50 Most Captivating Footballers of 2016: Part 5

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Northern Ireland's Will Grigg celebrates after scoring the team's third goal against Belarus during an international friendly football match between Northern Ireland and Belarus at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on May 27, 2016. / AFP / PAUL FAITH (Photo credit should read PAUL FAITH/AFP/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; for part 4, click here.

50 Most Captivating Footballers of 2016: Part 5

Gianluigi Buffon

By Philip Meese

As he approaches his 39th birthday, Gianluigi Buffon shows no signs of slowing down.  The world’s most expensive goalkeeper has had a superb 2016, and this was reflected in Juventus’ decision to extend his contract into his forties. He signed the new deal in May, shortly before the club won the Coppa Italia to add to their 30th Serie A title.

In addition to his club achievements, 2016 saw Buffon receive a host of personal accolades. He continues to be first choice ‘keeper for Italy, and in November won his 167th cap for his country. This saw him become the most capped currently active player in the world, along with Iker Casillas). Although Italy were eliminated from Euro 2016, Buffon’s save against Mario Gomez was nominated for Save of the Tournament.

Buffon’s form meant that he finished ninth in the Ballon d’Or voting, and sixth in UEFA’s Best Player in Europe award. Buffon has been guarding the Turin giants’ goal for over fifteen years now, and it would surprise nobody if he eventually made it twenty.

Renato Sanches

By Chuck Booth

2016 was a breakthrough year for young Renato Sanches. The Portuguese midfielder rose from relative obscurity to stardom over the course of a few short months. He grew immensely on the pitch and had a year that most 19-year-olds would dream of.

After a string of impressive performances for Benfica, Sanches got his big-money move to Bayern Munich. In the same month, he made his debut for Portugal, but it was at Euro 2016 that he truly made his name.

In the group stages, Sanches made his competitive debut for his country against Iceland and put in a man of the match performance against Croatia in a 1-0 Portugal win. In the quarter-final against Poland, he scored a crucial equaliser, which was a turning point in his team’s run to winning the tournament. He picked up the Young Player of the Tournament award for his efforts.

Sanches capped off the year by winning the UEFA Golden Boy award, given to Europe’s top young player. It’s safe to say that 2016 was a year to remember for him as he burst on the scene, and made his presence felt.

Wes Morgan

By Sam Davies

Much was made of Jamie Vardy’s meteoric rise to the top of the Premier League last season, but explosive players like he and Riyad Mahrez need the most solid platforms from which to express themselves. In Wes Morgan, they had just that.

Morgan had never kicked a ball in the Premier League until 2014, 30 years after his birth and 12 years after his professional career got going during a loan spell at Kidderminster Harriers in the fourth tier of English football. Through these years, Morgan has remained an honest, no-nonsense, reliable centre-half. His style suited him well in the lower leagues, and was even refreshingly effective when he stepped up to the top flight, where ball-playing defenders have become increasingly fashionable.

An ever-present in Leicester’s remarkable title triumph last season, Morgan proved ball-playing capabilities unnecessary. And as all good captains do, he popped up with two vital goals in a 1-0 win over Southampton and a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, as Leicester City won their first ever league title.

Yannick Carrasco

By Hugo Jennings

2016 ended up being a disappointing year for Yannick Carrasco, but it was memorable. Having established himself as a key player for both club and country, he has consistently put in top quality performances and added a handful of “big game” goals to his footballing CV.

Last season was an important one in his career and working with Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid has done wonders for his overall game. Although Atleti lost another Champions League final to rivals Real Madrid, Carrasco’s impressive goal was an individual highlight.

Belgium flattered to deceive at Euro 2016 and were knocked out by Wales in the quarter-final, but Carrasco scored his first international goal in the Last 16 against Hungary and has since become one of the first names on his country’s team sheet.

This season, he has been nothing short of brilliant. He is currently his club’s for the season, his winner against Bayern Munich probably the highlight of the ten goals he has scored. Atlético are a long way off the pace in La Liga, but they are still going strong in the Copa del Rey and Champions League. 2017 could provide the first major silverware of the 23-year-old’s career.

Oscar

By Michael Kovacs

David Beckham left Europe to play state-side mostly for his wife to pursue whatever it is she is/was pursuing. Gareth Bale bolted for Real Madrid because, well, it’s Real Madrid. Frank Lampard migrated to MLS to add a couple quiet years to his career away from the pressure cooker that is English football. Those make sense, and there are many reasons for players to ply their trade elsewhere.

But now the game is faced with another temptress, one that has a secret weapon on its side. Enter the Chinese Super League, stage left, with limitless money in its holster. And in 2016 it claimed another captive from Chelsea—Oscar.

