On the big stage

The World Cup provides the scope for players to display their talentson the HIGHEST STAGE. ANDY HAMPSON looks at the potential stars — youngsters and veterans alike — of Germany 2006.

RONALDINHO

Few doubt he is the best player in the world. The Barcelona star captured worldwide attention at the last World Cup but has gone on to become an even better player and looks destined to join the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona as a legend of the game. A wonderfully-gifted footballer, Ronaldinho is technically brilliant. He allies his flicks and tricks with a deadly attacking intent and is just about the most feared player on the planet.

He has pace, great vision and a strong finish — and such is Brazil's vast array of attacking talent that Ronaldinho is virtually impossible to contain. Any defence focusing too much on stopping him could do so at their peril — with the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka, Adriano and Robinho creating a mouth-watering forward line.

Born Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, he is better known as Ronaldinho — which means little Ronaldo to distinguish from his team-mate. He will be 26 by the time of the tournament and nearing the peak of his powers. He has already won one World Cup but could step up and be the real star of this one. There are certainly few experts looking beyond his team to win it again.

MICHAEL BALLACK

Attacking midfielder Ballack carries the host nation's hopes into the tournament. The Bayern Munich lynchpin, who has been linked most feverishly with Chelsea, is perhaps the one truly world-class player in the German ranks.

Ballack began his professional career with Kaiserslautern before catching the eye in Bayer Leverkusen's run to the Champions League final in 2002. He moved to Bayern the following summer and has been their captain for the past two years.

He is a highly versatile player, who — although most comfortable directing affairs and getting forward from central positions — is equally adept defensively. With his Bayern contract coming to an end, it remains unclear where the 29-year-old will play next. But his summer World Cup role is already well defined.

Germany have some good young players coming through, and Ballack is the figure to guide them. He has been a regular international for the past seven years and is the man Juergen Klinsmann will build his side around. He and Oliver Kahn dragged an otherwise mediocre Germany to the 2002 final, but they are certainly a better team now. With Ballack pulling the strings, the home fans have a right to feel confident.

DAVID VILLA

Diminutive Spanish striker Villa has been a big hit since Valencia took a gamble to buy him from Real Zaragoza for GBP 8 million last summer. The quick, skilful forward won the Copa Del Rey with Zaragoza in 2004 after joining them the previous year from Sporting Gijon.

Plying his trade at the Mestalla, where he has settled in seamlessly, Villa has attracted the attention of Spain coach Luis Aragones. His form this season has been better than that of Spanish stalwarts Raul, Fernando Torres and Fernando Morientes — but whether Aragones bows to public pressure and gives Villa a starting role remains to be seen.

The 24-year-old has fulfilled his potential since joining Los Che, fitting in perfectly with Quique Sanchez Flores' style of play, with old-fashioned wingers given the freedom to get forward and Argentinian play-maker Pablo Aimar operating behind him.

Villa is as equally capable of scoring instinctive, poacher's goals as he is of striking spectacularly — which seems to have become a habit. His winner at home to Deportivo La Coruna this season — when he spotted goalkeeper Jose Molina out of his goal and netted from the halfway line — was especially eye-catching.

Former Valencia boss Rafael Benitez had been keen to take Villa to Liverpool.

LIONEL MESSI

The 18-year-old rising star of Argentinian football has made quite a name for himself after breaking into the Barcelona first team over the past year. Messi moved to Barcelona with his parents at the age of 11, initially to seek treatment for a hormone deficiency. His footballing talent soon became obvious, and he was on the books of Barcelona from the age of 13. He became the third youngest player to make the first team in October 2004 — and even though he has been used sparingly, he has made a big impression.

As a Spanish citizen, he was offered the opportunity to play for that country but opted for the country of his birth — where his talent has already been compared to that of Diego Maradona.

Such comparisons may be premature, but Messi would seem to be a midfielder with a big future.

He may be of diminutive stature but he is prodigiously talented with pace, flair and a great passing range. He also gets forward and finishes well.

