Since the World Cup began, it has been seen as the perfect platform for players to elevate their respective levels, attracting interest from the world’s best sides while placing their names in history forever.
The 2018 World Cup in Russia has been no exception, either. In this feature, we take a look at the five best players from the group stages – highlighting those who have performed well for their respective nations, justifying their importance within the team. As always though, there will be some notable absences and some surprise admissions in this list.
Honourable mentions include Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Uruguay centre-back José Gimenez, Russia’s Aleksandr Golovin, Mexico winger Hirving Lozano, England captain Harry Kane, Spain’s Diego Costa and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
Without further ado, let’s begin this list:
#5 Romelu Lukaku
Lukaku, who has four goals in two tournament appearances thus far, has impressed in front of goal while proving a menace for opposition defences too. The argument can be made that he’s only performed well against Panama and Tunisia, but you can only play against the opposition you’re grouped with. What better way to kick off the top five than with a goalscorer who has received ongoing criticism after an underwhelming club campaign at Manchester United?
Joint-second alongside Cristiano Ronaldo with the hunt for the Golden Boot accolade set to intensify, the 25-year-old has shown a willingness to spearhead this current Belgium crop to glory, partnered by Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne – two stars in their own right.
He’s taken less shots than both Ronaldo and Kane, netted more in less minutes (149) while utilising his physical presence to good use. It’s increasingly clear that he will play a pivotal role in determining whether Belgium are to enjoy success in the coming weeks, as the knockout stages begin this weekend.
#4 Luka Modric
Luka Modric, 32, has been Croatia’s best player for a number of years now. However, his selfless character makes it easy to forget that he is the brain of an underestimated Croatian side – who are allowed freedom to roam forward, buoyed by the confidence that their captain’s performances instil in them.
Versatility allows him to partner Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic in a deep-lying playmaker role, or venture further forward into the number ten role with free-roam responsibilities. Wherever he’s deployed, he has shown the capability to create goalscoring opportunities regularly and chances of high quality.
Importantly, he doesn’t shy away from his defensive responsibilities either. For someone of his 5 ft. 8 in. frame, it’s even more of a challenge, but one that the Real Madrid midfielder embraces as part of the role he plays.
Five completed tackles, four interceptions and two clearances – as well as five key passes, 87% pass accuracy and two important goals against Nigeria and Argentina have helped propel Zlatko Dalić’s side into the last 16. They’ll play Denmark on Sunday and who knows what’s next?
#3 Philippe Coutinho
Philippe Coutinho, 26, has been regularly criticised for his perceived lack of consistency at times for both club and country. However, during this World Cup, it’s clear that he is trying to silence those critics by usurping Neymar as Brazil’s main attraction in attack.
His long-range effort against Switzerland, a Man of the Match display against Costa Rica and the perfectly-weighted assist to help beat Serbia on matchday three are all key moments where he has proven his quality.
With two goals, an assist and 10 key passes to his name already from the group stages, he’s an ever-present figure in attack and wants to create opportunities – whether that be going alone or for his teammates.
What’s interesting is the fact that unlike Neymar, he’s more concerned with working efficiently rather than trying to continuously beat opponents in one-on-one situations. It has fired Brazil through into the knockout stages.
His intelligence, vision and ability to create chances from nothing has increased over time, whilst he’s becoming a more dependable player: one that the Selecao themselves look towards when matches are tough and they need a moment of magic.
#2 Yerry Mina
Barcelona centre-back Yerry Mina is a surprise addition to the top five, but his selection is by no means any less deserved. It was his tough-tackling style which effectively isolated Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski – one of the world’s best forwards – on matchday two, before he earned the Man of the Match award and helped send Colombia into the knockout stages.
The 23-year-old managed all of this, having only played 377 minutes of competitive football for the La Liga champions throughout the 2017/18 campaign. His well-executed header against Senegal proved pivotal: It was the game’s only goal and consequently sent them through into the last-16 as Group H winners, while Japan dropped into second place.
He also scored against Poland, breaking the deadlock from James Rodriguez’s corner-kick on the stroke of half-time. That ultimately set the tone for a well-deserved victory.
Three tackles, two interceptions and an eyewatering 11 clearances from 180 minutes of football, Mina has been kept busy at the back for Colombia. He’s developing a formidable partnership alongside Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez and it’ll be interesting to see how England deal with them during Tuesday’s knockout clash. Without him though, Los Cafeteros would already be on their way home.
Isco‘s creative brilliance has shone through for Spain in the group stages, where La Roja themselves have not been fantastic as a collective unit. It’s to be expected especially under new management in Fernando Hierro, but the Real Madrid midfielder has shown once more why he’s so highly-rated and increased his own transfer value while doing so.
Combining well alongside David Silva and Andres Iniesta or Koke as part of Spain’s creative trio ahead of Sergio Busquets, Isco is unafraid to take risks and his performances have essentially proved himself to be the successor in creative midfield.
Cristiano Ronaldo stole the headlines on matchday one, but Isco starred – alongside a prolific Diego Costa – while he created chances and hit the crossbar from range with a wonder strike.
With 14 completed dribbles, eight key passes and 92.9% pass accuracy, it’s clear to see he takes matches by the scruff of the neck on his own accord. Creating countless opportunities, he is unlucky to not have more than one goal from three group stage fixtures too.
Starting from the left-hand side of midfield, he has a tendency to get involved in central areas and makes things happen. His excellent displays warranting the number ten role, granting him more freedom. An impressive run of form will stand him in good stead for the rest of the tournament, which is why it’s no real surprise that he’s one of the main candidates for the Golden Ball award.
Agree with my list? Disagree? Tell me in the comments below!