In less than three weeks from now, the FIFA World Cup 2022 will kickstart, with the host nation Qatar taking on Ecuador in the opening fixture. Since the tournament is being organised in the middle of the football season, the jam-packed schedule has already ruled out many players due to injury. However, the World Cup will still comprise a coterie of both big names and emerging talents one should keep an eye on. We take a look at eight such players:
Neymar is striking all the right chords at a right time, having scored 10 goals and providing eight assists for the PSG in Ligue 1. Despite all the media circus surrounding his theatrics, Neymar is silently proving this season that he still remains the most thrilling, unpredictable footballer in his pomp, a perfect man to build your team around. Ever since he arrived on the scene, Brazil’s World Cup campaign has been centred around Neymar.
Brazil for World Cup🙏🏾— Candycrush🦋✨ (@kofo_candy) October 30, 2022
Neymar for Ballon d’Or 🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/B6JsC5gemU
It was his infamous back injury against Colombia that disrupted the seemingly perfect campaign for Brazil in 2014. Four years later, he wasn’t in the best shape and came directly to the tournament after a three-month-long absence due to a fractured foot. This time though, he looks in great shape and will be coming off the back of an incredibly productive season with his club. Usually deployed at left wing by PSG coach Christophe Galtier, Neymar will be playing in a slightly different role for his country. “Neymar’s role now is in that (inside) pocket just to the left, where he has greater space to construct, utilise his movement and create. Out wide is no longer for him,” said Brazil’s coach Tite.
At 19, Pedri has already cemented himself as the most indispensable member of both his club Barcelona and his country Spain. He continues to dominate the heart of midfield for his club with a vision and maturity that belies his age. Be it making a risky tackle to stop the counter, keeping position in a crowded space, making a line-breaking, incisive pass into the final third, or shooting from the distance – this baby-faced assassin has got all tricks in his bag, and he performs these with enviable ease.
Pedri has been a rare bright spot for Barcelona as they navigate through the gloomiest phase of their existence. Can he inspire Spain to defy the odds in Qatar? Well, a player alone never wins you the World Cup. Irrespective of how things unfold for Spain, watching Pedri run the midfield will be a pleasing experience. He is most likely to be paired alongside Gavi, who recently won the Kopa Trophy for the best young footballer of 2022.
Kevin de Bruyne
Kevin de Bruyne will be shouldering a massive burden to justify the credentials of Belgium’s golden generation. De Bruyne is widely hailed as the most technical midfielder in the world, and he will be the driving force for Roberto Martinez’s unit that has failed to live up to its hype and expectations. It also seems to be the last chance for the Manchester City midfielder to achieve international acclaim, as most of the players surrounding him are now on the wrong side of their 30s.
De Bruyne himself confessed that he is not sure whether he will be there for the next edition. He will continue to play in an advanced role, with Youri Tielemans and Alex Witsel sitting at the base of the midfield. The predatory vision of De Bruyne, coupled with an imperious link-play of Romelu Lukaku, will be the key for Belgium to split their opponent’s defence. The only thing that they will dearly miss is the blistering pace of Eden Hazard, whose career has reached an impasse at Real Madrid.
This is possibly the last chance for Lionel Messi to win the World Cup title that has eluded him so far. It also seems to be the best chance, given his team hasn’t lost a single match in the last two years, and recently won Copa America – their first title since 1993. At 35, Messi still remains the most thrilling presence on the field in a team that also boast Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in the attacking three.
PSG manager Christophe Galtier has utilised him in his usual deep-lying playmaking role, and it has reaped rich rewards for both Messi and the club. He places himself just outside the box in between both flanks – a position also known as “Zone 14” in analytic parlance. From here he uses his skill and guile to manipulate the defending space and find the marauding wingers – Neymar and Mbappe – on either side of him. He already has 10 assists to his name this season. At Argentina, Messi will be joined by the relentless Lautaro Martinez and the veteran Angel di Maria in the attacking unit.
When England takes on the United States of America on 26 November, all eyes will be on Christian Pulisic, the most recognisable American footballer with a point to prove. Pulisic plays for the English club Chelsea, where he was a bench warmer for most of the time under Thomas Tuchel’s reign. The opportunities have come more frequently under the new coach Graham Potter, but certainly not as much as he would have liked.
The popular perception among English pundits is that Pulisic lacks the speed and ruthlessness to succeed in Premier League. However, this is far from the truth. For a brief phase under Frank Lampard’s era, Pulisic was the most lively attacker of the side before injury halted his progress. He hasn’t got many opportunities since then, as the club also brought in Timo Werner and Kavi Havertz. He has all toolsets in his arsenal, but just seems to be low on confidence. The World Cup would be a great occasion to turn sceptics into believers.
For France to successfully defend their World Cup title, a lot will depend on how Kylian Mbappe fares in the tournament. At the club level, Mbappe’s form has been nothing short of extraordinary, having scored 19 times in 20 appearances. But for France, he will not have the privilege of sharing the attacking space with the likes of Messi and Neymar.
Earlier this year, Mbappe confessed how the extra freedom that he enjoys for the national team brings the best out of him. He even took a dig at the PSG hierarchy for restricting his movement and freedom by deploying him on the flank. Mbappe was involved in a tussle with his French soccer federation over the image rights issue. Many accused him of disrupting France’s preparation just ahead of the World. Mbappe will be itching to silence the critics with another brilliant campaign. But his efficacy will surely take a hit in the absence of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba.
When Lisandro Martinez says he will “go to war” for Lionel Messi, he means it. He is a warrior in every possible scope of this word. He has already conquered the most important fight of his life – the fight with his own body. When Martinez arrived at Manchester United, the English pundits – a gift that keeps on giving – wrote him off even before his first match. Why? Because Martinez’s diminutive stature will make him easy fodder for a physically dominating striker. What transpired after that is a stark contrast to the expectation or the lack of it.
#SelecciónMayor Lisandro Martínez, con una lesión muscular en isquiotibiales de su pierna izquierda y Lautaro Martínez, positivo de Covid 19, serán baja para esta doble fecha de eliminatorias. pic.twitter.com/tZZ4bDah9V— Selección Argentina 🇦🇷 (@Argentina) March 21, 2022
Martinez is small but smart, and he makes up for his short stature with incredible anticipation, great positioning sense, and a well-timed tackle to disrupt the attack. In a Manchester United squad with a host of experienced defenders, it is Martinez who marshalls the defence, makes the last-ditch tackle, appreciates his colleagues, and regularly gets into the scuffle. He is one defender that everyone should watch out for in this World Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo is no longer the first-choice starter for the club but he still remains the centre of attraction in Portugal. His finishing prowess is on the wane, but he can still conjure up a trick out of nowhere in crux situations. Since their agonising semi-final loss to Spain in 2006, Portugal has failed to advance beyond the Round of 16.
But this time they definitely have a much better team, and they advance to the deep end of the World Cup. While it may be true that the strongest Portuguese XI will be the one devoid of Ronaldo, Fernando Santos is likely to take this unpopular decision. The presence of star players like Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Ruben Neves, and Rafael Leao means that Ronaldo will not have to carry all the burden by himself.
Lead Image: Argentina/Twitter