Youngsters to watch
One of the best things about the World Cup is the chance for lesser-known talents to introduce themselves to the football public on the biggest stage of all. With Russia 2018 now just days away, we’ve picked out 10 potential breakout stars who could make a major impact on the tournament…
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. However, that certainly can't be said of versatile midfielder Claesson, who’s 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 this summer.
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 are natural – even if Jahanbakhsh is nicknamed after Real Madrid's superstar attacker.
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. Signed from Sion in summer 2017, Konaté contributed 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 linking up with Liverpool winger Sadio Mané.
Pione Sisto (Denmark)
The first player of Sudanese origin to play at a World Cup, Sisto should 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.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)
It's remarkable that former Serbia manager Slavoljub Muslin ignored the Lazio midfielder during World Cup qualification, which was one of the major reasons for his controversial dismissal. Now that the Serbs have the inexperienced Mladen Krstajic in the dugout, Milinkovic-Savic is a guaranteed starter.
His Serie A season was outstanding; not just because he scored 11 goals, but mostly thanks to his all-around contributions. Physically strong and tremendous in the air, Milinkovic-Savic is also elegant in possession and a brilliant passer.
Lucas Torreira (Uruguay)
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 also excellent and he can shoot from distance: Torreira scored four goals in 2017-18, including a 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.
Miguel Trauco (Peru)
Most of Peru’s squad 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 departing for Flamengo in 2017, he performed brilliantly at the 2016 Copa America, including in a famous 1-0 victory over Brazil. He's been an important member of the national team ever since and is bound to receive some interesting offers if he performs well in Russia.
Piotr Zielinski (Poland)
Outgoing Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri doesn't like to rotate his line-up, but Zielinski nevertheless forced himself into consideration over the last two seasons. The 24-year-old Pole is a marvellous midfielder who combines delicate touches and passing ability with remarkable stamina.
He was a bench-warmer at Euro 2016, but the youngster became a key figure during World Cup qualification. 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.
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Having dragged Ajax to the 2017 Europa League final, the skilful and visionary playmaker topped last season’s Eredivisie charts with 15 assists, while also scoring nine goals and generally running the show for the Amsterdammers. But that seems to be it: he has said "I need a new challenge," and looks set to leave this summer.
The Dutch-born 25-year-old represented his nation of birth at under-21 level, but eventually chose Morocco. They're going to Russia, and the Dutch aren't; Ziyech himself will soon be moving on, with Inter and Roma heading the queue.
Roman Zobnin (Russia)
Zobnin isn’t a household name outside of his home country, 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 in time for the World Cup.
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