6 Players to Watch on Day 5 of the 2014 World Cup

Andrew GibneyFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2014

6 Players to Watch on Day 5 of the 2014 World Cup

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The 2014 World Cup continues to impress, with Lionel Messi opening his account in Argentina's 2-1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.

    Attention now turns to Monday's games, with Germany and Portugal opening the day in Group G.

    After that game, the Super Eagles of Nigeria will be aiming to open their campaign with a win over Group F outsiders Iran.

    The final fixture of the day sees Ghana take on USA at the Estadio das Dunas in Natal in the second Group G matchup.

    But who will be the players to watch on Day 5 of the World Cup? Here we provide six key men to look out for Monday.

Thomas Mueller, Germany

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    Michael Probst/Associated Press

    Back in the 2010 World Cup, Bayern Munich's Thomas Mueller was outstanding for Germany. After scoring five goals and contributing three assists, he picked up the Golden Boot award and was also named Best Young Player in South Africa.

    Four years on and Mueller is ready to continue his status as World Cup hero for the Nationalmannschaft.

    Before the 2010 World Cup, the then-20-year-old Mueller had just finished an excellent campaign in the Bundesliga, scoring 13 goals in his first full season. In a possible omen, he also scored 13 goals last season as Bayern Munich romped to their first Bundesliga title under Pep Guardiola.

    With an injury ruling Marco Reus out of the tournament, Mueller becomes even more vital to the team. He is no longer an unknown quantity; he has become one of Germany's most important players.

    As Kit Holden of The Daily Mail notes: "Mueller's versatility is invaluable. He is happy in any position, so long as he is attacking, and believes that 'everything depends on whether you have the right ambition for the position you are in.'"

    Mueller's Germany are one of the favourites to go far this summer, and according to Brazilian legend Pele, Mueller is one of the players who strikes the most fear into the hearts of the opposition, as he told Bild (via Peter McVitie of Goal.com).

    In the three warm-up games leading up to the tournament, Mueller played twice and scored once. In both games he showed his versatility. He started on the right of the attack and scored in the 2-2 draw against Cameroon. Then, in the 6-1 win over Armenia, he played the central-attacking role in Germany's 4-3-3 formation.

    It is unfair to call him a centre-forward; under Joachim Loew, the German front three are very fluid in their approach. With Mueller beside Andre Schurrle and either Mesut Ozil or Lucas Podolski, all three will rotate and look for space.

    This movement will be hard for the Portuguese defence to track and guard against. With Mueller on form and in the mood to emulate his performances of four years ago, Portugal will have to be wary of the 24-year-old attacker.

Joao Moutinho, Portugal

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    All eyes will be firmly focused on Cristiano Ronaldo when Portugal take the field against Germany. The Real Madrid star will be hoping to make his mark on the tournament after Lionel Messi opened his account against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Sunday night.

    However, if Ronaldo is to have a successful game, he will need the support of his team-mates—specifically, the creative midfield play of AS Monaco's Joao Moutinho.

    The diminutive midfielder is one of the best passers you will see at this World Cup, and if Ronaldo is to make the direct and dangerous runs that excite and mesmerise at the Bernabeu, Moutinho is the man who will be providing the ammunition for the World Player of the Year.

    The 27-year-old made his debut for Portugal as an 18-year-old, but despite winning 68 caps, he has yet to play a game at a World Cup.

    Vitor Hugo Alvarenga of The Guardian picked Moutinho as the player in the Portugal squad who is set to surprise everyone at the World Cup. He labelled the midfielder as "Portugal's own Xavi" and as the man who will provide the "magical pass" to Ronaldo when the winger makes his crucial runs in behind the defence.

    Moutinho will be eager to show his qualities for his country. His first season in Ligue 1 was far from excellent, as James Eastham on Portugoal.net explains.

    Fans of the 27-year-old midfielder were expecting to see a player that would dictate games in the middle of the pitch.... What they got instead was a player that started the season brightly—Moutinho was arguably Ligue 1’s outstanding performer in August and September 2013—but soon faded, and ended up as a peripheral figure in too many of Monaco’s performances.

    Playing in Paulo Bento's 4-3-3, Moutinho will have the protection from Sporting Lisbon's William Carvalho that will give him more space to float and create.

    If Portugal are to play well and go far in this tournament, the goals of Ronaldo will be crucial, but it will be the passing and vision of Moutinho that brings the magic together.

Vincent Enyeama, Nigeria

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    Few people may remember Vincent Enyeama from the last World Cup in South Africa. The Nigerian goalkeeper was the player who spectacularly kept Lionel Messi from finding the back of the net as the Super Eagles frustrated Argentina in their 2010 group game.

    Enyeama made save after save in what almost became a one-on-one duel against the Barcelona forward.

    Four years on, Enyeama is going into the World Cup off the back of a wonderful season for French club Lille OSC. Playing as the last line of a stubborn defence, the keeper kept an amazing 21 clean sheets and came very close to breaking the record for the number of minutes played without conceding a single goal.

    Lille only conceded 26 goals in 38 games—just three more than champions Paris Saint-Germain let in—and Rene Girard's side have Enyeama to thank for some wonderful saves. Just when you thought the keeper was beaten, his energy, reactions and desire to save the ball seemed to give him that extra inch of reach at the vital moments.

    To fans of Nigeria, Enyeama's performances are nothing new. The 31-year-old has over 90 caps for his country and has been the No. 1 choice since Ike Shorunmu retired after the 2002 World Cup.

    Confidence is not something Enyeama is short of. Speaking to FIFA.com, he predicted big things for this Nigeria side: "Ghana almost reached the semi-finals four years ago. We are going to be the first African team to get to the semi-finals of the World Cup."

