Of the many things the World Cup is - most important footballing competition in the world, shameless money-making exercise, media circus - it is also the greatest concentration of personal and collective pressure in the world.
Granted, the pressure is only manifest in the hope of winning football matches, and ultimately a golden trophy. But it is a testament to the universality of the sport that the whole world cares.
Pressure such as this does one very profound thing better than anything else - it separates the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the kind of player who can smash in a hat-trick against Stoke on a rainy Tuesday in February, from the kind of player who feigns an injury in the warm-up and sits on the bench in a sleeping bag.
Great players feed off pressure - they lap it up. And the players who’ve responded best to the pressure of this World Cup might not be the ones you expected.
So without further ado here, in our opinion, are the best performers of the 2014 World Cup… so far.
Guillermo Ochoa / Tim Howard
We couldn’t single out just one goalkeeper in our top six, so we’ve bunged two into one. Tim Howard produced perhaps the single greatest goalkeeping performance in World Cup history against Belgium producing no less than 16 saves, a World Cup record. Prior to that Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s keeper inspired a raft of memes following some remarkable reaction saves against Brazil and the Netherlands.
Already the subject of a big money move to Monaco, it is probably fair to say few people heard of the Colombian before this World Cup. His performances have earned him the player of the tournament tag, with news breaking during the tournament that Manchester United passed on the opportunity to buy JRod for a mere $9m. With five goals and two assists, Rodriguez has shown not just an eye for goal but the kind of teamwork and dancing feet that reminds us of a young Paul Scholes.
Sure the French winger is so small he could feasibly come as a free present in your breakfast cereal but for us he has been France’s standout player. Many may focus on the, yes, extreme potential of Paul Pogba, but he’s yet to deliver on it. Valbeuna is a different kettle of fish. At 29 he’s experienced, but for much of his footballing career he seemed a little like a player without a role. Clearly gifted, but difficult to find a position for, it is as a clever winger that he has made his name. With the ability to deliver pin point crosses, or cut inside and offer up defence splitting through balls, he is the perfect foil to the powerful and pacy modern centre forward.
Speaking of powerful and pacey modern centre forwards, they come no more pacey or powerful than Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku. Dropped for Belgium’s game against the US owing to off-field issues, he proved his mettle setting up the winner and scoring himself. His failure to impact Belgium’s previous games appeared more to with the service he was receiving than his efforts. We’re tipping him to be the difference against Argentina.
The Dutch winger has only been used in fits and starts by Louis van Gaal, but what we’ve seen of the 20-year-old we’ve liked a lot. The PSV left winger has pace and skill to burn - if not much of a left foot (seriously, if there’s one drawback to this lad it’s that he’s about as one-footed as you’re ever likely to see, his left foot is a complete swinger). The type of winger who plays on the opposite wing and cuts in, he might eventually end up on the right wing or up front.
Juan Guillermo Cuadrado
While everyone has been focusing on the exploits of James Rodriguez we’ve been mightily impressed with the direct running and subtle passing of Cuadrado. And so, word has it, have been Manchester United which has tabled a $60m offer for the Fiorentina player. He’s provided much of Colombia’s go-forward gusto, combining with his forwards with both long, arcing crosses and deft passes. His capacity to break down the pitch and then have the poise to offer up delicate passes makes him one of his country’s most potent attacking forces.
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