With the World Cup knockout stages commencing this afternoon, The Peoples Person has taken a look back at the Group Stages to pick out the players who have shone in Qatar, with a number of Manchester United players impressing.
In goal, Wojciech Szczęsny is the undisputed first choice, having saved two penalties – one to prevent a Saudi Arabian equaliser and another against none other than Lionel Messi. Had he conceded either of those, we would currently be taking about Poland getting through to the knockouts by virtue of receiving fewer cards than Mexico.
Achraf Hakimi has been outstanding at right back for a Morocco side few expected to progress from Group. He assisted Youssouf El-Neysri’s goal against Canada to secure the top spot and his defensive work – hardly the hallmark of his game at club level – helped the Atlas Lions to clean sheets against both Belgium and Croatia.
Much maligned and often despised, Harry Maguire is enjoying himself playing for England. He provided an assist against Iran in what could prove to be a sign of things to come from the Three Lions, who are among the most dangerous teams in the tournament from set pieces. His partnership with John Stones is proving fruitful, with the disappointment at conceding two goals in the aforementioned 6-2 victory spurring the pair on to secure clean sheets in their following two matches. He may never be first choice at Manchester United again, but it is hard to argue with Gareth Southgate’s reliance on him for England.
Frenkie de Jong has played in front of a back three for a Netherlands side that no team in the tournament has a better defensive record than at this stage (Why is he at centre back in this side? Well, if it’s good enough for Xavi…). De Jong has scored and assisted from deep in midfield and has been at the heart of absolutely everything Oranje have done well at both ends of the pitch. An exciting dribbler and incisive passer, the Barcelona playmaker is averaging 3.7 tackles per game and winning 78% of his duels. He’s doing the dirty work well in this tournament to back up his silky skills.
Eight key passes in two matches sounds like an achievement worthy of world-class number ten, but those are the stats of AC Milan and France left back Theo Hernandez. His performances in Qatar only go to show why so many consider him to be among the best attacking fullbacks in world football, with his pace and quality of pass a fantastic weapon for the French National Team. Unfortunately it may be a weapon they will have to do without against Poland, with Hernandez a doubt after picking up an ankle injury.
The term ‘volante’ is often translated directly into ‘midfielder’ when discussing Brazilian football, but it actually means ‘steering wheel.’ Casemiro has been just that for Brazil, prompting their talisman to hail him as the best volante in the world. The United man was every bit the driving force behind Selecao’s opening two wins, directing his teammates, protecting his defence, and making the crucial differences when needed, just as he was against Switzerland, when his unlikely volley won the three points late in the day.
Two goals and two assists in two matches makes Bruno Fernandes just about the most productive player currently in Qatar. Those stats also mean that he has been directly involved in two-thirds of the goals Portugal have scored in this tournament, even accounting for the match he sat out. The fact that he was one of the only players to have been rested for the whole of the South Korea game only goes to show that Fernando Santos is finally coming around to Bruno’s vital importance.
Arguably the standout player in a group that contained Portugal, Uruguay, and a heroic South Korea side, Mohammed Kudus gave the lowest-ranked team going into the tournament a fighting chance of making the last sixteen. His technical ability made him the talisman behind their 3-2 win over the Korean Republic, while his fierce attitude and willingness to muck in with defensive work made the 22-year-old a leader for the Ghanaians. The only player to make this eleven without qualifying from their group, Kudus can certainly hold his head high after his performances.
Marcus Rashford had to fight his way into the starting line-up for England have come off the back of heavy criticism since his penalty miss against Italy at Euro 2020. He is yet to play a full 90 minutes and only started in England’s last game against Wales. And yet he is in contention for the Golden Boot having netted three times – scoring at a rate of one in every 36 minutes on the pitch. Gareth Southgate may well have stumbled onto a winning formula during the group stages, with Rashford playing as a right-wing forward. Who would have thought playing a pacey forward who likes to get in behind alongside Harry Kane would be a good idea?
Kylian Mbappe is staking a claim to be the best player in the world, with some even wondering if he is already the best Frenchman to play the game. Three goals and an assist in Les Bleus’ opening two games assured their passage into the next round, and he truly has been a joy to watch so far in Qatar. There were many candidates for the centre-forward position in this team, with Spain’s Alvaro Morata, South Korea’s Gue-sung Cho, Ecuador’s Enner Valencia, and even Argentina’s Lionel Messi all standout performers, but ultimately there was no beating Mbappe.
Cody Gakpo, a long-term target of Manchester United scored the opening goal in all three of the Netherlands’ matches so far. He accounts for 60% of the Oranje’s goals, the second highest proportion any player has managed so far in the tournament. If that wasn’t enough, his group stage goals constitute a perfect hattrick, having scored with his left, his right, and his head – he doesn’t care how the chance comes, he just scores it. His lethal form is proving his credentials as the talk of European football, and certainly justifying Erik ten Hag’s protracted interest in the player.
The knockout stages commence at 3pm today with the Netherlands taking on the USA, before Argentina face Australia this evening.