Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, FOX Sports’ John Dykes picks 11 players to keep a close eye on in the coming month in Russia.
A World Cup offers different things to different people. For me, it offers a refreshing break from the intensity of club football, mostly European, which has been the focus of my working life for nearly 20 years.
The season that recently culminated in a drama-filled Champions League final in Kyiv was noteworthy for the intensity of the pressing game employed by most top clubs these days, as well as, regrettably, the vicious, social-media-driven arguments prompted by a game packed with incident.
So, here’s to the World Cup! It’s an opportunity to enjoy different tactics, support underdogs, check out talent from leagues other than England’s and to cast a critical eye over players making big-money moves this summer.
I may be English but their major-tournament excursions tend to be painful affairs, so I’ll be investing my emotions in the teams from my adopted continent of Asia.
Hence, the presence in my “World Cup XI to Watch” of a couple of Asian players at the expense of proven stars, such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who really need no further praise, or rising stars like Mexico’s Hirving Lozano.
Goalkeeper: Alisson Becker (Brazil)
As I write this, Brazil’s No. 1 is said to be the target of massive bids from Liverpool, among other European giants.He must be truly special to have grabbed the jersey ahead of the superb Ederson of Premier League champions Manchester City.
Brazil’s coaching staff say Alisson’s rapid rise to the top is the result of a stunning season at AS Roma, where he has indeed been eye-catching: spectacularly good at shot-stopping, trustworthy in the air and, crucially for Brazil’s game plan, outstanding with the ball at either foot.
Right-back: Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
The natural successor to Philipp Lahm, Kimmich provided two goals and nine assists during Germany’s perfect qualifying campaign for Russia but is also the defensive cornerstone of the World Champions, capable of holding midfield, as well as playing anywhere across the back.
He has already played more than 100 times for Bayern, winning five trophies, and a strong World Cup showing will only enhance his reputation as German football’s brightest star, at a time when defence may prove to be their best form of attack.
Centre-back: Mehdi Benatia (Morocco)
There will be some outstanding African players on show in Russia, none more so than one of European football’s most accomplished defenders. Morocco’s captain has played for some of the biggest clubs in the world and was back to winning ways with Juventus this season.
Classy and composed on the ball, rigorous in organising his defence, Benatia also takes huge pride in representing his country and he has struck up a fine partnership with Romain Saiss: when they were paired together in five qualifiers, Morocco did not concede a single goal.
Centre-back: Samuel Umtiti (France)
Until recently, popular opinion had it that the only thing standing between France and consistent major tournament domination was defensive solidity. However, they have been massively boosted in that regard by Europe’s most-improved centre-half, Barcelona’s Umtiti, who forced his way into contention for Les Bleus at the 2016 Euros.
His physicality and pace, in partnership with Gerard Pique, provided Ernesto Valverde’s side with a solid base. Now, Umtiti will partner Raphael Varane in what might be the best defensive pairing in Russia.
Left-back: Marcelo (Brazil)
Simply put, Marcelo embodies Brazilian football for me. A supremely-talented maverick whose prodigious work-rate enables him to seemingly be everywhere in attack and defence, he preoccupies the opposition and allows Brazil’s superstars to shine.
Marcelo is sometimes targeted by opposing coaches as a “weak link” but he revels in proving them wrong. Having won the lot at club level, Marcelo says he is determined to land the big one. Little wonder Brazil fans voted him the first player they want to see in any starting lineup.
Central midfielder: Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
A major tournament is always that much better when the host nation performs well and galvanises the population. Alas, Russia’s recent outings on the world stage have hardy been encouraging.
They have, however, improved after a miserable Euro 2016 and at the heart of that has been CSKA midfielder Golovin. Thrown into an unfamiliar defensive midfield position in France two years ago, 21-year-old Golovin has matured rapidly and now can operate as a box-to-box midfielder or a playmaker.
Little wonder he has been linked with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea. Russia’s one true star.
Central midfielder: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
The name (and a mouthful at that) on everyone’s lips right now, “SMS” has a £100 million price-tag on his head after a season of unleashing havoc on Serie A with Lazio. A true powerhouse of an athlete, he wins tackles, passes tidily and scored 12 league goals from midfield this season.
The 23-year-old will likely profit in Russia from a midfield base established by Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic, so expect him to make a massive-money move to either England or Spain at the end of the tournament, if he hasn’t already by the time you read this.
Right winger: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
Carlos Queiroz’s Iran were seen as Asia’s best bet in Russia until they were handed a tough Group B assignment. Should they make it through, chances are AZ Alkmaar’s Jahanbakhsh will have something to do with it.
The winger had a hand in more goals than any other player in the Eredivisie this season: 21 goals and 12 assists. That output is a product of his dribbling skills plus the ability to cut inside and shoot powerfully. He can also supply the ammunition for the prolific striker Sardar Azmoun, giving Iran at least a chance of upsetting their favoured opponents.
Left winger: Son Heung-min (Korea Republic)
I was tempted to pick Japan’s inventive Yosuke Ideguchi on my other wing but in truth, East Asia’s Number One player right now has to be the Tottenham Hotspur forward Son.
The smiling Korean contributed 20 goals and six assists for Spurs in club football this season but the demands on him from his national team are greater. Injuries to attackers like Kwon Chang-hoon have left Son having to shoulder the attacking burden, but as he demonstrated in Korea’s warm-up games, he is willing and capable of doing just that.
Striker: Kylian Mbappe (France)
When this supremely-talented attacker burst onto the international scene at 17, I thought we were witnessing the emergence of the next global superstar. His performances for Monaco confirmed my belief and it wasn’t long before money spoke and he found himself loaned to Paris St-Germain.
But the best is yet to come from a player who reminds me of Thierry Henry. Financial circumstances could see him leave Paris and perhaps head to England this summer. Before that, and wearing the legendary Michel Platini’s No. 10 for Les Bleus, expect Mbappe to light up the World Cup.
Striker: Antoine Griezmann (France)
I didn’t set out to pick three France players but I have to select Griezmann rather than Ronaldo, Messi, Suarez, Neymar or even Timo Werner because I think he could well be the tournament’s top scorer, as he was at Euro 2016 when he scored twice as many goals as anyone else.
Griezmann has had a fine club season, is destined for the Nou Camp and has so much talent supporting him in the France team that chances aplenty will come his way. Yes, he may have to share them with Mbappe but I’d back Griezmann to finish with more goals to his name.
John Dykes is a presenter with FOX Sports Asia.