When tabloids start running stories of how the world’s costliest player, who happens to be your teammate, is jealous of your talent, and wants your club to ‘sell you’ off to a smaller team, you know you have arrived. Although the 19-year-old French national doesn’t need tabloids to sell his talent – Mbappe is one of those players who you can truly say was born to play football. Despite being wooed by the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea among others as a teenager, the Parisian boy chose to settle for a club closer to home – Monaco. In 2015, he became their youngest player, eclipsing a record set by the legendary Thierry Henry more than two decades ago. By the time he turned 18, Mbappe was playing in the same XI as the illustrious Brazilian Neymar, whom he easily replaced in the line-up after the latter’s unfortunate injury earlier this year. He scored crucial goals for his national side in a short career and is likely to be at the heart of every French raid on the opposition’s goal in Russia.
The Mexican winger rose from the relative obscurity of the Mexican national league when he signed up for the Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in 2017, and has since been in the limelight for all the right reasons. Good with both legs, possessor of a rocket, goal-bound shot, and trusted to supply pinpoint balls for the strikers, Lozano is all that any top side in the world wants. He won the ‘Golden Boot’ with five goals in the CONCACAF U-20 in 2015, made his national debut, and scored in the crucial World Cup qualifier against Canada. He signed for PSV in 2017 and became the first player in the club’s century old history to score in his first three games. In his first game in the World Cup, he is expected to be in the starting line-up against the disciplined Germans, an opposition nobody takes lightly in the World Cup. The only kink in the Lozano armour is his volatile temperament – he has already seen two red cards in his first season in Europe! It remains to be seen if he keeps it together to weave the magic or combusts simultaneously on the big stage.
The German forward was destined for great things since he was a teenager. He made his Bundesliga (German top-flight club football) and European club football debut as a 17 year old with his boyhood club VfB Stuttgart. He had already played 100 Bundesliga matches before he turned 19. Almost all records pertaining to the ‘youngest’ in German club football are now part of Werner’s resume! In his first season with the newly promoted RB Leipzeig, Werner scored 21 goals to help the newcomers finish second in the season and qualify for the Champions League! At the national level, he scored a hattrick on his debut U-15 appearance for Germany and has since tallied an astonishing 34 goals in 48 matches in all age group appearances. In his first major tournament appearance, 2017 FIFA Confederations Club, he scored three goals and made two assists to win the Golden Boot award. It is an ominous omen for opposition teams that he already made a mark in Russia even before the World Cup officially kicks off. His boyhood hero, Mario Gomez, became his clubmate at VfB Stuttgart. Werner now keeps Mario out of the starting German XI. Destiny has a weird sense of humour.
When a 22-year-old is picked as a replacement for the legendary Andrea Pirlo by Juventus, no less, you know he is special. The Argentinian creative genius, nicknamed La Joya (the jewel) in Spanish, has Italian and Polish roots, but insists that he ‘feels’ Argentine. In an interview with Fox News, his mother mentioned that Paulo’s father passed away when he was quite young, and since then Paulo has pushed his career all by himself, which made him “grow up real fast”. It is visible in his game as he took on the responsibility after arriving at Juventus on 2015 and ended the season with 19 goals in Serie A, and 23 strikes overall, as the club celebrated their Serie A title victory. At the national level, he plays under the larger-than-life shadow of Lionel Messi. Massimiliano Allegri, his boss at Juventus, says, “Once Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have retired, I have no doubt it will be Neymar and Dybala who are the best in the world,” While this World Cup is expected to be the swansong for Messi, it might turn out to be the breakout tournament for Dybala who is busy fending off suitors from Spain (Real Madrid), and England (Manchester United), when he is not dreaming of lifting the World Cup in Russia.
Growing up while training and playing at a club like Manchester United means you are never far away from the spotlight. Marcus Rashford, the 20-year-old lightning quick striker, who depends on his attacking, aggressive running with and without the ball to rag the opposition defence line, has made a habit out of making an entrance in his debut games. He scored twice in his Manchester United debut game in Europa League as a teenager, scored in his first Manchester derby match, his first Champions League match, and became the youngest English player to score in his first senior international match in May 2016. On the international stage he has the experience of playing on the big stage, after being added to the England Euro 2016 squad just four months after making his club debut. While his team disappointed, he put up a credible show at the tournament in the limited opportunities he received. Rashford grew up idolising Ronaldo (not Cristiano, but the Brazilian forward), who recently said that he sees a lot of himself in Rashford, adding that the United marksman is “courageous, fast and very good with the ball”. Rashford has the talent, and England finally have a dynamic team to ensure that they will be active in the business-end of the tournament.