ANDRIY SHEVCHENKO

Former European Footballer of the Year Shevchenko finally gets a crack at the World Cup, after helping Ukraine qualify for the first time. It is certainly a fitting stage for one of the greatest strikers of the modern era. Shevchenko has enjoyed considerable success at club level and deserves the chance to shine in a World Cup.

Shevchenko made his name with Dynamo Kiev before going on to win Serie A and Champions League titles with AC Milan. He has an outstanding record at the San Siro and was named as the continent's finest player in 2004. The 29-year-old leads by example. He adds a formidable edge to a strong attacking line-up, which includes his former Dynamo team-mate and one-time Tottenham striker Sergei Rebrov.

Shevchenko has the strength, technique and pace to trouble the world's best defenders — and Ukraine will be fancied to come through a group featuring Spain, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. He does have his off-days, though, as Liverpool fans will attest. Shevchenko had a glorious chance to win the 2005 Champions League final but saw his effort saved by Jerzy Dudek. He followed up by missing in the penalty shoot-out.

FREDDY ADU

Adu is still very much one for the future. But such is the hype surrounding the Ghanaian-born American forward that a media scrum will probably follow his every move. Adu's prodigious talent has seen him making headlines since the age of 10 when he was offered a six-figure contract with Inter Milan.

Adu chose to stay in the United States and develop his talents there and signed a professional contract with Major League Soccer side DC United when 14. Not surprisingly for one so young, it proved a big step-up and it was even unfairly suggested he might not be all he was cracked up to be. But he has begun to find his feet and made his USA debut early in 2006. Having turned 17 on June 2, the age at which Premiership clubs can sign players on professional contracts, the big English clubs are now starting to take interest. Not surprisingly, Chelsea appear to be heading the queue.

Adu may not feature prominently in the tournament, but that will not stop him from commanding attention with clubs sure to be jostling for his signature.

PAVEL NEDVED

At 33, Nedved is a veteran, but he is the creative heartbeat of the Czech Republic side after returning from international retirement. The Czechs are a powerful team but Nedved adds something extra with his dynamic runs from midfield and incisive passing. Nedved, who was then captain, stepped down from national duty after Euro 2004 but made himself available for the conclusion of World Cup qualifying a year later. Germany will be his fourth major tournament, after previously featuring in three European Championships.

The former Sparta Prague player also has a fine club career behind him, having won a Serie A title with Lazio and three more with Juventus. He could have won the Champions League but for suspension ruling him out of the 2003 final. His consolation for missing that match was the European Player of the Year award.

The Czechs are one of the strongest sides in Europe and could make an impression as they play their first World Cup since the partition of Czechoslovakia.

THIERRY HENRY

France have long been waiting for Thierry Henry to transfer his club form to the international stage — and at 28 his time could be now. Arsenal's record scorer has been the Barclays Premiership's outstanding striker for the past five seasons, but the World Cup is a stage on which the pacy and stylish forward is yet to excel. It is an anomaly the prolific marksman will want to put right, but it may be that France are no longer the force they were.

Henry impressed only fitfully as an inconsistent winger at France 98, and the whole team were below par in the Far East four years later. He has long been firing in goals with great regularity and panache for the Gunners, and the short trip to Germany may just suit him this time.

Henry will surely enjoy being reunited with Patrick Vieira, and with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram out of retirement for one final fling, he might just shine.

ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO

Skilful Juventus forward Del Piero, after two disappointing tournaments, could finally make the impact long expected of him in what, at 31, might well be his third and last World Cup. Del Piero is a creative attacker renowned for his dribbling and finishing — but he often drops back to play behind Italy's frontline strikers.

A fearsome striker of a dead ball, Del Piero has enjoyed a vastly successful career with Juve — winning the Serie A title six times and the Champions League once. His versatility makes him a fearsome weapon, but for some reason he has never quite lived up to his reputation in an Italy shirt.

Expectations were huge for the 1998 World Cup. But injuries and the form of Roberto Baggio kept him quiet, and he is still remembered for missing two fine chances in the Euro 2000 final. The 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 were also disappointing.

Like Henry, Del Piero goes into the tournament on the back of a season in which he has become his club's all-time leading scorer.

He may have been inconsistent for his country, but he must not be under-estimated.

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