It is at the World Cup that legends are made, where good players become greats and the greats become the best. Every footballer dreams of playing at the biggest sporting event in the world as the best pit themselves against each other in a bid to define legacies and careers. The Express Tribune’s panel takes a look at 10 players that will be key to their team’s chances at the World Cup and are expected to light up Russia.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. If you look at the shy and unassuming Andres Iniesta, stick thin and all of 171cm, tough is not a word that comes to mind. Yet the wiry frame hides a steely edge and unbreakable iron-will the likes of which football has perhaps never seen. No footballer has ever epitomised the concept of a big game player more than the Barcelona midfielder. Iniesta is writing the final chapters of his storied career and it is no coincidence that he will bow out with football’s most impressive medal collection. Garrincha 1962 and Diego Armando Maradona 1986 are said to be the two occasions in which a player has won his country the World Cup almost on his own. Yet that does disservice to Iniesta. David Villa may have finished Spain’s top-scorer with five goals but Iniesta was a man possessed once the knockout stages came around; at times dragging Spain, kicking and screaming, almost single-handedly through those historic Vuvuzela-filled South African nights. In Brazil, Iniesta and Spain both looked a shadow of the team that had conquered all before them four years ago. Yet if their demise from defending European and world champions to World Cup flops was depressingly swift, then their rise under Julen Lopetegui has been reassuringly steady. At the heart of that rise is invariably Spain’s most famous midfield maestro. The iconic metronome will be dictating La Furia Roja’s tempo one last time, and his presence in the dressing room has become all the more important now that Spain have sacked Lopetegui and brought in Fernando Hierro. Write them off at your own folly. Write him off at your own folly.
No one can quite predict what Iniesta will do with the ball at his feet, perhaps because no one treats the ball the way he does. Such is his genius that he always seems to have more time on the ball than those around him. At 34, Iniesta’s powers are on the wane but such is his vision and mastery of the game that the outgoing Barcelona maestro still remains a crucial part of Spain’s midfield. Winning is part of Iniesta’s DNA, having amassed a whopping 35 titles during his career. His movement and passing will be key as Spain try to break down stubborn defences set up specifically to break down La Roja’s passing game. By his own admission, Russia 2018 is Iniesta’s international swansong. Having won two European Championships and one World Cup, he has little to prove at the biggest stage yet the hunger to perform remains the same. This is a chance for fans all over the world to witness his brilliance one last time.
In a sport that is becoming increasingly obsessed with statistics, it is a saddening thought that one day future generations will look at Iniesta’s stats for Spain (13 goals in 126 appearances) and wonder what was so special about him. El Ilusionista is Spain’s biggest footballing hero and as the curtain falls on the 34-year-old’s illustrious career, fans can be sure that he will be an important player for the La Furia Roja once more. Iniesta has been a pivotal part of Spain’s greatest generation, scoring their most famous goal and claiming the man-of-the-match awards in the finals of World Cup 2010 and Euros 2012. However, it is nearly impossible to condense Iniesta’s greatest achievements into a few moments. By pulling the strings with his passing and ball control in the middle of the park, the diminutive midfielder has defied the odds time and again throughout his career. His ability to pry open a resolute defence with a moment of brilliance is second to none new coach Fernando Hierro will be hoping for more of the same in Russia.
The numbers tell their own story. Nine La Liga titles, four Champions League, two European Championships and, most importantly, one World Cup. Yet they don’t tell the full story. Statistics and words can never do justice to Iniesta’s style of play — magical and trance-inducing as it is — nor can they ever truly encapsulate the influence he has had on the best sides Barcelona and Spain have ever produced. Iniesta is one of those players who not only produces at the biggest of moments but also has the ability to lift everyone around him. His simplicity and effortlessness often belie the difficulty of what he does and it is only when he isn’t around that his impact becomes fully clear. His perception and reading of the game will be vital to Spain’s plans in the World Cup, especially the way he dovetails with fellow attacking midfielders David Silva, Isco and Thiago Alcantara; alongside whom he forms a quartet no team would like to come up against. If Iniesta gets going, Spain may well end the tournament as champions.
