Ranking the Top 20 Potential Breakthrough Stars at the World Cup
Among the many intricate, intriguing subplots to a World Cup finals, breakthrough stars is probably one of the most keenly followed.
The tournament represents a global stage upon which players can announce themselves, ensuring their name becomes known across the planet, and perhaps even win a big transfer move in the weeks that follow.
James Rodriguez is probably the poster boy of this exercise. He began the 2014 World Cup as a Monaco player only keen aficionados knew of, but six goals and a few incredible performances for Colombia later, everyone knew who he was. He joined Real Madrid a month later for £63 million!
Here, we've selected 20 players who can make a big breakthrough on the world stage, and they're ranked in order of how likely they are to pull off a James-quake like the one we saw in Brazil. By that, we don't necessarily mean they'll be "discovered"; we mean they'll enter the wider consciousness of football supporters, ensuring even casual fans have something to say about them.
You'll know some of those listed, you'll likely have never heard of others, but keep all of these guys in mind as you work your way through the schedule.
20. Christian Cueva, 26, Winger, Peru
Peru are a fun team who are well worth watching, and—the Paolo Guerrero narrative aside—Christian Cueva is the player most worthy of your attention.
He's not particularly fast over long distances but will cut in off the flank and create, slipping passes into runners and isolating full-backs.
That latter point seems important given two of the three teams Peru will face—Australia and Denmark—would likely call full-back a weakness heading into the tournament.
Cueva could have a lot of success against the likes of Henrik Dalsgaard and Josh Risdon.
19. Mahmoud 'Trezeguet' Hassan, 23, Winger, Egypt
Whoever plays opposite Mohamed Salah for Egypt is going to get a lot of space on the pitch, and all signs point to that being Mahmoud "Trezeguet" Hassan.
He's coming off the back of a superb season with Kasimpasa in Turkey, where his loan spell from Anderlecht was so impressive that they've decided to make it permanent. That might rule out a summer move even if he does star in Russia—or it might mean Kasimpasa will make a quick buck from selling him on.
Trezeguet used to play as a more central player, impressing at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup with mazy dribbles from deep. Now he plays in a more advanced role, running at defenders in more dangerous positions and producing impudent flicks and finishes.
18. Alireza Jahanbakhsh, 24, Winger, Iran
Sardar Azmoun may be the one who has earned the moniker "the Iranian Messi" (despite boasting few similarities to the Barcelona man), but Iran's true star player is Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
His presence takes Team Melli to another level when comparing this side to its 2014 iteration. In Brazil, they defended for their lives but lacked quality in the final third; now, they still do the former but can offer a legitimate threat on the counter-attack, too.
Jahanbakhsh will latch on to clearances and turn them into chances; he'll jink round players and create gaps; and he'll serve up good chances for Azmoun and Co., giving Iran a chance to make a mark in a tough Group B that also includes Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
17. Nicolas Tagliafico, 25, Left-Back, Argentina
It's been difficult to discern what Jorge Sampaoli's intentions are for his Argentina XI, with a number of positions seemingly up in the air with regard to who might fill them, but Nicolas Tagliafico looks to have bagged the role of left-back.
It caps a pretty stark rise for the 25-year-old, who joined Ajax in January and has seen his reputation increase steadily since. He's an all-round full-back, nicely balanced, who can thread passes and cross the ball, but he will also hammer a tackle and recover the ball.
Argentina's 2018 collection feels weaker than its 2014 version in many ways, but Tagliafico manning the left flank is a big upgrade on, say, Marcos Rojo doing so or Angel Di Maria being forced into a wing-back role.
16. Alvaro Odriozola, 22, Right-Back, Spain
Alvaro Odriozola has been in and around the Spain setup for over a year now, with Julen Lopetegui happy to call him into his full-back berth ahead of the likes of Sergi Roberto (Barcelona) and Marcos Alonso (Chelsea). Lopetegui has, incredibly, been fired just two days before their opening game, but the squad is set in stone and Odriozola's place is safe.
He's still an unknown quantity to most, as he plays his club football for Real Sociedad, rather than an established big-name team. It means many will have missed his rapid rise to the top, but perhaps there's a chance they will see him display his qualities in Russia this summer.
With Dani Carvajal an injury concern heading into the tournament, La Furia Roja might award Odriozola a more prominent role than originally planned.
He carries the ball well, commits defenders, crosses accurately and works his socks off to cover the flank.
15. Andrija Zivkovic, 21, Winger, Serbia
Andrija Zivkovic feels like something of an anachronism in this Serbia setup. While most of the team stand over 6'0" and bring an imposing, physical presence, the 21-year-old is almost the complete opposite: a diminutive, quick and mazy dribbler.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see manager Mladen Krstajic opt for the more experienced Dusan Tadic to start the first games ahead of Zivkovic. If Serbia need a goal, though, they'll look to this dynamic creator.
