Paul Pogba – France / Juventus – CM – 21
At only 21 years old Paul Pogba has already become a crucial member of his club and country’s midfield. After having progressed through the Manchester United academy the powerful, 6 foot plus midfielder only made 3 senior appearances for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and left at the end of his contract to join Juventus. Pogba made 37 appearances for the old lady in his debut season, 27 of which came in their remarkable unbeaten league campaign where Juventus won the league for the first time since their demotion to Serie B after the 2006 match fixing scandal. In his second season the Frenchman missed only two league games as Juventus won a consecutive Scudetto with a record 102 points.
Pogba became as influential in Juventus’ midfield three as the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, despite his youth, and his performances for the Seria A were soon noticed by France head coach Didier Deschamps who handed the 21 year old his international debut in 2013. Pogba is also now a key component of France’s balanced midfield alongside Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi, the three players selected in France’s 3-0 victory over Ukraine which sealed their World Cup position. The midfielder’s strengths are centred around his powerful physique such as his strength on the ball and his bursting runs from midfield but he also has a history of scoring spectacular goals from long range, which have become hits on YouTube. Pogba is now considered as one of the world’s most promising players and is certainly one to watch this summer in Brazil. France have a relatively straight forward group alongside Switzerland, Ecuador and Honduras as well as a potentially simple round of 16 match against either Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria or Iran before they would have to play a top side in the quarter finals. Currently only ranked 16th in the world, this France team are unarguably weaker than their golden generation that won the World Cup in 1998 and were runners up in 2006 but are a team full of youth and potential, epitomised by their up and coming star.
Ivan Rakitić – Croatia / Sevilla – CM – 26
In a league dominated by the quality and stars of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Sevilla’s influential captain Ivan Rakitić remains La Liga’s most prominent players. The Croat enjoyed a sensational 2013-14 season leading his team to a 5th place La Liga finish and victory over Benfica in the Europa League final in Turin. Rakitić was nominated in the La Liga team of the year ahead of Spanish superstars such as Andreas Iniesta, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas after scoring 12 goals and making 10 assists from midfield. Sevilla’s captain was also voted Man of the Match in their Europa League final triumph on penalties over Benfica.
Rakitić is one of Croatia’s senior players having made 62 appearances and forms a creative midfield alongside Real Madrid’s Luca Modric. Along with Modric’s ball retention and dribbling, Rakitić adds superb passing ability and an extremely accurate set piece delivery to Croatia’s attack. Rakitić has one of the highest rates of key passes and assists in Europe’s top leagues and his creation will be crucial to the success of Croatia striker Mario Mandžukić who is an aerial threat from crosses and set pieces.
Croatia open the 2014 World Cup against hosts Brazil in Sao Paulo and will seek to take advantage from any nerves from the host nation and pull of a remarkable opening upset. Croatia are certainly capable of being a tricky opposition for Brazil, but they must also get past Cameroon and Mexico to progress to the knockout stage in what is an open group. Even if Croatia progress however, they would potentially face world champions Spain in the round of 16 a rematch of a Euro 2012 group match in which Croatia lost 1-0 after Rakitić missed a glorious chance at 0-0. The midfielder has matured since then, as proven by his captaincy for his club, and he will hope to make amends through his wonderful set piece delivery and deliver an upset to the host nation this summer.
James Rodríguez – Colombia / AS Monaco – 22 – AM
The injury of Colombia striker and talisman Radamel Falcao has increased the importance of other players such as Porto’s Jackson Martinez, Inter Milan’s Freddy Guarin and AS Monaco’s young attacking midfielder James Rodríguez. Falcao scored 9 goals in 16 qualifying games and lead Colombia to a 2nd placed finish in the South America qualifying group, second only behind Argentina and ahead of Uruguay and Chile. Their impressive results, such as 4-0 and 3-1 victories over Uruguay and Chile respectively, propelled Colombia to 8th placed in the FIFA world rankings which ensured that they were a seeded team for the tournament. Without Falcao, their 2nd all time leading goal scorer, Colombia’s chances of enjoying a successful World Cup finals in what is their first appearance since 1998 have been significantly reduced.
Rodríguez, Falcao’s team mate at Monaco as well as previously at Porto, has the ability to help Colombia perform this summer. A left footed attacker who is comfortable playing centrally behind the main striker or out wide right, the 22 year old was one of Europe’s top players in terms of key passes and assists last season and is also an excellent dribbler. Rodríguez arrived along with Falcao in Monaco after the club’s financial takeover from a billionaire owner from Porto for 45 million Euros making the Colombian one of the worlds most expensive players. Rodríguez scored 9 goals and made 12 assists in his debut season helping Monaco to a 2nd place finish in Ligue 1 and securing Champions League football for next season. The attacker also won the award for the most assists and was voted into the team of the year as Rodríguez began to repay his sizeable price tag.
Rodríguez must now deliver on the world stage and he has shown in glimpses that he can lead his national side, for example by scoring his countries only goal in their 1-0 qualifier over Paraguay and also by providing vital assists against Chile and Paraguay. Now, the challenge for Rodriguez is to perform without Radamel Falcao.