The Selecao have a long and proud history of producing some of the best strikers in the history of the game. A long list of emperors consisting of the likes of Pele, Garrincha, Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho has a new prince — Neymar. The world’s most expensive player may have had an underwhelming season with new side Paris Saint-Germain but still undoubtedly remains Brazil’s talisman. With 55 goals to his name already, Neymar is well on course to surpass all those who came before him as Brazil’s all-time greatest goalscorer. Yet the 26-year-old will be well aware of the fact that he won’t be spoken of in the same breath as the immortals if he doesn’t win the World Cup. His 2014 campaign at home ended in heartbreaking and brutal fashion; a stray Juan Camilo Zúñiga knee halting his World Cup charge, with Brazil being knocked out in the next match by eventual winners Germany in a famous 7-1 humiliation. Brazil may not be as reliant on Neymar as they were four years ago but the controversial attacker still carries the nation’s expectations on his slender shoulders. At 26, this World Cup will see Neymar at his peak. If he brings his full arsenal of tricks, flicks, passes and goals, then we are in for a treat.
It cannot be easy — carrying the weight of an entire nation’s hopes on your shoulders. And while the burden has decreased in the four years since the last World Cup, Neymar’s performances may well determine Brazil’s fate in Russia. Technically gifted, fast and clinical, the world’s most expensive player is a nightmare to stop. With the license to drop into midfield, go out wide on the left wing or join the tip of the attack, Neymar has always reserved his best performances for Brazil. He goes to Russia on the back of a foot injury that has seen him miss the past three months but those concerns vanished when he scored a superb solo goal against Croatia on his return to the side. Brazil have one of the finest attacks in the tournament but Neymar remains the most important cog in the side and his ability to score as well as create goals will be vital once the business end of the tournament comes around.
Brazil have assembled a team of superstars and Neymar is their crowning jewel. In 2014, the hopes of a nation rested on his then 22-year-old shoulders. Their hopes of a sixth title at home all but ended with his injury in the quarter-finals. The side has improved in the four years since but so has Neymar, now a much more rounded player having spent several years learning from the very best at Barcelona. Despite concerns over fitness and form Neymar remains one of the most entertaining footballers in the world and will definitely be a treat to watch as the talisman of this incredibly talented Brazil side.
Neymar left Barcelona to emerge from the Lionel Messi’s shadow and win the Ballon d’Or and the 26-year-old PSG man will know that winning the World Cup represents his best chance of claiming the individual accolade. At 26, he is a much more mature player than the one that was Brazil’s shining light at the age of just 22 four years ago; a frightening prospect. Had injury not cut short his 2014 campaign, Neymar may well have gone on to win the Golden Ball in Brazil. He understandably goes into the tournament as one of the favourites to do so this time around. There are few players in world football more dangerous than Neymar with the ball at their feet but there is still some time to go before he can sit on the same table as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ever since he burst onto the scene as a long-haired teenager at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has been hailed as Diego Maradona’s second coming. And when he guided Argentina to the World Cup final in Brazil, there was a sense of inevitability around it. This, everyone was sure, was the call of destiny. The prophecy was to be fulfilled. Yet fate is a whimsical governess and it was Mario Gotze, not Messi, who scored the game’s only goal. Messi was one of the worst players on that fateful night at the Maracana, dropping well below his superhuman standards and even missing a presentable one-on-one chance; failing where Maradona had so famously succeeded. And so to Russia and unfinished business. At 30, this may well be the last chance Messi has of guiding Argentina to the title. Having never scored a goal in a World Cup knockout match, despite having played in eight of them, many back home question his motivation when he wears the famous white and blue shirt. Yet without his intervention, Argentina wouldn’t even be here. It took a sensational hat-trick in a must-win game on the dizzying altitudes of Ecuador in the final qualifying game to even get them to the World Cup. Messi is no longer the individual force he was four years ago, evolving his game as his explosive burst of pace slowly forsakes him, but if there is one player in world football who can drag his country to the World Cup title single-handedly then it is La Pulga Atomica. No South American team has ever won the World Cup in Europe, but what difference can mere history make to a man that may just have destiny on his side?
Without this once-in-a-lifetime player, Argentina wouldn’t have even reached the World Cup. So good has Lionel Messi been over the years that he goes into the World Cup as arguably the greatest player of all time, even despite having never won the World Cup. Without Messi, Argentina accumulated a meagre average of 0.9 points per game during the qualifying stages, with the average jumping up to 2.1 points per game with him in the side. The Barcelona forward is not getting any younger and occasions in which he dances through entire defences on his own are becoming rarer by the day. Messi can’t do it all on his own and requires help from the support cast of Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain. Messi’s penchant for the sublime still remains though, and the 30-year-old had the most dribbles, most key passes, most assists and most goals of any player in Europe’s top leagues. The defeat in Rio against Germany still haunts him and he goes to Russia as a man on a mission. Years down the line, this may well be remembered as the Lionel Messi World Cup.
