With the World Cup set to kick-off this afternoon, finding specific players to follow throughout the tournament is an interesting exercise. It gives you a vested interest in matches that you otherwise may not have been too interested in, and it can broaden your overall knowledge of the best players in the sport. With squads finalized, injury updates rapidly available and starting XI predictions posted everywhere, at this point it should be easier to speculate about who will get a chance to shine this Summer in Brazil. Obviously, most fans will be paying close attention to the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, but some veterans, along with other promising young rising stars, may be slipping under the radar. Let’s take a look at some players that everyone needs to keep an eye on.
Adam Lallana, EnglandWith the English side seemingly in a rebuilding stage, it may come as something of a surprise to pick out the 26-year-old Lallana as this team’s player to watch. However, Lallana, who was playing in the third tier of English football in 2010, is nothing short of spectacular. The Southampton captain and best player, Lallana possesses the kind of on-balls skills that are usually mostly associated with Spanish or South American players. It’s bemusing that he hasn’t drawn more attention from the bigger clubs as of yet (with all due respect to the up-and-coming Southampton), because Lallana is truly an all-around attacking machine. His versatility—which allows him to play on either flank or behind the striker—is matched by few, especially considering how well he plays at each of those three positions.
Of course, a greatly versatile player will also be able to adjust his own style-of-play to better suit his teammates, and Lallana has no issues doing just that. Whether asked to play as a number-10, an inside-forward or an out-and-out winger, he excels in all roles. He possesses excellent vision and is both unselfish enough to set-up others but still capable of scoring goals himself. He’s strong with both feet, meaning movement around the field from one position to another isn’t an issue at all.
To be sure, Lallana is a bigger threat attacking than he is defending, but unlike some other creative midfielders, he’s not a complete zero on that end either. Lallana does a great job in contributing to his team’s efforts to win the ball back, providing great work-ethic and a willingness to chase the ball.
England’s expectations aren’t as high as they usually are because, as previously mentioned, this is a transition period for them. They’ll have to play very well to make it out of their group—which features a highly experienced Italy, a possibly lethal in attack Uruguay and Costa Rica—but if they do cause a few upsets and advance further than most anticipate, it’ll be shocking if Lallana isn’t one of the main reasons for that success.
They don’t start their tournament until Saturday’s match vs. the Italians so, until then, here’s a 2013-14 Lallana highlights video to hold you over:
Ciro Immobile, Italy
After propelling his (now former) club Torino to a rather surprising 7th place finish in Serie A (above the usually stronger and more resourceful Milan and Lazio), Immobile, the league’s top goal-scorer, earned himself a move to German giants Borussia Dortmund, where he’ll have the challenging task of replacing departing striker Robert Lewandowski. But if his finishing abilities follow him to Germany, then the Bundesliga, and Europe in general, may be looking at one of the best strikers in the world. The 24-year-old’s 22 goals in 29 league appearances showed that he’s on his way to becoming a consistent goal-scorer, assuming he gets enough support from his teammates. And though Torino did play above expectations, it’s fair to assume that Immobile’s production may further improve once he’s surrounded with more established, and, quite frankly, better players—something he’ll experience at his new club.
With Italy, the situation may be a bit more difficult. Lightning rod Mario Balotelli will more than likely get to start as one of the team’s strikers, leaving only one place up for grabs next to him (this of course assuming Italy line-up with a two-striker formation). In the past, Balotelli worked rather well with Antonio Cassano, who is also in the squad, so Immobile may have to impress at the first chance he gets before being put on the bench in favor of the 29-year-old forward. The good news is that Cassano is probably Immobile’s only competition for the spot, and, considering Balotelli’s attitude, it’s not inconceivable that he gets relegated to the bench at some point, too.
In Immobile, Italy has a pretty complete striker. Alongside Balotelli, he may be asked to play more of a poacher’s role since Balo likes to roam around, leaving the forward spaces unoccupied. However, if needed, Immobile can also drift back himself, and offer link-up play with the more attacking midfielders and overlapping full-backs, while also having the ability to unleash some long-shots when opportunity presents itself. Like Balotelli, discipline can sometimes be an issue with Immobile, having picked up 12 bookings in Serie A this past season (one of them being a sending off). But If he’s banging in the goals like he did for Torino, I’m sure that Cesare Prandelli will be a bit more willing to look past that.
Watch him absolutely abuse poor Daniele Bonera before opening up his body and calmly slotting the ball past Christian Abbiati, and salivate at the finishing ability that he might bring Italy at the World Cup:
Raphael Varane, France
Varane really burst onto the scene in 2012-13 under then Real Madrid head coach Jose Mourinho. And, though he wasn’t favored over Pepe this season after new head coach Carlo Ancelotti took over (and while battling injuries), Varane still showed his immense potential. Watching him on a regular basis, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he only just turned 21 because of how composed and intelligent he already is. His understanding of the game is well beyond his years and experience, and it won’t be too long before he becomes Sergio Ramos’ regular center-back partner for Real Madrid. Meanwhile, at the international level, he already seems like a surefire starter for France.
Comfortable on the ball, Varane can fit into any side’s style-of-play, as he’s more than capable of slowing the game down and passing the ball to a teammate rather than launching it up-field for a clearance. Of course, when a clearance is needed, he’s just fine, as his stature and strength are already very formidable (he stands 6’3” and weighs around 170 lbs.) even at such a young age, with still room for growth. Perhaps his greatest—and most surprising—skill already is his anticipation. He’s not the fastest center-back you’ll see (though speed isn’t an issue), which so his ability to avoid getting beaten to a spot says a lot about his understanding of positioning and angles. And, on the rare occasions that he does fall behind, he’ll still surprise you with excellent recovery speed and an uncanny ability to win the ball back with timely tackles.
When Zinedine Zidane recommended that Real Madrid sign Varane, he clearly saw something special in his fellow countryman; however, it’s hard to imagine that even Zizou himself expected the then teenager to develop so quickly. He’s not quite at the elite level yet (though it’s more than fair to argue that the main reason for that is an injury holding him back this season), but there isn’t much to suggest that Varane can’t reach that level in the next few seasons, or maybe even this upcoming season. And who knows, maybe the true beginning of his superstardom starts this Summer in Brazil.
While pondering that, enjoy a video showcasing Varane’s abilities, and keep in mind that you’re watching highlights of a player who turned 21 in April: