Italy’s Serie A may not be the most glamorous, best supported, or wealthiest league in Europe but it still manages to contain seven of the starting eleven you voted for in our European team of the year outside of La Liga and Premier League players.
And not surprisingly five of them come from the ‘Old Lady’ herself (Juventus) and even less surprisingly one of them is Cristiano Ronaldo, who – did you ever doubt it? – has well and truly hit the floor running in this latest phase of his spectacular career. My bet with a colleague of mine at the BBC of him scoring 40 goals all competitions still looks decent (he said there was no hope of that!)
But seven Serie A titles and four league and cup doubles on the bounce will be outshone if the phenomenon from Madeira can help bring to Turin the Champions League they covet so much and have not lifted since 1996.
That’s mostly why Juventus moved heaven and earth to bring him to the club and it has, so far, proved to be a shrewd move both on and off the pitch. Ronaldo is a serial winner who can already boast five Champions League winners medals, more than any other player in the history of the game. Could he possibly win a sixth? Why not?
In fact, only two of the 11 will not have a chance of winning a Champions League medal this year. Inter’s Samir Handanović and Koulibaly will miss out on the knock out stages following Tottenham’s triumph in Barcelona although the Slovenian goalkeeper has done more than enough to continue to be considered one of the top shot-stoppers in Europe.
With 228 appearances for Inter he is nicknamed Batman because of his acrobatic saves and he has twice been named Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year one of only three non-Italian keepers to win the award.
The first Juventus player is Joao Cancelo at right back, a player mainly known for his speed, energy and offensive capabilties, as well as his technical skills, creativity and crossing ability. He has jumped to a new level in the last five months.
On the other flank there is his teammate Alex Sandro, a quick, energetic and similarly attack mindedleft-sided defender who can play just about anywhere on the left and has been likened to his Brazilian compatriot, Roberto Carlos.
Between them at the centre of the defence is the man mountain that is Giorgio Chiellini quite simply one of the finest defenders in the world, equally strong in a flat back four or as one of three and more than capable of putting in a shift as a left back. Again, he has shown leadership values as well as some of his best performances this year.
Alongside him is the strong yet elegant, cultured and accomplished Senegalese/French defender, Kalidou Koulibaly only recently the target of a £95m bid from Manchester United. Just how highly this club rate him is confirmed by the fact that the bid was immediately rejected by Napoli.
In midfield there is Nabil Fekir who so nearly became a Liverpool player only for the deal to collapse at the 11th hour. The midfielder’s form for Lyon since then would suggest that the Academy youth product from France’s second city could still be a vital part of the club’s Champions league campaign.
Next to him is the classy, creative, playmaker that is the Italian from Pescara, PSG’s Marco Verratti who has won five titles with the French club since his arrival in 2012. Frequently compared to that other great Italian Andrea Pirlo there is also no small amount of steel and graft behind the finesse and because of his rugged defensive qualities Verratti is also more than capable of putting in a shift as a defensive midfielder.
Next to him in the central area of the midfield is the Juventus Bosnian, Miralem Pjanić who may not be the fastest nor the strongest midfielder in the world but more than makes up for it with a very high level of creativity and tenacity that make him invaluable in just about any midfield position. Add to that a vision, passing and dribbling skills plus his strength from dead ball situation and you have a player more than worth his place.
And alongside him Lyon’s, Memphis Depay, a player re-born following a difficult spell at Manchester United and now firmly established as one of the new young crop of players and automatic starter in Ronald Koeman’s the revitalised Netherlands, who he has represented at the highest level 44 times since he was 19-years-old
A certain flashiness both on and off the pitch probably didn’t help his cause in the Premier League but he now seems to finally have his naturally angry nature under some kind of control and at his best is reminiscent of the left wing equivalent of Arjen Roben cutting in from the left onto his right foot.
And finally to play alongside Cristiano up front, who else but Neymar, the most expensive player in the world and football’s very own Mr Marmite. Whether you think he is the most fouled player on the planet or the one with the lowest pain threshold ever, there is no doubting that he is clearly one of the world’s current crop of superstars and worth his place in any top XI list.
Electric pace and explosive finishes that bring to mind the skills of Ronaldinho at his best, he is in many ways the complete player, equally strong with both feet as well as with his head. He has also been blessed by being able to play alongside the greatest players in the world first at Barcelona with Messi and Suarez and now at PSG with the likes of Mbappe and Cavani.
In the opinion of many of the real greats (Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Xavi) he will eventually become the best player in the world. Maybe not the most popular, but certainly the most influential man around. I do believe that is the case too.