Russia 2018 is now tantalisingly close. When the whistle blows in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow at 6pm local time on Thursday, June the 14th, the eyes of the world will turn to the east.
Despite the rise of club football, World Cups remain the ultimate stage for the greats of the game. Over three billion people tuned in to watch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the best part of half the human race, and the intensity of the public gaze, the sheer sense of importance World Cups assume, all but guarantees iconic moments. Player performances play a key role in the sports betting world, and with so many world cup free bets floating around it seems wise to get clued up on who could be worth backing for the golden boot this year.
Think of Andres Iniesta, peeling away in 2010, shirt aflutter, as he celebrated the extra time goal that sealed Spain’s first ever World Cup. Think of Maradona’s mazy runs, the crazy Cameroon celebrations in Italia 90, Gazza’s tears, Zidane’s headbutt.
Who will make the memories that endure when Russia 2018 recedes into the mists of time? Let’s take a look at five big names who seem certain to make a mark in Russia – and five less heralded talents with the potential to upstage them – as the clock ticks down towards that first whistle.
The Big Names
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
International football has never been as kind to Leo Messi as club football. The Barcelona great has claimed nine La Ligas, six Copa Del Reys and four Champions Leagues with his club, but boasts only a solitary international honour, the 2008 Olympics.
Messi’s history at World Cups is patchy. He arrived at South Africa 2010 in exceptional form, fresh from a season in which he scored 47 goals under Pep Guardiola, but failed to net once for Diego Maradona’s underperforming Argentina. Though he scored four times in 2014 as Argentina made it to the final, Messi appeared far from his best and missed several key chances in the defeat to Germany.
That loss, followed by successive Copa America defeats to Chile, led Messi to sensationally quit international football. Though he rolled back on the decision quickly, his frustration was tangible.
Messi is undoubtedly aware that the only thing holding him back from being crowned the greatest player of all time is a failure to replicate the World Cup winning heroics of Pele and Maradona. Russia 2018 may be his last chance to bring home the ultimate prize.
At 30 the Argentine remains at his peak. He has adapted his game, dropping a little deeper at times, but his statistics remain staggering: 34 goals and 12 assists in La Liga alone this year. Messi will be as hungry as anyone to succeed in Russia, but can he overcome the lingering sense that things just don’t happen for him in international football?
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Ronaldo, like his great rival Messi, will view Russia 2018 as his last chance to lead his nation to World Cup glory.
Ronaldo has also evolved his game as he’s aged. Nowadays he demonstrates little interest in the stepovers and showmanship that marked his Man United years. He spends more time in the box than on the wings now and has become a paragon of efficiency, a remorseless goalscoring machine who scores as many tap-ins and close range headers as curlers and worldies.
Portugal have produced some great players in the past, but even Eusabio couldn’t lead his nation to a World Cup, meaning that Ronaldo is under significantly less pressure to perform than Messi. Indeed, with Euro 2016 already in the bag, the final stamped by Ronaldo despite his early injury – who can forget him cavorting about on the touchline as he became the de facto manager? – he may feel he has already delivered on the international stage.
A World Cup win would be the icing on the cake, but Portugal probably lack the squad to go all the way. If Ronaldo somehow drags them to the title maybe they’ll make him a better statue!
Mo Salah (Egypt)
Mo Salah has undoubtedly been one of the stories of the season. It seems strange to think that, at the time, the 37 million euros Liverpool paid Roma to secure his signature was questioned. Salah has been so prolific in front of goal for the Reds he is probably worth five or six times that amount now. However, on the back of an unconvincing stint at Chelsea and a respectable but hardly deadly scoring rate in Italy, there were few signs of the flood of goals that were to follow.
Salah’s early games for Liverpool were unspectacular. His movement was good, he was lightning quick but his finishing appeared average. He missed as many easy chances as he took. The goals kept coming, however, and his momentum grew. His last minute penalty winner against the Congo secured Egypt their first appearance at a World Cup since 1990 and may have been the tipping point.
Comparisons to Messi and Ronaldo are usually absurd. English pundits tried to put Wayne Rooney in “the same bracket” as the La Liga greats for years, but his stats never came close to matching their goal a game strike rate.
Salah’s do. His 32 league goals, a Premier League record, were only bettered by Leo Messi (34) in the top 3 European leagues, while only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more than Salah’s ten in the Champions League.
Salah is Egypt’s main man. He has 33 goals in 57 international appearances and will spearhead their attack in the World Cup. No player will enter the tournament with greater form and confidence.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City made history this year as the first team to hit the 100 point mark in the Premiership. At the hub of everything was Kevin De Bruyne. Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling may have scored more goals, David Silva may have looked more silky, but few would dispute that De Bruyne was the man at the centre of it all, the chief orchestrator, Guardiola’s on-field lieutenant.
De Bruyne is arguably the complete player. One of the reasons he is so dominant for Man City is the licence he is given to roam from a central midfield position. De Bruyne has the energy to press and the guile to create chances like a traditional central midfielder, but can also pull out to the flanks, beat a man and whip deadly crosses into the box with both feet. He can drop deep and hit inch perfect long balls over the opposing defence, too – witness the 60 yard pass that led to Gabriel Jesus’s late winner at Southampton (and the 100 point record) – or drive from midfield and score from distance.
A team of Kevin De Bruynes would probably win the World Cup. De Bruyne will be surrounded with plenty of quality in Russia – Belgium, in the midst of a “Golden Generation”, will also have Eden Hazard, Vincent Komapany, Romelu Lukaku and Radja Nainggolan in their squad – but the collective may not be quite as harmonious.