Carrying the hopes and dreams of nearly 45 million people on your shoulders is no easy feat. And yet that is how Lionel Messi enters the tournament. While the 30-year-old might not need a World Cup trophy to validate his greatness, Messi has never shied away from a challenge. Called ‘The Flea’ by his fans due to his diminutive size, Messi is not the same player he was when he won the Golden Ball in 2014. That Messi could single-handedly change the game, outrun defenders and win any game on his own. This Messi needs more support from his compatriots, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. On the football-mad streets of Argentina, Messi’s performances for the country have often come under scrutiny. In 2014, he was defeated not by Germany but by himself; missing a clear opportunity when the scores were tied at 0-0. Subsequent failures in the 2015 and 2015 Copa America finals have done little to quieten those murmurs of discontentment. However, Argentina’s presence at this World Cup is down to Messi and Messi alone, scoring a hat-trick in the final qualifier to ensure qualification. Yet qualification alone is not good enough. Not for Argentina, and certainly not for Messi. He knows this may well be his final chance at the title. And while others may forgive him his failures, he himself will not.
Lionel Messi is one of the greatest players of all time and probably the greatest of this generation. But at the age of 30, Messi is coming to the end of his career and one thing which separates him from the other greats is his lack of trophies with the international team. Having reached three consecutive finals with his national team — the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America in 2015, 2016 — Messi is yet to win an international title for Argentina and the burden of expectation is increasing by the day. As always, Messi had an outstanding season for FC Barcelona as he scored 44 goals and provided 15 assists in all competitions, helping the Catalan giants win a well-deserved domestic double. The 2018 World Cup once again gives Messi what may well be one final opportunity to cement his place as the greatest player of all time.
No one epitomises Germany at their best better than Thomas Muller. Simple, effective, efficient and intelligent, few players in the world thrive more under pressure than the Bayern star. Criminally underrated, Muller won the golden boot in 2010 and the silver boot in 2014 with five goals in both campaigns and the 28-year-old will have his eyes set firmly on compatriot Miroslav Klose’s record World Cup tally of 16 goals. He may not possess the tricks of Neymar, the dribbling of Eden Hazard or the pace of Mo Salah but make no mistake about it, Joachim Low would not swap Muller for any of them. Nicknamed the interpreter of space for his almost uncanny ability to find pockets of space in the final third, Muller’s goals may well be the most vital piece of the puzzle if Germany are to defend their title.
For Thomas Muller, it's not about brushing off defenders. The 28-year-old is almost unstoppable because of his ability to do what others cannot: find space. The lanky German is not your typical goal-scorer, and that’s what makes him so hard to play against. Opponents can deal with the typical forwards. But dealing with Muller always seems to prove to be a challenge. Depending on the formation coach Joachim Low goes with, the 28-year-old is able to play a number of different positions up front, making him an invaluable part of the squad. Relying on his intuition, Muller will be representing Die Mannschaft for the third time. He already has 10 World Cup goals to his name, just six behind compatriot and highest scorer Miroslav Klose. And just like Klose, Muller only seems to get better with age. Always at the right place at the right time, Muller might not be the most aesthetically pleasing player on the pitch but he’s the most efficient. It would be foolish to judge how Muller might perform given his recent club records (15 goals in 45 appearances for Bayern Munich). Anytime he puts on a German shirt, he seems to go into overdrive. If skipper Neuer misses out on matches due to injury, the 28-year-old will also be shouldering the responsibility of wearing the armband. A true leader and professional, there is absolutely no doubt Muller will be the main cog in Germany’s wheel as they go into Russia to defend their title.
Germany's affection for Thomas Muller has only grown stronger with passing time. Since his memorable outing against England at the 2010 World Cup, the Bayern Munich star has established himself as the fulcrum of the side. Muller is one of team's most reliable players, especially during major events. He will be participating in his third World Cup and already has 10 goals in 13 games; making him the man for big occasions. Stylistically, he might not be the most pleasing of players but his effectiveness in front of goal puts him a step ahead of the rest. He can outwit defenders with his pace and dribbling while also being an efficient outlet for the playmakers behind him. The 28-year-old plays with his heart on his sleeve and gives everything out in the middle, often lifting up his teammates with his tenacity and work-rate. As an added bonus, his hilarious antics in post-match interviews are also certain to provide added entertainment during the World Cup.
