (for Real Madrid) and right back (for Spain).
Consider that for no other Spanish teenager, of all the wonderful prospects the Iberian nation has produced, was such a large transfer sum paid -- some $35 million -- as Real did for Ramos, a defender, no less, seven years ago.
Ramos, 26, is most of all a precise tackler, a one-man aerial defense system, a shrewd man-marker and, when given the chance, quite a handful in the opponent’s half, too. Require more evidence of his understated brilliance? Of all the players to appear at the 2010 World Cup, Ramos, who lifted the trophy with Spain, was deemed the most valuable by the Castrol Performance Index.
#39: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, NED
The hard-nosed forward has had to work hard to fit in the Oranje system; despite his prolific scoring clip for club (29 goals and eight assists in 32 games for Schalke in 2011-12) and country (31 in 50 appearances), Huntelaar is frequently sparring with the brilliant Robin van Persie for the right to lead the Dutch attack.
Yet the battle is a good one for the Netherlands, as Huntelaar’s physicality and aggression around goal make for the perfect foil for RVP’s lithe, stylish artistry. Huntelaar’s relentless chases for the ball in attacking areas don’t always pay off -- Huntelaar’s two concussions in 2012 might blunt his push for this summer’s Euros -- but there’s little doubting his value in Bert van Marwijk’s system when healthy.
Overall, Huntelaar is coming into peak form at age 28, leading the hypercompetitive Bundesliga in scoring and showing the form that saw him noticed at the under-21 level, where he won individual honors at the 2006 U-21 championships and is still the Netherlands’ leading scorer for the “Yong Oranje.”
#40: Yann M’Vila, FRA
Let his current club coach, Rennes manager Frederic Antonetti, have the first word on the highly rated, heavily scouted defensive midfielder: "M'Vila reads the game like Claude Makelele, has the presence of Patrick Vieira and can pass the ball like Yaya Toure."
Although these lofty comparisons might seem premature for the 21-year-old from Amiens, his progress over the past two seasons has shown that he might soon embody that hallowed trio. Consider that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been trying to lure M'Vila from Ligue 1 for what seems like an eternity, seeing him as the perfect midfield foil for Alex Song and Jack Wilshere.
M'Vila's strengths revolve around his decision-making and reading of the game. Although he sits deep in midfield, his passing range and upfield vision mean he often serves as an attacking catalyst for club and country (since making his Les Bleus debut in August 2010). That’s something Laurent Blanc has been keen to integrate since taking over as Les Bleus' manager.
To complement his imaginative play from withdrawn positions -- M'Vila led Ligue 1 in passes attempted (2,341) and completed (1,989) in 2010-11, a testament to his tempo-setting role -- is his sense of discipline in the tackle. Despite playing a demanding position in front of defense, M'Vila has just 18 yellow cards and two reds in more than 130 professional appearances, proving that he can control games without losing control of himself. That should prove useful in a demanding Euro 2012 group.