FIFA World Cup 2018: 10 Potential Breakout Stars in Russia
Yeah, yeah. We get it Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar; you have world-class reputations, trophies and the ability to leave Gigi Buffon watching on haplessly; kudos. But you’re getting to the embers of your time (maybe not you, Neymar) and, come on, give others a chance to enter the spotlight. Just about every World Cup has its routine, the boring group, the goalkeeping howler, the star underperformer, the standout man who joins Real Madrid, and of course, the breakout star; either that player known at club level and wanted by the bigger clubs but not really watched by many (think Keylor Navas- 2014), or the rather unknown ones you read up on and use acquired knowledge to brag to others about him (Keisuke Honda- 2010). So, in the spirit of rooting for the unknowns, here’s some of the potential players who could really get into the world’s spotlight in Russia:
Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
The 24-year-old Iranian was the top scorer in the just-concluded Dutch Eredivisie season with 21 goals, and could make a name for himself in Russia. The AZ Alkmaar forward has shown he’s not just about goals alone (although that itself isn’t a bad attribute), 12 assists highlighting his all-round play. Iran have been drawn in a tough group, involving Spain and Portugal, making qualification to the next round seem a step too far, but should Jahanbakhsh perform in such circumstances, his stock will rise even further.
Sardar Azmoun (Iran)
Jahanbakhsh’s International teammate, Azmoun didn’t have the best season after returning to parent club Rubin Kazan from Rostov (where he had been impressive), only directly involved in eight goals (scoring five, assisting three). But the ‘Iranian Messi’ (yes, it’s a real thing) has 23 goals in 32 International appearances, and is still Team Melli’s main threat up front. There were rumours of him joining a bigger club back in 2017, and Azmoun himself has said he expects to move to one in the near future. Do the impossible and get Iran through Group B, and the big guns will come.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
The man you can’t go through any breakout list without seeing, ‘The Sergeant’ had an impressive season with Lazio in Serie A, bagging 12 league goals and six assists from midfield, and was just about the primary reason Slavoljub Muslin was sacked by Serbia, as the manager fell out with the youngster. Has been on the watchful eye of many since winning the Under 20 World Cup in 2015, just about every top club has been rumoured to be interested. A good World Cup tournament, and surely Lazio will be resigned to losing him.
Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
It hasn’t been the best preparations for the World Cup for Russia, the hosts have already witnessed injuries to key players, adding to their pressure to deliver. But they do have a young rising star ahead of proceedings at home, in 22-year-old Aleksandr Golovin. The Kaltan-born CSKA Moscow midfielder has represented Russia since Under 19 level, and had a massive role in CSKA’s run to the last eight of last season’s UEFA Europa League. His range of passing, as well as his ability to deliver a set-piece, is one to look out, there have been whispered rumours of links to Arsenal, who witnessed his prowess first-hand last term.
Nico Elvedi (Switzerland)
Switzerland aren’t short of young talent ahead of the World Cup, particularly in the defensive area, with Manuel Akanji and Nico Elvedi. 21-year-old Elvedi joined Borussia Monchengladbach at the age of 19 and slotted in immediately into the first-team setup. His versatility to play at either right-back, centre-back, or right of a back-three marks him out from many, and offers Vladimir Petkovic a tactical edge at the back.
Karol Linetty (Poland)
23-year-old Linetty went with the Polish squad to the European Championship in 2016, but didn’t make a single appearance in the tournament. Since then, though, it’s been upwards for the Lech Poznan academy graduate, who’s nailed down a regular place in Poland’s midfield since qualifying began. The Sampdoria man is known for his tackling and high energy performances, and last season he scored three times with the Serie A side, showing improvements in that part of his game. With Grzegorz Krychowiak having a poor season, Linetty is just about guaranteed to start at the World Cup, and the world might just take notice when he does.
Benjamin Pavard (France)
There was endless chatter, from when the draw was made, over France’s squad to the World Cup this year. A country lit with star names can only take 23, which meant there would easily be a formidable World Cup of those who wouldn’t even make the French squad. Every position was under watch, not least left-back, where Benjamin Mendy was, as well Layvin Kurzawa. But surely no one cast their minds to Benjamin Pavard, who himself admitted he cried when he found out he made the final 23-man list. The 22-year-old appeared in every game for Stuttgart last season, and has attracted a few admirers, even though Stuttgart sporting director Michael Reschke has declared the club ‘won’t even pick up the phone’ if clubs want to offer 30million Euros for Pavard. With other left-back Mendy not playing much last season and unlikely to be fit, Pavard might get the nod in Russia. Perform like he did for Stuttgart, his stock will rise even higher, and the phone will surely go off.
Kasper Dolberg (Denmark)
Kasper Dolberg impressed in 2016/17 with Ajax, scoring 16 league goals, and spearheading the team’s run to the Europa League final. Last season wasn’t as eye-catching, he only found the net six times, but Dolberg is still 20 and is some talent. Coach Age Hareide’s preference for Nicolai Jorgensen up front means Dolberg is unlikely to spearhead the Danish attack, but his ability to also play out wide means he’s likely to get games in Russia. A decent tournament and everyone would remember why they were so fond of him back in 2017.
Maxi Gomez (Uruguay)
It’s fair to say Uruguay have started blooding in a new generation, given the young players likely to turn out for them in Russia. One of those faces of the new generation is Maxi Gomez, the 21-year-old who came through the ranks back home at Defensor Sporting. He joined Celta Vigo last summer and hit the ground running, with six goals in his opening seven games, before finishing with 17 La Liga goals. With Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez around, Gomez is unlikely to start for La Celeste, but could prove an impact player from the bench.
Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)
Another of Uruguay’s new generation players, Lucas Torreira began his European career with Pescara in Italy in 2013. He has since joined Sampdoria, where his ball-winning skills and impressive distribution has caught the eye of more than a few, earning him his first national call-up in March. Started all but two of Sampdoria’s games last term, he has reportedly been linked with a move to Napoli.