50 Most Captivating Footballers of 2016: Part 4

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Eder of Portugal celebrates after Portugal's 1-0 win against France during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

2016 has been a fascinating year for football. From Leicester City’s league title triumph at odds of 5000/1, to Portugal‘s shock victory in the Euro 2016 final, to the bizarre rise of Will Grigg on and off the field, the last 12 months have not been short of entertainment. This five-part series looks at 50 of the most captivating footballers of 2016. For part 1, click here; for part 2, click here; for part 3, click here.

50 Most Captivating Footballers of 2016: Part 4

Robert Lewandowski

By Dan Garza

Robert Lewandowski has had an incredible year for both club and country. His finishing ability was nothing short of flawless throughout 2016, and he allowed his name to be etched into the record books.

A 30-goal season in the Bundesliga was completed in May, as the Polish striker set a new record for most goals scored in a single season. He was a key component in Bayern Munich’s 25th league title, the third he’d won since arriving at the club. For Poland, he netted eight goals in 12 appearances, including a goal against Portugal in the Euro 2016 quarter-final.

He’s continued his superb form this season, scoring 12 goals in 16 appearances in the Bundesliga and five goals in six appearances in the Champions League. In addition, he signed a contract extension with Bayern Munich until 2021. It is safe to say he has made his mark on the German league and become one of the most versatile strikers in the world.

Virgil van Dijk

By Barry Dixon

Virgil van Dijk has been a rock at the heart of Southampton’s defence since signing in 2015. During 2016, the man mountain has gone from strength to strength, helping the club achieve European qualification. The Saints crashed out of the Europa League narrowly, but the defender and team were not disgraced, as they recorded impressive wins over Sparta Prague and Inter.

With the Dutchman improving with every game, the top clubs in the Premier League are now chasing his signature. In the summer Southampton gave their star man a new and improved six-year contract to try to ward off suitors. But reports are now surfacing daily that clubs are willing to pay big money for his services.

Fans at St Mary’s will be hoping the club can resist any offers, but there is a big chance Van Dijk could become the latest big name departure. If he were to leave, it could mission impossible to replace him, no matter how much money his sale adds to the coffers.

Harry Kane

By Declan Wiseman

2016 was another great year for Harry Kane. Domestically, he has fought off competition from new signings to cement his place fully in the Tottenham first-team. Despite suffering an injury in the new season, he has fought back with vengeance, notching derby goals against the likes of Arsenal and West Ham. Although his team’s performance in Europe was poor, he managed to score two goals in three Champions League appearances.

The pinnacle of his year was undoubtedly the chance to represent England at the Euro 2016 tournament. Despite his country’s woeful performance, and his manager’s interesting decision to elect him as corner and free kick taker, he has become one of England’s first choice strikers.

At just 23, Kane has already achieved a lot. 2017 could be an even bigger year for him and his club and to consolidate his place in the England team ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

Pepe

By Hugo Jennings

Ever the antagonist, Pepe’s more controversial antics on the field has cast a shadow over his brilliant performances in the last five years. If he weren’t seen as one of football’s “bad guys”, it’s likely that he’d be rated as one of the best defenders in the world.

In 2016, he certainly proved his worth both as a defender and as an agent provocateur. Sergio Ramos, Cristiano Ronaldo and Éder, amongst others, took the plaudits for Real Madrid’s and Portugal’s success in the Champions League and European Championship, but without Pepe’s performances, it’s likely that neither of those teams would have been as successful. His ability to read the game and coolness under pressure—when he’s not stamping on people, that is—are the driving force behind the defensive capability of any team he plays in.

He’ll be remembered more for his moments of madness on the pitch than his understated brilliance at the back, but the 33-year-old’s footballing CV should be an example to follow for any budding defender. Perhaps it’s the insanity which makes him more captivating, anyway.

Kevin De Bruyne

By Philip Meese

Kevin De Bruyne is one of the first names on the team sheet at Manchester City. His return to the Premier League in 2015, at a cost of £55 million, saw him silence a lot of doubters.

2016 did not start well for De Bruyne, as he sustained a knee injury in City’s League Cup semi-final win over Everton. He was out for over two months, missing the final. He made a return to the side in April, scoring in a 4-0 win over Bournemouth. Ten days later, his goal against Paris Saint-Germain saw the Blues reach the Champions League semi-final for the first time in their history.

Following his country’s disappointing early exit from Euro 2016, De Bruyne started the new season in the same vein he ended the previous one. He scored a superb goal in the Manchester Derby against United, capitalising on a Daley Blind mistake before finishing expertly. In November, City beat Barcelona 3-1, and his free kick was the highlight of the night.

