2014 World Cup: Stars to watch out for

Brazil 2014 promises to be an enthralling affair, with a profusion of young footballing stars waiting to take the big stage by storm. By Brian Glanville.

Which players will emerge as major figures in the coming World Cup? Brazil, who have been installed by book-makers as the favourites, may find it something of a burden. Memories persist there of the gigantic anticlimax of 1950, the first and last time the World Cup took place there, when red hot favourites to win the last decisive match against Uruguay in the huge Maracana Stadium, they lost to their traditional foes 2-1. This wasn’t the official final. A madman’s flytrap of a tournament meant that it was “officially” the final game in a group of four surviving teams.

For four years, Brazil, as hosts, have been playing only friendly matches with the exception of the Confederations Cup, which they duly won on their own soil. Huge hopes will rest on the slim shoulders of Neymar, outstandingly the finest Brazilian talent to emerge since the last World Cup, supremely elusive, a consummate ball player, capable of drifting dangerously out to the left, compensating for the fact that Brazil, once famous for superb wingers, now play without them.

Uruguay will rely heavily on the power, finesse and deadly shooting of Luis Suarez, at present scoring goals in abundance for Liverpool. In the last World Cup, he disgraced himself in the game against Ghana by punching out a shot that was going into Uruguay’s goal, then standing on the sidelines exulting when Ghana missed the penalty. In England, he incurred a long suspension for biting an opponent. In form, he looks irresistible, yet Uruguay finished only fifth in their qualifying group and having thrashed feeble Jordan 5-0 away in their first playoff game, they inexplicably drew the return 0-0 in Montevideo.

Other things being equal, you would expect Argentina’s Lionel Messi to play a crucial role in their attack, which, indeed, he does for Barcelona, where Neymar has done so well in his first season. But Messi’s performance in South Africa was disappointingly muted. Arguably because, instead of having the free roving role which he enjoys with Barcelona, he was confined to playing on the left wing.

With Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero in devastating form this season, and Carlos Tevez still a notable attacking force, it is a little unlikely that Messi will be able to wander at will as he does for Barca; Higuain being another strong candidate for the attack.

England’s recent results at Wembley have been dismal, but if their manager, Roy Hodgson, is prepared to be brave, there are two young gifted players who could make substantial difference. The 20-year-old Everton midfielder Ross Barkley has been a revelation this season, even if his team-mate, the England centre back Phil Jagielka, has said that Barkley has still to work on aspects of his game. But he is strong, quick and well balanced, passes with effect, and can burst through from behind the sole striker. His Everton manager, Robert Martinez, eulogises him, even comparing him with the multi-talented Paul Gascoigne, though “we need to give him time.” Well, the greatest of all players, Pele, was 17 when he excelled for Brazil in the 1958 World Cup finals. In their present mediocre state, England can hardly look a potential gift horse in the mouth.

The Southampton left back Luke Shaw is only 18, but his precocious form this season has surely made him a serious international candidate. He is quick in mind and movement, overlaps with aplomb and at this moment looks a better potential bet than the veteran Ashley Cole, troubled by injuries, and even Everton’s attacking left back, Leighton Baines, unimpressive at Wembley against Germany.

Another young English player, Jack Wilshere of Arsenal, could come into his own in Brazil. There has never been any doubt about his ability, above all his passing, so sadly lacking among English midfielders at large. Injuries have troubled his career, but of late he has been looking a dominant and decisive figure, adding striking power to his constructive abilities.

Italy will hope that Mario Balotelli repeats the form he showed in the European Championship. His temperament is permanently in doubt, but of his abilities there is no doubt at all. Controversially, he did not even go to the last World Cup, the then manager of the Azzurri, Marcello Lippi, evidently deterred by Balotelli’s explosive disciplinary record. Arguably it proved an expensive error, with Italy badly lacking drive in attack.

Germany must be among the favourites in the finals. They have a powerful, well-balanced, intelligent team with abundant depth. Mesut Ozil was a revelation in the last World Cup finals, elegant, incisive, a fine passer of the ball, and an ever effective finisher. Arsenal paid Real Madrid a fortune for him near the transfer deadline, and in the event it has hardly seemed excessive.

Meanwhile, we can assume that Cristiano Ronaldo, largely thanks to whom Portugal have squeezed into the finals, will again represent a threat to any opponent, with his cornucopia of skills, his pace, his elusive footwork, his deadly finishing with foot or head. One man traditionally may not make a team, but Ronaldo can decide any match.

Belgium? Beware of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku in attack.