Thiago Silva (AC Milan and Brazil) ***
A colossus in the Milan defence, Thiago Silva is already drawing and justifying comparisons with some of the greats to wear the red and black. Physically commanding, quick and excellent on the ball there are precious few weaknesses to the game of the Brazilian. Already on a long term contract, there are suggestions that Milan will offer him a new deal in order to ward off interest from Barcelona. A class act.
Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund and Germany) ***
Tall, nimble and composed in possession Mats Hummels has a good claim to being the best defender in the world at present. Certainly without him, Borussia Dortmund would be a very different proposition. With partner in crime Neven Subotic out for much of the current campaign with a facial injury, Hummels has been asked to anchor an unfamiliar central defence this year but has excelled again. With time on his side Hummels can expect to be at the top of his game for years to come.
Vincent Kompany (Manchester City and Belgium) ***
For all the money that Manchester City’s sugar daddies have lavished on the club over recent years it is a player who was already at the club who has played the greatest role in their rise. A prodigy as a teenager, it looked for some time that Kompany would never blossom into the player many though he was capable of until Roberto Mancini arrived at Eastlands. In the last 18 months though, the new club captain has been imperious using brain and brawn to repel attackers. Just how much would Sheik Mansour have been prepared to pay for such a player?
Lucio (Internazionale and Brazil) **
At times this season it has looked as if Inter have been a one man team. Without the commanding presence of Lucio at the back the Nerazzurri could well have been further behind the title challengers at the stage. Indeed while he is now almost 34 he shows little sign of slowing down or of dipping in performance and maintains a remarkable will to win. If he maintains this sort of form, Inter could well find themselves back in the hunt for trophies.
Ledley King (Tottenham Hotspur and England) **
Tottenham’s record with and without King is enough to prove the tremendous importance that his presence has to the side. Still suffering the chronic knee problems which have plagued his career, his calmness and authority are vital to a Spurs defence which has surprised many this season. If (and this is always a massive question mark) he can stay fit then Spurs title challenge may not be the pipedream that many consider it.
Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich and Belgium) **
Very disappointing last year, the giant Belgian has returned to his peak this season and has been at the heart of Bayern Munich’s record breaking defence. Naturally, his greatest assets owe much to his height and physical strength, but he has long been a fine player on the ball and has a superb range of passing. With Kompany, Verthonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Van Buyten it is questionable whether any nation has greater depth in central defence than Belgium.
Javier Mascherano (Barcelona and Argentina) **
With both Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol out for much of the season so far, the Argentine has filled in manfully in an unfamiliar central defensive role. Despite his small stature and lack of pace, the positioning and tackling abilities that served Mascherano so well in midfield have been ideally suited to Barcelona’s style of play. Omitted from the Clasico with Real Madrid in December, Mascherano could have every right to feel aggrieved following his sterling work for Barca. Still, given the vast number of games the Blaugrana are sure to play this season we should see plenty more of the little chief.
Andrea Barzagli (Juventus and Italy) **
When Juventus signed Andrea Barzagli after a title winning spell at Wolfsburg few expected that he would show the form he has this season. If anything he is enjoying the best season of his career, stepping into the shoes of Giorgio Chiellini and guiding youngster Leonardo Bonucci at the heart of the Juventus defence. A return to the Italian national team after a three year absence was just reward for such a strong run of form.
Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid and Spain) *
With Ricardo Carvalho being left out of the Real Madrid line-up on a regular basis, Sergio Ramos has returned to the central role he revelled in at Sevilla. Arguably the position should be more suited to his skillset, with his ability in the air and dynamic pace being more profitably employed at centre-back. Certainly it should reduce the amount of one-on-one defending he is required to do, which may (or may not) improve his terrible disciplinary record.
Holger Badstuber (Bayern Munich and Germany) *
A times there were doubts as to whether Holger Badstuber possessed the quality to start for Bayern and Germany. This season though has provided a strong message to the critics as Badstuber has enjoyed a fantastic start to the year. Hugely influential in the defensive strength that saw Bayern go over 1,000 minutes without conceding a goal, the youngster now looks assured of a long career at the Allianz Arena.
Joleon Lescott (Manchester City and England) *
When Manchester City signed him from Everton for £24m, few thought that Lescott could ever justify the inflated fee. This season though he has proved himself a model of consistency in the City defence and has been instrumental in their topping the league at the half-way stage. Superb for England in their 1-0 friendly victory over Spain, the various ills besetting John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Cahill may yet see Lescott start for England at Euro 2012.
