Mohamed Salah (Egypt)
Nobody envisaged the truly phenomenal season former Roma and Chelsea striker Mohamed Salah would enjoy after joining Liverpool last summer. Goals flooded in, records were broken and awards reigned down, among them Premier League Player of the Year, PFA Player’s Player and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year honors.
His sublime performance in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Roma laid the foundation for the Reds’ first appearance in 11 years in the final. Just like the crucial role he has played in Liverpool’s resurgence, the entire Egyptian nation will hope that Salah can do the same for his national team in Russia just as he did in their qualifying campaign. Keep an eye on his lethal left foot.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
At 33 years of age, the Real Madrid talisman knows this is his final shot at World Cup glory. But for now at least, his legs show no sign of aging, particularly when it matters most. With 15 goals and three assists in this year’s Champions League, he averaged one goal every 72 minutes of game time. Ronaldo’s desire to succeed is behind his highly-disciplined lifestyle and he remains in supreme physical condition.
His record-leveling nine goals at Euro 2016 saw Portugal finally achieve the title of champions of Europe – now Ronaldo will be looking to add global glory to his incredible resume.
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Lionel Messi’s domestic dominance in La Liga has continued this season. The question is, can Messi replicate his club form for the national team? Since breaking onto the world stage in 2006, Messi has been the major talking point at every World Cup and Copa América, but has in fact enjoyed very little international success other than a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His self-doubt and an upset loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa América final even led to his temporary retirement from the national team. Now Argentina’s captain and all-time top goal scorer, Messi will again look to drive his team forward, just as his idol Diego Maradona did in 1986.
Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium)
Eden Hazard was the jewel in the crown for Belgium back in 2014, now itʼs Kevin De Bruyne’s turn. With so much talent within this Belgium squad, De Bruyne is without a doubt the most important link. His 15 assists in the Premier League for Manchester City saw him ranked first in Europe. The Belgian midfielder’s passing is as silky as his nation’s famous chocolate and his vision can help them dismantle the most resilient defenses. He sets the pace and acts like the engine in the midfield for Pep Guardiola’s City team, making the jobs of teammates around him so much easier. This summer, his performance could well decide how far Belgium progresses.
Harry Kane (England)
Gareth Southgateʼs new look England will hope to end their lengthy run of ill-fortune on the international stage this summer. The Three Lions have constantly underperformed at both World Cup and European Cup level but manager Gareth Southgate has shown great faith in generation next, axing a number of England veterans and relying instead in the likes of Harry Kane.
Young yet mature at 24 years of age, Kane has twice won the Premier League Golden Boot and was named PFA Young Player of the Year in 2014/15. He will be the focal point for his side in Russia this summer with his rare goal scoring ability something that England has been craving for years.
Joshua Kimmich (Germany)
Joshua Kimmich is the main reason Bayern Munich fans could still smile after their elimination from the Champions League semi-final by Real Madrid this season. The 23-year-old German scored in both legs, despite playing as the side’s right back!
Kimmich can play multiple positions on the pitch, having previously played as a central midfielder and defensive midfielder for former manager Pep Guardiola, and was named in the team of the tournament at Euro 2016. His maturity on and off the field, as well as his tactical awareness, has him earmarked as a future captain of Bayern and Germany.
In many way, Kimmich resembles former German captain Philipp Lahm – although he doesn’t like the comparison, stating, “I always wanted to be me and not a Lahm clone or Lahm the second.”
It’s time for the young German to make his own mark this summer.
Before Neymar fractured the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot in February this year, the most expensive player in football history had scored 28 goals in 30 appearances after joining Paris Saint-German from Barcelona – a move many believed may hamper his progress considering the lower quality of the French League. However, his importance to Brazil remains as great as ever with the whole nation praying he is back to full fitness in time for Russia.
The Samba will also need to recover from their devastating 7-1 loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte four years ago. With support from players like Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Willian, a healthy Neymar will not be short of goal-scoring opportunities.
Spain gained direct qualification by topping a Group G that included fellow powerhouse Italy. Isco, named “the most talented young Spanish football player” in 2013, scored two crucial goals as La Roja thrashed Italy 3-0 to help seal qualification for the World Cup. Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui believes that Isco is finally making his abundant talent count.
After a difficult start to his career at Real Madrid after joining in 2013, Isco has blossomed under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane in the past year, becoming an indispensable member of the squad, particularly on the big stage. With the influence of once great midfielders Xavi and Andrés Iniesta waning, Isco will be the one to dictate play for La Roja.
Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
No team in Russia this summer will rely on one man quite like Poland rely on Robert Lewandowski. The country’s all-time top goal scorer – with 52 goals from 93 appearances – scored a record-breaking 16 goals in the qualifying campaign, representing 57.1% of goals scored by the team.
The Bayern Munich striker is in his prime at the moment, scoring more than 40 goals for the German giant in all competitions for the third year in a row. After missing South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, the 29-year-old Lewandowski will be looking to fire his side to unexpected glory.
David de Gea (Spain)
When Spain won the European Cup in 2008 and World Cup in 2010 consecutively, they couldn’t have expected to lose their dominance so quickly. In Brazil they failed to exit the group stage, being hammered by the Netherlands and succumbing to Chile before saving some face against Australia.
Past champions like Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Fernando Torres have either retired from the national stage or passed their prime, but the baton of legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas has been successfully passed to David de Gea. The Manchester United goalkeeper is undoubtedly one of the best stoppers in the world at the moment, earning struggling United many valuable points in recent seasons. Spain only conceded three goals in the qualifying games, the least in Europe, and it could not have been done without the great saves of de Gea. Keeping clean sheets as he has been doing regularly for United will be crucial for La Roja this summer.