Stephen Halliday: Scotland has another world-class player in Andrew Roberston

Andrew Robertson gets the better of Barcelona's  Lionel Messi on Tuesday evening. Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
Andrew Robertson gets the better of Barcelona's Lionel Messi on Tuesday evening. Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
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Setting the parameters for what constitutes a world-class footballer has never been an exact science.

Some exceptional individuals throughout the game’s history, such as Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, present unarguable specimens of the highest standards of ability it is possible to reach in the greatest sport of them all.

But outwith those examples of genuinely elite performers, making an assessment of a player’s world-class credentials is generally far more subjective.

Sadly, it’s not a debate we have had much cause to engage in when talking about Scottish footballers over the past 30 years or so. Since Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness hung up their boots, this country has scarcely had any credible claim to boast a world-class player.

But it does now. Andrew Robertson’s contribution to a stellar season for Liverpool, which may yet conclude with him becoming both a Premier League and Champions League winner, has taken the remarkable trajectory of his career to a whole new level.

If being the best there is in your own position is one of the credentials for world-class status, then the 25-year-old Scotland captain surely merits serious consideration. Is there a better left-back anywhere on planet football right now?

A straw poll of those aficionados who follow Europe’s major leagues with intense scrutiny would see strong cases made for the established La Liga duo of Jordi Alba and Marcelo. But Barcelona left-back Alba was ultimately outperformed by Robertson in the epic Champions League semi-final, even allowing for the Scot’s half-time departure from the second leg through injury, while Brazilian star Marcelo has not matched his previous high standards in a disappointing season for Real Madrid.

Another Brazilian left-back, Alex Sandro of Juventus, and Bayern Munich’s Austrian international David Alaba are other obvious contenders to be regarded as the premier practitioner in a position which has become so pivotal to both the attacking and defensive prowess of top sides in the modern game.

Robertson, though, compares more than favourably with all of his contemporaries this season. He has been a crucial component of a vastly-improved Liverpool defence which has conceded only 22 goals in 37 Premier League games to help them take the title race with Manchester City to the wire this weekend.

While his defensive discipline has unquestionably improved, Robertson’s qualities further up the pitch really catch the eye. He was the first defender in the Premier League to exceed ten assists this season and has now provided 13 across all competitions, an astonishing return for a full-back.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who can be considered as a decent judge in such matters, believes one prerequisite for being regarded as world class is the ability to consistently “make a difference” in the business of winning football matches. Robertson ticks that box at the very least.

The invariably high quality of his crossing, allied to that of precocious England right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold on the other flank, has been arguably the most potent weapon in Liverpool’s attacking armoury under the ebullient management of Jurgen Klopp.

It is perhaps more natural for midfield playmakers, wingers and strikers to achieve recognition as world-class players. Since the introduction of the Ballon d’Or in 1956, only one goalkeeper – Lev Yashin – and two defenders – Franz Beckenbauer and Fabio Cannavaro – have been acclaimed as the best player in the world.

Yet no-one would dispute that luminaries such as Paolo Maldini, Bixente Lizarazu and Roberto Carlos, who all spent most of their careers as left-backs, were world-class players.

Robertson still has some way to go to be bracketed with that trio who delivered sustained excellence at the highest level over a number of years. But there is now every reason to believe he has the necessary mentality and skill set to be widely accepted as Scotland’s first world-class footballer in more than a generation.