Hot on the heels of the Goals of the Season, we move on to the Football Further European Team of the Season. As in any decent dream team this side is strongly, perhaps even foolishly, oriented towards attack.
Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris (Lyon)
Lyon have not had a great season by their recent standards – despite reaching the last four of the Champions League for the first time in their history – but Lloris’s performances in both Ligue 1 and Europe have elevated him to the position of Europe’s best up-and-coming goalkeeper. He was the difference between the sides in Lyon’s Champions League quarter-final win over Bordeaux thanks to some stunning reaction saves and a move to a top-rank European club cannot be far away.
Right-back: Maicon (Inter)
The world’s best full-back has added spectacular goals to his trade and continues to be one of Inter’s most potent attacking weapons. His juggle-and-volley goal against Juventus will live long in the memory but his strike in the 3-2 win at Udinese, when he started a move inside his own half and finished it with a crashing volley off the crossbar, was every bit as delicious.
Centre-back: Gerard Piqué (Barcelona)
Has developed into probably the finest ball-playing centre-back on the continent. The awareness and sangfroid he showed to spin Inter goalkeeper Julio César and finish into an empty net in the dying minutes of Barca’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Inter was worthy of the world’s top strikers.
Centre-back: Stéphane Mbia (Marseille)
“I feel really uncomfortable,” said Mbia in March. “It’s starting to affect me. I’m working for the team but I don’t feel good. In defence I feel like I’m not playing.” Having signed from Rennes for €12 million last July, Mbia was expected to become the senior figure in Marseille’s midfield. But the French champions’ alarming porosity in the first half of the season demanded radical action and Didier Deschamps reacted by sliding a reluctant Mbia into central defence and pushing Gabriel Heinze to left-back. The 24-year-old Cameroon international was a revelation at centre-back, bringing the physicality and athleticism of a midfield enforcer to the heart of OM’s defensive unit and creating the foundation upon which they built their first French title success since 1992. His successful conversion to centre-back did not pass unnoticed and he has recently been linked with both Bayern Munich and Arsenal. He might have to get used to playing in defence.
Left-back: Javier Zanetti (Inter)
One of the most consistent performers in Inter’s record-breaking season, Zanetti operated with diligence and no little skill at right-back, left-back and right-midfield over the course of the campaign and did a superb job of shackling Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez over the two legs of the Champions League semi-final. A real pity he will not play at the World Cup.
Central midfield: Xavi (Barcelona)
The best passer of the ball in the world and inarguably one of the greatest passers of the ball in the history of the game. Every bit as influential as last season, his passing accuracy statistics are jaw-droppingly consistent and the pass he threaded to Dani Alves in the build-up to Messi’s crucial winning goal against Malaga was a thing of wonder.
Central midfield: Wesley Sneijder (Inter)
Harshly dumped by Real Madrid, Sneijder proved his worth at the very highest level in this season’s Champions League and ran the show in the 3-1 victory over Barca in the first leg of their semi-final. A technically accomplished attacking midfielder with two great feet, a fierce shot and an eye for a match-changing pass, the Dutchman has also proved that he is capable of running like a demon for 90 minutes when the circumstances demand it. ”First of all, he is an Ajax player, and normally an Ajax player – with the coaches they have from the time they are kids – technically they are superb, the left and the right foot are exactly the same, the way they think about football is very smart, they have their eyes open to read the game,” said Inter coach José Mourinho in the latest edition of Champions magazine. “After that, he comes into a team that is really strong on the tactical point of view, and behind there is a structure that can give him the freedom he likes to play.” Sneijder would have to adapt to a deeper role in this team, but it was impossible to leave him out.
Right wing: Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)
It is wasn’t for Messi, the superlatives pouring down upon Robben would be even more effusive. The deadliest right-sided attacker in the modern game, Robben has been scoring sublime goals for fun at Bayern and has also managed to avoid the injuries that have plagued his development in recent years. His match-winning goal against Schalke in extra-time of the DFB-Pokal semi-final was a modern classic and the decisive goal in Bayern’s Champions League quarter-final defeat of Manchester United wasn’t shoddy either.
Support striker: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
The best player in the world and already, in terms of pure ability, surely one of the best ever. Forty-seven goals in all competitions this season and every one a masterpiece. His four-goal salvo against Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-final second leg will go down in history and there was a period in the early spring when he seemed to score a hat-trick every week. The World Cup could be his coronation.
Left wing: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
That Real managed to muster any kind of sustained title challenge this season owed a great deal to Ronaldo and his strike partnership with Gonzalo Higuaín. The latter enjoyed a fine season in front of goal but Ronaldo edges him by virtue of his incredible explosiveness and astonishing all-round game. Strong, quick, bewilderingly skillful, comfortable with either foot, superb in the air, peerless with a dead ball and desperate for success; Ronaldo is the archetypal 21st-century forward.
Centre forward: Diego Milito (Inter)
With apologies to, among others, Ajax’s Luis Suárez, Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and, especially, Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, Milito earned his place by repeatedly proving himself to be the man for the big occasion. Not only did he score 30 goals in all competitions, but he netted in the games that mattered. Having scoring the winning goal in both the Coppa Italia final and the 1-0 win at Siena on the final day of the Serie A season that brought his side the scudetto, the 30-year-old claimed a beautifully taken brace in the Champions League final that ended Inter’s long 45-year wait for European club football’s biggest prize.
Coach: José Mourinho (Inter)
Who else? His zealous self-aggrandising didn’t go down half as well in Italy as it had in England but he ended the season as the first man to lead an Italian team to the treble after his side’s tactically imperious performance over both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona. His club-hopping, trophy-winning approach to management recalls the great Béla Guttmann and success at Real Madrid, which seems almost inevitable given his track record and the resources at his disposal, will confirm his place among the game’s true greats.