This is my personal selection of the ten players you should most keep an eye on at the 2014 Fifa World Cup in Brazil. The action gets under-way tomorrow. How many of these guys will show their true potential on the big stage?
Alexis Sanchez (Chile and Barcelona)
Chile are an outside bet to surprise a few people, as they often do at World Cups. Being in their own conditions will certainly help. England found out at Wembley just how good they can be, as they played the Three Lions off the park. Sanchez is absolutely key to their chances. He is a player who can play all across the front line from right to left. He has pace, tricks and 22 goals in 67 appearances for his country. That tells you how valuable he is. We are all fortunate to have this very exiting player to watch.
Lionel Messi (Argentina and Barcelona)
The diminutive attacker has struggled for many years to perform at international level, away from the comfort blanket of Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta. Argentina don’t provide him with quite the same support that he is afforded at Barca. While his two team-mates have won everything you can win with Spain without him, and been key parts of that success, Messi has underperformed massively in international tournaments. However, he did produce during qualifying and led Argentina to a first place finish. He is obviously an outstanding player, but he will need to do it for his country on the big stage. Until he does that, he will always be in the shadow of Diego Maradona.
Mario Gotze (Germany and Bayern Munich)
Germany – as they are at most World Cups – will be favoured to make the latter stages of the tournament. If that is to happen, the 22 year old number 10 will be a big part of it with Germany’s lack of elite centre forwards. They only have Miroslav Klose. He obviously has incredible pedigree – with 69 international goals and great previous tournament performances – but he is 36 years old. That may lead to Gotze playing as a false 9 as the Spanish called it. That is due to the rich array of attacking midfield options at the disposal of coach Joachim Leow, such as: Ozil, Kroos, Schurrle, Muller and Draxler. His bobbing and weaving, dribbling ability and low centre of gravity make him immensely dangerous and a potential star of the show.
Portugal stuttered into this year’s tournament, needing a two legged play-off against Sweden to get to Brazil. Nonetheless, never fear. Ronaldo scored four goals over the two games, including a stunning hat trick in Sweden during the second leg. If he can carry his country to the late stages of the tournament, he is a possible Player of the Tournament contender. Ronaldo is an astonishing athletic specimen with incredible aerial ability, a powerful strike from either foot and searing pace. He has had some injury concerns heading in, but if fit, he should shine as the best player in the world by far.
Eden Hazard (Belgium and Chelsea)
Belgium are a team well worthy of their position as an outside bet from the European nations. If they adapt to the conditions sufficiently enough, they have an outstanding pool of talent in every position from back to front. However, they will need their talisman, their wing wizard at his best. If they are to push the very best teams and make some waves in Brazil, Hazard will need to be on top form.
Andrea Pirlo (Italy and Juventus)
The great Italian is to retire international football after the 2014 tournament, so sit back and watch a true great for the last time in the old Italian blue. Despite being 35 years old, he still runs the show for both Italy and Juventus. The Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli builds the whole team around him. He plays in front of the back line and starts attacks from his deep lying position like a quarter-back in the NFL. His passing range is incredible, incisive and deadly accurate. England will need to stop him if they are to have any success against the Italians.
James Rodriguez (Colombia and AS Monaco)
Colombia are a very interesting team, particularly in this tournament as it’s in South America. During qualifying, they finished second behind Argentina. Already at the young age of 22, Rodriguez is a star player. He thrives in coach Jose Peckerman’s fluent style of play, has great dribbling ability, immense technical ability and is comfortable wide and drifting inside. Rodriguez also isn’t afraid to put in a shift for his team.
He has injury concerns over his knee going in but it would be stupid to discount Suarez. Uruguay are one of my favourites to win the World Cup. They possess lots of quality but they will need their talisman, who scored 11 in 16 during qualifying, if they are to achieve their potential. Suarez has a unique ability to beat a man in a tight area and also works expectationally hard for the cause. He can make something out of absolutely nothing and is a clear contender for Player of the Tournament.
Neymar (Brazil and Barcelona)
Brazil must be able to shoulder the expectations of millions this summer as they go in search of a sixth triumph. They won the 2013 Confederations Cup in convincing fashion, with Neymar named Player of the Tournament. The youngster operates in a free role from the left hand side, in coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s system. He displays an abundance of pace, quick feet and a keen eye for goal. Unlike most players of his generation, he has good passing ability too. He is certainly one to watch and should entertain us all at the very least.
Arjen Robben (Netherlands and Bayern Munich)
The Dutch flew through qualifying with 9 wins and a draw from 10 games. Coach Louis Van Gaal has changed the style of play from incumbent Bert Van Marwijk’s unattractive defensive football to a fluent, quick, possession dominated style. His philosophy sees a lot of young talents such as Bruno Martins Indi, Daley Blind, Jordy Clasie and others being allowed to express their ability. However, Robben – along with Robin Van Persie – will need to produce if the Dutch are to go deep in the competition. The wide-man has searing pace and direct running, and that will be key. His decision making has improved as he has age. He is now a deadly finisher and has a much improved work ethic.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the 2014 World Cup!