Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup: The 10 under-the-radar names to know heading into this summer's tournament
Which one of these 10 players will have a breakout summer in Russia?
The 2018 FIFA World Cup is right around the corner and it promises to deliver new household names for years to come. Last time around in Brazil, we saw the rise of James Rodriguez the superstar. James was at Monaco at the time, and because of his stunning performance, leading Colombia to the quarterfinals and winning the Golden Boot award, the youngster landed a deal with Real Madrid before eventually joining Bayern Munich. France's Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane and Memphis Depay of the Netherlands were also other notable players to leave their mark four years ago.
As we approach the biggest soccer party on the planet in Russia on June 14, who will be the next crop of under-the-radar names to shine? Let's take a look at 10 viable candidates (in no particular order) for a breakout summer. The list built below does not include any restrictions in age and is focused more on playmakers. You won't find any goalkeepers or defenders here. If this list was built before the start of the 2017-18 club soccer season, a guy like Mohamed Salah would've been included. Because he's had a season for the ages and is now in the conversation with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the best players in the world, Salah is left off this list.
Without further ado, here are your breakout candidates:
Gabriel Jesus, 21, Brazil
I was in between featuring the Manchester City forward and Roberto Firmino here. What broke the draw was hearing Brazil manager Tite declare Gabriel Jesus the front-runner for the starting job over Firmino heading into training camp for the World Cup. Not to mention, Firmino will be a little busy with Liverpool in the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Kiev in late May.
Jesus is a rising star many Brazilian fans have watched grow up before their eyes. He led Palmeiras to Brazilian league and cup titles before helping the U-23 national team win its first-ever gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics and eventually earning a move to Manchester City, this season's Premier League champions. Jesus is the hottest Brazilian prospect not named Neymar and has the potential to put together a breakout World Cup campaign, especially playing up top at center forward with Neymar feeding him passes down the left wing. He finished first in the team and second overall in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying scoring list with seven goals. Don't be surprised if he comes away with the Golden Boot award when it's all said and done in Russia.
Timo Werner, 22, Germany
The Red Bull Leipzig forward is well ahead of his time and is rapidly developing as one of the most prolific German scorers. Werner made his international debut in March of 2017 and is part of the new wave of fresh, young talent for Germany. He was one of three German players (Leon Goretzka and Lars Stindl) to finish as top goalscorers during last year's Confederations Cup. He is coming off a 34-goal campaign for RB Leipzig, including debuting in the European stage, scoring three goals in six Champions League appearances. Werner already has seven goals in 12 national team appearances. Look for coach Joachim Low to slot the youngster up top, with Leroy Sane on the left wing, Mesut Ozil at center mid and Thomas Muller on the right. Werner should have plenty of goal-scoring chances behind a healthy mix of seasoned veterans and young up-and-comers on the roster, especially if Germany reaches the World Cup final, as many expect.
Paulo Dybala, 25, Argentina
Lionel Messi deserves all the praise in the world for his accomplishments, and if this list wasn't limited to under-the-radar names he'd obviously be featured. The World Cup title is the missing piece of the puzzle for Messi, and the young Juventus forward could be the one to form a dynamic tandem to help lead Argentina to glory. Wouldn't that be something? The problem is they play the same position, which makes it difficult for two to feature together regularly on the national team. Even when Messi wasn't fit to play in friendlies against Italy and Spain in late March, Dybala was not called up. In mid-May, Dybala was included in the provisional World Cup roster. It will be up to Jorge Sampaoli to unlock Dybala's potential and a lineup that features his two best players this summer. If that happens, we may see Dybala score his first career international goal in Russia.
Marco Asensio, 22, Spain
The attacking midfielder out of Real Madrid is one of the many youngsters that have a chance to be the face of the Spanish national team for years to come. Asensio can be used on both flanks, but for Spain's U-21 team, he found himself deployed on the left side of the attack with the green light to roam and search for space in other parts of the field so that he can test the keeper from deep.
For now, we should expect manager Julen Lopetegui to use the budding star the same way in Spain's front three, with Diego Costa in the middle and his club partner Isco on the right. Asensio is still searching for his first goal with La Furia Roja, and he may be able to do just that at the biggest stage in Russia.
Bernardo Silva, 23, Portugal
You're obviously going to have your eyeballs glued to Cristiano Ronaldo every time Portugal plays this summer in Russia, but don't sleep on the young Manchester City midfielder. It'll be Silva who will be in charge of softening the load with his fancy footwork and dishing out great left-footed passes for Ronaldo.
