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Ranked! The 10 breakout stars of the 2018 World Cup

From Senegal’s teenage record-breaker to Russia’s Chelsea target via an unlikely South Korean, Jon O’Brien profiles the players who’ve seriously enhanced their reputation this summer

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The sheer global reach of today’s game means it’s almost impossible for someone to make that journey from obscurity to international stardom within a single World Cup. But, although these 10 players weren’t complete unknowns before Russia 2018, their performances in the competition have elevated their careers to another level.

10. Viktor Claesson (Sweden)

Finally free of the albatross that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden have proved that strong teamwork can be more valuable than an egotistical superstar, progressing further than they have in any World Cup since a third-place finish in 1994. Yet there have still been several impressive individual performers, including the previously unremarkable Viktor Claesson.

Having enjoyed a glorious first season with Russian Premier League side Krasnodar, the 26-year-old winger has thrived on familiar turf – earning a penalty against South Korea, setting up two goals and rivalling Emil Forsberg as Sweden’s most creative force. 

9. Cho Hyun-woo (South Korea)

Cho Hyun-woo spent most of South Korea’s qualifying campaign as third-choice keeper, but his impressive form for K League side Daegu inspired boss Shin Tae-yong to twice promote him. The 26-year-old repaid that faith with a promising opening display against Sweden, making an incredible point-blank reflex save to deny Marcus Berg.

However it was his superb efforts in South Korea’s historic 2-0 win over Germany that turned him into a cult hero, denying the holders a goal on six separate occasions. The humble Cho admits he’s still got much to learn about the game, but his dreams of playing in Europe may now be realised much earlier than he expected.  

8. Moussa Wague (Senegal)

Cruelly denied the chance to further showcase his talents by the fair play rule which saw off Senegal, Moussa Wague has been one of the few positives to emerge from the poor showings of African teams at this World Cup. The 19-year-old became the continent’s youngest-ever World Cup scorer with his blistering strike against Japan, which was also his first international goal.

The right-back was just as lively up and down the flank against Poland and Colombia, forging an impressive partnership with fellow winger Ismaila Sarr to provide Senegal’s main threat. Currently plying his trade with Belgian side Eupen, Wague will now be on the radar of numerous European heavyweights.  

7. Rodrigo Bentancur (Uruguay)

Arsenal may well be rueing their failure to sign Rodrigo Bentancur last summer judging by the Uruguayan’s form in Russia. The tenacious midfielder, who instead moved from Boca Juniors to Juventus, completed more passes than any other played aged 23 or under in the group stage.

He also controlled the South Americans’ trickier than anticipated 1-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia, guided them to a 3-0 victory against hosts Russia (on his 21st birthday, no less) and provided the perfect pass for Edinson Cavani’s second-round winner against Portugal.

Bentancur started just five times for the Serie A giants last season, but can expect to feature far more often as they aim for an eighth consecutive league title next season.

6. Benjamin Pavard (France)

Benjamin Pavard was deemed to have taken a step back when he moved from regular Champions League qualifiers Lille to second-tier Stuttgart in 2016. But having helped steer the fallen giants back into the Bundesliga, he’s now being hailed as the new Lilian Thuram.

In fact, with his exquisite volley against Argentina – a strong contender for goal of the tournament – the 22-year-old became the first French defender to score in a World Cup since Thuram back in 1998 (although he's since been joined by Raphael Varane). That magical strike may have grabbed the headlines, but it’s Pavard’s defensive versatility – the centre-back has adapted brilliantly as cover for injured right-back Djibril Sidibe – that’s attracted the attention of the all-conquering Bayern Munich.