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15 lesser-known gems to look out for in this World Cup

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FIFA World Cup is set to be kicked off tomorrow. The tournament will feature 736 players aiming to showcase their talent. While 23 among them will get their hands on the Jules Rinet trophy on 15th July, players will want to live every moment of this tournament.

This will most likely be the last realistic opportunity for Lionel Messi to win an international tournament.

Cristiano Ronaldo will want to do the unthinkable and lead Portugal to glory. Not only will that cement his place as the greatest footballer of modern football (Post Maradona era), it should assure him of an unprecedented sixth Ballon Di Or.

Players like Bernando Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Kylian Mbappe and Marcus Rashford will want to use this opportunity to solidify their stake as few of the best young players in the world.

Finally, winning this world cup can help Neymar consolidate his position as the best player in the world after Ronaldo and Messi.

Every world cup gives birth to heroes. From Luiz Ronaldo and Zidane (1998) to Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas (2014), players with immense potential have raised their stocks in the game following strong tournaments.

In this article, we will look at 15 lesser known talented players of this tournament. They will want to use this World Cup and be a household name among football faithful around the world.

1. Hirving Lozano (Mexico)
Age: 22
Club: PSV Eindhoven
Caps: 26
Goals: 7

Hirving Lozano comes into the tournament with hopes of an entire nation on his young shoulders. He had an amazing 2017-18 campaign where he scored 19 and assisted 11 in 34 appearances and lifted the Dutch league crown.

In a well-balanced team, Lozano’s work on the wings can decide the fate of Mexico. While change of pace and finesse is his biggest strength, temperament is his weakness.

Additionally, he was one of the most-fouled players in the Mexican league during 2016-17 season. A pacey winger who can score, he is in Arjen Robben’s mould.

Lozano is already being linked with a move away from PSV. Suarez believes Lozano can replace him at Barcelona in future and Juventus are eying him as a replacement for Dybala.

Premier League giants Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal have been rumoured to be eying his signature too.

Placed in a good group, Mexico should back themselves to qualify for the round of 16. Lozano is likely to get at least four matches to showcase his skills. Like teammate Ochoa in 2014, he can be one of the breakout players of this tournament.

Watch out for the Lozano vs Forsberg battle during the group stage.

2. Timo Werner (Germany)
Age: 22
Club: RB Leipzig
Caps: 14
Goals: 8

Red Bull Leipzig have taken fans around the world in awe. Their flair and finesse are largely attributed to a talented core of Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg and Timo Werner.

Coming off an amazing season with 21 goals and 10 assists in 45 appearances, Werner will hope to have a big world cup this time.

He holds the record of being the youngest player to reach 100 and 150 Bundesliga appearances. Werner is likely to lead the German attack in this tournament.

With 8 goals in 14 caps, this youngster has an enviable goal scoring record for Germany as well. In fact, he is being tipped as one of the contenders to win the golden boot of this tournament.

Much pacier than Germany’s other attacking options, he adds value to their quick passing system. It can be his partnership with Thomas Muller which sets this wonderfully- balanced German squad apart from their rivals.

Werner’s knack of goal-scoring hasn’t gone ignored as English giants Liverpool and Manchester United have been heavily linked with his signature.

A strong world cup shall fast-track his well-earned move to a European giant.

3. Emil Forsberg (Sweden)
Age: 26
Club: RB Leipzig
Caps: 34
Goals: 6

Sweden’s main attacking threat, Forsberg is key for their progress from the group. Eyebrows were raised when he moved from Sweden’s Malmo FF to then German second division side RB Leipzig in 2015. However, he has developed immensely since then.

Forsberg was the highest assist maker during 2016-17 season in Europe’s top five leagues. While he could not match those heights during this injury-plagued season, he ended up with five goals and four assists.

Starting his career on left flank in a four-man midfield, he has been given more creative freedom in last few years where he consistently drifts inside to support the front two.

Very shy and modest off-field, he is exactly unlike Swede legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, he will be as important as Zlatan during this tournament if not more for Sweden.

Emil Forsberg is a known name among Bundesliga fans. However, this tournament offers him an opportunity to make himself known to the faithfuls around the world.

4. Piotr Zielinski (Poland)
Age: 24
Club: Napoli
Caps: 33
Goals: 5

Robert Lewandowski is the first name that comes into the mind while talking about Polish national team. However, Zielinski has become a star in his own right over last few seasons.

