Messi leads list of top 10 South Americans in Champions League
Influx of South American players has enhanced quality of the Champions League
Lionel Messi has yet to display his great La Liga form in Champions League play
Ronaldinho is experiencing a resurgence as he seeks a World Cup roster spot
It's no secret that without the top South American players, European soccer's biggest club competition -- the UEFA Champions League -- wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. With the amount of South American talent integrated into the competition in recent years, the quality of play has reached a level never imagined before.
Notwithstanding Stuttgart, each of the 16 teams in the knockout stage this season has at least one South American player (Stuttgart's Cacau was born in Brazil but is now a nationalized German international). This underscores the amount of influence South American soccer has had on the European game, and because of their success, the demand for top-quality players from the region increases each year.
Few clubs can afford a player of the caliber of Lionel Messi -- who is undoubtedly one of the greatest South Americans to ever play in Europe -- but Barcelona beat out the competition by taking an interest in his undisputed talent at a young age, and is now being rewarded for its efforts. The production pipeline in South America is extraordinary -- ambitious clubs like Barça just have to discover it.
Here are the top 10 South American players (still active) of the 2009-10 edition of the UEFA Champions League:
1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona): The Argentine superstar was named FIFA World Player of the Year in December, thanks in large part to a memorable Champions League campaign in which he not only led Barcelona to the title but also scored a competition-high nine goals, including Barça's second goal in a 2-0 win over Manchester United in the final. "La Pulga" has yet to reach his top form in the current edition of the competition, but will need to be at his best to inspire Barça past Stuttgart after the teams tied 1-1 in the first leg of the round of 16 matchup in Germany on Tuesday. If his incredible La Liga form is any indication (Messi has scored 16 goals), Barcelona will have good chances of winning back-to-back titles.
2. Kaká (Real Madrid): After emptying the bank to assemble the most intimidating squad in Europe, Real Madrid is expected to win the Champions League. While the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have added plenty of quality, Madrid's success depends on the impact made by Kaká, even if his performances have been questioned since he arrived. After some difficulty in adapting to life in the Spanish capital, the Brazilian has gradually picked up his game and become responsible for orchestrating his team's best attacking moves. Kaká, who scored twice in Madrid's 6-2 hammering of Villarreal in La Liga on Sunday, was helpless as his side lost 1-0 to Lyon in France last week. But los Galácticos are more than capable of turning the round-of-16 matchup in their favor during the return leg at the Santiago Bernabéu as they try to avoid elimination in this stage of the competition for the sixth consecutive year.
3. Maicon (Inter Milan): Arguably the best right back in the world, Maicon is not only solid in defense but he's also dangerous when moving to the attack. The defender is so confident in his role that he rarely makes mistakes, providing his team with the necessary assurance to concentrate completely on attack. This is one reason why Inter Milan has dominated Italian soccer in recent years. The fact that Dunga prefers Maicon to Barcelona's Daniel Alves (another exceptional right back) on the Brazilian national team is the reason he gets the nod on this list. Inter defeated Chelsea 2-1 in the first leg of their round of 16 on Wednesday.
4. Radamel Falcao García (FC Porto): The Colombian has been in electrifying form since moving to Porto from River Plate, transforming himself into one of the most feared strikers in Europe. Falcao's scoring rate is up there with the very best, and he converted Porto's controversial game-winner in a 2-1 victory against Arsenal that boosted its chances of reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League. After such an impressive introduction to European soccer, Falcao, one of Porto's 14 South Americans, has the potential to follow Faustino Asprilla in becoming one of the most successful Colombians to play on the continent.
5. Ronaldinho (AC Milan): It seemed that Ronaldinho had lost his magic since leaving Barcelona for AC Milan in 2008, but he has rejuvenated his career this season. Not wanting to miss out on the World Cup with Brazil, he has lifted his game in an attempt to remain in Dunga's plans. Ronaldinho, who leads Serie A with 12 assists, has a team-high three goals in the Champions League. He scored against Manchester United last week, but the Rossoneri are on the verge of elimination after falling 3-2 at the San Siro.
6. Gonzalo Higuaín (Real Madrid): Higuaín's future at the Bernabéu looked in doubt with the flurry of superstars who joined the club in the offseason, but "Pipita" hasn't allowed the added pressure and intrasquad competition to rattle him, as evidenced by his 14 goals in league play. If provided with adequate service, Higuaín rarely fails when presented with an opportunity in front of goal. Higuaín earns his place in the top 10 at the expense of compatriot and Inter Milan scoring machine Diego Milito.
7. Luís Fabiano (Sevilla): Despite being considered one of the deadliest strikers in Europe for a while now, Fabiano has continually rejected lucrative offers from top European clubs to remain loyal to ever-improving Sevilla. This has allowed him to stay focused on what he does best -- few players possess his goal-scoring prowess -- and helped him improve another aspect of his game: Fabiano leads the Champions League in assists. "O Fabuloso," however, missed Wednesday's 1-1 tie at CSKA Moscow with a chest injury.
8. Antonio Valencia (Manchester United): The explosive winger knew he had big shoes to fill when he was brought to Old Trafford as the replacement of Ronaldo. And even though he hasn't always been a first-team regular, he has demonstrated sufficient potential to warrant a permanent role. When called upon by Sir Alex Ferguson, Valencia has taken full advantage of the responsibility. He scored United's late game-winner against CSKA Moscow in Russia in the group phase, and repeated the feat with United's equalizer when the sides tied 3-3 in Manchester days later. His big-game temperament could be crucial as United continues to progress in the competition.
9. Julio César (Inter Milan): Widely regarded the best goalkeeper in Europe, César is one of the main reasons why Inter Milan will rate its chances of winning the Champions League for the first time in 45 years. Inter may have won the Italian Scudetto for the past four seasons, but it has underachieved in Europe. Defense has been a weakness, but after being reinforced with experience in the back line, including the presence of Brazil captain Lúcio, there's now more help in front of César. On Wednesday, César helped Inter hold off Chelsea.
10. Juan Vargas (Fiorentina): The versatile Peruvian has earned a reputation for rising to the occasion. It was his penalty conversion against Lyon that earned Fiorentina a place in the round of 16 for the first time in 10 years. Though not considered a realistic threat to win the title, Fiorentina was just a minute away from claiming a draw on its visit to Bayern Munich last week. The fact that La Viola scored a valuable away goal in the 2-1 defeat means that it still has good chances of reaching the quarterfinals.