Belgium tend to underperform, as other World Cup “Golden Generations” have. If they do excel, expect De Bruyne to be at the heart of it.
The world’s most expensive player suffered a broken foot against Marseille in February, the same week in which Paris Saint Germain crashed out of the Champions League to Real Madrid, but is scheduled to return to fitness ahead of the World Cup.
Whether he can achieve peak fitness in time to influence the tournament is another matter. Numerous big stars have fought to get themselves fit for tournaments – think of Beckham and Rooney’s metatarsals – only to underperform on the pitch.
Neymar, however, has a habit of rising to the occasion, particularly in the yellow of Brazil. The expectations heaped onto his shoulders ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil should have been enough to cripple him. Neymar, however, has a strong sense of his star status and scored a double in Brazil’s opening match and the winning penalty in the knockout stage victory over Chile.
A back injury ruled him out of the semi-final to Germany. Without his talismanic presence, Brazil suffered a disastrous 7-1 defeat.
The Selecao should be more surefooted this time around. New manager Tite has brought balance and stability to the side and the current frontline of Neymar, Coutinho and Man City’s Gabriel Jesus have dovetailed brilliantly. If Neymar can get himself anywhere near peak fitness by mid-June he will have a platform to achieve what many Brazilians (including, you suspect, Neymar himself) believe is his destiny: to lead Brazil to World Cup glory.
Potential Show Stealers
Thomas Muller (Germany)
Having scored five goals in both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Thomas Muller arguably deserves a slot among the Stars rather than the Surprise Packages. In a way, however, that is the story of Muller’s career: despite 38 international goals in 90 appearances and over 100 strikes for Bayern Munich he still seems to fly under the radar.
You sense that the German likes it that way. Like his equally underappreciated international predecessor, Miroslav Klose, Muller is a gangly forward with an uncanny nose for goal – and the bigger the occasion the stronger his sense of smell becomes.
One of the reasons Muller receives less appreciation than other stars is because his gifts are so intangible. He once described himself as an “interpreter of space” – an abstract concept in a game where Messi’s extravagant dribbles or Neymar’s hair-dos capture the limelight – but to understand space is to be in the right place at the right time.
With a talented, creative squad to service him, Muller may well arrive in the right place enough times in Russia to steal the Golden Boot.
Sadio Mane (Senegal)
Mo Salah may have well and truly stolen the show at Liverpool this year, but Sadio Mane’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked. Indeed, while there are still those who whisper that Salah may be a one season wonder, Mane has now delivered for Liverpool in two seasons: 20 combined Premier League goals and assists in 16/17, 18 combined Premier League goals and assists in 17/18.
Moreover, while Salah is no slouch himself, Mane’s defensive work is arguably as important as the attacking thrust he offers. Off the ball he pesters defenders, using his pace, strength and quick feet to pinch the ball back. His decision-making can be erratic – witness his selfish decision to shoot rather than square the ball in a 1-1 home draw against Everton this season – but when he puts it all together he can make the difference.
Everyone has been waiting for an African team to claim a World Cup. If Mane’s Senegal hit their stride they’ll have an outside chance. Mane looks to be their chief goal threat.
Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
Gabriel Jesus is 21 years old and boasts a one-in-two strike rate for Manchester City and a better than one-in-two ratio (9 goals in 15 games) for Brazil. He led the line for Brazil at the 2016 Olympics as they claimed the gold medal.
It’s prodigal stuff yet there appears to be far less excitement about Jesus than there was about Neymar at the same age. Perhaps its something to do with playing style. Jesus is quick, direct and to the point. He moves the ball swiftly, presses from the front and scores goals with well-timed runs and poacher’s instincts.
He is Neymar without the flicks, tricks and ego. If Neymar fails to reach peak fitness in time for Russia, Jesus may finally get the attention he deserves. He looks set to play in the centre-forward position for Brazil in Russia and could put his name up in lights if he continues his current international form.
Raheem Sterling (England)
Jesus’s Man City teammate is another player who doesn’t appear to have received full recognition for his precocious gifts. As awards were handed out to Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane for their role in City’s stellar season, Sterling must have wondered how much more he’d have to do to get some of the action.
18 Premier League goals and 11 Premier League assists makes for a total of 29 direct contributions to goals in the 17/18 season. Messi, Mo Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo are among the select few who can better those numbers.
Sterling has made a huge leap forward under Pep Guardiola. His finishing remains erratic, but the timing of his runs has improved to such an extent that it almost doesn’t matter – he appears in the right place at the right time so often he more or less can’t help but score.
Sterling is still only 23. He’s unlikely to receive the same service with England that he does for his club, but he plays with the kind of guile, speed and intelligence England have lacked at previous World Cups.
Kylian Mbappe (France)
France boast arguably their most talented crop of youngsters in a generation and PSG’s Kylian Mbappe is the pick of the bunch. Indeed, according to Arsene Wenger Mbappe could be “the next Pele.”
Mbappe burst onto the scene at Monaco in the 16/17 season, scoring crucial goals in the knockout stages of the Champions League and impressing with his pace, power and composure in front of goal.
At PSG he has scored 21 goals and set up 16 in 46 appearances – not bad for a player who is widely considered to have made a slow start with the French champions!
France have a squad strong enough to challenge for the World Cup. Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezzman, Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane and N’Golo Kante are the experienced, world class players the team will likely be built around, but teams who are successful in tournaments often have a wildcard, a player who plays with exuberance and fearlessness and makes the difference.
Mbappe could be that player for France. Pele helped Brazil to World Cup victory in 1958 at the age of 17. Can Mbappe make a similar mark in Russia 2018?