By now, a number of players have come to the fore and earmarked themselves as potential starts of the 2018 World Cup.
16 teams have fallen by the wayside after an eventful group stage, which counted defending champions Germany among the fallen. Elsewhere, shocks were in precious short supply as most of the biggest hitters dragged themselves kicking and screaming (and even with an alleged mutiny in Argentina’s case) into the last sixteen.
But with three matches down, which players have been standing head and shoulders above the rest?
Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark). In a side that has been struggling up front in this tournament, organisation at the back has been crucial for Denmark’s progress to the last 16, and Schmeichel has been a huge part of that. The Leicester keeper has conceded just once in three matches – a penalty against Australia – and while he can’t take much credit for Christian Cueva’s skied effort for Peru, it added to the clean sheet stats.
Yerry Mina (Colombia). Can be forgiven for the wobbler against Japan, as the entire team folded in that mess. Since then, the Barcelona defender has settled into his role at the back and put in some fine performances. Mina will be tested against Harry Kane and England next – but having kept Robert Lewandowski quiet, the will be confident of repeating the trick.
Diego Godin (Uruguay). Uruguay’s defence has been impenetrable so far, to the point where they haven’t even conceded a contentious, VAR-fueled penalty yet. G0din has been at the forefront of that, reminding world football that he remains one of the best central defenders in the game. Beyond his own towering displays, he has been imparting his wisdom on to Jose Gimenez for both club and country.
Andreas Granqvist (Sweden). Sweden’s progress thus far has been down to the very strengths that got them to Russia in the first place – specifically, a closely knit group each doing their functional job masterfully. Granqvist, the veteran central defender, has been leading by example – not just for his two penalty goals, but also the performances that have led to two clean sheets from three games.
Luka Modric (Croatia). The creative fulcrum of what is a technically gifted Croatia side. Modric has been at his imperious best in Russia this summer, and the manner in which he toyed with, and ultimately disposed of, Argentina in the 3-0 victory was a work of art. The quiet brilliance by which he conducts his business is masterful and could be the catalyst for a memorable tournament for Croatia.
Aleksandr Golovin (Russia). The star of this Russian team so far, Golovin made his presence felt with a goal and two assists in the hosts’ 5-0 crushing of Saudi Arabia in their first match. The reported Chelsea target maintained his fine form against Egypt and, having been rested against Uruguay, will be raring to go against Spain.
Philippe Coutinho (Brazil). Neymar has long been the poster boy of this Brazil team, but Philippe Coutinho has had a larger hand in their goals so far. The Barcelona playmaker has been in sparkling form in midfield for the South American giants, scoring twice and laying on a further assist in what has been a brilliantly productive campaign so far for the former Liverpool man.
Eden Hazard (Belgium). The Belgian playmaker has been in fine form as one of the side’s front three, putting in brilliant shifts against Panama and Tunisia and playing a key role in the comprehensive victories against both. With two goals and an assist so far, the Chelsea man is in a creative mood and will be eager to build on that against Japan and beyond.
Romelu Lukaku (Belgium). Belgium’s progress so far has been built on a foundation of strong individual performances, and Lukaku’s clinical finishing has been a major part in that. The Man United striker has been deadly when chances have come his way, scoring four goals from just five shots on goal over the course of his two games so far.
Harry Kane (England). Kane has hit the ground running at this World Cup, matching a 1958 record set by Just Fontaine by scoring five goals in the group stages. The Tottenham striker has been in fantastic form in Russia, but the pressure will now be on him to deliver in the last 16 clash against Colombia as the alternatives shown against Belgium were not pretty.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). Started the tournament in blistering fashion with a hat-trick against Spain, and picked up in that straight away by posting what transpired to be the winner just minutes into the next match against Morocco. His influence in this Portugal team is unwavering, but his performance against Iran wasn’t up to the standard he has set himself (and that’s without even mentioning the missed penalty). Will need to be in top form against a strong Uruguayan defence.