The top 10 Bundesliga players to watch at the 2018 World Cup
Manuel Neuer, Marco Reus, James Rodriguez – the list goes on. Some of the Bundesliga’s – nay the world’s – biggest and brightest stars will be strutting their stuff at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia this summer.
Some are already world beaters in their own right, others are on one-way tickets to the pinnacle of the game.
bundesliga.com duly presents its top 10 ones to watch at the finals, which get under way in Moscow on 14 June…
On paper, taking a player who hasn’t made a competitive outing since September 2017 to the World Cup seems like madness, but then Neuer isn’t just any old player. The Bayern and Germany man is captain for both club and country, and also happens to be the best goalkeeper in the world – and probably of all time. Löw made it clear from the outset that if he was fit, the 32-year-old would be on the plane, and the coach has kept his word. Neuer certainly didn’t appear to have lost any of his cat-like reflexes in the recent friendlies with Austria and Saudi Arabia.
Described by Mario Gomez as Germany’s “most important player”, Neuer will be vital for Die Mannschaft in Russia, and they will be praying that he stays fit. His sensational sweeper-keeper performance against Algeria in the Round of 16 four years ago was pivotal to his side’s final victory, even if it ended up being rather overshadowed by the 7-1 hiding of Brazil. Make no mistake: at this level, there is a huge difference between a Germany with or without Neuer.
Watch: Manuel Neuer’s top 5 Bundesliga saves
After injury cruelly robbed him of the chance to join Germany’s World Cup party in 2014 – not to mention UEFA Euro 2016 two years later – Reus will finally get a proper chance to shine on the international stage, after only playing a minor role at Euro 2012. The 29-year-old has never truly been given the opportunity to showcase his immense talent, and certainly not with Die Mannschaft, for whom he has made just 31 senior appearances. But that could all be set to change in Russia, where the reigning champions will be looking to become the first side since Brazil in 1962 to successfully defend their crown.
The versatile and unpredictable Reus will give them another useful outlet in attack, where Thomas Müller (we’ll come to him later) already causes such headaches for opposition defences. After returning from his latest injury setback in February, he notched seven goals in 11 outings to help BVB return to the UEFA Champions League, and his immediate impact showed just how much he had been missed during his nine-month absence following a cruciate ligament tear. Described as “a rocket” by national coach Löw, Reus will be determined to finally blast off in Russia.
Few players can boast of a better maiden Bundesliga campaign in recent years than James, who gave a timely reminder of his outstanding quality during the first of a two-season loan spell from Real Madrid – which looks likely to end in a permanent move to the Allianz Arena. The 26-year-old had a hand in 18 goals in just 23 league appearances – scoring seven and setting up 11 more – and his killer instincts and quick feet gave Bayern plenty of fresh attacking impetus under Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes.
The Colombia playmaker will certainly need no introduction on the world stage after a series of dazzling performances in Brazil four years ago – including his stunning volley against Uruguay, which earned him Goal of the Tournament and the FIFA Puskas Award. James also took home the Golden Boot after scoring six goals, and Colombia will be looking to him for inspiration again as they look to get past Japan, Poland and Senegal in an even-looking Group H.
Watch: James’ stunning debut season at Bayern
How do you stop a man like Lewandowski? That’s the question Senegal, Colombia and Japan will have to find an answer to as they pit their defensive wits against the top scorer from European World Cup qualifying. With 16 goals in 10 games, the Poland captain outscored Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to help his nation reach the tournament for the first time since 2006.
Lewandowski also gave Bundesliga defenders plenty of sleepless nights in 2017/18, as he racked up a league-high 29 goals in 30 outings. As well as sweeping to his third top scorer’s cannon, the 29-year helped the Bavarian giants conquer their sixth straight Bundesliga title. He will now be spearheading Poland’s quest to improve on two group-stage exits in 2002 and 2006.
Müller is the only active player with at least 10 World Cup goals, which puts him in rather esteemed company alongside the likes of Ronaldo (15), Pele (12) and Sandor Kocsis (11). Only three Germans have outscored the Bayern man on football’s biggest stage – all-time record holder Miroslav Klose (16), namesake Gerd Müller (14) and Jürgen Klinsmann (11) – but at only 28 it is not unreasonable to expect that he could end up one day topping the list.
Winner of the 2010 Golden Boot with five goals and three assists, Müller hit five more in 2014 as Germany lifted their fourth World Cup, and he could well be the key man once again as Joachim Löw’s side face Mexico, Sweden and South Korea in Russia. His contribution may be more altruistic; after all, he provided a league-leading 14 assists in 2017/18 – as well as eight goals – on his way to already a seventh Bundesliga title with his boyhood club.
