Over the course of the off-season, teams have to tread a fine line between deathly inaction, and damaging flux.
The Roar is counting down the top 50 players at the World Cup, and here we reach the middle stages of the list with some star names and surprise inclusions.
30. Marcelo (Brazil)
Are there many other players who can be a certified regular at the best club team of the current era, having made over 320 appearances for a European giant, won four Champions League and four league titles and still, somehow, not feature in the top 20 players in the world?
Perhaps it is the curse of the left-back, but that position is just a starting point for Marcelo, a brilliantly dynamic attacking player who bombs forward at every opportunity and has a knack for scoring wonder goals.
The Brazilian’s ranking is possibly also affected by the horror show in the 2014 semi-final, where Germany ruthlessly exposed his attacking intent by constantly exploiting the space in behind him. Count on Marcelo to go viral at some point in this tournament – but it could either be a goal, a sublime bit of skill or a horrific error.
29. Romelu Lukaku (Belgium)
A teenage prodigy that has justified the hype, having become one of the most expensive strikers of all time with his move last summer to Manchester United. Although Lukaku comes in for criticism for his record of [not] hitting the back of the net in ‘big’ games, he is a reliable goalscorer. At national level, he’s got 30 in 64 games, and will score more as Belgium’s main no.9 this tournament.
Lukaku is also a very effective target player, and his sheer power and force is valuable for set pieces. He will be key to Belgium’s hopes in Russia.
28. Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)
For a player featuring this high on the list, and in David’s case, in his personal top ten, you would expect them to be a guaranteed starter for the side, but it is not that simple with Gonzalo Higuain.
Although he has a phenomenal record at former clubs Napoli and Real Madrid, and at his current side, Juventus, he has struggled for consistency in the national team (yet he still has close to a goal a game record). This is typified by his memorable misses in the 2014 final.
He is also competing with Sergio Aguero and Mauro Icardi at striker, and may have to settle for a place off the bench in Russia. Not a bad sub to bring on, though.
27. Paulo Dybala (Argentina)
As if to underline the point above, Dybala is another Argentine who can be considered among the best in the world, but might not figure in his international team’s starting XI. That’s the peril of playing the same position as Messi, and Dybala is even stylistically similar – an explosive dribbler capable of scoring brilliant goals and being a creative force.
Dybala won’t start for the Albiceleste, and has struggled in his 12 international appearances so far, but would be a star in any other team – and could yet be a breakout player of this tournament if he somehow can fit his way into a star-studded attack.
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26. Sergio Ramos (Spain)
Sergio Ramos is a wonderfully controversial player, undoubtedly one of the finest centre backs of the 21st century, captain of a wildly successful Real Madrid side, and now wearing the armband for the national team as well.
I personally had Ramos at no.12, but it can be hard for others to overlook his antics and somewhat violent streak, as Mohamed Salah might testify. Still, Ramos is defensively very strong, fits snugly into Spain’s pass-pass-pass approach, and is a fan of bullfighting – which says it all, perhaps.
25. Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
If anything underlines the importance of Gabriel Jesus this summer, just remember that at the last World Cup, Brazil had Fred up front. Now, they have the lively, slippery and clever Jesus, who was painting the streets while Fred was toiling for the host nation.
One third of Pep Guardiola’s energetic front three, Jesus is a striker capable of linking the game and connecting with his fellow attackers, with clever runs that will create space for the likes of Neymar and Willian. He’s also effective in front of goal, with nine goals in 16 appearances for his country.
24. Sadio Mane (Senegal)
As a lightning quick, direct and dynamic attacker, it’s no surprise Sadio Mane has blossomed under Jurgen Klopp. He is a devastatingly effective counter-attacker, best when driving into space with the ball but also capable of incisive runs to drag away defenders and get into goal scoring positions.
In this Senegal team, he is the star quality, and the main creative outlet. Fingers crossed he continues to provide entertainment, if only by copying his team’s celebrations.
23. Leroy Sane (Germany. Or not)
Well, then. Does that make us or Joachim Low look silly? Sane featured on this list because he lit up the Premier League this season, with his mazy dribbles from the left of Manchester City’s lightning front three. Yet he is yet to transfer that form to the national stage, possibly because Low’s formation asks the wide players to come inside as narrow playmakers, rather than in the wider areas where Sane thrives under Guardiola.
Sane did not help his own cause by sitting out of the Confederations Cup, and with Germany looking to go back-to-back, Low possibly wanted to stick with his trusted lieutenants, rather than risk it on the unpredictable, in more ways than one.
22. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Philippe Coutinho has a tattoo that says “Never Stop Dreaming”, but even he possibly didn’t see himself becoming one of the most expensive players at all time with a fee of £142 million to join Barcelona. The fee was exuberant, but Coutinho is a incisive playmaker with a penchant for delightfully curled goals from the inside left channel.
Quick feet and an ability to dribble out of trouble makes him a dangerous proposition, though he can be inconsistent. Coach Tite believes he is magic, though, and with his natural attacking verve, Coutinho could set the tournament alight.
21. Andres Iniesta (Spain)
Here he is, in the dying of the light, possibly ready to deliver another superb tournament performance. Iniesta has left Barcelona, but he hopefully has one last spectacular set of games in him for Spain, for whom he has always starred at major tournaments.
He drifts across the front line, looking for pockets of space where he can turn, dribble and create. Iniesta has already provided the golden moment for his country, the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final, but in what might be his final bow, he will be hoping to replicate the feat.
Be sure to check back tomorrow when David Scout reveals players 20 through 11.