Thomas Muller is the kind of player all teams will worry about, not because he has the kind of quality that will see him dribble past opponents or play the perfect through ball, but because he is where he is supposed to be every single time. Muller had a decent season for Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, scoring 15 goals and providing 16 assists in 36 appearances across all competition. The 28-year-old has already scored 38 goals for the national team in 91 appearances, highlighting his threat in front of goal. Muller becomes even more dangerous in World Cups, having scored 10 goals in just 13 appearances. However, with the emergence of young Timo Werner as an out-and-out striker, it will be interesting to see what Joachim Low does in the latter stages of the tournament, as he might have to choose between Muller and Werner as both players provide different kinds of threats up front.
For all his prowess at club level, Cristiano Ronaldo has never been able to light up the World Cup. At 34, this is his last realistic chance to do so; even if he insists that he can play into his 40s. With just three goals across 13 matches that have spanned three World Cup campaigns, Ronaldo’s performance at the biggest stage of them all is a far cry from the ones he has delivered in the Champions League while wearing the Real Madrid shirt. Yet the attacker has made a habit out of silencing his critics and would know a successful World Cup campaign will not only guarantee him a record sixth Ballon d’Or but will also place him firmly among the list of greatest players the world has ever seen. The Portugal team has improved in attack in the two years since their successful Euro 2016 campaign but Ronaldo still remains the undoubted focal point. A defensive setup ensures Portugal will not be leaking too many goals and if Ronaldo can somehow replicate his Real form — albeit an almost impossible task without the support of the likes of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric — then Portugal may well go very far in the tournament.
There is not much to say about Cristiano Ronaldo that the world doesn’t already know. He had another out-of-this world campaign with Real Madrid, scoring 44 goals in 44 games and winning a third consecutive Champions League trophy along the way. Ronaldo epitomises the phrase that age is just a number but may find it difficult at the World Cup due to the gulf in class between his club and international teammates. The Real forward is Portugal’s only hope of having a decent run at the World Cup but he needs the support of those around him. The only thing left for Ronaldo to win is the World Cup and no team can ever be truly ruled out with Ronaldo in it.
Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably the greatest player of all time and his presence alone gives Portugal a great chance of achieving something worthwhile at the tournament. Any team will do their very best to utilise a player of Ronaldo’s capabilities to the fullest and Portugal are no different. Unlike their triumphant 2016 Euros side, this Portugal team has the ability to efficiently utilise his abilities as a fox-in-the-box by providing the Madeira-born player with the kind of service he thrives upon. Ronaldo is not just about scoring goals though — his ability to galvanise the side with his leadership is also of pivotal importance both on and off the field. Ronaldo won’t be short of motivation going into what is almost certainly his last World Cup. His insatiable appetite for success, coupled with the rare ability of turning adversity to his advantage, might just be what Portugal need to win their first-ever World Cup in dramatic fashion.
Cristiano Ronaldo is arguably among the two best players of his generation and it is surprising that his greatness is still questioned despite all he has achieved over his illustrious career. The biggest question-mark, though, hangs over his performances in the World Cup, with just three goals to his name in thirteen matches across three editions. Ronaldo comes into the tournament on the back of his third consecutive Champions League triumph with Real Madrid, yet again finishing top scorer in Europe’s biggest club competition with 15 goals. Goals are never far away with Ronaldo around and if Portugal are to do anything worthwhile in this tournament then they will have to hope Ronaldo can be at his usual best.
Who would have thought a Chelsea reject would come back to the Premier League and win the Player of the Year award, bagging a record 32 goals in the league, while also guiding Liverpool to the Champions League final and scoring give of Egypt’s eight goals as they qualified for their first World Cup since 1990. Mohamed Salah has had one hell of a season and he would be hoping to cap it off with something well and truly special in Russia. Such has been his rise that his illustration and posters have cropped up all over the world. His injury in the Champions League final stopped hearts but Salah will recover in time at least for the final two group stages games against Russia and Saudi Arabia. Egypt would need a firing Salah if they are to qualify for the knockout stages out of what is one of the easiest groups of the tournament.
