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.
Moussa Konaté (Senegal)
Amiens provided one of the most delightful stories in Ligue 1 last season, comfortably staying up after winning their first ever promotion to the top flight in 2017. Konaté played a significant part. Signed from Sion in summer 2017, the Senegalese scored 13 goals – more than a third of his team's total – including a majestic brace in a 2-2 draw against PSG.
That easily makes him the most in-form penalty area predator for his country, and he could flourish when getting quality service from the Liverpool winger Sadio Mané. The 25-year-old Konaté had a strange career route that started in Israel, then had a spell at Krasnodar, which means he is familiar with playing in Russia.
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
It's strange that Ziyech is still playing for Ajax after leading them to the Europa League final in 2017. The skilful and visionary playmaker could try his luck elsewhere after topping the Eredivisie with 15 assists, scoring nine goals, taking free-kicks and generally running the show for the Amsterdammers this season.
The 25-year-old was born in Holland and represented them at the under-21 level, but eventually chose Morocco because his chances in the senior squad seemed to be limited. The Dutch are missing this tournament, though, while Ziyech is picked out as a rising star. A lot will depend on him if the Atlas Lions are to surprise Spain and Portugal in Group B.
Pione Sisto (Denmark)
The first player of Sudanese origin to play at a World Cup, Sisto should easily be a favourite with the neutrals thanks to his pace, trickery and boldness. He loves the big occasion as well, having scored twice against Manchester United in the Europa League in 2016.
The winger then moved from Midtjylland to Celta Vigo and gained valuable experience in La Liga, finding the net against his favourite team, Barcelona. The 23-year-old has a good understanding with Christian Eriksen and provided two assists when Denmark thrashed Ireland 5-1 in the World Cup qualifying play-offs. He's expected to be a major source of creativity in Russia.
Viktor Claesson (Sweden)
Sweden approach this World Cup in a cautious mood because most of their players, including star playmaker Emil Forsberg, are in poor form. That certainly can't be said of their versatile goalscoring midfielder Claesson, though, who has enjoyed a marvellous season for Krasnodar in netting 10 league goals and providing solid all-around performances.
The 26-year-old was magnificent in a couple of historic fixtures against Italy, as the Swedes kept two clean sheets in the World Cup qualifying play-offs. His energy, stamina and powerful shooting ability will be extremely useful in the summer, and playing his domestic football in Russia can only help him feel comfortable.
Miguel Trauco (Peru)
Most of the Peruvian player ply their trade in South America, and are therefore somewhat unknown to European fans. Trauco, the energetic, attack-minded left-back, could be a revelation in Russia thanks to his contributions up and down the wing.
One of the top assist-providers in the Peruvian league before leaving for Flamengo in 2017, he performed brilliantly at the 2016 Copa America, and played his part in Peru's famous 1-0 win over Brazil. He's been a key player for the national team ever since, and the 25-year-old is bound to get some interesting offers if he fulfils his potential in Russia.
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