After a rather questionable 2018 Ballon D’Or ceremony where the winner of ‘goalkeeper of the year’ was left out of the team of the year, the Premier League’s second best goal of November 2017 was voted as the world’s best goal of 2018 and the world’s best player was told that there were four mere human beings better than him, it seems fair to suggest that other opinions on the year of 2018 in football would be more than welcome.
This year, the first time a player other than Messi or Ronaldo was crowned the winner of the Ballon D’Or since 2007, outstanding performances from others leave me compelled to choose a top 3 players, rather than just selecting my player of the year as I have done in the past.
3. Kylian Mbappe
Not much more than 5 years ago, a very young Kylian Mbappe sat in his bedroom with posters of his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, covering almost every inch of his walls. Whilst it would be far-fetched to say that at 19 years-old Mbappe had already eclipsed his idol, with every available domestic trophy in France to his name along with a World Cup winner’s medal, the ‘ninja turtle’ is certainly no longer looking up to the 5-time Ballon D’Or winner.
With a reputation already established as a possible heir to the Messi-Ronaldo throne coming into 2018, his feats over the past twelve months have been nothing short of outstanding. Despite his age, Mbappe played a pivotal role in PSG’s domestic treble last season, and he has shone this year too as the champions have raced to the top of the table into a seemingly unassailable lead.
His four goals in just 13 minutes against Lyon in October demonstrate that he doesn’t just have an eye for goal – he is deadly, and it’s not just his goal-scoring exploits that have pundits purring – his searing pace and bewildering trickery have been leaving defenders dumbfounded across Europe ever since he made his professional bow.
Against Argentina in a hugely important World Cup round of 16 clash, it was that searing pace that won France a penalty which Antoine Griezmann converted, before two impressive goals from Mbappe himself sealed France’s qualification to the quarter finals. If he hadn’t already done so, that game was when he proved that he really has what it takes to be the best player in the world in the post-Messi and Ronaldo era.
Some outrageous skill almost set up Olivier Giroud for a goal in the semi-finals, and on the undisputed biggest stage of them all, in the World Cup final, Mbappe smashed home France’s fourth goal from outside the box to become the youngest scorer in a World Cup final since a certain
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, as he is better known.
What is also incredible is that he did all this before his twentieth birthday, which came in late December.
After scoring the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final, Mario Gotze’s career has sadly gone drastically downhill, but the prodigy that is Mbappe is unlikely to suffer from too much success too early.
Paul Pogba, another scorer in the final, says of Mbappe: “Kylian has much more talent than I have. Do you see what he is doing at his age? No, I never had his talent.”
He also received a rave review from Arsene Wenger, who compared Mbappe to French legend Thierry Henry – high praise indeed from a man who achieved the fabled invincible season as Arsenal boss with Henry himself his star man.
It seems likely that Mbappe’s astonishingly rapid rise to the top won’t show any signs of slowing down soon, but whatever happens, 2018 was a year that Kylian Mbappe will never forget.
2. Lionel Messi
Ok, let’s just get one thing straight – this guy is the best player in the world. Enough superlatives and hyperbole have been written about him already that for me to make any attempt to explain his qualities would be incredibly foolish. Still, despite his undeniable genius, he’ll have to settle for second place this year.
Whilst Messi’s 50 goals and 26 assists in 53 games in 2018 may be classed as a mediocre year by some, (Ballon D’Or voters, I’m looking at you,) it was simply the fact that he failed to perform to his absolute best during the World Cup that means he narrowly misses out on first place.
A fifth place finish in the most prestigious individual award in football should be taken with more than a pinch of salt considering the choice of goal of the year, so why was Messi so overlooked?
It could genuinely be down to boredom.
Messi and Ronaldo have consistently been head and shoulders above the rest of the planet for almost a decade; and this has been recognised. As a result, as soon as Messi has a year where he perhaps doesn’t quite reach the levels expected of him, everyone is quick to pounce.