Mohamed Salah was perhaps the most talked about Premier League player this season, setting the record for most goals scored in a single season in his debut campaign with Liverpool. Absolutely lethal in front of goal and armed with both skill and pace, Salah has the ability to both beat defenders as well as capitalise on any mistakes made at the back. The universally loved Liverpool forward is still recovering from the shoulder injury sustained during the Champions League final and is almost certain to not start the first game against Uruguay. However, if Egypt are to harbour any hopes of reaching the round-of-16 and beyond then they will require a Salah in full flow, especially considering he had a hand in all eight of their qualifying goals.
Mohamed Salah is the finest arrow in the Egyptian quiver and his form will determine how far they can go in the tournament. The Pharaohs will be participating in their first World Cup since 1990 but, with Salah in the squad, the country's hopes will be sky high. It was Salah’s penalty against Congo that took the Pharaohs to Russia, resulting in delirious celebrations across the streets of Egypt. The winger was in scintillating form for Liverpool this season and will look to replicate the same in national colours as well. Salah is the kind of player that can skip past players with his pace, while his composure and finishing inside the box was admirable throughout the season. Thankfully for Egyptian fans, as well as for neutrals, he has recovered in time for the World Cup after suffering an injury in the Champions League final, where Salah may once again come up against Sergio Ramos in a potential round-of-16 clash. That should be fun, eh.
Mohamed Salah, or The Egyptian King as they call him, is the player who has seen his star rise the most in the past 12 months. The 25-year-old joined Liverpool from AS Roma for a fee in the region of £34.3 million. At the time of the transfer, the price felt too much for a player who had endured a horrid time in the Premier League with Chelsea before joining the Serie A outfit. But 12 months down the line and things have changed completely as Salah is now being ranked as one of the top five players in the world after scoring 43 goals and providing 14 assists in 47 appearances for the Reds. For Egypt, Salah was the top-scorer in qualifying with five goals to his name. It will be interesting to see what kind of Salah turns up for the tournament, especially since he is coming back from a shoulder injury suffered in the Champions League final.
The spotlight is firmly on Antoine Griezmann as the Atletico forward holds the key to France. The 27-year-old was once rejected by many clubs due to his size but has since become one of the best players in the world. The forward’s best performances for France came during Euro 2016, where he was top-scorer with six goals. His pace and skill will cause problems to the best of defenders, and he is just as adept at creating chances as he is at playing on the shoulder of the last man. Griezmann showed glimpses of genius during the qualifying stages and has forged an interesting partnership with Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud. However, France’s over-reliance on Griezmann despite a squad that features some of the best talent in the world is a worry. If France are to go further than the quarter-finals then they would require the likes of Kylian Mbappe and N’Golo Kante to perform at their best alongside Griezmann.
Antoine Griezmann is in high demand this summer, and with good reason. With six goals and two assists in seven appearances in the Europa League, and 19 goals and nine assists in 30 appearances in the league, Griezmann’s recent form makes him a formidable part of the French attack. Ranked among the top footballers in the world right now, Griezmann combines superb touch and technique with an eye for goal. Inspired by David Silva and David Beckham, Griezmann can both score from distance as well as play a defence-threading pass. However, the Frenchman’s record for Les Bleus is not the most impressive and he failed to score in his only previous World Cup campaign four years ago. Now though he has his chance to deliver for France. However, with various attacking options at his disposal, Deschamps has the welcome headache of having to choose a front three. Griezmann, though, is assured of his spot. Whether he can be France’s star player remains to be seen.
With an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, France shouldn’t be this reliant on Antoine Griezmann. But they are, and almost everything good in attack seems to go through the Atletico Madrid star. Griezmann was talismanic in France’s run to the Euro 2016 final but disappointed against Portugal in the title decider. Something similar happened when Griezmann missed a vital penalty as Atletico Madrid lost to Real Madrid in the 2016 Champions League final. A troubling pattern seems to be appearing, with Griezmann failing to deliver when it mattered most. But the 27-year-old goes to Russia at the peak of his powers, having impressed with a brace in the Europa League final, and Didier Deschamps will be hoping his star man can once again inspire his side. Playing alongside the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba, Griezmann will have less focus on him than he does when he lines up for Atletico. The extra freedom this affords can allow him to wreak havoc to unlock the tightest of defences.