Playing his club football at Napoli, he has been causing ripples in Serie A. Former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri hailed him as ‘the new Kevin De Bruyne’.

He has an amazing sense of game, great range of passing, has a good long shot and is technically gifted.

This talented playmaker has played his entire senior football in Italy. He started his career at Udinese before joining Empoli on loan. After successful spell at Serie A minnows, he finally sealed a move to the Italian giants before 2016 season.

Since then, he has grown leaps and bounds. Placed in a group alongside Colombia, Senegal and Japan, Poland have a strong chance of making it to the knockouts.

While Lewandowski and Milik will be key, Zielinski’s creativity will be crucial for the Poles to score goals.

In past, he has been heavily linked with Arsenal and Liverpool. A good world cup can accelerate his move to one of the European giants.

Piotr Zielinski

(Photo by ANDRZEJ IWANCZUK/AFP/Getty Images)

5. Rodrigo Bentacur (Uruguay)
Age: 20
Club: Juventus
Caps: 6
Goals: 0

One of the better-known players of this list, Bentacur brings immense potential to the fine Uruguayan side. Signed at the start of this season, Bentacur was a part of the 2015 deal which saw Carlos Tevez move to Boca Juniors.

Costing a mere 9.5 Million Euros, this youngster made 20 appearances for the Italian champions last season. A versatile midfielder, he can play anywhere across the midfield.

He is a strong, physical midfielder with an amazing range of passing. His only downside is maybe a lack of finishing abilities. In around 91 career appearances, he has scored a mere two goals (1 of them coming for Uruguay’s under 19 national side).

However, with Suarez, Cavani and Vecino to carry the attacking burden, Bentacur can focus on his defensive duties.

He made his Uruguay debut a few months before his Juventus move and has played in every match since then.

Uruguay are placed in an easy group alongside Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia. However, they are likely to face either Portugal or Spain in the round of 16.

Beyond their talented attackers, Bentacur’s midfield performance can decide how far Uruguay go in the tournament.

6. Sardar Azmoun (Iran)
Age: 23
Club: Rubin Kazan
Caps: 33
Goals: 23

After shining at Rostov while on loan, this youngster had an injury-plagued last season for Rubin Kazan where he scored five times and assisted a further six.

However, he remains coach Queiroz’s primary attacking option for a good reason. He boasts an enviable record of 23 goals in mere 32 appearances for his national team.

At 109, Iranian Ali Daei holds the record of highest scorer at international football. However, with 23 goals, Azmoun is already fifth highest scorer of Iranian history at such a young age.

Dubbed as the ‘Iranian Messi’, he has the potential to emerge as the breakout star of the tournament.

Iran find themselves in a very tough group alongside Spain, Portugal and Morocco. A group stage exit appears likely for the Persians.

Azmoun should better his Iranian performances till date to qualify for the knockouts. He was heavily linked with a move to English giants Liverpool in first half of 2017.

Even after decent returns of 2017-18, hosts of Premier League clubs including Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Fulham are chasing him.

A strong campaign can increase his stock further in the game.

7. Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Age: 25
Club: Ajax Amsterdam
Caps: 18
Goals: 10

Ziyech angered many, including Marco Van Basten when he chose to represent Morocco over Holland. However, he seems to be having the last laugh right now.

Ziyech has played his entire senior football in Netherlands and scored for fun. For a midfielder, he boasts an enviable record of a goal every three matches in the Dutch League.

Ajax’s player of the season, he scored nine goals and assisted further 15 in 34 appearances last season. He had a similar impact as Lozano on PSV Eindhoven but fell awfully short of winning the Dutch league.

He fell out of favour with Moroccan manager Herve Renard in past but is Morocco’s best attacking player in Russia.

After being drawn alongside Portugal, Spain and Iran, Morocco have their task cut out to qualify for the knockouts.

However, just a couple of days back, Ziyech warned the opposition not to take them lightly. In recent months, he has been linked with Liverpool, Everton and A S Roma.

Impressive showing in this tournament can seal him a well-deserved move to one of the top five leagues.

8. Pione Sisto (Denmark)
Age: 23
Club: Celta Vigo
Caps: 14
Goals: 1

Cristian Eriksen led Denmark to a 5-1 win over Ireland in the playoffs. However Pione Sisto toyed around Irish defence in both the legs.

Born in Uganda, he made his Denmark under-21 debut in 2015. At club level, he is a product of Midtjylland’s youth academy.

