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#pounditThursday, May 23, 2024

15 key players to watch at the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Cristiano Ronaldo

The FIFA World Cup has a way of making new stars and elevating old ones. Many players’ careers are defined by what they do on this stage, and many players have used the tournament as a springboard for moves to big clubs and greater international recognition. Don’t expect 2018’s tournament to be any different.

Here’s a look at 15 players worth keeping an eye on in Russia this summer. Some are well-known stars with something to prove, while others are lesser-known players who are talented enough to erupt onto the international scene with a quality tournament.

15) Leon Goretzka, Germany

Germany is a mightily experienced outfit with enough depth to field two quality teams, as evidenced by the fact that an overhauled German squad that lacked most of its established stars still won the Confederations Cup in 2017. One of the stars of that tournament was Goretzka, who scored three times in four games and looks to have a role in the World Cup squad as well despite an injury-plagued season. It’s not as if Germany really needs more quality players, but he has the potential to run games from midfield if he gets the opportunity.

14) Hirving Lozano, Mexico

Lozano has potential to be a breakout star for Mexico, coming off a Dutch league title in which he scored 17 league goals. He scored six in 12 for Mexico in 2017, and will be one of the squad’s feared forward options during the World Cup. Locked into a difficult group with reigning champion Germany, Lozano, still just 22, has the pace and skill to give defenses trouble and elevate his profile on the world’s stage.

13) Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Serbia

Linked to a big-money transfer to some of Europe’s biggest clubs this summer — most often Manchester United — Milinkovic-Savic is nonetheless something of an unknown. He has the total package as a midfielder with size, strength, passing ability, and the capability to score. The World Cup could serve as something of an audition for him; he’ll be facing an early favorite in Brazil, and he looks increasingly likely to leave Italian side Lazio this summer.

12) Paulo Dybala, Argentina

Heralded by some as the heir to Messi’s throne in Argentina, Dybala is regarded as one of the best young forwards in Europe, even if his club form for Juventus dipped a bit during this past season. It’s a question as to whether he’ll get opportunities in Russia, as Messi and Sergio Aguero are marquee names for Argentina. If he gets his chance, though, watch out. He and Messi have some similarities stylistically, and he’s a gifted goalscorer who could firmly place himself on the international stage if he only gets the chance to do so.

11) Kylian Mbappe, France

Still only 19, Mbappe has shown the talent necessary to become one of the world’s best, which is why Paris Saint-Germain made him the second-most expensive transfer of all time behind only Neymar. Still, he hasn’t quite propelled himself into that top tier of global superstars. The World Cup will offer him an excellent opportunity to do just that. Gifted in pretty much every department with dribbling, passing, and scoring, he’ll have an outsized role on a talented French squad that could make him a household name, much as Colombia’s run to the quarterfinals did for James Rodriguez four years ago.

10) Christian Eriksen, Denmark

Perhaps unjustly forgotten even at club level, where striker Harry Kane is the star attraction at Tottenham, Eriksen simply cannot be overlooked. The Danish midfielder is a gifted creative player, and he’s been a great scorer for Denmark as well, scoring 11 goals in 12 matches during a period between 2016 and 2017. He’s entirely capable of dragging his team to a victory or two and perhaps upsetting the odds in the group stage despite a team that is otherwise lacking in top-level talent.

9) Luis Suarez, Uruguay

The last time we saw Suarez at a World Cup, he was biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, leading to global condemnation. Suarez has stayed out of trouble since, starring alongside Messi and Neymar at Barcelona, though he hasn’t quite been as influential on the international stage since 2014. Now 31, this is set to be his last World Cup as a truly top-level player. He has an easy group to get Uruguay out of, sparking dreams of a lengthy run into the knockout stages.

8) Raheem Sterling, England

Few players have more to prove at the international level than Sterling, who came under so much criticism after England’s disastrous Euro 2016 loss to Iceland that he dubbed himself “the Hated One.” Since then, his game has taken off at Manchester City; he scored 18 league goals for the champions in 2017-18. He’ll be expected to take his club form to the World Cup with him, and if he does, it would do much to turn his international reputation around.

7) Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium

Long overshadowed for Belgium by Eden Hazard, De Bruyne’s club form for Manchester City has elevated him to a new level. He is the one who will be looked to in order to lead Belgium’s golden generation to the promised land. He’s now viewed as the crown jewel in an exceptionally talented squad, and has become an outspoken leader, going so far as to publicly criticize some of manager Roberto Martinez’s tactical choices. A player who can score or create, he has every opportunity to light up the tournament.

6) David De Gea, Spain

Arguably the world’s best goalkeeper, De Gea will be handed the starting role for Spain at the World Cup for the first time. 18 games unbeaten, the Spanish have re-established themselves after disappointing campaigns in the 2014 World Cup and at Euro 2016, and De Gea is a big part of that. A magnificent shot-stopper, Spain will hope they don’t have to rely on De Gea to bail them out much, but he’ll be ready if needed.

5) Neymar, Brazil

The great hope of Brazil 2014, Neymar was injured in the quarterfinals and had to watch his country’s 7-1 defeat against Germany from the sidelines. Much has changed since then. Neymar debuted for Barcelona and then moved to PSG in a world-record transfer last summer, and has evolved into one of the best players in the world. Brazil fans expect nothing but success, and they’ll be counting on Neymar — hopefully injury-free this time — to deliver it.

4) Mohamed Salah, Egypt

Salah faces a race to be healthy enough to play for Egypt in the tournament after a controversial Sergio Ramos tackle injured his shoulder during the Champions League final. There’s a reason the entire country held its collective breath when they saw him go down. Salah was vital in Liverpool’s excellent season and is far and away Egypt’s best player, a talent good enough to lead the team singlehandedly through what has been a very forgiving group draw. Hopefully he’s healthy, because it would be a terrible shame if Egypt had to play without him.

3) Paul Pogba, France

Nobody doubts Pogba’s talent. Manchester United paid what was, at the time, a world-record fee for his services in 2016, but the midfielder hasn’t had the best of seasons at United, with critics questioning his commitment and linking him with a move elsewhere. Pogba will have the opportunity to silence those critics. He’ll be looked to as a leader on a France squad with a wealth of talent and a real chance to win the entire thing. Pogba is good enough to carry the team on the way there.

2) Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

Ronaldo, too, was plagued by a lack of international titles until 2016, when he won the Euros with Portugal despite the fact that an injury forced him off early in the final. He’s not quite the devastating goalscorer he once was, but it says much about how far he was from the rest of the non-Messi pack that he’s still comfortably one of the two best players in the world. Even in so-called decline, the 33-year-old scored 15 goals in the Champions League as Real Madrid won their third straight title. Don’t think he won’t be motivated to win another major international tournament with no sign of injury this time.

1) Lionel Messi, Argentina

Messi turns 31 at the end of June, and while he could certainly participate in another World Cup, this is probably the last shot he’ll get to do it in what’s left of his prime. As much as he’s been celebrated for his achievements at Barcelona, and despite the fact that he’s his country’s all-time leading goalscorer, Messi has never received those plaudits for his international achievements. A large part of that is down to his lack of titles — Argentina lost the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 and 2016 Copa America, with the forward failing to score in all of them. The criticism grew so intense that he briefly retired from international play before changing his mind.

Messi was great for Argentina during qualifying, including a hat trick in a decisive game against Ecuador. Few players are as capable of taking control of a game as he is, and his presence alone makes Argentina a threat to win it all.

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