Coming off the back of an excellent season with Benfica, in which he almost single-handedly pulled them through games at times, he will deal some damage if unleashed.
14. Rodrigo Bentancur, 20, Central Midfield, Uruguay
Rodrigo Bentancur has been a watershed player for Uruguay.
Oscar Tabarez has been praised for throwing off the shackles and embracing a talented new generation of La Celeste players, and the first to crack the XI was Bentancur.
Since then, he has moved to Juventus and played a part—though not a big one. This summer, he'll play an integral role in Uruguay's midfield. If he excels in Russia, he won't just be announcing his name to the wider world, he will also be convincing Massimiliano Allegri he deserves the nod more often in Turin.
13. Pione Sisto, 23, Winger, Denmark
Pione Sisto benefits from the same dynamic as Trezeguet: With all the attention on a true star player, he's almost guaranteed a one-on-one battle he can take full advantage of.
Denmark's version of Mohamed Salah in this case is Christian Eriksen, and because he operates centrally, opponents devote resources to blocking the middle, allowing Sisto some room on the wing.
Generally operating from the left flank, he utilises quick feet and a lightning change of pace to slow up markers before surging past them. He also crosses into the box well and can lash one towards the top corner.
12. Ismaila Sarr, 20, Winger, Senegal
In order to get the best out of their only elite attacker, Sadio Mane, Senegal have moved him into a more central position to involve him more heavily in their game plan.
This has opened up a spot on the wing for someone to take advantage of, and if the pre-tournament friendlies are anything to go by, Ismaila Sarr is going to have a lot of fun using the space Mane creates.
The 20-year-old has a long, loping stride, loves to push into space with the ball and take defenders on one-on-one. The fact he seems so in control of his body moving at such high speeds is remarkable.
These qualities will come in handy when Senegal sit in, defend, and then counter-attack with speed through him and Mane.
11. Aleksandr Golovin, 22, Attacking Midfield, Russia
Five or six years ago, a lot was made of the talent possessed by Russia midfielder Alan Dzagoev. Thought to be a rising star, a big move to a top club seemed inevitable.
That expected upward trajectory failed to materialise, with Dzagoev stalling out and remaining with CSKA Moscow. Sharing that club-level midfield with him, though, is a new Russian hope in Aleksandr Golovin. If Sbornaya are to make it out of Group A, he has to show his best.
Golovin is a roaming, mobile playmaker who can feature centrally, wide or drift from one to the other. He's good in tight spaces, can knock the ball around players and score goals. The former quality will be particularly useful against Saudi Arabia—a must-win game.
10. Piotr Zielinski, 24, Attacking Midfield, Poland
Piotr Zielinski might not be one of Napoli's most important players, but when Poland duty commences, he instantly becomes a key figure.
You may be somewhat familiar with him given he's been involved in highlight-reel goals in Serie A this season—a product of the Maurizio Sarri coaching regime—but he's not the household name Dries Mertens, Marek Hamsik or Lorenzo Insigne represent.
It's quite feasible the White and Reds will qualify from Group H, and while much of that will likely be down to Robert Lewandowski's goalscoring, Zielinski's creativity will supplement it.
9. Ante Rebic, 24, Winger, Croatia
It didn't seem possible a month ago, but pre-tournament friendlies present a chance for players to stake claims for places, and Ante Rebic might well have secured a spot in Croatia's XI for the finals.
As manager Zlatko Dalic refined his formula against Brazil and Senegal ahead of the finals, Rebic—a star for Eintracht Frankfurt in their shock DFB-Pokal win over Bayern Munich in May—started both matches and showed an understanding with the side's most pivotal player, Luka Modric.
At 24, Rebic can be considered something of a late bloomer, taking a while longer to find the level many predicted for him early in his career. But now he's the hot hand in the Croatia attack and could enhance his reputation tenfold in Russia.
8. Benjamin Pavard, 22, Right-Back, France
According to L'Equipe (h/t Get French Football News), France right-back Djibril Sidibe has sustained an injury that could rule him out of their World Cup opener against Australia.
Typically, you would call this bad news for Didier Deschamps; losing a starter in an important position is usually a blow.
But if this results in Benjamin Pavard stepping into the XI, it's good news, as despite naturally being a centre-back, he has done a stellar job for Les Bleus on the flank when required and might just be the better option anyway.
France's final warmup game against the United States on Sunday displayed the varying fortunes of the two, where a horrific Sidibe error led to a Julian Green goal in the first half, before a fine Pavard pass led to a Kylian Mbappe equaliser in the second.
At domestic level, Pavard had a superb 2017-18 season for Stuttgart, emerging as a master-passer from centre-back, and he now has the chance to shine on a much bigger stage.