He broke into their senior team aged 18 and scored 20 goals in 90 appearances. He was a fan favourite at the Danish club and led them to their maiden league title in 2015.

He scored the opening goal when the Danish club famously defeated Manchester United in 2016 Europa League.

Consistent performances in Denmark saw him move to Spain’s Celta Vigo before 2016 season. While playing in the La Liga, he has grown further.

Since making his debut in Danish national side in 2015, Sisto has been a regular feature. With lightning pace and raw strength, he should complement Eriksen’s class beautifully in Russia.

In the past, he has been linked with Barcelona, Ajax, Juventus, Milan and Porto. Most recently Southampton were keeping an eye on him.

A big world cup is all he needs to earn a move to a bigger club!

9. Giovani Lo Celso (Argentina)
Age: 22
Club: Paris Saint- Germain
Caps: 5
Goals: 0

When you’ve Lionel Messi in the squad, it is tough to look beyond him. However, Ligue 1 fans are well acquainted with Giovani Lo Celso.

The 22-year-old has notched up 36 appearances for PSG since his move in 2016 summer transfer window and scored four goals.

He was one of the stars of Argentina’s disastrous Olympic campaign that earned him an 8.75 Million Pound move from Rosario Central. Since then he has not looked back.

Manager Sampaoli followed him for a while and his chance came late last year in a friendly against Russia when a host of Argentine midfielders were out with injuries. He performed well and since then is a regular feature in Argentina’s squads.

Former PSG coach Unai Emery heaped praise on him, calling him a very important part of his side.

He is technically sound, a good passer and has a keen eye for goal. Surrounded by big names at PSG, he has left a mark whenever he played.

Argentinians will want to win this tournament for captain Messi. In their pursuit to be the world’s best, youngster Lo Celso should play an important part.

10. Keita Balde (Senegal)
Age: 23
Club: AS Monaco
Caps: 18
Goals: 3

One of the most talented players in this Senegalese side, Keita Balde is likely to be the second winger alongside Sadio Mane in this world cup.

The former Barcelona youth academy product was sent on loan as a punishment for playing a prank on his teammate. He refused to return to Barcelona and chose to join Lazio instead.

Making his Lazio debut as an 18-year-old, Keita regularly tormented defences in Serie A, scoring 26 times in 110 appearances.

He sealed a move to French giants AS Monaco for a reported fee of 30 Million Euros before last season.

He comes off a highly successful season scoring eight and assisting a further seven in 32 appearances in France. He can play on either flanks or also as a centre forward.

He is fast, skilful and a goalscoring midfielder. However, he has been plagued with inconsistency.

If Keita can find his form, consistency and focus in the World Cup, he alongside Mane can torment any defence.

Senegal, drawn with Colombia, Japan and Poland, can back themselves to progress to knockouts. The Keita- Mane combination can decide how far they go in the tournament.

Keita Balde

(Photo by Shaun Botterill – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

11. Julian Brandt (Germany)
Age: 22
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Caps: 16
Goals: 1

Eyebrows were raised when German manager Joachim Löw preferred Brandt over Manchester City’s Leroy Sane.

He was a part of the young Junior squad which won 2017 Confederations Cup comfortably. While Werner, Draxler and Goretzka received plaudits, Brandt sporadically featured.

However consistent performances for Bayer Leverkusen confirmed his place in this top-class German side. At 22, he is yet to reach his full potential.

However, his attitude towards the game has appealed the most. He calls himself a ‘work in progress’. He is decently pacey, has a fine ball control, outstanding vision and is a good crosser.

While he has scored only once on national duties, Brandt scored 12 and assisted a further seveh in 39 appearances for Leverkusen last season.

Like every edition, Germany are tipped as one of the favourites to win the tournament. With Kroos, Khedira and Gundogan in the side, Brandt is unlikely to start in the tournament.

However, he will certainly play a role in later stages of the tournament. Heavily linked with Liverpool and Barcelona, Brandt signed a new deal with Leverkusen in April.

A good world cup can raise his stock further in the game and justify his selection ahead of Sane.

12. Andre Silva (Portugal)
Age: 22
Club: AC Milan
Caps: 23
Goals: 12

Portugal have failed to produce quality strikers in recent years. AC Milan’s Andre Silva is an exception.

The 22-year-old already has 22 caps for his national team with 12 goals. He was ignored for Eder at Euro 2016 but is set to lead the line for Portugal in Russia.

