World Cup 100: Ranking the Top Players Heading to Russia
You can tell the World Cup 2018 is just around the corner; the kits are out, the wall charts are being hung up and the FIFA 18 patch is being played liberally across the globe. We're edging toward fever pitch.
To continue building toward June 14, the date of the opening bout between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia, we're presenting the first edition of our World Cup 100, a ranking of the best players heading to the finals in each position.
It takes the same format as our Premier League 100, which ran in weekly installments throughout the 2017-18 season. This version will run on a round-by-round basis, updating after each set of games.
This first version is unique in comparison to the future ones; whereas once the World Cup begins we'll be assessing and ranking based solely on performances in Russia, this edition is a general "who are the best players making the trip."
Determining who is better than who is a difficult task when it comes to certain positions, as there are entire gluts of players who seem about level—particularly in the centre-back and attacking midfield sections.
2017-18 is a good indicator, but can't be the sole marker used for who is better than who. Manuel Neuer barely played last season but is clearly one of the best goalkeepers on the planet, so the ranking is not based strictly on how players got on over the last 10 months.
"If he travels with us, he'll be No. 1," Joachim Low said of the Manuel Neuer situation last week, per Bundesliga.com. "He'll go either as fully fit or not at all."
The fact he's on the plane, having excelled in two behind-closed-doors friendlies, suggests he's sharp and ready to go. But Neuer hasn't played since September due to a broken metatarsal, so it's reasonable to expect he might be at 90 percent of his powers—at least for the first few games. That paves the way for David De Gea to take the No. 1 spot heading into the tournament.
Germany and Brazil's strength in the goalkeeping department is made clear by their 40 percent occupancy of this top 10, and it's a crop dominated by Europe too, with just Alisson, Ederson and Keylor Navas hailing from outside it.
|1||David De Gea||Spain|
|3||Marc-Andre ter Stegen||Germany|
|5||Keylor Navas||Costa Rica|
Just like with the goalkeepers, the top spot among the right-backs is a tight call.
We can accept arguments for either Joshua Kimmich (arguably the most well-rounded right-back in the world) or Dani Carvajal (the most successful over the last five years). That's your top two.
Kyle Walker seems a clear third, but then it gets tricky again. You're weighing up Trent Alexander-Arnold's clear ability vs. his inexperience, and while Ricardo Pereira is brilliant, he hasn't had many opportunities to show it for his national team.
If Alvaro Odriozola gets a game for Spain, he'll show the world how promising he is. If you're wondering where Cesar Azpilicueta is, we've counted him as a centre-back.
Brazil's strength at left-back is almost sickening. Marcelo and Filipe Luis make up two of the top three, and they're so stacked here that they can afford to leave Alex Sandro at home.
There are some tough decisions outside of the top three, as you wonder just how fit and sharp both Benjamin Mendy and Danny Rose are. At their peak levels, they're worthy of these spots, but which version of them will we see in Russia?
Aleksandar Kolarov makes the top 10 after enjoying a surprisingly excellent season with Roma. Raphael Guerreiro is one who might prove his ranking harsh if he stays fit and starts firing.
There were some tough decisions among the goalkeepers, right-backs and left-backs, but each top 10 filled out fairly naturally. You had three established world-class players, five or so excellent ones, and then a few who enjoyed solid 2017-18 seasons.
The centre-backs were a completely different ball-game, though.
Love him or hate him, loathe him or respect him, what Sergio Ramos has pulled out on the big stage these last three years has been incredible. He has rash moments in him, but he produces stellar performances when it matters the most.
Below him is a cluster of brilliant centre-backs, and you could re-order the 2-6 range however you like and justify it. They're different breeds, so they're hard to compare.
The strength in this section is eye-popping; a statement compounded by the fact the likes of Niklas Sule and Vincent Kompany are in the lower reaches.
Defensive Midfielders/Central Midfielders
Comparing playmakers and defensive midfielders is a tough task. Luka Modric and Sergio Busquets' responsibilities on the pitch are completely different, so it's tough to call which one is superior.
The top five are all world-class stars at the top of their field, but the next five aren't half bad either. It's title and Champions League winners galore.
That around half of the bottom 10 likely won't feature that regularly for their countries is a shame, but it again speaks to the strength in depth of certain countries.
|3||Kevin De Bruyne||Belgium|
The first three were easy; Lionel Messi, Neymar and Mohamed Salah comprise a fine cast. From Salah down, though, there's little to pick between a slew of quality players.
Antoine Griezmann, Isco, Eden Hazard, James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller and David Silva will all play crucial roles for their countries this summer, and the nature of their performances will heavily impact how far their teams go.
Nabil Fekir, Paulo Dybala and Leroy Sane have all been devastating at club level this past season but might not even be called upon by their nations. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is an unknown quantity at this level, but if he catches fire, Serbia might just pull up a few trees.
There are some players here you'd likely consider strikers—Kylian Mbappe, Dries Mertens and Griezmann, for example—but they feature here due to the likelihood they play wide or in support of strikers in Russia.
There's some serious striking talent heading to the World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski lead a group so strong that top-level names such as Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic didn't make the top 10.
Brazil and Uruguay boast two each in this section, though only the latter team will field them both at once. In the former's case, it's arguable Firmino is now the superior player to Jesus, but the Manchester City man will still start due to his chemistry with Neymar.
Sergio Aguero was shut down by City toward the end of the season in an attempt to patch him up ahead of the World Cup. If he's in top gear come mid-June, watch out.
|9||Romelu Lukaku ||Belgium|