His goal and assist record speaks for itself, but it wasn’t just the figures that show how underrated he was in 2018 – as his game has evolved with age, he has become not only Barcelona’s talisman but now their playmaker. Along with his famous mazy dribbles he has an incredible passing ability that was used to great effect for Barcelona throughout the 12 months; he truly is the heartbeat of the team.
What let him down was Barcelona’s early exit in the champions league in a shock early exit on away goals to Roma and Argentina’s average showing in Russia.
Playing in a national side with little or no recognisable strategy along with an abundance of attacking talent but a lack of balance, the odds were always against the Flea, and although his world-class goal against Nigeria helped send them through to the knockout stages, his two assists against eventual winners France weren’t enough to keep them in the competition.
As for the champions league exit, his anonymous performance in the second leg effectively destroyed his entire season, and if it weren’t for that game, it is fair to say that Barcelona would have been strong contenders to win ‘Old Big Ears’ for a sixth time.
These two defeats aside, he had a sensational year, and claims that he fails to perform in big games are frankly nonsense.
Goals in the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla and in important Champions League ties with Spurs and Chelsea prove this point, whilst his late equaliser against Sevilla in La Liga kept their hopes of completely an ‘invincible’ season alive, an achievement that they missed out on due to a shock 4-5 defeat to Levante in just the second last game of the season. Funnily enough, Messi wasn’t included in Barcelona’s squad for that match.
Overall, Messi had a brilliant year, but with the World Cup playing a massive part in this decision as it is the biggest stage of them all, there is one man who’s 2018 was even more impressive.
- Luka Modric
What a year for this man. Perhaps growing up with training sessions frequently interrupted by dashes to air raid shelters for safety amid mortar and grenade attacks made every obstacle in Luka Modric’s footballing path seem like light work.
Born in September 1985, Modric entered the world just six years before the beginning of the brutal Yugoslavian civil war of independence, and his area was in the firing line.
Children of such a young age are often unaware of the seriousness of horrific events like these; after all, they know no different.
However, the death of Luka’s grandfather, whom he looked up to with great fondness, hit the young boy hard, and amid that tragedy, having to flee his home and living constantly under threat, football was the easiest distraction.
So you can imagine the pain of rejection by his favourite club Hadjuk Split for merely being too small – a nonsense suggestion nowadays that appears to have been almost entirely eridicated after Spain and Lionel Messi’s success, but back then an all too common reason for heartbreak among aspring footballers.
After being convinced not to quit football by Tomislav Basic, his outstanding mentor and coach at his youth academy in Zadar, Modric was pretty much made for success.
He’d always had the ability to make it to the top, there was no doubting that, but many players with an abundance of talent fail to make the grade, so his war and pain-filled childhood game him the perfect platform to conquer all the obstacles and demons that professional football has offer.
Before 2018, his career had been nothing short of exceptional. He had won every trophy available with Real Madrid and dazzled in Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield prior to that, and has for a few years now been widely considered to be one of the best midfielders in the world.
Since his heroics in 2018, his status has elevated beyond belief, and with good reason.
In a Real Madrid side that struggled all season, the little genius performed consistently well whilst also stepping up to the plate in the big games as the Galacticos won their third successive Champios League title, with Modric at the heart of it all.
Furthermore, he won the player of the tournament award on the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup.
Part of an unfancied Croatia side, Modric’s genius played a pivotal role as they upset the odds to reach the final, and Modric performed brilliantly along the way, perhaps most notably in crunch games against Argentina and England.
In the former, his outstanding long range curler made the score 2-0 and put his country in the box seat to top the group as he and Croatia tore Argentina apart. In the latter, in the World Cup semi-final no less, his brilliantly composed performance was key as they came back from behind to knock England out in extra time.
After all of this, he capped off his year in style with a goal in the Club World Cup final as Madrid became champions of the world for a third successive year. Not bad, eh?