As 2016 comes to a close, The Sports Lowdown brings its weekly feature of footballers who have risen to the occasion in the calendar year. After a year filled with high drama, intense action, successes and failures in the biggest and best competitions in the sport, this is the definitive list that singles out the 25 best footballers on the planet this year.

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10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

“A player who gave me as much as Ibra will always be in my heart. He did a lot for Inter and Inter did a lot for him. I like seeing Ibra. I greet him whenever I get the chance to and I wish him all the best – except when he plays against me. He is very special, he is one of the best strikers in the world.” – Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho

The big Swede steals the headlines wherever he plays and 2016 was evidence of that. He started his year in the French capital of Paris with Paris Saint-Germain and had another dominant season with them as they romped their way to French Ligue 1, French Cup and French League Cup titles, with Ibrahimovic amassing a sensational 50 goals in 51 games, including 38 in the league itself – the most since 1978. He had a fairly dry spell at the European Championships with an uninspired Sweden side, and that would prove to be his last appearance in France before a move to Manchester to play under one of his old mentors.

Jose Mourinho bought the talisman to Old Trafford on a free transfer to bolster his new team’s attacking line and he’s sparkled Manchester with some fine skills and superb goals. He scored a stunning goal from outside the box in his Premier League debut against Bournemouth and he’s added to that with some other brilliant goals against the likes of Manchester City and Southampton. A slight dip in form along the middle was cleared when he scored a double against Swansea and created a fair bit of history. The first of those two was the 25,000th Premier League goal, while the second was his 400th career goal. A Ballon d’Or nomination and FIFA recognition puts further gloss to a fine year for the Manchester United man.

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9. Gonzalo Higuain

“He is becoming what I always thought he should be, in other words the best striker in Europe and perhaps the world.” – Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri

El Pipita had a mixed year as he had to face different emotions while representing three different sides. Viewed as the next Diego Maradona by the Napoli faithful in the first half of the year for his immense influence on the side as they pushed for the Serie A crown, he was then hated by the same colours when he moved to Juventus. Nonetheless, he ended the 2015-16 season with a wonderful tally of 36 league goals – the highest since Gino Rossetti in 1928-29, who had the same number. His record was untouchable, with future teammate and second highest goal getter Paulo Dybala bagging 19.

For Argentina, he was the victim of another fan attack after he missed a crucial chance early on in the Copa America Centenario Final against Chile as Argentina lost in an international decider for the third season running. He put that disappointment behind him with a move to Juventus for a Serie A record of  €90 million. This would prove to be the fourth most expensive transfer in football history and it has paid dividends for The Old Lady. He’s scored nine times so far for them, including the winner against his former side Napoli, as Juventus look better than ever and ready to finally win the Champions League for the first time since 1996.

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8. Robert Lewandowski

“He is one of the most professional footballers I have ever worked with. He eats, sleeps and trains for his job. He’s never injured because he focuses so much on the right diet and proper preparation.” – Pep Guardiola, ex-Bayern Munich and current Manchester City manager

Lethal, deadly and the coolest finisher in the game, Lewandowski makes this fiery Bayern Munich side one of the best in Europe and he shows no signs of stopping. In any other era, he would probably be the best on the planet, but in this one there are the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi amongst many others that shadow the Pole’s honours. After another blistering Bundesliga campaign where he scored 30 times – the most for any foreign player in Bundesliga history and the first to break the 30 barrier since 1977, he also helped the Bavarians win the DFB Pokal and reach the semi-finals of the Champions League before losing out to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid.

For the national team, he drove his side to the quarter-finals of the Euros, the furthest they’ve ever gone before harshly losing out to eventual champions Portugal, despite Lewandowski scoring the opener that night in Marseille. He didn’t let that disappointment put him down as he carried his sensational form from the previous campaign into the next one. He opened his Bundesliga account with a hat-trick on the opening day and continues to be the main marksman for Bayern as they look to put the demons of losing out in the Champions League semi-finals for the last three seasons and finally go all the way.

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7. Neymar Jr.

“His talent aside, he’s an incredible guy, particularly here with A Seleção, where perhaps the lads might have been a bit surprised by him. At least those who didn’t know him, as he was already in Europe by the time most of them turned pro.” – Felipe Anderson, a member of the Brazilian side that won gold at the 2016 Olympic Games.

It’s fair to say that Neymar’s form plummeted after his Ballon d’Or snub in January, but he’s recovered well and taken his game to new heights with some fantastic displays for club and country. Representing Brazil yellow, he captained his country’s Olympic team to the gold medal with Neymar bagging goals in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final. He also scored a penalty in the shoot-out victory over Germany in the last game at the Maracana. He defied the critics that stated he wasn’t fit to captain the side with an inspiring display throughout the entire competition as he fired the Seleção to the only honour that eluded the South American giants.

Pacy, slick and supremely talented, the ex-Santos man helped the Blaugrana to a second successive domestic double as Barcelona triumphed over Real Madrid and Sevilla in La Liga and the Copa del Rey respectively. He scored in extra-time in the final of the latter competition to add to his impressive trophy cabinet. The deadly combination with Barcelona team-mates Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez excelled even further over the course of 2016 and he’s been a crucial member of the team. He also added to his international goal tally, scoring four times in six senior appearances and he’s on course to beat the legendary Pele and become his country’s greatest ever goalscorer. At only 24, he’s only 27 goals away from history and it may not be too long before he makes it.

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6. Gareth Bale

“He’s an amazing, amazing talent and he’s after the Ronaldos and Messis of this world and he’s getting better and better. He’s almost unplayable when he’s on his game. He is a genuine world-class player. There’s nobody he couldn’t play for. He’d improve any team.” – Ex-Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp

The Welshman arguably had the best year of his life with his achievements for club and country going a long way. His contribution to the Welsh national side will go down in history as they made it to the semi-finals of the European Championships in France in their first ever appearance in the competitions. He scored in all three group games in the competition including two stunning free-kicks against Slovakia and neighbouring England. He was influential in the semi-final defeat to eventual winners Portugal in probably one of the best individual performances of the tournament, despite ending up on the losing side. He added to his international tally with goals in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers as Wales look to make it to the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1958.

Bale was rewarded with a new and improved contract for his impressive form for Los Blancos. He helped the side win their second Champions League title in three years and eleventh overall by beating local rivals Atletico Madrid in the final of the competition in Milan via a penalty shoot-out – which he scored in. He also bagged his 43rd La Liga goal earlier that year – becoming the competition’s highest goal-getter to grace from the British Isles, overtaking ex-Barcelona forward Gary Lineker. Strong and powerful on and off the ball, he’s been a real menace to opposition defences in this deadly Real Madrid side and it isn’t long before he takes over from Cristiano Ronaldo as the club’s poster boy.

PREVIOUS LISTS: 25-21, 20-16, 15-11

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