Antoine Griezmann is arguably one of the most underrated players around, largely because of the fact that he plays for a club renowned for their defensive qualities as compared to their attacking as well as due to his lack of major trophies. The 27-year-old had an outstanding season for Atletico Madrid, where he scored 29 goals and provided 13 assists in 45 appearances. The highlight of Griezmann’s season was his two goals against Marseille in the final of the Europa League, which helped Diego Simeone’s men lift the title. With France, Griezmann has a decent but unspectacular record of 20 goals in 54 appearances, but remains the side’s most potent attacking threat. Russia 2018 may well be the tournament in which Griezmann announces himself as the third best player in the world and a candidate for the Ballon d’Or.
Perhaps for the first time in living memory, England go into a World Cup freed of the weight of expectation. One of the youngest squads in the tournament, with an average of just 26, England are led by the youngest captain in the tournament in 24-year-old Harry Kane — three years the junior of 27-year-old Eden Hazard, who is second on the list. The Tottenham striker may well be the only genuinely world class player in the entire English squad and whatever slender hopes England carry with them to the World Cup are based on Kane’s goal-scoring prowess. Manager Gareth Southgate has made the drastic change of removing his 1.88m striker from corner duties and he has flourished under him. Kane had scored just five goals in his first 17 international matches but has since scored eight in his last seven games. While it may be out of Kane’s reach to take England all the way, if he continues his recent form then the Three Lions may well end up being the tournament’s surprise package.
England skipper Harry Kane goes to Russia on the back of another 30-goal campaign and all of England’s slender hopes rest at his feet. Leading a very young squad in his first-ever World Cup, Kane will be hoping to wipe memories of England crashing out of the group stages in 2014. While England failed that year, Kane rose through the ranks as a prolific goalscorer and has become the finest player England has to offer in those four years. A traditional goalscorer, Kane will certainly be relying on service from his midfielders. However, on many occasions, the Spurs star has shown that he can find the back of the net from long distances too, and opponents will try very hard to stop him from scoring. Questions remain over his temperament to lead the team. His decision to claim a goal from Tottenham teammate Christian Eriksen became a social media joke and he will have to realise team unity must trump over individual gain.
Harry Kane seemed to have only two major weaknesses: the month of August and the England shirt. And while his August curse continues, performances for the Three Lions have improved drastically under Gareth Southgate. Doubts remain regarding his performances on the big occasions, especially considering his indredibly underwhelming Euro 2016 showing. England go into the World Cup without the usual media hype and may therefore end up surprising everyone. If they are to do that though, they would require skipper Kane to be at his very best. The Tottenham man has proven his talent across four goal-laden seasons and can thrive with the support of fellow attackers Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy. England are almost certain to return home sooner rather than later, but anything more than the quarter-finals will require Kane to deliver some of his best performances in an England shirt.
Harry Kane has a point to prove and goals to score. Pivotal to Tottenham’s Premier League campaign, the striker has been less impressive for the national team. The prolific goalscorer has netted 13 times in 24 appearances for the national side but failed during Euro 2016 as England were incredibly knocked out by Iceland. A lot can be expected from an in-form Kane, especially if he is aided by a dynamic midfield and paired alongside Manchester City man Raheem Sterling up front. His ability to find the net from distance along with his precision finishing can play a significant role in England’s performance. While the forward has tended to choke in big games, he will hope to alter that record during the upcoming tournament.
Over the last half-a-decade, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez has been the third best attacker in the world after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Barcelona man was superb as Liverpool’s main man before adapting his game while playing second fiddle to Messi. The 31-year-old has made headlines in the past two World Cups for all the wrong reasons, being sent off for a clear handball against Ghana in the 2010 edition before biting Giorgio Chiellini four years later. However, for all his controversies, Uruguay’s record goalscorer Suarez has proven himself time and again to be one of the best strikers of his generation; equally capable of scoring himself as he is of setting up goals for his teammates. Alongside PSG’s Edinson Cavani, Suarez forms one of the most potent strike forces in Russia, and few defenders would be looking forward to a meeting with Uruguay considering the lethal combination of pace, power, ruthlessness and experience that the two provide up front.
From biting to saving a goal with his hand, Suarez isn’t too far away from controversies when it comes to the World Cup. Suarez has been one of the most consistent players for the past five years, despite playing alongside the best player in history in Lionel Messi. At Uruguay, Suarez plays alongside another world-class striker in Edinson Cavani. Both players are equally adept at playing second fiddle, with Cavani having done so for Zlatan Ibrahimovic at PSG, as they are at being the main man, ensuring that coach Óscar Tabárez has two potential world-beaters who are both hard working and unselfish. This is Uruguay’s best generation since their heyday, and Suarez is their leading light.
