10 potential breakout stars of World Cup 2018 we can't wait to see
Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
His name could be impossible for many to pronounce properly, but commentators all over the world should beware: Jahanbakhsh is on his way to becoming a major star. The 'Iranian Ronaldo' has just made history by becoming the first Asian top scorer ever in a Western European league, having netted 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie. He was also the third-best assister in Holland with 12, so contributed directly to 33 goals in 33 matches.
Not bad for a winger, and comparisons to Mohamed Salah would be natural – even if Jahanbakhsh is nicknamed after Real Madrid's superstar attacker. He is lightning quick, blessed with supreme dribbling skills and confidence, but also unselfish too. Jahanbakhsh has it all. He's only 24 but has World Cup experience to his name, having taken part in the 2014 tournament as a substitute. Expect him to shine brightly in Russia.
Roman Zobnin (Russia)
There's general pessimism among home fans, as Russia seemingly approach the tournament in disarray, but this could be the perfect chance for a bunch of promising young midfielders to prove themselves. Zobnin is not a household name outside of his country by any means, but his progress since joining Spartak Moscow from neighbours Dynamo in the summer of 2016 has been outstanding.
Versatile, dedicated, tactically disciplined and a quick learner, the midfielder was a revelation for the team that sensationally won the championship title in 2017 – the first time Spartak had done so in 16 years. A knee ligament injury cruelly ruled him out of the Confederations Cup and limited his Champions League action, but the 24-year-old is back to full fitness now. He could be crucial wherever Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov needs him.
Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)
Would Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez be bold enough to gamble on Torreira in Russia? The diminutive 22-year-old had a brilliant season for Sampdoria, emerging as one of the best midfielders in Serie A for tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries. His distribution is excellent and he can shoot from distance: Torreira scored four goals in 2017/18, including one fine strike in a 3-2 win over Juventus.
He's only made two substitute appearances for Uruguay this year and didn't take part in the qualifiers, but his rise has been fast and he could blossom if given responsibility in Russia. Torreira was once compared to Marco Verratti during his days at Pescara, and he'd love the opportunity to shine in the absence of Italy's midfield maestro.
Piotr Zielinski (Poland)
Outgoing Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri notoriously doesn't like to rotate his lineup, but Zielinski nevertheless forced himself into consideration over the last two seasons, and played in place of captain Marek Hamsik on numerous occasions. The 24-year-old Pole is a marvellous midfielder who combines delicate touches and passing ability with remarkable stamina. Sarri knows that better than anyone, since he nurtured Zielinski at Empoli back in 2014/15.
He was a bench-warmer at Euro 2016, but the youngster became a key figure during Poland's World Cup qualifiers. He should now be their leader in midfield, particularly as Grzegorz Krychowiak is so desperately out of form following his disastrous spell at West Brom. If Poland go far, expect Zielinski to be one of the brightest talents of the tournament.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
It's incredible that Serbia coach Slavoljub Muslin decided to ignore the towering Lazio midfielder during World Cup qualification – and that was one of the major reasons for his controversial dismissal. Now that the Serbs have the inexperienced Mladen Krstajic on the bench, SMS – as the player is affectionately known – will be an undisputed starter in Russia, and rightly so.
His Serie A season was outstanding; not only because he scored 11 goals, but mostly thanks to his all-around contributions. Physically strong and brilliant in the air, Milinkovic-Savic is also elegant in possession, sets the tempo and boasts a delightful range of through-balls. Top clubs including Real Madrid and Barcelona are rumoured to be interested, and his price will go even higher if he performs in Russia.