JAMES RODRIGUEZ (Colombia)
Is it possible to describe a player whose current club paid €45 million ($65,177 million) to secure his services a break-out star of this World Cup?
Well, those in the football know might have been familiar with James Rodriguez along with those who follow the French and Portugese leagues more closely than most fans and, of course, those supporters who have followed the Colombian national team’s progress these last few years. All would have been familiar with Rodriguez’s work.
But that probably rules out the bulk of football fans around the world, most of whom, probably to their detriment, simply focus on the English Premier League and perhaps the competition in the country where they live.
So in those circumstances it is justified to nominate the gifted South American attacker as the biggest breakthrough star of this tournament.
The Monaco man – he joined the Principality plutocrats from Porto – simply took the group stages of the World Cup by storm and drove his nation on to the quarter-finals where they were very unfortunate to fall to the hosts in an ugly game where an over physical Brazil targeted Rodriguez to prevent him having the sort of influence he had in previous matches.
It is entirely to the 22-year-old’s credit that he put up with the battering he received and raised his game to galvanise his team-mates throughout. It was he took the late penalty that gave Colombia a lifeline back into the game, one they could not quite use to scramble an equaliser and take their quarter-final into extra time.
But the memory will linger long of Rodriguez’s sumptuous long-range volleyed goal against Uruguay (the first of two) in the round-of-16 match, and the others he notched in the opening phase as Colombia topped their group with three wins from three.
Skilful and with a terrific eye for goal, Rodriguez can create and bring others into the game as much as he can score. He has also shown he is also mentally strong and able to carry the hopes of his nation in the most trying circumstances.
At the semi-final stage of the tournament he led the race for the Golden Boot with six goals Only Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Germany’s Thomas Muller with four and The Netherlands pair of Arjen Robben and Robin van Perise (both 3) were realistic chances to overaul him.
Little wonder that he has already been linked with one of the biggest clubs in the world, Real Madrid.
KEYLOR NAVAS (Costa Rica)
Talk about a bolt from the blue. A relative unknown outside the Tico camp and the Spanish League before the World Cup, now Navas is a globally-known figure who has strong claims to the title of best keeper in the tournament.
The Costa Rican shot stopper produced a number of outstanding displays throughout the entire tournament to stamp himself right up there with the stars of this World Cup as his country, unconsidered outsiders before the competition began, fought their way to the quarter-finals of the World Cup where they were only beaten in a penalty shootout by The Netherlands.
Along the way Navas kept Uruguay, England and Italy scoreless in open play in the group phase, the only goal he conceded coming from the penalty spot in the opening match against Uruguay when Edison Cavani beat him.
Greece only managed to get past him in stoppage time after the Ticos had held out for 25 minutes with 10 men in the round-of-16 tie, and then he defied them with a terrific save in the penalty shootout to help his side through to the last eight.
Against the Dutch he again produced two hours of heroics as he held Robben, Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder at bay, the tie ending goalless. It was only when he failed to stop any of the Dutch penalties that the Ticos went out. A move to a much bigger club than his current employer, Levante, surely awaits.
DIVOCK ORIGI (Belgium)
Few 19-year-olds get to start in the World Cup, particularly for a country whom many regard as a big chance to make the final.
But Origi, the teenager who burst into the Belgian squad in the lead up to the World Cup, managed not only to start, but keep Romelu Lukaku out of the team.
Now the youngster is being linked with a move to Premier League giants Liverpool (with a fee variously reported to be anywhere between $15-$20 million), although if he does go to the Merseyside club it is expected that he will return on loan to his current side, Lille, for next season.
Although he was quiet against Argentina in the game that eventually saw Belgium depart at the quarter-final stage, he had scored his country’s winner against Russia. Origi is tall and strong and runs the channels, utilising his pace and athleticism. He is still very raw, but as a young player in a relatively young Belgian side he has a lot of upside.
AHMED MUSA (Nigeria)
At 21 Musa has been in Europe for some time and now plays in Russia for CSKA Moscow, where he has, reportedly, become a target for some big western European clubs.
