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Goal.com's countdown to the greatest player of 2008 continues with Liverpool’s midfield bulldog, Javier Mascherano. The Argentine star has established himself as an indispensable component for both club and country over the past 12 months...

50 - Ashley Young - Aston Villa, Premier League - Score: 1109
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
45 - Luca Toni - FC Bayern, Bundesliga - Score: 1064
44 - David Silva - Valencia, Primera Division - Score: 1060
42 (T) - Thierry Henry - Barcelona, Primera Division - Score: 1040
42 (T) - Daniel Alves - Sevilla, Primera Division / Barcelona, Primera Division - Score: 1040
41 - Antonio Cassano - Sampdoria, Serie A - Score: 1028
40 - Klaas-Jan Huntelaar - Ajax Amsterdam, Eredivisie / Real Madrid, Primera Division - Score: 1027
39 - Ricardo Carvalho - Chelsea, Premier Division - Score: 1025
38 - Samuel Eto'o - Barcelona, Primera Division - Score: 1017
37 - Philipp Lahm - FC Bayern, Bundesliga - Score: 1009

36 - Javier Mascherano - Liverpool, English Premier League - Score: 1008

There were more than a few whispers of confusion and scepticism when Rafael Benitez scooped up Mascherano in a loan deal from West Ham United in 2007. The young midfielder had managed just seven appearances for the Irons since his controversial switch from Corinthians the previous summer, due in no small part to an add-on clause written into his contract. Furthermore, the Reds were already well stocked in the centre of the pitch, and it seemed an unnecessary acquisition.

However, it took only a matter of months for ‘The Little Chief’ to cement himself as a fans’ favourite at Anfield, not to mention one of the most prominent holding-players in Europe. He has gone from strength to strength in 2008, a year which began with an unequivocal demonstration of his importance to Liverpool.

Kop Idol

On January 29, it was confirmed that Mohamed Sissoko had left Liverpool for Juventus in a €13 million deal. On the surface, it seems nothing more than an out-of-favour player moving on in search of first-team football elsewhere. But it was Mascherano’s arrival which caused it, and it speaks volumes that few Kopites were sad to see the highly rated and popular Momo depart.

The hard-working, heel-snapping star was rewarded with a permanent four-year deal in February, when the club’s American owners coughed up around €20 million to purchase him outright from Media Sports Investment. That’s a lot of money for a primarily defensive player, but ask any Liverpool supporter and they’ll tell you that, Fernando Torres aside, ‘The Masche’ remains the best buy of the Benitez era.

Despite his short stature, the 24-year-old has been a colossus for the Reds. He stands at just 170 centimetres but is rarely beaten for strength, and many regard him as one of the finest tacklers in world football – especially on the slide. But what sets Mascherano apart is his all-round quality. His passing play perfectly complements that of midfield partners Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, and he has surprised many with his ability to keep hold of the ball and run it deep into the final third. His ability to do this late in the day and draw fouls to slow down the game is uncanny.

Then there are his mental qualities. While these came into question after he was sent off in the 0-3 defeat to Manchester United in March and charged with improper conduct, the former River Plate man’s response has been extraordinary (he was voted Man of the Match when the Red Devils fell at Anfield in September). He has been pivotal in the Mersey giants’ table-topping exploits this season, just as he was vital in helping them to the semi-finals of the Champions League last term. And yet, it is not necessarily at club level where he has done his best work.

International Acclaim

The highlight of Mascherano’s year came during the European off-season. Named as one of three overage players in Argentina’s Olympic squad, the San Lorenzo native headed to Beijing in the hope of defending the title he won at Athens in 2004. A 1-0 win over Nigeria in the final saw him become his nation’s second-ever dual gold-medallist, and the first to win consecutive titles.

Despite his tender years, ‘El Jefecito’ is already a veteran on the international stage. He has some 46 caps to his name, the first of which came against Uruguay in 2003 – before he had even played a single senior game of club football. And although he faces immense competition from the likes of Esteban Cambiasso, Fernando Gago and Juan Sebastian Veron, many view him as an ‘untouchable’ in los Albicelestes set-up.

Mascherano’s reputation in his homeland was underlined when he was singled out for the national team captaincy by new coach Diego Maradona, who said, “I believe he is the Argentinean player who is closest to the idea I have about the Argentinean shirt - sweat for it, sacrifice for it, being a professional, being close to the team-mate.” Masche was curiously reluctant to accept this offer at first, claiming he was far too quiet in the dressing room to be a good skipper, but on November 10 he was officially handed the armband.

Clearly, 2008 has been a big year for Javier Mascherano, but there is plenty more to come from the diminutive midfield-monster. Few would dispute his inclusion on this list, and a Premier League triumph with high-flying Liverpool might see him poll considerably higher next year.

Team Prizes:

Argentina – 2008 Olympic Games gold medal.

Liverpool – None.

Individual Accolades:

None.

Mike Maguire, Goal.com

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