Immediately following their victorious Euros campaign, Silva became a regular in Portugal’s national team. He formed a strong partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo on top.

A good season at Porto enabled his 38 million Euros move to Milan. However, he struggled to be consistent at the Italian giants scoring mere 10 in 40 appearances through last season.

There are whispers of Milan looking to offload him. However, several clubs including Monaco, Arsenal and Wolverhampton Wanderers are seeking his signature.

Portugal are tipped to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament. It can give Silva five matches to leave his mark.

With a summer move likely, World Cup gives an opportunity for this fine youngster to alert more number of clubs about his quality.

13. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
Age: 22
Club: CSKA Moscow
Caps: 19
Goals: 2

Russia’s youngest player at Euro 2016, Golovin has grown leaps and bounds since then. He is the most exciting talent of this Russian side.

He, alongside Akinfeev and Dzagoev, should be one of the certain starters in this tournament. He began his career at CSKA Moscow as an 18-year-old and has notched up over 80 appearances for the Russian giants.

He doesn’t contribute a lot in attack with two goals in 19 caps for the national side. However, he is a flexible player who can occupy any spot in the midfield. Golovin is a keen passer, a workhorse and a good presser.

Russia will want to make it big at the World Championship on their home soil. However, an honest assessment hints at a lack of quality in the squad.

Under these circumstances, a player of the Golovin’s quality should shoulder the responsibility.

He has been on Arsenal’s radar for over a year. Former Russian star Andrei Kanchelskis believes that he’d a hit with the gunners. A strong campaign should fast-track his move to a bigger club.

14. Hwang Hee-Chan (South Korea)
Age: 22
Club: Red Bull Salzburg
Caps: 14
Goals: 2

Striker Son will be crucial for South Korea’s fortunes during this World Cup. However, the youngest but the most exciting forward of this squad is Hwang.

Still only 22, he earned a transfer to Liefering as a teenager. After 13 goals in 31 appearances, he moved to Austrian giants Red Bull Salzburg in 2015. Since then, he has been a consistent scorer for the white and reds.

In the last season, he appeared 41 times and scored 13 goals. He was instrumental as Salzburg reached semi-finals of Europa League.

He is someone who can play on top or on either wings. Dribbling and shooting are the strengths of his game. He doesn’t come into this tournament with figures to justify his talent.

South Korea are drawn in a tough group alongside Germany, Sweden and Mexico. It will take much more than Son if they want to progress to the knockouts.

This tournament is a great opportunity for Hwang to make himself more popular. Even before the tournament, he was linked with an array of clubs in Europe’s big five leagues including Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Hamburg SV and Borussia Dortmund.

15. Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Saudi Arabia)
Age: 31
Club: Al- Nassr
Caps: 40
Goals: 28

Saudi Arabia are not expected to go past the group stage. While drawn in a relatively easy group, they seem short on quality to reach the knockouts. However, they have someone in their ranks who will love to leave a mark.

Mohamad Al-Sahwali at 31 will be their main attacking threat. Coming off a decent tally of 10 goals and 3 assists in 19 appearance in Saudi Pro League, he has brilliant international statistics.

His first came against Spain in 2010 and in last 8 years, he has scored 27 more times in 38 appearances. Not bad numbers to have.

This world cup will be an opportunity for him to showcase his true talent at a global stage. At 31, a move to any of the top five leagues seems unlikely.

However, he had a three-week stint at Manchester United in April, to remain sharp at the world cup. In return, United looked to expand their market in one of Asia’s leading markets.

Saudi, without much pressure, should play freely in the World Cup. This can help Sahlawi to score a goal or few.

Honourable Mention: Daniel Arzani (Australia)
Age: 19
Club: Melbourne City FC
Caps: 2
Goals: 1

Australian football’s latest wonderkid, big things will be expected off this youngster in Russia. Many regard him as the best Australian player since Harry Kewell.

He comes with a rich street football and futsal background. This has made his game pacey and full of dribbling. He can play on either wings or also behind the striker.

Born to Iranian parents, Arzani set the A- league on fire for his eye-catching performances for Melbourne City FC.

A player who likes to run with the ball at every opportunity, he is drawing parallels to Cristiano Ronaldo of young age.

At 19, he oozes confidence on pitch and looks set for stardom. Australia are drawn alongside France, Denmark and Peru.

It should be an uphill task for the Socceroos to reach the knockouts. However, if they do so, Arzani should have played an extremely crucial role.

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