20 most important players heading into the 2018 World Cup


Toby Alderweireld
Toby Alderweireld

Toby Alderweireld’s future with Tottenham remains in doubt ahead of the summer transfer window, but it’s difficult to imagine Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez mimicking Mauricio Pochettino and choosing others ahead of the 29-year-old who may be the best center back in the Premier League when fully fit. The duo of Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen makes for the top defensive pairing at the World Cup assuming Alderweireld’s hamstring is at 100 percent.

Chicharito

Chicharito
Chicharito

During an interview with Univision this past March, Mexico striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez explained that he believes his country should aim to win the 2018 World Cup. For Mexico to achieve that goal, the “Little Pea” needs to excel as part of the XI. The 29-year-old who holds Mexico’s all-time record for tallies could join Major League Soccer in August. Imagine what it would mean for MLS if he does so as a world champion.

David De Gea
David De Gea

How does one choose a single player among Spain’s elite? Perhaps by beginning with a 27-year-old who may be the world’s best at his position. Goalkeeper David De Gea was named to the PFA Team of the Year a fourth time in five seasons, and he was recently voted Manchester United Player of the Year a record-breaking fourth time.

Christian Eriksen
Christian Eriksen

It’s easy to understand why Tottenham and Denmark attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen continues to be linked with massive clubs such as Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. The 26-year-old netted a hat trick in his country’s playoff versus the Republic of Ireland to secure a berth in the World Cup, and he was named to the PFA Team of the Year in April. Denmark will only go as far as Eriksen carries them.

Radamel Falcao
Radamel Falcao

The Colombian goal scorer will have a point to prove in Russia, and not only because he missed the 2014 World Cup due to a knee injury. Radamel Falcao failed to meet expectations during Premier League stops at Manchester United and Chelsea, but finding the back of the net multiple times in his first World Cup could silence critics and, potentially, secure a move from AS Monaco to AC Milan in the summer transfer window.

Son Heung-Min
Son Heung-Min

The 25-year-old Son Heung-Min has been a revelation wearing different hats at Tottenham Hotspur. He’s filled in for Harry Kane as a lone striker, played on the wing and even featured at fullback for Pochettino. South Korea needs Son to replicate his club form that has seen him score 12 league goals this season.

Gonzalo Higuain
Gonzalo Higuain

Argentina’s over-reliance on Lionel Messi will likely be a top storyline ahead of the World Cup. Gonzalo Higuain can make those headlines disappear, either as a super substitute or while playing alongside the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. The 30-year-old Juventus forward has 31 international goals and 69 caps.

Harry Kane
Harry Kane

England fans won’t make any jokes about Tottenham striker Harry Kane claiming goals if his tallies help guide England deep into the knockout stages of the World Cup. The 24-year-old repeatedly linked with Real Madrid, among other clubs, in transfer rumors already has two Premier League Golden Boot Awards on his résumé, but there are concerns he returned too early from an ankle ligament injury this spring. The Three Lions need Kane fully fit and in form to avoid another disappointing World Cup showing.

N’Golo Kante
N’Golo Kante

Paul Pogba is the more flashy of the two, but France may rely more on midfielder N’Golo Kante when facing the world’s best. The 27-year-old helped Leicester City shock the footballing world and win the 2015-16 Premier League title, and his importance to the Foxes was cemented after the club failed to adequately replace him following his departure for Chelsea in July 2016. Kante is a tank in the midfield who provides cover for the back line and also sparks counterattacks. His best could be to come.

Robert Lewandowski
Robert Lewandowski

Not expecting much from Poland during the 2018 World Cup? Talisman Robert Lewandowski may have something to say about that. Bayern Munich’s all-time leading foreign goal scorer also holds Poland’s national team record for tallies, and the 29-year-old could be a Manchester United target later this summer if he guides his nation to noteworthy results.

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi

La Liga titles. The Copa del Rey. The Champions League. The FIFA Club World Cup. The Ballon d’Or. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi has won all there is to win at the club level, but some will always see it as a personal failure if he doesn’t win the World Cup with Argentina before he retires from international football. Arguably the greatest player of his generation, if not the history of the sport, Messi turns 31 years old in June. He’s running out of opportunities to check the final blank box on his career stat sheet.

Luka Modric
Luka Modric

In December 2017, Marca readers selected midfielder Luka Modric for the Real Madrid all-time XI. That, in itself, says plenty about Croatia’s top playmaker and his abilities to read passing lanes and change a contest in an instant when the ball is at his feet in the final third. This may be the last time the 32-year-old represents his national team at a World Cup. Expect him to create magic at least once.

Neymar

Neymar
Neymar

One cannot discuss Brazil’s World Cup hopes without mentioning Neymar, the 26-year-old with world-class talent who enters the summer as the most expensive transfer in history and as a playmaker working to recover from a broken bone in his right foot.

Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil

On May 7, Germany and Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil tweeted he was “sure” he will recover from the back injury that sidelined him during the final week of the Premier League season. That’s good news for Germany, as the playmaker finished the 2014 World Cup with more successful final third passes (171) than anyone else, according to Alan Dawson of HITC. So long as he can pass fitness tests ahead of the tournament, the 29-year-old will be tasked with again feeding others ahead of him as Germany attempts to retain the crown.

James Rodriguez
James Rodriguez

Colombia forward James Rodriguez has endured quite the roller-coaster career the past four years. He won the Golden Boot as the top goal scorer of the 2014 World Cup before making a move to Real Madrid later that same summer. Real manager Zinedine Zidane routinely selected others ahead of James, leading to the 26-year-old to accept a loan stint with Bayern Munich ahead of the 2017-18 campaign. In Russia, the first-time Bundesliga winner can show Zizou and Real what they’ve been missing.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo

While speaking with ESPN Brazil in late April, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho suggested “nothing is impossible” as it pertains to Portugal’s hopes in the World Cup with Cristiano Ronaldo on the team. Portugal managed to defeat France 1-0 in the Euro 2016 Final despite the Real Madrid man missing the majority of the action after he suffered a knee injury in the opening half of play, but there’s little doubt the squad is better with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in the XI. Fitness may be a concern, though, as the 33-year-old is carrying an ankle injury ahead of the Champions League Final between Real and Liverpool.

Mohamed Salah
Mohamed Salah

Gone are the days of Mohamed Salah sitting on the Chelsea bench and watching the action. The elite goal scorer has been a revelation since joining Liverpool in June 2017, earning PFA Player of the Year honors and guiding the club to a Champions League Final showdown against Real Madrid. In October, his last-minute penalty secured a 2-1 victory for Egypt over Congo that propelled the Pharaohs to the World Cup. Salah will have several opportunities to grow his legend in Russia.

Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez

Uruguay forward Luis Suarez found redemption with Barcelona following a tumultuous stint at Liverpool. He’ll now look to do so for his country on the world’s biggest stage. Suarez bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during a 2014 World Cup contest, a crime that ended his tournament early and added to a lengthy list of controversial moments involving the striker. Can Suarez, undeniably one of the best finishers on the planet, keep his cool when it matters most?

Jan Vertonghen
Jan Vertonghen

A pair of Tottenham and Belgian defenders will look to make life difficult for opposing attackers throughout the World Cup. A mainstay in the middle for Pochettino’s side, Jan Vertonghen has enjoyed arguably his best campaign for the Premier League outfit ahead of the international tournament. Perhaps he’ll manage to notch a goal before displaying his Superman celebration while wearing the Belgium colors.

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20 most important players heading into the 2018 World Cup

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