Just a week more.
It has been some while since the domestic football ecosystem has strengthened to a point where international football is considered a poor, ostracized brother, and yet, the excitement and anticipation of a World Cup is unmatched. Partly due to legacy, and how the most illustrious names of yesteryear invariably made their biggest mark at a World Cup, we look at this tournament as the coronation for the world’s elite.
There is always a massive cloud of expectation surrounding the big stars, but there is something about the lesser-known, younger players that holds the world’s attention. Some are unknown territory, while some have begun to make a name for themselves, but like at most other World Cups, there will be those who choose the big stage to announce themselves.
Here is a quick stock of some players who might be the best bets to explode at Russia.
Kylian Mbappe (France)
You’ll have to search long and hard to find a list of exciting prospects at Russia 2018 without his name. Product of INF Clairefontaine, a well-oiled conveyor belt of talent located in the middle of France, Mbappe made his first mark as a wiry 18-year old wing-forward in Monaco’s team of 2016/17. There was a hushed excitement about this team that looked and played like proper challengers to PSG’s Ligue 1 hegemony. Over the next few months, Mbappe won the French league, ran Juventus ragged in the Champions League semi-final, and became the second most expensive transfer of all time.
Talented and promising teenagers, though a rare commodity, aren’t quite the Haley’s comet of European football. Most of their kind bring audiences to their feet and show dreams of a golden future, and yet, so many of them wither away without as much as a whimper. Mbappe brushed off 180 million Euros worth of weight like it was a defender chasing him, and conjured up a season with PSG which made France national team coach Didier Deschamps give him the number 10 jersey, implicitly making him the fulcrum of the team. He’s only 20, and has many more World Cups ahead of him, but Mbappe will enter Russia 2018 backed by a team which is amongst the most formidable, if not intimidating, sides across the board. With Pogba, Griezmann and Lemar in tow, expect Mbappe to play at his best, fearless and direct.
Goncalo Guedes (Portugal)
While many consider Portugal to be a one-man team, entirely depending on Cristiano, coach Fernando Santos has a lot more talent to call upon than the sheer radiance of Ronaldo will allow you to focus on. Among them, is 21-year-old forward Goncalo Guedes.
A graduate of Benfica’s famed youth academy, Paris Saint Germain paid a hefty 30 million Euros for him last season, and promptly loaned him out to Valencia. He enjoyed a breakthrough season in Spain, and forced his way into the national team setup. Guedes might not be a guaranteed starter just yet, with Cristiano, Bernardo Silva and Quaresma ahead of him, but one expects Portugal to have a long stay at Russia, and he’d give them an option from the bench many teams would pay a fortune to have.
Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria)
Teams like Leicester City don’t win the Premier League every year, but if they somehow manage to scale the Everest, those who pushed them to the top take a special place in their history. N’Golo Kante was picked out as their best player over the 2015/16 season, and before the team could recover from the dizzying heights of their achievement, he had signed a move to Chelsea. A year later, 20-year-old Wilfred Ndidi stepped into Kante’s small-sized, yet massive, shoes. Leicester have been richer and more successful for his presence, since.
The Lagos-born made his debut for Nigeria as a teenager, and has grown to become a midfield general for Gernot Rohr’s men. It’s a position usually reserved for the seasoned and battle-hardened, yet Ndidi’s young shoulders carry out the responsibilities and transitions with seemingly minimal effort. He finds himself in a tough group at the World Cup, with Argentina, Croatia and Iceland, all tough teams to get past. If Nigeria are to stay in Russia beyond the first stage of the tournament, they would need Ndidi to play at his best. Going by the season he’s just had for both club and country, one would do well to not bet against it.
Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
Leading the line for Brazil at a World Cup is an incredibly heavy and challenging task, for the sheer legacy of the shirt. Many, like Ronaldo and Romario, took to it like a stroll in the park, and some others, like Fred and Luis Fabiano, were either too burdened by it or lacked the depth of talent and character expected of them. The last time a 21-year old played centre-forward for Brazil wearing number 9, he lit up the tournament and got everyone who wasn’t French or Argentine rooting for him. Gabriel Jesus isn’t stepping into easy territory.
Plucked from Palmeiras by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at a time when his namesake Gabriel Barbosa was turning heads for Santos, Jesus came with the customary baggage of apprehensive, yet exciting hopes. Over 18 months, he has managed to become City’s weapon of choice as a striker, at times usurping even the timeless Sergio Aguero. For Brazil, he’s the undisputed spearhead of a forward-line boasting of Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino behind him. Tite’s trust in him became most evident when Jesus was given the armband in the friendly against Croatia, making him Brazil’s youngest ever captain. While the entire world will look towards Neymar, you will find Gabriel Jesus making his customary runs between opposition defense-lines. Brazil, like always, are expected to do well at this World Cup, and Jesus’ abilities as an intelligent centre-forward will be a massive cog in their wheel.
Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Already 27 caps old for the Mexico national team, Hirving Lozano comes into the tournament with a burgeoning reputation, fueled by a league-winning 17 goals for PSV Eindhoven this season. Known best for his pace, the winger has lived life in the fast lane, becoming a father at 18 and scoring within 5 minutes of his Mexican senior division debut. The national team isn’t quite filled to the brim with sparkling attacking talent, yet Lozano’s guaranteed spot in the starting lineup must be attributed to his prodigious ability with the ball.
In Group F, Mexico come up against defending champions Germany, Serbia and Sweden. Many would expect them to return early from Russia, but they have a potent weapon in Hirving Lozano, and will expect him to run a few rings around the defensive hardmen their opponents are likely to field.
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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 11:20:26 IST