Will Giles makes an obligatory, usual suspects-free list of players that have the potential to become the stories of the tournament.
In world football, there are those who can finish better than Arturo Vidal. There are also players that can run faster, defend harder and dribble quicker.
What no-one can claim to surpass the Chilean at, however, is everything at once.
The definitive all-rounder, having Vidal in your team is tantamount to picking Mario in his namesake karting game solely because his stats are all as equally adequate as each other.
But whilst labelling someone a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ can come with a ‘master of none’ caveat, this is not the case with Vidal. Last season the 27-year-old scored 18 goals (five of which came in the Champions League – more than van Persie or Cavani), accumulated five assists, averaged 4.1 tackles a game (the eighth highest in Europe’s top five leagues), had an 83.1% pass success rate and made 66 key passes. Clearly, the midfielder’s reputation as football’s best multi-tasker comes not from him being merely competent at a number of the game’s aspects, but from being extremely good at most of them.
Admittedly, it is hardly going out on a limb to suggest that a member of Serie A’s team of the year will shine at the World Cup, but those who do not follow Italian football will be unfamiliar with the man those in Turin call ‘The Warrior’. However, if Vidal is back to his dynamic best following a knee operation, then don’t be surprised to see him and his swashbuckling Chile team advance out of a group containing Spain and the Netherlands, and into the international spotlight.
Any preview of the impact Ivan Rakitić can have at the World Cup need really only consist of this backheel flick (and subsequent assist) against Real Madrid last season.
However, there is actually more to his game than the best piece of aerial trickery from a Croatian since Davor Šuker made Peter Schmeichel wish he’d never gone up for that corner.
An all-action attacking midfielder in the Aaron Ramsey mould, Rakitić responded to being handed the Sevilla captaincy with a breakthrough season, scoring 13 goals and leading his side to Europa League glory. His driving runs and sumptuous passes were so regular a sight last season that he was awarded a place in the La Liga team of the year, and Rakitić will look to continue that form alongside Luka Modrić in a formidable looking Croatian midfield.
As far as his previous international efforts are concerned, though, Rakitić is perhaps best remembered by his countrymen for his headed group-stage miss against Spain, a goal which would have not undeservedly put the Croats through at the expense of the defending European champions.
Rakitić will go to the World Cup desperate to atone for squandering that chance, and the likelihood is he will get the opportunity to do so against Spain in the second round. He will also go to the World Cup on the cusp of a €20 million move to Barcelona, viewed by the Catalonian club as an ideal replacement for the departing Fàbregas. However, if he replicates his club form in Brazil, that price tag will increasingly look like the bargain of the summer.
Ángel di María
When playing for club or country, Ángel di María often finds himself in someone else’s shadow. Being at Real Madrid brings inevitable comparisons with Ronaldo and Bale, whilst his exploits for Argentina will always be eclipsed by what Messi does or doesn’t do.
Consequently, the former Benfica man is often underrated and under appreciated by many. Bearing an undeniable resemblance to a goblin, di María scuttles about the pitch as if he were chasing dwarves through a Tolkienian mine, enabling him to provide defensive cover as quickly as he does attacking impetus – a vital attribute when your more illustrious teammates are loath to track back.
Indeed, this season has seen di María develop into arguably the leading member of Madrid’s supporting cast. Moved into a more central position by Ancelotti, the Argentinean has since shown an inexhaustible desire to work for his teammates, demonstrated best by his 22 assists – the most by any player in Europe last season.
The most famous of those 22 was his indirect cross for Bale’s decisive header in the Champions League final, a game in which di María was named Man of the Match. Despite this, and the fact that it was his glorious run that brought Bale’s goal about, the headlines went with the world’s most expensive player, ensuring that di María would once more remain the bridesmaid.
Playing behind Messi, Agűero and Higuaín at the World Cup means that he is unlikely to be the bride anytime soon either. However, his ability to play the role of chief provider means he is the man who can finally make Argentina’s attacking talents click – if di María performs well, then his countrymen probably will as well. And who knows – di María may just decide to seize Brazil 2014 as his own chance to be the star man, and no-one should doubt that he has the talent to do so.
Franck Ribéry’s departure from France’s World Cup set up is undoubtedly a blow to their aspirations, but it is a blow softened by the international emergence of Real Sociedad winger Antoine Griezmann.
Devastatingly quick, technically exemplary and very fond of beating a defender, Griezmann is something of a ready-made replacement for Ribéry – he can even court controversy like Franck, having been banned from the national team for a year after being caught on a night out before a training session.
Of course, Griezmann does not possess all the qualities that saw Ribéry nominated for the Ballon d’Or, but he is a player used to shouldering responsibility – his 16 goals last season were a remarkable 25% of his side’s overall tally, and he is starting to develop into a talismanic figure.
Although not nailed-on to start France’s first game against Honduras, if he does Griezmann will occupy the left side of the French attack, from where he will not only cut inside and run at opponents, but also drive down the line to make the most of his stronger left foot. Indeed, Griezmann has a number of dimensions to his game, and having watched the Sociedad winger exhibit them in a recent goalscoring appearance against Paraguay, Arsène Wenger was prompted to liken him to his former charge Robert Pirès.
If Griezmann goes on to justify the Arsenal manager’s comparison, then current concern over Ribèry’s absence may well become a rather insignificant memory.
As Atlético Madrid have quite emphatically shown this season, losing Radamel Falcao isn’t quite the catastrophe it may appear to be.
The striker’s injury was a national disaster for Colombians, but the absence of a dominant focal point like Falcao can sometimes encourage a team to play more expansive, multi-dimensional football. It can also provide previously neglected players with a chance to shine, and Colombia now have a host of attacking talents that can not only banish memories of a decade without a World Cup, but also any lingering, Falcao-related grief.
Monaco’s James Rodríguez is most likely to assume the mantle of star man. Signed for €45 million from Porto, Rodríguez is the string-puller in chief for both club and country, and Colombia’s chances will now rest heavily on his considerable ability to bisect defences and create chances.
To the side of him will be Juan Cuadrado, an extremely quick winger who scored 13 times for Fiorentina last season. Together with Rodríguez he will form an explosive attacking midfield that is very capable of scoring goals or laying them on.
Ahead of these two are Jackson Martínez, Adrián Ramos, Teófilo Gutiérrez and Carlos Bacca, all of whom can capitalise on Cuadrado Rodríguez’s creativity.Martínez is a player of genuine Champions League pedigree, and has scored 46 goals in 60 games for Porto. Ramos will go to the World Cup having signed for Borussia Dortmund as a replacement for Robert Lewandowski, Gutiérrez is the most prolific international goal scorer of the quarter, and Bacca has just enjoyed a breakout campaign at Sevilla, scoring 18 goals in his first season.
It is uncertain which of these strikers will directly replace Falcao as leading striker, but together these six players can lift Colombia to heights they haven’t experienced since reaching the last 16 in 1990, and very possibly even further.