It’s fair to say that City fans can be excited at what the future holds for De Bruyne. At the age of 25, he is nowhere near his peak yet. It’s frightening to think how good he’ll be when he reaches it.

Éder

By Philip Meese

The story of Portuguese striker Éder is that of an unlikely hero. He has rarely been what you might call a consistent goalscorer, but he is a hardworking and powerful forward with a great first touch. Used mainly as a backup by his country, few would have predicted he would become a national hero.

Éder didn’t have the greatest start to 2016. Having joined Swansea City the previous summer, he failed to score in fifteen appearances and was subsequently sent on loan to Lille. He rediscovered his confidence at the Ligue 1 side, scoring six goals and helping the club qualify for the Europa League. His form saw him called up to the Portugal squad for Euro 2016.

In the final, Cristiano Ronaldo picked up an injury midway through the first half, severely blunting their attacking options. Éder was brought on towards the end of the second half, having not featured since the group phase. The match went into extra time, and in the 109th minute, the substitute scored a memorable goal to win his country its first ever international tournament. Following the tournament, Lille made his transfer permanent.

Éder put a difficult year behind him and worked hard to become a legend for his country. What he achieved at Euro 2016 means that, despite not starting a single match at Euro 2016, he will never be forgotten.

Jérôme Boateng

By Karan Tejwani

Jérôme Boateng finally staked his claim to be one of the best centre-halves in the world in 2016. Arguably the best year of his career, Boateng was Germany’s best player as they reached the semi-final at Euro 2016. A stunning goal-line clearance in his side’s opening encounter against Ukraine was his most memorable moment.

In addition to getting his first international goal, he also earned a spot on UEFA’s team of the tournament for the competition, and his performance made him a strong contender to become Germany captain following Bastian Schweinsteiger’s retirement from international competitions.

Domestically, Boateng won the Bundesliga and the DFB Pokal with Bayern Munich and, to add to his personal honours, he was voted Germany’s Player of the Year by leading local publication Kicker, the first defender to do so since Jürgen Kohler in 1997. His 163 votes were a mammoth 68 clear of nearest challenger Thomas Müller. It was a perfect end to an excellent year.

Paul Pogba

By Karan Tejwani

This year, Paul Pogba has done fairly well for himself at two different clubs in two different countries, as well as for his national side. Pogba began his year in Turin with Juventus, where he spurred the side on to a fifth successive Serie A title after a poor start to the season.

At Euro 2016, he helped France reach the final of the tournament in his home country with a string of fine displays in midfield before their shocking defeat at the hands of a defiant Portugal side. It was in the summer that he stole the headlines with a record-breaking £89 million move to Manchester United – the side that let him go for free in 2012.

And after a patchy start to the season, he’s helped José Mourinho’s side back towards the top of English football with some excellent showings in midfield and is combining well with the other stars at the club as they look to return to where they were. 2016 hasn’t been a perfect year for the 23-year-old, but he’s certainly been in the headlines almost constantly.

Jermain Defoe

By Barry Dixon

Jermain Defoe added another chapter to his already enthralling story in 2016. The Sunderland striker has continued to keep the the Black Cats in the Premier League almost single-handedly. Last season he was the third highest English goalscorer in the league, with only title-winner Jamie Vardy and Tottenham’s Harry Kane ahead of him. The fact that he was part of a team struggling at the wrong end of the table makes his scoring exploits all the more remarkable.

Calls were made from fans across the country for him to be on the plane to Euro 2016. These calls, unfortunately, fell on deaf ears. Maybe England’s campaign would have fared better had the in-form striker been in the squad.

This season he has continued where he left off. Sunderland have continued to struggle but the striker’s goals have kept them in with a chance of survival. He recently scored his 150th Premier League goal. Even at 34, he surely deserves another chance at international level with England.

Karim Benzema

By Dan Garza

2016 was a controversial year for Karim Benzema, as the Frenchman found himself in the face of a bizarre sex tape scandal throughout the year.

Despite the controversy, Benzema had a fairly successful year for Real Madrid. He scored 24 goals in 27 appearances in La Liga in the 2015-16 season, and was a key player in his side’s run to the Champions League crown.

Internationally, it was a different story. The 29-year-old was left out of the France team for Euro 2016 by the French Football Association. Thus, he missed the opportunity to play a major international competition on home soil.

In the 2016-17 campaign, he’s only found the back of the net four times in La Liga, but four goals in six appearances in the Champions League has made up for this somewhat. More recently, his two goals in Real Madrid’s FIFA Club World Cup campaign were enough for him to win his tenth trophy at the club.

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