Geared up for the grand stage

Yaya Toure will be the driving force of the Ivory Coast team.-AP

The World Cup has its own knack of providing the platform for many a budding talent to emerge and established names to further their reputation, outside the coterie of world famous names. N. Sudarshan picks his 10 favourites, who are expected to do well at Brazil 2014.

Not all World Cup fairytales need a Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie to embellish them. For, the tournament has its own knack of providing the platform for many a budding talent to emerge and established names to further their reputation, outside the coterie of world famous names.

Here is a look at 10 players, some of whom could make their careers, some who could show their talent to a wider audience and others who still run the show, holding off a glut of talent emerging around them.

Thibaut Courtois (Belgium, Goalkeeper)

Jose Mourinho called him “the best young keeper in the world” and if one goes by his remarkable shot-stopping ability, it is tough to look beyond him. He saved 87 percent of shots, the best percentage among UEFA goalkeepers in the qualifying (minimum five games). Rock solid in Atletico Madrid’s La Liga title triumph and its run to the Champions League final, the 22-year-old has built up a stellar reputation that has now resulted in Chelsea, his parent club, wanting to recall him, in spite of Courtois saying he has no ‘emotional attachment' towards the club.

Leighton Baines (England, Defender)

The 29-year-old Everton left-back has had to bide his time as an understudy for long. He has now been pitch-forked into a starting role after Ashley Cole was not chosen by manager Roy Hodgson. He played an important role in Everton’s fifth-place finish in the Premier League with five goals and four assists, the most by any defender in the league. A threat from set-pieces from outside the penalty area, Baines’ overlapping play on the flank ensures that the attacking flair provided for so long by Cole continues.

Philipp Lahm (Germany, Defender)

Germany’s captain for the second straight World Cup, Philipp Lahm, even in a side replete with stars, is still as important as ever. The versatile 30-year-old can play both at the left-back and defensive midfield positions, though it’s still unclear where manager Joachim Loew will use him. For now, that is the least of Lahm’s worries. After having faced defeat in the semi-finals, both in 2006 and 2010, Lahm, for whom this could be the last World Cup, looks determined to go all out for glory. “I don’t want to get eliminated in the semi-finals again or to just travel to Brazil to enjoy the sun. I have a clear goal, and that is certainly the greatest possible success — the World Cup trophy,” he said.

Juanfran (Spain, Defender)

For someone, who won the Golden Player award at the UEFA European under-19 championship in 2004, Juanfran made his international debut only in May 2012 and has since made six appearances. But he goes into 2014 World Cup on the back of an outstanding campaign for Atletico Madrid, which has attracted a lot of suitors for the 29-year-old right-back. For now, he remains fiercely committed to his club and with a starting role in the national side looking likely; this could well be the year when his international career finally blooms.

Oscar (Brazil, Midfielder)

2013 was the year in which Oscar, the 22-year-old Brazilian playmaker, emerged as Chelsea’s key player. So much so that he was tipped to become Europe’s “most selfless, responsible playmaker.” That he oozes creativity is a given. He adds value with his excellent work rate, which endeared him to Jose Mourinho, who expects his players to press and track back. With an intrinsic ability to score goals, he, as a No. 10, is expected to excel.

Fernando Gago (Argentina, Midfielder)

In a side containing Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero, it is easy for many to not see Fernando Gago as a star. But when the man is injured, a natural replacement is hard to find, as Argentina is experiencing now, while fretting over his fitness. Offence or defence, his is a crucial role. Often on the counter, the killer pass which releases Di Maria, Messi, Higuan et al would be his. Argentina’s shaky back four means, Gago along with Javier Mascherano, has the job of shielding the defence. So important is he, that even when half-fit he can be expected to go to Brazil.

Blaise Matuidi (France, Midfielder)

France scored just 18 goals throughout the qualifying campaign. Yet it qualified owing to a stupendous defensive effort with Blaise Matuidi leading the way. With 2.5 tackles and 4.0 interceptions for every 90 minutes (minimum five appearances), it was he, who gave the powerful French midfield (Paul Pogba and Yohan Cabaye being the others) the edge. An equally important figure for Paris Saint-Germain, Matuidi, is set to showcase his talent, which was limited to the French audience so far, on a wider canvas.

Andrea Pirlo (Italy, Midfielder)

Coach Cesare Prandelli is expected to focus on three formations — the 3-5-2, 4-3-1-2 and 4-5-1. But in all, Andrea Pirlo is the key man and integral to showcase the positive brand of football, Prandelli has introduced. England manager Roy Hodgson summed it up the best when he said, “In the last 10 years, he has made Italy play.” In Italy’s run to the final in EURO 2012, Pirlo was magnificent, picking up three man-of-the-matches in the six games he played. He comes into what will be his last World Cup on the back of an impressive season for Juventus. The only worry will be whether his legs can hold up for 90 minutes, because of his advancing age (35).

Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast, Midfielder)

In Manchester City’s title winning season, Yaya Toure was the most important player. Even for Ivory Coast he will be expected to make the difference in big games, like he did at City. The team will most probably lineup in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Toure taking the No. 10 role. Toure was once an occasional scorer. But in 2013-14 he scored 20 goals for City — a phenomenal feat for a midfielder. With Toure at his peak he can well propel Ivory Coast to the round-of-16 and beyond.

Son Heung-Min (South Korea, Forward)

South Korea’s Son Heung-Min best embodies the youthful nature of his team at the World Cup. The 21-year-old striker, blessed with plenty of speed, has already played 23 games for his country, just like how Ki Sung-Yueng and Lee Chung-Yong, both only 25, have been capped more than 50 times.

After having been bought by Bayer Leverkusen last season for Euro 10million, a club record, he hasn’t disappointed, recording 12 goals and seven assists. Adept at shooting off both feet, he can either play as a first striker, a second striker or on the right side of a three-man offence.