David Villa has been the outstanding player of South Africa 2009's group phase. That is the headline conclusion of the latest FIFA Confederations Cup Castrol Index, which shows the emergence of a heavyweight trio of contenders at the top.
Villa, the only player still with an overall rating of nine-plus, remains perched on the summit, but Fernando Torres and Kaka are within touching distance and have built up a small but discernible lead over the rest of the chasing pack. So little separates the top three at this stage that either Torres or Kaka could snatch top spot with an impressive semi-final showing, which means Villa is under pressure to maintain the consistency that preserved his hold on pole position this time around.
Not that pressure seems to affect this particular striker. After all, his outstanding displays during the group stage have been produced against a backdrop of massive uncertainty as some of Europe's top clubs engage in a very public tug-of-war for his signature. "The past week hasn't been easy," he admitted after scoring in Saturday's 2-0 win over the hosts. "Nobody can imagine what I've been through. It has been a really bad time."
Villa might be finding the rumours and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring difficult to handle, but you would never know it from his focused, determined performances. Neither the constant speculation nor a missed penalty prevented him grabbing another brilliantly-executed goal in his most recent outing, and providing another demonstration of why Valencia's president this week described him as "the best striker in Europe".
The past week hasn't been easy. Nobody can imagine what I've been through. It has been a really bad time.
Torres, who topped the Castrol Index after the first round of matches, continues to offer the greatest threat, but Kaka's consistency, creative skills and unheralded defensive efforts have taken him from fifth to third. Both these principal challengers benefited from the negative impact South Africa's defensive display against Spain had on Sibonsio Gaxa and Tsepo Masilela's ratings, with these erstwhile high-fliers dropping back to fifth and sixth respectively.
Mohammed Kassid's position just outside the top three is sure to raise eyebrows, yet Castrol calculated that the Iraq No1 - already ranked top in his position - underlined his worth by keeping a clean sheet against New Zealand when an average keeper would have conceded at least twice. He might have excelled, but Kassid's was not the outstanding performance of the third round of matches. That honour, according to Castrol Performance Analysts, fell to USA's Clint Dempsey, Budweiser Man of the Match against Egypt and scorer of the all-important goal that sealed an unlikely semi-final berth for Bob Bradley's side.
Luis Fabiano also fired his way back into contention, ascending 24 places to 15th on the back of a clinically-dispatched double against Italy that took him level with Villa and Torres at the top of the tournament's scoring charts. The Brazil No9 would, in fact, be challenging the Spain duo just as closely the Castrol Index but for the legacy of his profligate performance against USA, when the squandering of some excellent chances to both score and create goals seriously damaged his standing.
The result is that Luis Fabiano, like many, has work to do if he is to catch the leaders. Yet with the *Seleção *star among 15 players in the top 20 with a semi-final to look forward to, Villa's position may well come under threat sooner rather than later.
FIFA.comwill be publishing the latest Castrol Index after every round of matches here at South Africa 2009, and in the meantime you can read more statistical analysis, delve deeper into this unique ranking system and view the full Castrol Index table by following the links on the right.