With 122 goals scored across 96 games and plenty of VAR controversy along the way, the World Cup’s Group Stage certainly wasn’t short on entertainment. We now know which sides have progressed to the first knockout round – England included – and which sides haven’t, but who impressed most during Russia 2018’s preliminary stage?
Football FanCast takes a look at the eleven players who most caught the eye, setting up our World Cup Group Stage XI in a 3-1-4-2 formation straight out of the Gareth Southgate handbook…
GK – A tossup between Cho Hyun-Woo and Kasper Schmeichel, who has only conceded one goal so far at the tournament. But the South Korean gets the nod simply due to the quality of opposition he’s faced, making twelve saves against Sweden, Mexico and Germany and producing a particularly heroic performance to eliminate the reigning champions.
RCB – Taking a leaf out of Southgate’s book of reinventing full-backs as centre-halves. Kieran Trippier’s actually benefited from Kyle Walker making that transition, establishing himself as England’s key menace on the right-hand side. His set piece deliveries were crucial to the wins over Panama and Tunisia and only David Beckham has created more chances in a single World Cup game for England than Trippier’s five since 1966.
CB – Uruguay have once again emerged as the World Cup’s dark horses and much of that owes to their exceptional defensive record as the only team yet to concede at the tournament. Partner Jose Gimenez has been fantastic as well, but Diego Godin’s been the real leader of the backline and featured in all of their group games. He’s in the top five of the World Cup’s centre-back charts for tackles, interceptions and dribbles.
LCB – Yerry Mina’s Barcelona career hasn’t quite taken off just yet but he’s been one of the World Cup’s standout youngsters so far, his two Group Stage outings for Colombia reaping a return of two goals and two clean sheets. You can’t ask for much more from a centre-half, and the only game he didn’t start tellingly ended in a Colombia defeat to Japan.
CDM – Stoke City have already secured Oghenekaro Etebo’s services for next season and he looks like a fantastic acquisition for the now-Championship side. Only Neymar and Lionel Messi completed more dribbles than the Nigerian international during the Group Stages, while the 22-year-old also ranked joint-fifth for tackles. Signed for less than £7million, it seems the Potters have pulled off a real coup.
LCM – Amid a chaotic start to the World Cup for Spain, Isco has been the driving force just about holding everything together for Fernando Hierro’s side. The Real Madrid midfielder was relentless in the 3-3 draw with Portugal and simply unstoppable against Morocco with six created chances, a 92% completion rate, four dribbles, 128 touches and a goal to his name. If Spain are to improve and make a real push for this year’s trophy, Isco will be the star of the show.
RCM – This could finally be the tournament in which a talented generation of Croatia players truly show their ability, having won all three of their group games while conceding only once. Luka Modric has inevitably played a huge part in that, scoring one of the goals of the World Cup so far with a stunning long-range strike against Argentina.
RM – Having suffered something of a fall from grace since once being tipped for a move to the Premier League, Denis Cheryshev didn’t even start the World Cup in Russia’s starting XI. But the Villarreal forward hasn’t looked back since entering the fray from the bench in Russia’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia, scoring an immaculate brace and then adding to his Group Stage haul with the finishing touch to a well-worked move against Egypt. This tournament is reigniting the one-time Real Madrid youngster’s stuttering career.
LM – More an attacker than a midfielder but Hirving Lozano’s tenacity shouldn’t be underrated, having made the third-most interceptions of any forward at the tournament. An ability to combine that with real offensive flair and speed, inspiring a 1-0 win over Germany, has been crucial to Mexico’s progress – his Group Stage outings producing one goal, one assist and ten successful dribbles.
ST – Cristiano Ronaldo has that incredible knack of exploding into life just when Portugal need him most and that’s certainly what happened during the European champions’ first World Cup outing, the Real Madrid star counter-acting an otherwise imperious performance from Spain with a hat-trick – including that incredible last-minute free-kick. He scored against Morocco as well but struggled to have the same impact in the draw with Iran, meaning he’s still stuck behind a certain someone in the Golden Boot race…
ST – In some respects, Harry Kane hasn’t even played that well at the World Cup. All of his goals have been either from the penalty spot, set pieces or fortunate deflections. But the Tottenham star is quite simply a goal machine and he’s proved it once again at this tournament, his five strikes representing the most potent return from the Group Stages. If England can get him a little more involved in open play, the 24-year-old will have a huge chance of replicating Gary Lineker’s feat from 1986.