Mehdi Benatia (Udinese and Morocco) *
One of the unsung heroes of Udinese’s sparkling form this season has been Moroccan defender Benatia. Another example of Udinese’s ability to spot talent, the French-born centre-back was playing in the Ligue 2 when the Italians picked him up and he has quickly established himself as one of the league’s best defenders. Recognition has duly come his way now with a nomination at the Oscar del Calcio awards.
Adil Rami (Valencia and France) *
Some players might take some time to adapt to joining one of the world’s toughest leagues, but not Rami. Instead he has demonstrated the sort of ability which helped Lille to the title last season with his combination of pace and power. Certainly there are few stronger defenders in the Spanish league and it is often his physical attributes which gain the most focus. Despite that, he is an excellent all round defender and is well skilled in breaking up attacks before they begin with well timed interceptions.
Hugo Campagnaro (Napoli and Argentina) *
Drawn in the toughest group of all on their Champions League debut, qualification was supposedly a daunting task for Napoli. Instead they impressed most observers with their confidence and maturity. One of the key reasons for their excellent run of results over the last 18 months has been Campagnaro’s presence at the back. After surviving a major car accident in the summer (which saw 3 people killed) the 31 year old Argentine has put in the best performances of his career as Napoli continue to excel.
Jonathan Zebina (Brest and France) *
Few Juventus fans would have expected old boy Jonathan Zebina to feature in any player of the season listings. The Frenchman endured a tough time in Turin, but has seemed a different player at Brest where he has maintained a consistently high standard. Given his age (he turns 34 in the summer) and France’s wealth of defensive options it would seem unlikely that he could force himself into Laurent Blanc’s plans, but it is certainly nice to see him in form at last.
Sergio Ballesteros (Levante and Spain) *
Levante’s remarkable performances in the first half of the Spanish season leave them in 4th at the winter break. Much of the credit for such a lofty position must be given to Ballesteros who has been a rock at the back throughout the season. At 37 years old there are plenty of younger and quicker defenders in La Liga, but few possess the experience or savvy of the veteran Levante man. Given that this is Levante’s first season back in the top flight since 2008 makes their achievement all the more remarkable.
Nicolas N’Koulou (Marseille and Cameroon) *
Signed from relegated Monaco in the summer, the young defender has settled in perfectly at the Stade Velodrome. Marseille have struggled in the league so far this season, but that has not seemed to trouble the Cameroon man who has looked confident and assured at the heart of the defence. In the Champions League his role Marseille’s defence was vital as the club conceded just four times in six games to advance to the knock-out phase.
Dante (Borussia Moenchengladbach and Brazil) *
Among the most improved players in the Bundesliga this season, Dante has excelled at the heart of the Gladbach defence. His height makes him a major danger from set-pieces and he still has the ability to make forays into the opposing half, but he now appears more experienced and willing to sacrifice himself for the collective cause. One to watch for the future.
Javi Martinez (Atletic Bilbao and Spain) *
Everyone expected the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa to herald some tactical tinkering and so far he has not disappointed. Having made his name as an excellent central midfielder, this season Martinez has largely been employed in central defence. His height, positioning and ability on the ball all hinted that he would be at home in his new role and his manager would have little grounds for complaint so far. Martinez is clearly a massive talent and may well opt to move from Bilbao in order to fulfil his early promise.
Ezequiel Garay (Benfica and Argentina) *
While it never worked out for Garay at Real Madrid, he has already impressed in Lisbon following his big-money summer move. Tall, imposing and with fine positioning, the Argentine has all the tools to become one of the world’s best central defenders, and one sensed that he only needed the right surroundings to flourish. Certainly those have been provided at Benfica and he has rewarded their faith with a consistently high level of performance. If he continues this level of play, Madrid may well be wishing they never let him go.
Jan Vertonghen (Ajax and Belgium) *
As a young defender at home at the centre or left of defence there can be few better places to learn your trade than at Frank de Boer’s Ajax. Certainly it affords Vertonghen the chance to learn from a master and it appears to be an opportunity he will not miss. It is surely now a matter of time before he makes the move to one of Europe’s top leagues, but he must maintain his focus if he is to match the great expectations surrounding him.