    No goalkeeper goes into this World Cup after as impressive a season as Enyeama. Jeremy Smith of French Football Weekly describes Enyeama as being in "some kind of state of grace as he continued to keep out team after team, winning two consecutive Ligue 1 player of the month awards."

    If Nigeria are to prove Enyeama right and reach the latter rounds of the tournament, they will need the goalkeeper to start off their campaign with another clean sheet. If they can keep Iran out, they have a chance of picking up a vital three points early to take into the games against Argentina and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Iran

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    Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press

    If you go back 20 years to the World Cup that was hosted in the USA, social media didn't exist and there wasn't as much information available about the majority of teams that took part in the tournament. 

    Nowadays, however, there are few teams that remain a surprise going into an international tournament. Iran are still holding on to that status, but some of their players are going to become much more widely known to the football world over the coming weeks.

    One player to watch out for is 20-year-old winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh. Fans of the Dutch Eredivisie will know the name well, as he was voted the league’s greatest talent at the end of the 2013-14 season.

    On the final day of the season with his club, NEC Nijmegen, facing automatic relegation, Jahanbakhsh scored twice against Ajax to help NEC to a draw and into the relegation play-off spot. Unfortunately, they lost the play-off 4-1 and will play in the Dutch second division for the first time in 20 years.

    Jahanbakhsh now travels to Brazil hoping to show the world what he is capable of, starting with Monday’s clash with Nigeria in Curitiba.

    FIFA.com have picked Jahanbakhsh as one of their players to watch during this tournament. With the pace and trickery that the NEC winger possesses, he will cause the Nigerians plenty of problems down the wing.

    "I enjoy using my skill in one-on-one situations," Jahanbakhsh said, per FIFA.com. "Since playing in the Dutch league with NEC I have learned how to help the team and how to use my ability to help the other players."

    The young winger is likely to feature on the right wing, and if he doesn't start, he will be a great option for Carlos Queiroz when the game gets stretched in the second half. He has the potential to become a huge factor for Iran in this World Cup.

    With players like Jahanbakhsh ready to burst into action during this tournament, don't rule out Iran causing a surprise in this group.

Jordan Ayew, Ghana

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    In Ghana's last World Cup warm-up game against South Korea, star striker Majeed Waris had to leave the field after just six minutes. The injury caused a small panic on social media: Waris scored nine goals in just 16 games on loan at French side Valenciennes, and many were predicting that this would be a huge tournament for him.

    On in his place came Olympique de Marseille striker Jordan Ayew. The younger brother of fellow Ghanaian star Andre Ayew quickly vanquished any fears for fans of the Black Stars. It took the striker just five minutes to score his first goal, and 80 minutes later, the 22-year-old had scored a hat-trick, firing himself into the starting line-up for Ghana’s opening game against the USA on Monday.

    Like Waris, Ayew spent most of his season on loan. Moving to FC Sochaux in January, he played under Herve Renard, the coach who won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 with Zambia. The talismanic coach managed to get the absolute best out of Ayew, and it finally looks like the striker is ready to fulfil his potential.

    Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari has high hopes for Ayew's World Cup, as he told GhanaSoccernet via Soccerway after the win over South Korea:

    I expect him to be a revelation at the World Cup. Fans must be patient with him because he's one of our future stars.

    He just needs to keep calm and focus and I tell you the world will truly see his potential. He will surprise the world.

    According to WhoScored.com, Ayew managed 34 shots during his loan spell with Sochaux. It took him a few games to settle in, but once he found his feet he was superb. He finished the season with five goals for the club, scoring four in the last seven games as Les Lionceaux fought for their survival.

    Sochaux fell short in their ambitions, with a defeat to Evian on the final day confirming their relegation.

    Coach James Kwesi Appiah will be hoping that when he teams the younger Ayew with his brother and Asamoah Gyan, Ghana don't come up short in their quest to qualify out of Group G.

    Three points against the USA will be absolutely vital for Ghana if they are to challenge Germany and Portugal for one of the top two places. Ayew's vibrancy and threat in front of goal has to be respected. This is his time to grow up and show the world what he can do.

Jozy Altidore, USA

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The decision to not include Landon Donovan in the USA's World Cup squad split the American soccer public apart. It also heaped an enormous amount of pressure on the strikers in whom Jurgen Klinsmann has put his faith—none more so than Sunderland striker Jozy Altidore.

    With 70 caps to his name, Altidore has scored 23 goals for his country. He scored twice as USA beat Nigeria in a World Cup warm-up match. It was the first time the 24-year-old had made the scoresheet for the States since last October, but he didn't go along when asked by ESPN (via CBS Sportsif he felt any relief at stopping the dry spell.

    "The biggest thing was for us to work out some things that we weren't sure about, trying some different things today," Altidore said.

    In 31 appearances for Premier League side Sunderland last season, he only managed to find the back of the net once. Klinsmann will be hoping the striker can put his league form behind him and be the striker he has the potential to become.

    However, Louise Taylor of The Guardian has her doubts over Altidore's ability when he plays against a higher class of opponent. She describes the forward as surprisingly lightweight when it comes to bullying rival defenders and cites his tendency to hesitate a moment too long or snatch at shots, showing his apparent lack of confidence in front of goal.

    The Altidore who plays for USA seems a different beast to the one whom Premier League fans have mocked. However, he needs to show consistency and a clinical edge in the three group games at the World Cup.

    A win over Ghana is crucial on Monday. Without three points to kick-start their challenge for a place in the knockout stages, it will be an uphill climb for the U.S. against Germany and Portugal. Goals are a must, and Altidore is the man to help American fans forget all about Landon Donovan.