One could argue Nicolas Anelka, Didier Drogba and Ramires led the way, but each of those had much different circumstances. The most important difference is age. Oscar joins Shanghai SIPG at just 25 years of age, leaving Chelsea and football’s Mecca, London. Signing for £60 million, the move comes with a steep price.

Will he play again for Brazil? Will he use up all of his prime playing years away from top-flight football, or will the lustre of Europe’s top trophies pry him away?

Will Grigg

By Chuck Booth

Plenty of forwards had great seasons in the English lower leagues this year, but none of them achieved anything like the cult hero status of Will Grigg.

In recognition for his goal scoring efforts to earn the club promotion from League One to the Championship (28 goals in 43 appearances), a supporter came up with a chant to express his gratitude. “Will Grigg’s on fire” earned Sean Kennedy, the supporter who wrote it, a free season ticket from the Wigan chairman.

Grigg’s form (and the success of the song) earned him a call-up to the Northern Ireland squad for Euro 2016 but he failed to make an appearance during the tournament. That didn’t matter, though, as the fans of the Green and White Army sang his song ad nauseam to help the “Will Grigg’s on fire” chant become one of the sounds of the summer (and the months following summer, as well).

He’s now continuing his cult hero status by scoring in the Championship for Wigan but Grigg is a secret no more. He showed that there are more ways than one to burst on the scene, and he’s here to stay.

Iago Aspas

By Michael Davies

It’s fair to say that Iago Aspas has had an interesting time of it as professional player. Now aged 29 and settled at home again in Vigo, Aspas is enjoying the most prolific spell of his career. After a loan spell at Sevilla during the 2014-15 season which reinvigorated his career, his move back to Celta Vigo saw him treated like a returning hero.

Alongside winger Nolito, Aspas and co led Celta to a fantastic sixth in the La Liga table last season, qualifying for the Europa League. Whilst Nolito moved to Manchester City, Aspas stayed with Celta and has formed a good partnership with Swede John Guidetti, scoring 12 goals and contributing three assists in just in 19 games this season. This form deservedly led to his first international cap, a substitute appearance against England at Wembley, where he scored Spain’s opening goal.

After several periods of showing promise but not building upon it, it is great to see Aspas finally shown faith by his manager Eduardo Berizzo, and even better to see him repay that faith by being a leading light for his hometown club.

Hal Robson-Kanu

By Mike Taylor

Only a few players are defined by a single moment. In 2016, that player was Hal Robson-Kanu. He started the Euros with an uncertain future after being released by Reading. Keen to enjoy a summer in France, he became a vital part of Wales’ run to the semi-final, scoring the winning goal against Slovakia before a career-defining moment against Belgium.

With the score at 1-1 in a tense quarter-final, Robson-Kanu received Aaron Ramsey’s looped pass into Belgium’s penalty area, controlled the ball, fooled three Belgian players with an impressive Cryuff turn before striking the ball past Thibaut Courtois. His goal completed Wales’ incredible comeback against Belgium before Sam Vokes sealed the win, but his outrageous turn inspired a nation, stunned Europe and suggested another underdog was going to cause an upset.

His performance at the Euros attracted various offers from clubs across the continent eager to pick up the summer’s hottest freebie, before he opted to join West Brom.

Alexis Sánchez

By Chuck Booth

2016 has been an impressive year for  Alexis Sánchez. The winger has effectively thrown himself into the discussion of being one of the elite European footballers due to his performances for club and country. His versatility has been a key asset for Arsenal this season as he showed that he is as good in the centre as he is out wide.

Alexis has been the driving force behind a humming Arsenal attack, but his work rate deserves credit as well. He has developed into a player who can contribute at both ends of the pitch. While he’s been a key contributor for Arsenal, it was his performances for Chile which made 2016 a special year for him.

Alexis played a key role as Chile won their second Copa América in succession by scoring three goals and registering three assists in the tournament. He was also awarded the Golden Ball for player of the tournament for his efforts. At 28, he is entering his prime and if Arsenal can lock him down to a new contract, he could be the driving force behind ending their wait for a league title.

Lionel Messi

By Roy Emanuel

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi had a year of great success with his club side and disappointment with his country. Barcelona captured a domestic double in Spain, and Messi scored 41 goals across all competitions and his skill on the ball exposed defenders in nearly every match he played.

But for the Argentina national team, he endured a summer to forget. A loss to Chile in the Copa América Centenario final was overwhelming for an emotional Messi, who stated that he would be retiring from international football after the match. He returned for the following rounds of 2018 World Cup qualifying a month later.

Regardless of whether he can finally win a trophy at international level, Messi is one of the best footballers of his generation. 2017 is bound to bring more excitement and thrills from Barcelona’s number ten.

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