Ranking the 5 most underrated defenders of the 21st century

Aston Villa v Chelsea - Premier League
Aston Villa v Chelsea - Premier League

The modern day defender is a celebrated and all-round technically capable figure. The likes of Sergio Ramos, Carles Puyol, John Terry, Fabio Cannavaro, Paolo Maldini, Giorgio Chiellini and Dani Alves frequently feature in most people's list of all-time greats.

Several other defenders, however, have fallen under the radar. They deserve far more credit and praise, either as innovators or as consistently reliable performers, forming the backbone of their team.

With that in mind, here are five of the 21st century's most underrated defenders:


#5 John Arne Riise

Serie A - CHIEVO v ROMA
Serie A - CHIEVO v ROMA

Liverpool's excellence in the full-back position is regarded as one of the key aspects of their recent success. The array of assists from set pieces and crosses seem like a luxury from "defenders". However, one man set the tone for Liverpool in the full-back position during the early aughts.

Signed in 2001 for a mere £4m, John Arne Riise made 348 appearances over a seven-year career at the club. He helped them win a European Super Cup, two Community Shields, a League Cup, an FA Cup and the Champions League.

The rocket-propelled free-kicks and crosses of John Arne Riise were some of Anfield's biggest attractions, as the red-headed Norwegian transformed into a Liverpool cult hero. Playing a marauding full-back, he was such an attacking threat that managers Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez to even push him up to left-back.

He went on to have a successful career at AS Roma and Fulham in the top leagues of Europe. That was followed by forays into Greece, with APOEL, and Indian Super League, with Delhi Dynamos and Chennaiyin FC.


#4 Daniel Van Buyten

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Final
Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Final

Belgian Daniel van Buyten, the six-feet-five-inches-tall defensive stalwart spent close to eight years at Bayern Munich, making the team sheet regulary even at the twilight of his career.

Van Buyten's senior career began at Charleroi in 1998. After spending two years with Standard Liege, he signed for Marseille in 2001. He even had a spell with Manchester City on loan in 2004.

It was in 2006 that he made the biggest move of his career, joining Bayern Munich and instantly forming an iconic centre-back partnership with Brazilian Lucio. Across his eight years in Munich, he won the German championship four times and the German Cup five times, He also won Champions League in 2013 as part of a famous treble-winning side.

In a testament to his ability and mental fortitude to keep up with the increasing tempo of modern football, van Buyten was 35 when he played against Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona in the Champions League. Not to mention he was a prolific goalscoring threat with an outstanding 72 goals in his career.

On the national team front, he was the first talisman of Belgium's "golden generation" and earned over 84 caps. That included a run at the 2014 World Cup, losing at the quarter-final stage to eventual finalists Argentina.


#3 Alexsandar Kolarov

Sevilla FC v AS Roma - Pre Season Friendly
Sevilla FC v AS Roma - Pre Season Friendly

Serbian left-back Alexandar Kolarov has become a cult figure for his deadpan humor and tough guy reputation. Yet his time at Lazio, Roma, Inter Milan and perhaps most famously, Manchester City, he asserted his reputation as one of the most powerful modern day fullbacks. Over his seven years at City, he won two league titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup from 247 appearances.

Blessed with a scorching hot left foot, Kolarov was, and still is, a noted attacking threat and an all-too-capable defender as well. His crosses and freekicks have been devastatingly productive, with over 54 goals and 64 assists across 534 professional appearances.


#2 Roberto Ayala

Hernan Crespo of Argentina consoles team mate Roberto Ayala after a 2-1 defeat in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Holland. Credit: Ben Radford /Allsport
Hernan Crespo of Argentina consoles team mate Roberto Ayala after a 2-1 defeat in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Holland. Credit: Ben Radford /Allsport

While Argentina is praised for its attacking talent, Roberto Ayala was one of the finest centre-backs to grace La Liga in the early aughts. Winning the Spanish League twice with Valencia, he helped them upset perennial favorites Real Madrid and Barcelona, and in 2001, make the 2001 Champions League final. Ayala was a key part of a generational Valencia squad.

He was the foundation of a rock solid defense, making close to 200 appearances for the club as an accomplished aerially-dominant and speedy centre-back. His leadership qualities and stature were such that on the international level, he won a stunning 115 caps, including bagging the 2004 Olympic gold.


#1 Cesar Azpilicueta

Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League
Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League

Cesar Azpilicueta was bought by Chelsea amid limited fanfare for just £7m. In a summer which saw the arrival of Eden Hazard, the little-known Spaniard turned out to be one of Chelsea's greatest-ever buys.

He initially struggling to break into the full-back slots occupied by Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole. However, by the end of Mourinho’s first season back in charge at Chelsea, Azpilicueta was named the Players’ Player of the Year at Chelsea.

The current Chelsea captain has, over his nine-year spell, been the personification of intelligence, integrity and industrial play. His constant reinvention at both fullback slots, wingback and even on the right side of a back three has meant he has been an indispensable servant to the club.

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