7. Cristian Pavon, 22, Winger, Argentina
When you come with a recommendation from the great Lionel Messi, people know to take you seriously. Not many players get one, and the ones who do are taken note of.
Cristian Pavon of Argentina is one of the few. According to Radio Continental (h/t AS), Messi has told Barcelona he would like to team up with Pavon at both club and international level: "I've found a new partner in Pavon, he's a really good player. He's not only really quick, but his decision-making is also excellent."
That's basically Messi drawing a great luminous arrow towards a player you need to be keeping tabs on in Russia. With Manuel Lanzini withdrawing from the squad due to injury, it's possible his role expands from bit-part to crucial.
6. Hakim Ziyech, 25, Attacking Midfield, Morocco
Morocco are a difficult team to beat; they enter these World Cup finals having not lost a game in over a year and having navigated qualification without conceding a goal.
But while their defensive leader Medhi Benatia attracts the attention and clever coach Herve Renard takes the plaudits, the Atlas Lions have a few intriguing attackers to bring to the party, too.
Chief among them is Hakim Ziyech, a midfielder with incredible vision and technique plying his trade for Ajax. If he finds time and space to operate, he'll slice teams apart with pinpoint passes.
If Morocco are to live up to the dark-horse tag many have attributed to them, Ziyech is going to have to turn a few heads.
5. Giorgian De Arrascaeta, 24, Attacking Midfield, Uruguay
Uruguay have always been a solid side; mucking in and defending with spirit has never been something they've struggled with.
But breaking down defensive opponents and sustaining periods of possession? That's been difficult over the years. A midfield too focused on the workmanlike parts of the game has been largely to blame, but Oscar Tabarez has finally addressed that and introduced some more creative types.
Giorgian de Arrascaeta is one of the most important players for La Celeste heading to Russia, as he possesses a fairly unique skill set in the context of the squad. He has an innate creative ability, a willingness to drift and find space, and the decisiveness to split a defence open.
Against top teams, Uruguay might revert to their old reactive selves, but if they're to have success against Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Group A, De Arrascaeta will be central to it.
4. Alisson Becker, 25, Goalkeeper, Brazil
Given his presence in the Champions League semi-finals and the fact Liverpool reportedly like the look of him, per B/R's Dean Jones, Alisson Becker might not be the biggest secret in the world.
However, there were still a fair number of shocked faces on social media when they recently learned he is Brazil's starting goalkeeper—not Manchester City's Ederson Moraes—and we didn't necessarily see the best of him when he came up against the Reds in April and May.
Russia is his chance to show why he's valued so highly and why he keeps one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League out of Tite's Brazil team.
The clubs chasing his signature may regret not hashing out a deal for him before the tournament started.
3. Hirving Lozano, 22, Winger, Mexico
Hirving Lozano is the kind of player who captures the imagination. He lights up pitches with his rapid movements and blistering shots, drawing you to the edge of your seat.
The PSV Eindhoven man's talent is hardly a secret at this point, but having moved from Mexico to the Netherlands at club level, there's still a wider conscious among football fans he's yet to permeate.
In Russia, he'll have the opportunity to prove why he's a target for the likes of Everton, per the Liverpool Echo, and also perhaps skip up the food chain a little and attract an even bigger fish.
If his uber-fast sprints and punishing dribbles result in goals and assists, there's a good chance that will happen.
2. Timo Werner, 22, Striker, Germany
Timo Werner has scored 34 Bundesliga goals in the past two seasons, lighting it up for RB Leipzig and rapidly maturing into one of the game's most unerring finishers.
He boasts an excellent international strike rate (14 goals in eight games, better than one in every two) and will lead the line for Germany this summer as their No. 9.
They are one of the most settled teams heading into the tournament, so Werner likely won't skip a beat and hit the scoring trail early—particularly given the favourable group they have landed in.
Stone-cold finishers of this ilk are hardly easy to find. A strong World Cup could see RB Leipzig inundated with interest and bids for his services.
1. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, 23, Attacking Midfield, Serbia
You may well have seen his rather distinctive name, and you may well have seen it linked to big European teams (such as Juventus and Manchester United) for big prices (per Calciomercato).
But much of the conversation surrounding Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is still based on hype and highlight reels. Not that many watch Lazio, and that's OK, but this summer provides a real chance to watch the Serb strut his stuff.
Milinkovic is almost an anomaly of a player; he shouldn't be so technically neat and smooth in tight spaces given his massive frame. But he is. Serbia manager Mladen Krstajic looks set to isolate him from defensive duties and just ask him to attack, allowing him the chance to wow us.
If he (and his nation) strike a chord early, they are clear dark-horse material. If they manage to live up to that tag, Milinkovic's ox-like strength, neat pirouette turns and rasping long-range shooting will be integral to it.