Luis Suarez had a poor start to the 2017-18 season but got into his stride in the second half of the campaign, much to the delight of Uruguay fans. Alongside Edinson Cavani, Suarez forms a potent striker partnership up top for the South American side. His physical presence and lethal finishing gives opposing defences a lot to think about whenever he is in or around the box. Uruguay have a young and vibrant midfield that can supply its forwards with a lot of chances and there are few better strikers than Suarez who you would want at the end of those opportunities. The Barcelona man is his country's all-time leading goalscorer with 51 goals but still has a point to prove. After disgracefully exiting the 2014 tournament, biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini, the striker would be eager to set things straight in Russia.
Luiz Suarez walks into Russia with a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. He, alongside Edinson Cavani, will be leading all of Uruguay’s attacks. The forward has five World Cup goals to his name and was one of the key figures in Uruguay’s qualification campaign. The Barcelona man has become less selfish over the years, especially since joining Barcelona, and is perfectly capable of providing assists for Cavani and any on-rushing midfielders as he is of banging them in himself. Uruguay cannot have a successful World Cup without the help of their talismanic scorer. However, prone to controversies, especially at the grandest stage of them all, the Barcelona star will have to watch his temperament.
Eden Hazard is the undisputed talisman of Belgium’s golden generation. While his club performances last season were underwhelming by his own lofty standards, there is little argument that Belgium has one of the most talented squads in the competition, and the 27-year-old will be leading The Red Devils as they battle against the weight of their own previous underwhelming performances at major competitions. The Chelsea star can dribble past defenders and score on his own but his playmaking abilities will be just as vital for the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens. An intensely attacking team, the Red Devils scored a record 43 goals in qualification and will be relying on Hazard to pop up with a few more. Pair him with Kevin de Bruyne in midfield and you can expect this team to continue scoring goals for fun. At 27, Hazard enters the World Cup at his prime. Armed with intelligent runs and a natural sense of space, there is little doubt that Hazard will be one of the most entertaining players to watch. And with a legion of stars surrounding him, Belgium have a fair chance of going all the way if Hazard has an inspired campaign.
Eden Hazard has no doubt been Chelsea’s star player over the past few seasons, winning two premier league titles and being named the player of the season in 2015. At his best, Hazard possesses the ability to both create and score; tormenting defences with his dribbling and direct running. The Belgium skipper’s ability to skip past challenges and create space for his teammates as he draws defenders towards him will be key for The Red Devils. Hazard’s runs will also afford Manchester City’s star man Kevin de Bruyne more time on the ball, allowing him to pull the strings in midfield.
Belgium are pinning high hopes on talisman Eden Hazard, bearing in mind the World Cup comes with the 27-year-old at the peak of his prowess. A nuisance for defenders due to his skilful dribbling, vision and movement, Hazard will prove a handful for even the best of sides. With Kevin de Bruyne alongside him to share playmaking duties, the 27-year-old will no doubt be more incisive in the attacking half. Hazard also benefits from the fact that both his club and national managers, Conte and Martinez, play a three at the back, allowing him to shrug off all defensive duties and concentrate solely on unlocking opposition defences. The Belgium skipper was not at his best four years ago in Brazil and will be looking to make amends in Russia. How The Red Devils fare will no doubt depend highly on how Hazard performs.
Eden Hazard is a crucial part of what many call the golden generation of Belgian football. The Chelsea winger on his day has the ability to shatter any defensive unit and he will no doubt lead Belgium into the World Cup with a point to prove. The 27-year-old scored 17 goals and claimed seven assists in 42 appearances for Chelsea last season. For Belgium, Hazard has been less prolific and has scored just 22 goals in 85 appearances. The brilliance of compatriot Kevin de Bruyne can sometimes overshadow Hazard while playing for Belgium, but Hazard’s unique ability to both create and score will surely help Roberto Martinez’s men when they take on stubborn defences aiming to shut out this formidable Belgium attack. With his Chelsea career at a crossroads, the World Cup will allow the La Louvière-born attacker to showcase his skill and remind all potential suitors of his ability.
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Produced by: Rahima Sohail
Video by: Narendar Khatri