It is with such sweet sorrow that we bid adieu and obrigado to the most wonderful of World Cup group stages, at least in my time watching the tournament. We witnessed some of the most incredible goals you’re likely to see in a World Cup and in total, just the 139 goals were scored, a modern day record. But what has been the most amazing aspect of the tournament so far has been that almost every one of the so-called “big players” has delivered for their respective nations. So I’ve gone an compiled a list of some of the best of the World Cup so far.
Arjen Robben – Netherlands
The Bayern Munich man has probably been the most impressive player in the World Cup so far. His link-up play with with his Dutch compatriots Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and others like Danny Blind and Nigel de Jong has been outstanding. In three games, he has the best player in two of them, and in the game he wasn’t he still managed to score one of the finest goals in the tournament. He has notched three goals so far and assisted a few more too. At 30-years old he’s still clocking up speeds that are rivalling if not besting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. It’s either the ‘Van Gaal Effect’ or it’s EPO. Either way it’s working.
Lionel Messi – Argentina
Coming into this tournament the best player of all time had a heap of pressure on his still quite young shoulders. This idiocy that he has to win the World Cup to be considered as good as, if not better, than Diego Maradona or Pelé has caused this. Argentina were most people’s favourites to win the tournament and while they haven’t been all that impressive in their three group games, they did win all three. But most importantly, Lionel Messi, captain fantastic, lead by example, winning the Man of the Match award in all three games and scoring four goals in the process. He’s the joint-leading goalscorer in the World Cup now after only scoring once in his previous two Copa Mundials. He’s getting better and you would have to fear for Switzerland in the Round of 16.
James Rodriguez – Colombia
“Hamez” Rodriguez, as the correct pronunciation of his name actually goes, is probably just behind Arjen Robben for me in the race for the Golden Boot. He has been the best player for the best team in the tournament so far in Colombia. Winning all three games, including trouncing Greece (3-0) and Japan (4-1), the young Monaco maestro has seen his stock rise drastically this June ensuring he is to be linked with any big team with one of those so-called ‘war chest’ transfer kitties. Rodriguez has scored three goals in three games so far, with one of them being one of the finest efforts of the tournament so far when dinked past the Japanese keeper in their final group game. A true world class star in the making and I fully expect another big performance when he and Colombia knock out Uruguay in the Round of 16.
Neymar – Brazil
Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney maybe have had unnecessary pressure on their shoulders, but none of those three have had it nearly as bad as young Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. Simply put, anything but a Brazilian triumph on Brazilian soil is a disaster and the 22-year old is being tasked with more or less being the difference between failure and hysteria. Most 22-year olds would likely wilt under such pressure, but thankfully for not just Brazilians but those of us watching around the world, he has delivered. Boy has he delivered. In three games, Neymar Jr. has scored four goals and is the leading goal scorer in the tournament beside his idol and Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi. Brazil have motored along and look to be improving, but from minute one it is Neymar that has been their get out. He is a class act and I expect him to shine once again when Brazil beat Chile this Saturday. Dream scenario? Brazil versus Argentina in the World Cup Final. Neymar versus Messi for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball.
Robin van Persie – Netherlands
For me, the flying Dutchman has the goal of the tournament so far. That salmon-leap header from Danny Blind’s fantastic long-ball past a hapless Iker Casillas during the Netherlands’ 5-1 thrashing of Spain will linger long in the memory. He scored again in that game and then another – a typical RVP blast into the roof of the net – in their 3-2 win over Australia. Missing the Netherlands’ final group game against Chile, which the Dutch won 2-0, his absence was noted. Three goals in two games and his awesome partnership with Robben will ensure Mexico struggle to overcome van Gaal’s team in the Round of 16. I expect them to go through and van Persie to be right up there in the running for at least the Golden Boot.
Karim Benzema – France
France has been one of the surprise packages of the tournament so far. After a below-par qualifying campaign and not really doing anything of merit on the world stage since Zidane headbutted Materazzi in 2006, they came in with low expectations in terms of those of us looking in. What we’ve seen though is, at least in two of the games, and exciting France side brimming with talent that are actually gelling. Leading the line is Real Madrid’s oft-maligned Karim Benzema who has notched three goals in three games and been outstanding for Les Bleus. A second round match against Nigeria shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate but it’s the potential of a quarter final against Germany that could see them come unstuck. Benzema probably won’t end up with either the Golden Boot or Ball but he has been the star in a resurgent France side that were disgraced at the last World Cup.
Alexis Sanchez – Chile
Barcelona look likely to lose this little genius this Summer but whoever gets him signed up will be getting a legitimate star. Lost in the chasm of Barcelona’s dearth of talent, he has flourished in a Chile side that is centred around Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas and himself. He’s exciting to watch and is at the heart of everything great about this class Chilean side. A big test comes next for him in the shape of Brazil’s defensive partnership of Thiago Silva and David Luiz and a Brazil side Chile haven’t fared well against in the recent past. They were knocked out of the World Cup in this exact fixture four years ago in South Africa. If they can navigate Brazil it sets up a game against Colombia most likely in the quarter finals and then either Germany or France in the semis. And then, who knows? Big problem facing Chile is that Eamon Dunphy has tipped them to win it all. So for that, I’m going with Brazil to knock them out. But in the meanwhile, let’s enjoy Sanchez, the best Alexis since Ms. Texas.