will take the field in Russia as a veteran of the last two World Cups, including the 2010 edition when, as a youngster under the tutelage of Diego Forlan, he was part of the team that finished third. Now, he is the statesman who is enjoying a great season with Paris Saint-Germain. He piled up the goals in Europe – three successive goals in the first three Champions League matches of the season – and helped the team continue their dominance at Ligue 1, in the absence of the injured Neymar. On the national front, Cavani finished as the top scorer with 10 goals against South American opponents during Uruguay’s road to qualification for Russia. Along with Luis Suarez, he has forged a strong attacking partnership, and with a relatively easy draw in Group A (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt), Cavani and Uruguay are likely to face their first real test only in the round of 16, with either Portugal or Spain likely to be drawn against them.
During the last World Cup, the young Paul Pogba was known as the sensation who said no to Sir Alex Fergusson and left Manchester United as a free agent and joined up the Juventus side, helping them win two consecutive Scudettos. France’s campaign at the Brazil World Cup ended in the quarter-finals, but Pogba had done enough to bag the best young player award for his performances. This year, he will take the field in Russia as one of the linchpins of the side, who will be expected to conduct the symphony that is going to be the French national side. In the ongoing English Premier League season, Pogba (back as the prodigal son who cost Manchester United £89.3 million in 2016) has had mixed results. Among the high points were his two successive goals, separated by 90 seconds, against arch rivals Manchester City in April 2018, which delayed Manchester City’s league title celebrations. But, there have been low points, too. The most glaring would be manager Jose Mourinho’s lack of faith in him, resulting in Pogba starting key games from the bench. On the national side, players like N’golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi should free him up from trackback duties, and ensure that he can move freely, feeding the ball to the forwards, and making incisive raids on the oppositions’ goal to help his team regain the magical touch from 1998.
The evolution of Lionel Messi as captain of the Argentine football team began in the 2014 World Cup, where he took the reins of the national side in a big tournament for the first time. He led his team to the finals, and bagged the-man-of-the-match awards in the first four matches. In the finals, however, they came up against a buoyant German side on a high after brushing aside the home team Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals. This was followed by two more losses in the tournament finals – Copa America, both defeats coming against Chile – resulting in criticism from some quarters that the ‘real’ Messi, who powers Barcelona to one trophy after another, is not turning it up for the national team. He made his point on 10 October 2017, when he single-handedly saved his team from the embarrassment of not qualifying for the World Cup by scoring a hat-trick as Argentina came from behind to defeat Ecuador 3–1 in an away match. Part of the Group D (Iceland, Croatia, Nigeria), Argentina faces opposition, and things may get tricky if they do not top the group, as they could end up running into the French as early as the round of 16.
is the quintessential goal poacher, and you can almost be assured that by the end of the game, the opposition goalkeeper and defensive line up won’t be boasting about keeping a ‘clean sheet’. Plying his trade in the German league in 2010, the Polish striker has been scoring goals for fun. At the last count, he had tallied more than 250 goals during his stint in Bundesliga, including 150+ scored for his current club Bayern Munich, who have been winning the league straight for last six years, (Lewandowski was a part of four). Inevitably, he has emerged as one of their top scorers. He helped the Polish national team qualify for the Euro 2016, and the World Cup 2018. During the World Cup qualifiers, Lewandowski scored a hat-trick in a 6–1 win over Armenia to take his tally to 50 goals for Poland. He is the all-time top scorer for his country. He finished the qualifier campaign with 16 goals, a record for a European World Cup qualifier.
In the ongoing season of the English Premier League, Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah averages an astonishing 1 goal/84 minutes – i.e. he averages 1 goal per match! His contributions this year are visible in Liverpool’s strong performances in the domestic and European leagues. Salah was the top scorer for Egypt with five goals at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. He scored both the goals in the decisive 2–1 victory over Congo, including a last-minute penalty to help his national side reach their first World Cup finals since 1990, and only for the third time since 1934! He has helped the revival of Egyptian football along with Mohamed El Neny, Ramadan Sobhi, and Argentinian coach Héctor Cúper. They are in the group with hosts Russia, Latin American giants Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia, who are probably the weakest team of the four on paper. Egypt is expected to make way for bigger teams like Russia and Uruguay, packed with star players from across the top clubs. But, as Salah has shown this season, including in the Champions League quarterfinals in April that took the winds out of Manchester City’s sails—the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
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