Silva played an important role on Portugal's second-place finish in the U-21 Euros in 2015 where he was named in the starting 11 of the tourney. He's been on and off the senior squad since 2015, scoring just twice in 23 appearances. Silva has the upside of eventually becoming a traditional No. 10, but under manager Fernando Santos, he'll likely be slotted as the right midfielder in a 4-4-2 or on any side up in the front three under a different formation. Silva has worked under Pep Guardiola at City, one of the greatest Premier League sides we've ever seen, which has made him a better player and that can rub off on his Portuguese colleagues.
N'Golo Kante, 27, France
N'Golo Kante might just be the best central defensive midfielder on the planet you may have not heard of. Guys like Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe will receive all the praise this summer, but don't forget about the French sheriff in the middle. Not many players can read the game, cover as much ground and disrupt build-ups from opponents like Kante. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time to win the ball from his opponents. He's risen to prominence during the 2015-16 season at Leicester City when the Foxes won the Premier League before moving to Chelsea where he was also crowned a champion. Look for French manager Didier Deschamps to slot him as the center defensive mid, with Blaise Matuidi on his left and the colorful-haired Pogba on the right building up plays for, Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele and Griezmann. Don't be surprised if Kante becomes France's not-so-flashy MVP this summer.
Dele Alli, 22, England
The Tottenham midfielder was not featured in England's two friendlies back in late March, and although he's a strong contender to start in the World Cup, there are whispers that he could start the tournament on the bench. If that's the case, don't be surprised if the 22-year-old youngster leaves his mark as a super sub early on and eventually forces his way back into the starting lineup to help England climb out of a tricky group that features group favorites Belgium, Tunisia and first-time participants Panama. It will be interesting to see how Alli will fit in Gareth Southgate's picture. My guess is that it'll depend on how effective Jesse Lingard can be in the attacking third, and if that's the case, then I like my chances with Alli.
Sadio Mane, 26, Senegal
The Liverpool forward has the potential of powering the Lions of Teranga into the knockout stage if he catches fire the way he does on a consistent basis for his club. He's coming off an exceptional club campaign where he formed one of the most dangerous scoring tridents since the days of Messi, Suarez and Neymar at Barcelona. Together with Roberto Firmino and the incredible Mohamed Salah, the three attackers teamed up for 57 goals and 32 assists, with the Senegalese involved in 17 goals (seven assists and 10 goals). Manager Aliou Cisse will slot the speedster on the left wing, with Diafra Sakho up top and M'Baye Niang on the right. Look for Mane to control the pace and cause chaos to the back lines of Japan, Colombia and Poland. If he can take over and find the net in the opener against Poland -- the highest-ranked team in the group, according to FIFA -- and set the tempo right off the bat in Russia, don't be surprised with Senegal makes a surprise run into the knockout stage.
Michy Batshuayi, 24, Belgium
We're arguably witnessing the golden generation of soccer in Belgium and Roberto Martinez's side is stockpiled with talent, which makes the Batsman a tricky pick here, considering he's fighting Romelu Lukaku for playing time up top or on the left and is working back from an ankle injury that prematurely ended his club season with Borussia Dortmund. Batshuayi has six goals in 12 international appearances and, if healthy, can make an enormous difference on a team that's favored to make a deep run in the tournament. Big Rom is great up top, but he's not always a guarantee to log in 90 minutes every time he's out there. Look for Bats to turn some heads and possibly fight for more playing time if he can work his way back into fitness in time for the tournament.
Heung-min Son, 25, South Korea
The talented and versatile Tottenham attacker has been a regular fixture on the South Korean roster since 2013. Son made his World Cup debut in Brazil four years ago at the age of 21, logging 247 minutes over a span of three games and scoring in his second game of the tournament against Algeria.
South Korea faces a tall task of finishing in the top-two in a group that features defending World Cup champs Germany, Mexico and Sweden. South Korea is a defensive-oriented team, and if it manages to reach the knockout stage, it'll be because of Son's incredible speed, his knack for finding open spaces and technically-demanding footwork. Don't be surprised if Son becomes one of the biggest names to come out of this World Cup.
Honorable mention: Leroy Sane, 22, Germany midfielder; Granit Xhaka, 25, Switzerland midfielder; Kelechi Iheanacho, 21, Nigeria forward; Matias Vecino, 26, Uruguay; Marcus Rashford, 20, England; Roberto Firmino, 26, Brazil
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