Goal.com's countdown to the greatest player of 2008 continues with gifted Argentine playmaker Juan Román Riquelme. Without doubt one of the greatest players of his generation, Riquelme has returned to his best with Boca Juniors as they close in on another league championship...
49 - Javier Zanetti - Internazionale, Serie A - Score: 1104
48 - Daniel Guiza - Fenerbahçe, Super Lig - Score: 1089
47 - Juninho Pernambucano - Olympique Lyonnais, Ligue 1 - Score: 1083
46 - Juan Román Riquelme - Boca Juniors, Argentine Apertura - Score: 1077
A Rare Talent
Argentine football has produced several outstanding midfielders over the years, but perhaps the most gifted of this current generation has been Boca Juniors playmaker Juan Román Riquelme.
Riquelme, 30, is undoubtedly one of the best playmakers in the game, and his rare qualities have won him several prestigious titles over the years, including the Copa Libertadores, the Copa Sudamericana, the Intercontinental Cup, the South American Recopa, as well as the Argentine Championship. At an international level his first major title triumph came this year, with the Beijing Olympic Games gold medal.
Riquelme, who is expected to continue to be a regular fixture with Argentina under Diego Maradona, is a proven free-kick specialist, and this has often been the difference in crucial encounters. His radar-like vision and technical ability can only be compared to the very best.
Another major factor that has increased his popularity, particularly in Argentina, is that he has stayed loyal to Boca Juniors despite ongoing pressure from abroad. Riquelme knows that he is more than capable of returing to the elite of European football, but he insists on staying at La Bombonera, even if it comes at a price. Although he isn't in the European spotlight anymore, Riquelme is destined to end his career at Boca.
Forgettable European Adventure
After performing at a consistently high level with Boca Juniors for six years, Riquelme attracted the attention of several top European clubs, and in 2002 he was transferred to Spanish giants FC Barcelona for a fee of €11 million.
Much was expected of the highy rated Argentine, and although he made a bright start at the Camp Nou, he soon fell down the team ranks with then-coach Louis van Gaal, and shortly afterwards he was loaned out to Villarreal.
Riquelme found wide success during four years at Villarreal, where he developed into one of the most exciting midfielders in Europe. He guided the Yellow Submarine to the semi-finals of the 2005-06 Champions League, where they finally bowed out at the hands of Arsenal. Riquelme missed a crucial penalty that would have taken the tie into extra-time.
Shortly afterwards, several rows with Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini led to his separation from the squad. After a miserable period at El Madrigal, where Riquelme wasn't taken into consideration for team selections, he finally agreed to return to his beloved Boca Juniors in 2007.
Back To His Ultimate Best!
Riquelme returned to top form with Boca Juniors in 2007, playing a key role as his side claimed the Copa Libertadores with an emphatic 5-0 aggregate victory over Grêmio of Porto Alegre in the final. Riquelme scored eight goals in the tournament, including three goals in the finals series. His brilliant performances didn't go unnoticed, and were the reason why Alfio Basile provided him with a starring role in the Copa América in Venezuela.
Riquelme was Argentina's standout performer during the tournament, scoring five goals, but he couldn't stop his side from falling to pieces against arch-rivals Brazil in the final. Towards the end of the year Riquelme was just as impressive, scoring vital goals as Argentina swept aside all opposition in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
More Titles On The Horizon
In the first half of the 2008 season, Riquelme struggled to find his form with Boca Juniors and the Argentine national team. In the second half, however, he returned to his all-time best, playing a determining role as Boca finished in top spot of the Argentine Apertura Championship, along with Buenos Aires rivals San Lorenzo and Tigre.
Having beaten San Lorenzo in their first match of the three-way playoff on Saturday night, Boca just need a point against Tigre on Tuesday to clinch the championship for the 24th time. Unfortunately Riquelme will miss the decider due to suspension.
Earlier in the year, Riquelme captained Argentina to the Beijing Olympic Games gold medal. It was the first time Riquelme lifted a major international trophy with Los Albiceleste. His only goal of the tournament came in the 3-0 semi-final victory over Brazil, which was taken as sweet revenge after the senior side lost to the Brazilians by the same scoreline in the final of the Copa América last year.
Team Prizes In 2008:
Beijing Olympic Games gold medal
South American Recopa
Argentine Apertura Championship?
Gregory Sica, Goal.com