After his World Cup display against Argentina, when he quickly equalised Lionel Messi’s early opener and then bagged a second at the start of the second half to put the Super Eagles level again, the Nigerian wide man will be the target of even more interest now.
He played wide on the left that day for Nigeria and had the better of Los Albicelestes highly regarded right back Pablo Zabaleta . But Musa can play in any of the forward positions as a support for the main frontman. He is good on the ball and also very quick, as he displayed in that group game against Argentina.
XHEDRAN SHAQIRI (Switzerland)
If you are already on the books of Bayern Munich and an established international at the age of 22 it’s fair to say you have probably made it. But Shaqiri is another of those players whose profile will have surged remarkably after the World Cup.
When you get a hat-trick in the biggest football tournament of them all that tends to focus attention on you, and the Swiss striker with the Kosovar/Albanian background certainly grabbed the headlines with that triple treat against Honduras.
He also caused problems for Argentina when the Swiss went out against the South American powerhouses with his pace, skill and instinct for goal.
Shaqiri is not tall – at 169cm he is one of the smallest players at this tournament – but he makes up for his lack of height with deft ball control and terrific technique. Shaqiri began his professional career at leading Swiss club Basle and moved to Bayern in time for the 2012-13 season.
DALEY BLIND/MEMPHIS DEPAY (Netherlands)
One is an attacker (Depay), the other a defender, but both have been impressive in their different roles for The Netherlands as the Oranje marched on through this World Cup.
Blind’s father, Danny, was a Dutch international and captain of Ajax, with whom he won a Champions League in 1995 as the senior figure in a team made up of bright young talents.
His son is a defensive midfielder with both Holland and the same club, and has been a key figure for The Oranje during the group and knockout stages, providing an anchor in the centre of the park or playing as a left back. In the latter role he has been a useful provider, setting up two of the goals in Holland’s 5-1 group game victory over Spain
Depay only turned 20 earlier this year so he has made a meteoric rise through the ranks to be not just a part of Louis Van Gaal’s World Cup squad but a starter too. Used off the bench against the Socceroos, Depay became The Netherlands youngest ever World Cup scorer when his long-distance effort beat Mat Ryan’s dive to give the Dutch the critical goal in a 3-2 thriller in Porto Alegre. He followed up with a second, again as a substitute, when The Netherlands beat Chile in the final group match.
Quick and skilful, Depay has, not surprisingly, already been linked with moves to the English Premier League. He is contracted at PSV until 2017 but his coach there, former Dutch interantional and Barcelona star Phillip Cocu, has counselled caution and urged the youngster to stay at least another season in the Eredivisie to develop his game.
ISLAM SLIMANI (Algeria)
Key striker for one of the suprise teams of the World Cup, Slimani’s status was surely enhanced by his displays for the Desert Foxes during this tournament.
Tall and mobile, he scored in their barnstorming 4-2 group win over South Korea and got the equaliser for Algeria when they needed a draw to qualify for the second phase fronm their game with Russia.
The Portugese-based striker (he is with Sporting Lisbon) was also to the fore as the North Africans pushed Germany all the way in the round-of-16 match, losing only in extra time. Algeria certainly made a statement in this tournament, and so did Slimani. Like so many players who have announced themselves on a wider stage in this tournament he too is the subject of transfer speculation, with Premier League Stoke, German clubs Schalke Freiburg and Mainz all reportedly interested in his services.
MATTHEW LECKIE (Australia)
He didn’t score and his team didn’t win a game, but the powerful, hard running Leckie did plenty to impress in the Socceroos three defeats. The 22-year-old took the game to his opponents and certainly was not overawed when facing the likes of Chile or The Netherlands. By the time Australia got to play Spain it was already eliminated and running on empty, but the game Leckie kept running and trying even though it was in pursuit of a lost cause.
He needs some more polish to improve his game, but his decision making should improve if he gets the chance to play at a higher level. On what he showed in Brazil, Leckie may get that opportunity sooner rather than later. He has just signed for ambitious second Bundesliga club FC Ingoldstadt.
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