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Reaching the promised land: the footballers who 'made it' in 2014

5 players with burgeoning reputations really excelled this year.

Image: Felipe Dana/AP/Press Association Images

James Rodriguez

The Colombian had been making waves for years prior to those magnificent performances at the World Cup. He arrived at Porto as a teenager but still conjured many a fine display and was a crucial element in the team as they racked up three successive league titles (and a Europa League) in his three seasons there. In his final campaign, he was unplayable at times, scoring 13 goals and racking up 15 assists in 32 games in all competitions.

Colombia Soccer James Rodriguez Source: Natacha Pisarenko/AP/Press Association Images

A mega-money move to Monaco was lucrative but in front of non-existent crowds, his impact largely went unnoticed. The ‘project’ didn’t quote go according to plan though despite the arrivals of Rodriguez, Falcao and Moutinho and the team finished runners-up in Ligue Un.

Then, the World Cup happened and Rodriguez was catapulted to superstar status. His goal against Japan was a stand-out tournament moment in itself and displayed much of what makes Rodriguez special – speed, touch, balance, awareness and a glorious left foot.

james-rodriguez

But, his display against Uruguay was exceptional. Though perhaps overly simplistic to say, there’s an argument to be made that his performance and his iconic goal ensured his move to Real Madrid. With the entire world having fallen in love with the youngster’s panache and style and unquenchable thirst for the spectacular, here was the heir apparent to Cristiano Ronaldo. The move was inevitable and Rodriguez’s ascent to the very top was complete.

Source: FIFATV/YouTube

Thibaut Courtois

At 22, the Belgian already has a vast array of medals in his cabinet. There was the La Liga title he secured with Atletico Madrid in May, the Copa del Rey with the same club twelve months before, the Europa League twelve months before that.

But he was marooned in Madrid, farmed out by Chelsea who had signed him in 2011 from Genk. His loan spell at Atleti was an embarrassment to the London club, especially last season when Courtois played a crucial role in knocking them out of the Champions League.

Soccer - UEFA Euro 2016 - Qualifying - Group B - Belgium v Wales - King Baudouin Stadium Source: BRUNO FAHY/Belga/Press Association Images

Though the arrivals of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas have been lauded by many, every great Premier League team usually has a dominant, resilient and reliable goalkeeper between the sticks. Jose Mourinho’s decision to bring Courtois back from Spain in the summer was arguably his best bit of business.

As good as Costa and Fabregas are, how many years of elite performance do they have in them? Three or four? The attacker is already showing signs of wear and tear so it could be even less for him. There’s little reason why Courtois can’t keep delivering for the next fifteen years.

Raphael Varane

The stylish centre-back was tracked by a number of interested parties, including Manchester United, back in 2010. But Real Madrid stumped up 10m euro to bring him to Spain the following summer and he’s blossomed since.

He still doesn’t command a ‘first-choice’ role with the La Liga giants and the most league appearances he’s made in a season since arriving at the Bernabeu is 12. But he remains an integral part of the setup and still just 21, he’ll only get better.

France Portugal Soccer Source: Thibault Camus/AP/Press Association Images

But it was his performances for France at the World Cup that ensured he turned a major corner this year, excelling on the world stage and proving crucial to Les Bleus’ rather surprising run to the last eight. In five games, the side conceded just three times – two of those goals came in the group-stage clash with Switzerland when they were already 5-0 up.

Though a narrow quarter-final defeat to eventual-champions Germany was a disappointment, there’s a significant platform for France to build on ahead of hosting Euro 2016. And you can be sure that Varane will play a major part in that tournament too.

David de Gea

There was a moment in October when David de Gea’s rehabilitation was complete. Manchester United were playing Everton at Old Trafford and the Spaniard had already kept out a Leighton Baines penalty. With the Toffees trailing with minutes to go, they rallied, desperate to find an equaliser.

Source: Adhittia Egha/YouTube

But de Gea was unbeatable. Firstly, he superbly pushed away Leon Osman’s thumping strike from close range but the best was yet to come.

Moments later, from a whipped-in free-kick, the ball broke for Bryan Oviedo who cracked a rising effort towards he top corner. But De Gea sprung into action and threw himself at the ball, stretching to tip it over the bar.

He’s produced a litany of top-class performances throughout this year, the best Manchester United player during David Moyes’ ill-fated reign in charge. But now he’s finally grabbing the headlines and being lavished with praise. It’s certainly a stark contrast to his first season in English football when he was all-too-easily battered and bruised by the uncompromising surroundings of the Premier League.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Everton - Old Trafford Source: Richard Sellers

With his improved performances there have come the inevitable whispers of a move elsewhere, with Real allegedly seeking to tempt him back to Madrid. But in the midst of a seismic transition, he’s a rare constant for United, delivering excellent displays every week. It’s critical the club don’t allow him move on.

Toni Kroos

As stated elsewhere here, as much as Real Madrid know how to splash the cash, they’re always in the market for a good deal too. The signing of the German midfielder for just £20m is arguably the best bit of business we’ve seen in the last number of years.

A Champions League winner in 2013, a World Cup winner in 2014. He was brave enough to move on from Bayern Munich, the institution that molded him and developed him, because he felt he was worth more. He had won everything in Germany. He wanted to win everything somewhere else.

Soccer - 2014 UEFA Super Cup - Sevilla v Real Madrid - Cardiff City Stadium Source: Nick Potts

His relationship with Luka Modric has provided the perfect foundation for Real’s game-plan. Even Carlo Ancelotti has expressed surprise at just how good Kroos has been.

He’s critical to the balance of the side and provides the perfect control and tempo. Recently he’s complained of tiredness after a relentless run of games for club and country stretching back to last year. But Ancelotti put it perfectly when he said ‘Kroos will play. We need him’.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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