The World Cup in Russia is fast approaching with the qualifiers now being wrapped up. As we finally find out who will be the last remaining teams to make it to FIFA’s elite competition next summer, I examine which players could be on everyone’s lips come its conclusion.
Abandoning the RB Leipzig express train would ordinarily be seen as a somewhat foolish move these days but two years ago Joshua Kimmich did just that. However, he wasn’t just going to any team, but would don the famous colours of Bayern Munich.
Since arriving at the Allianz Arena the 22 year has been nothing short of a revelation.
He was seen as Guardiola’s protégé in the Spaniard’s three seasons in Bavaria, being shifted around from his favoured central midfield position to centre back and eventually finding his home at right full back. This was illustrated by the now infamous pictures of Guardiola appearing to lecture him before embracing Kimmich like his own child.
The Rottweil-born man has gone from strength to strength, wrestling the right back position away for both club and country.
He has now started 23 consecutive matches for Germany, surpassing Franz Beckenbauer’s 44 year-old record of 21 starts in a row.
Whilst technically and positionally sound at central midfield, the full back role allows the tenacious side of Kimmich’s play to be tempered with a tactical nous that has seen him flourish into one of the world’s best.
The tournament in Russia will surely be the time he becomes a household name.
Leander Dendoncker – Belgium
The Anderlecht midfielder burst onto the scene to a watching European audience when he bullied Manchester United’s Matteo Darmian to send a bullet header into Sergio Romero’s net.
Dendoncker seemed to fly under the radar for many, especially as he was at the time playing in the same team as his Belgian counterpart, Youri Tielemans who was drawing all the plaudits.
Manchester United’s gaze did resurface in the summer but they ultimately plumped for Premier League experience in Nemanja Matić. This, twinned with Anderlecht selling Tielemans to AS Monaco meant Dendoncker stayed.
Only recently did the Anderlecht president confess he wouldn’t stand in the 22 year old’s way if a big transfer was in the offing next summer, a sentiment echoed by the player himself, when he said:
“If it was as concrete as was being said, if they wanted me at all costs, I’d already be there. When you play for Anderlecht and you have the chance to go there, you don’t hesitate, but Anderlecht had their bit to say. Everyone had to agree.”
Dendoncker’s four international caps may not marry-up with someone who is ready to make a telling impact in an elite competition, but all his appearances have come in the last year, showing his rapid rise to the top may not be far away.
With the wealth of talent in Belgium’s ranks, Dendoncker may not play every game next summer, but with RB Leipzig and AC Milan also sniffing around, there will be some competition to secure the Belgian’s signature before the World Cup begins.
The 6ft 2in defensive midfielder definitely has the stature to make it at the top, but it may take the biggest stage of them all to really announce himself.
Leon Goretzka – Germany
2017 has no doubt been Leon Goretzka’s year, becoming arguably one of Europe’s most sought-after players, after a remarkable calendar year which has seen the 22 year old reach heights that have surprised many.
Goretzka had always been ahead of the class, as his youth coach at Bochum Dariusz Wosz would muse;
“He is an exceptional player, I’ve not seen anyone like him at youth level. He has a clear head, he’s mature, and nothing can distract him.”
Goretzka’s been compared to compatriot Sami Khedira in the past due to his stature, his ability to shield the ball and break up play. However, the last 12 months has seen Goretzka add a creative spark to his game that has catapulted him to the next level.
Having only netted one Bundesliga goal between 2014 and 2016, Goretzka has now become one of the most alluring attacking midfielders in the game already notching four goals in the first nine top flight matches.
You simply cannot ignore the German’s form, which is why he is now a staple in Joachim Löw’s refreshed national side and a sure thing to show the world what he is really made of.
Spain were looking for a new approach and new ideas after the shock of exiting the Brazilian World Cup at the group stages four years ago. Spain’s exit and heavy defeat to the Netherlands came as a shock for all, given the period of sheer dominance Spain enjoyed between 2008 and 2012, looking impenetrable whilst taking home two European Championships with the 2010 World Cup sandwiched in-between.
Reality can bite hard, and the debacle in Brazil spelled the catalyst to blood some much needed youth. This has coincided with the emergence of a Mallorca born Madridista who has been impossible to ignore over the last eighteen months.
Born to a Dutch mother and Spanish father Marco Asensio Willemsen, or better known to you and I as Marco Asensio has been a lynchpin in this new ‘Spanish revolution’ under national team boss Julen Lopetegui.
Credit should be given to Zinedine Zidane, who has shown over the course of his time in charge of Real Madrid that he will give young players a chance – see most recently Marcos Llorente, Achraf Hakimi and summer signing Dani Ceballos.
However, Asensio has been the revelation netting a succession of stunning goals in his short time in the first team against the likes of Sevilla, Barcelona and Juventus in the 2017 Champions League final.
The 21 year old is definitely one for the big occasion and it doesn’t come much bigger than the World Cup finals.
Although still just 24 years old, there’s a strange feeling of ‘what could have been’ for Nabil Fekir, as he is only now re-discovering the form that had the Frenchman on the lips of every football hipster on the planet when he broke through in 2013.
Fekir has seen the pivotal Olympique Lyonnais trio of Alexandre Lacazette, Maxime Gonalons and Corentin Tolisso leave for pastures new last summer. It could have easily have been Fekir himself joining the Lyon exodus for one of Europe’s elite, but in 2015 a long-term knee ligament injury put a stop to that.
He would go on to miss eight months of action and although he returned with five games to go, he wouldn’t make Didier Deschamp’s squad for the European Championships held in France.
Fekir’s recovery was slow and even into last season, he didn’t have the same edge to him. Trying to combine with Lacazette and new signing Depay, it was Fekir who looked lost, and even he must have doubted if he would return to being the same player.
The difference this season however is palpable. Fekir’s goal from the halfway line against Bordeaux, as well as the stoppage time winner against Ligue 1 champions Monaco in October have been notable highlights, along with the goal at rivals Saint-Étienne after which Fekir took off his shirt and raised it to the home fans – to the fury of the Les Verts faithful.
Fekir once again looks like the leader and has put his injury hell behind him to fully stamp his presence on this Lyon team.
The Olympique Lyonnais captain has just been recalled into Deschamp’s French squad and although he may not wear the colours of his home town club for too much longer, no-one would bet against him nailing down a place for his country.