Watch: Thomas Müller – ordinary name, extraordinary footballer
Of all the players on this list, Pavard is surely the one who would have been handed the longest odds of going to Russia at the start of 2017/18. Yet the 22-year-old’s performances for Stuttgart were so impressive that he forced his way into Didier Deschamps’ thinking, making his senior debut in November 2017 before being named in France’s 23-man squad in May. With fellow right-back Djibril Sidibe reportedly suffering with a knee injury, Pavard could even find himself starting their Group C opener with Australia on Saturday.
Pavard was one of just 10 men to play every single minute of the Bundesliga campaign, even scoring his maiden top-flight goal against Freiburg. Highly versatile – capable of playing at centre-back, right-back or in midfield – the fledgling France international helped Stuttgart to the second-best defensive record in the Bundesliga, behind champions Bayern. He is also a useful attacking outlet, and could end up being one of Les Bleus‘ surprise packages as they try to improve on a quarter-final exit to Germany in 2014.
7) Andrej Kramaric – Hoffenheim & Croatia
Since their third-placed finish at the 1998 World Cup, Croatia have often gone into major tournaments as dark horses, only to disappoint – they exited the tournament at the group stage in 2002, 2006 and 2014. Hoffenheim striker Kramaric will be hoping to inspire them to better things as the focal point of an attack where he can expect to receive five-star service, with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic pulling the strings in midfield.
Kramaric notched 13 goals and six assists as TSG finished third in the table – and incredibly, 11 of those goals came after the start of February. The 26-year-old is therefore enjoying a hot streak at just the right time, as far as Croatia are concerned – he was also in target in the final pre-tournament friendly win over Senegal. If the Vatreni are to get past Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland in Group D, they will certainly need their versatile front man firing on all cylinders.
8) Thiago – Bayern & Spain
Spain’s World Cup campaign was thrown into disarray before it even began, after head coach Julen Lopetegui was relieved of his duties just two days before their highly anticipated opener with Portugal. The 2010 world champions are still expected to get the better of Iran and Morocco in Group B, but it’s likely to be a bumpy ride for Thiago and Co. under emergency replacement coach Fernando Hierro.
Essentially, it all comes down to what happens on the pitch, and the Bayern playmaker’s sleek footwork and pinpoint passing ability will help him stand out in a midfield bursting with talent. Like Reus, the 27-year-old has been limited to far fewer international appearances than his talent deserves – just 27 prior to this tournament – but a strong end to the Bundesliga campaign and a run of six straight games for La Roja mean he is primed to be one of the star performers in Russia. Helping Spain beat Portugal on Friday would certainly help calm the media frenzy.
Japan’s preparations for their sixth successive World Cup final appearances have hardly been ideal. Head coach Vahid Halilhodzic was sacked two months before the tournament was due to start, with his replacement Akira Nishino only picking up his first win on 12 June following defeats to Ghana and Switzerland. Dortmund fan favourite Kagawa chimed in with two assists as the Samurai Blue ended a 231-minute goal drought, just in time for their World Cup opener against Colombia.
Despite an indifferent Bundesliga return of five goals and three assists in 2017/18, Kagawa’s experience and creativity will be key if Japan are to negotiate Group H, which also includes Poland and Senegal. The four-time Asian Cup champions have only advanced to the knockout stages twice, but have never gone beyond the last 16. Kagawa going full tilt in the playmaker role, at what could well be the 29-year-old’s final appearance at a World Cup, is enough to cause anyone problems.
Iceland won the hearts of football fans the world over after their stirring debut at Euro 2016. The smallest nation ever to appear at the finals of a major tournament, Our Boys topped a group that included eventual champions Portugal and David Alaba‘s Austria, and dumped out 1966 World Cup winners England in the last 16, before bowing out to hosts France. They said it couldn’t get any better for Finnbogason and the gang, but it did. Iceland pipped Croatia to the post, qualifying automatically for the World Cup for the first time.
Augsburg striker Finnbogason made eight appearances in qualifying, scoring in successive games against Ukraine, Finland and Turkey – and he might have added more but for injury. The 29-year-old also missed a chunk of the 2017/18 Bundesliga campaign – although his 12 goals and three assists in 22 outings are hardly numbers to scoff at. With former Hoffenheim midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson supplying the ammunition, the rangy fox in the box could do some real damage as Iceland prepare to fight fire, ice and Finnbogason with Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria in Group D.
Watch: Alfred Finnbogason’s superb hat-trick against Cologne at the start of 2017/18
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