Wednesday 12 December 2018

Who will be the Maradona or Pele of the 2018 World Cup? France and Belgium stars lead the way

Griezmann, Hazard, Mbappe and De Bruyne
Griezmann, Hazard, Mbappe and De Bruyne
Eden Hazard all alone with his thoughts before training yesterday. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

Daniel McDonnell in Russia

The big question: when the documentary of this thrilling World Cup is made, whose image will adorn the cover?

What star name will always be synonymous with Russia 2018 in the way that you cannot tell the story of 1958 without Pele, or 1986 without Diego Maradona or 1998, and maybe even 2006, without Zinedine Zidane?

The two most recent winners of the tournament, Spain and Germany, have been notable for the strength of the collective, the spread of talent; a great generation of players rather than a great player propelling a team to new heights.

This time, it might just be different, even if we have already waved goodbye to the most likely candidates.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo just about made it home before the postcards. Neymar's pain became a cause for worldwide celebration, such has been the swiftness of his transformation from the next big thing to a pantomime villain with the charm of a mosquito bite.

But, in St Petersburg tonight, the 'strong' half of the draw has thrown up a semi-final that could bestow greatness on the guiding forces for the victors.

France and Belgium have deep squads that should mark them out as superior to Croatia and England, but they each have two attacking talents that are capable of becoming the stars of the 1990s' generation. The surnames already function as an introduction.

Belgium have Hazard and De Bruyne. France have Mbappe and Griezmann. This is a fascinating contest within a contest.

It is Belgium who probably need more from their creative geniuses, as there's a niggling sense that this French side has the strength to prevail by doing just enough. Roberto Martinez's team can blow hot and cold.

Romelu Lukaku is an invaluable asset too and his power-packed showing on the right side against Brazil was a pivotal element in victory but they need an on-song Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne to really make them tick.

Elite

They were both born in 1991 and their fathers dabbled in professional football - Hazard's mother was a high-level player too, yet they have taken slightly contrasting routes to the top.

For Hazard, the passage to elite status was relatively straightforward, with consistency the only issue since his switch from Lille to Chelsea in 2012.

His explosive ability and close control torment opponents. In full flight, he's hard to stop, a master in the art of dribbling, but it's not always edge of the seat; take for example the little jink and change of direction which was followed by a precise cross for Marouane Fellaini's vital header against Japan.

When he is fully switched on, he is perhaps the Premier League's most dangerous attacker.

However, De Bruyne, who had to sit from the bench and watch Hazard during his brief spell at Chelsea, was the outstanding performer across the entirety of last season.

Mo Salah's late flourish scooped the individual honours and that was warmly embraced by the the healthy Liverpool contingent that has a strong voice in the media. He was brilliant, of course and has the likeability factor but De Bruyne's overall body of work was better. Much as he plays in a superior side, Manchester City were significantly weakened on the rare occasions he was absent.

He can frustrate and be prone to indolence. Anger with team-mates is thinly disguised. There were even calls to drop him when he was casual in the period of the Japan game where Belgium looked set for a humiliating exit. But, when it came to the crunch, he calmly delivered the perfectly weighted ball that paved the way for the winner.

The manager that consciously benched De Bruyne would have to be referred for concussion assessment. Martinez was never going to do that, and gave him more attacking responsibility against Brazil, a move that was rewarded with the technically perfect strike that turned out to be the winner.

"His level of execution is excellent," said the manager.

His old coach at Genk, Hein Vanhaezebrouck, once likened De Bruyne to Johan Cruyff. "These guys see things that seem easy, but which other guys are never going to see," he said.

De Bruyne is not an avid football viewer in his spare time and that's why he knew little of Kylian Mbappe before Man City played Monaco in a Champions League tie 18 months ago. That subject came up yesterday when Belgium rolled the comfortable talker out for pre-match press duties.

"At the time I didn't know him but he's a huge star now," said De Bruyne, "And he can even improve, in the next 15 years, if that's possible."

Kylian Mbappe's attributes are visible to the untrained eye; there's a devastating turn of pace that is a throwback to Belgium assistant boss Thierry Henry. But the 19-year-old also has the ability to wriggle out of tight areas and emerge with the ball.

Ireland's squad could talk of little else after the recent friendly with France in Paris. Jon Walters has been around the Premier League for the guts of a decade and said the youngster was as sharp and as fast as any player he'd encountered in his career.

Mbappe fits the bill of superstar, in the sense that he's already hit levels that the average pro will never hit and that is before his journey has properly started.

After running riot against Argentina, he found it harder against a Uruguay side that gave him special treatment and that will become the norm.

In truth, he is already well used to that at domestic level in France. Even De Bruyne spoke of how Belgium will have to find a way to neutralise him.

The loss of Thomas Meunier at wing-back is a complication for Belgium; Mbappe's PSG clubmate would have asked questions of Mbappe going the other way and Martinez has to find a solution that doesn't leave his side vulnerable to the quick counter.

But even if this goes wrong for Mbappe, he will get another chance. In fact, he might only be in his prime for 2026.

For Antoine Griezmann - another '91 child - there is a pressing need to seize the moment. He has been the least impressive of the quartet here, and made the questionable decision to confirm his club future in a documentary that went out during the first week of the tournament.

Loyal

Griezmann has remained loyal to Atletico Madrid and might not be as thrilling to watch as the others. Two years ago at Euro 2016 his end product was what mattered, an innate ability to find himself in the right place at the right time, although it deserted him in the final where he was subdued.

As a youth, he faced doubts over his size and his frame and he began his professional career in the Spanish second division. Over time, he has bloomed into a top-echelon performer; an all-round talent who is good at most things rather than exceptional in one area.

Didier Deschamps mulled over going with Mbappe and Griezmann as a pair, yet opted to go with Olivier Giroud as a focal point, with the star duo playing off him. That's the solution that has worked for the team.

Martinez kept returning to the collective in the course of his ruminations, and the World Cup can throw up unlikely heroes.

Mbappe was stunning against Argentina, yet the golden moment came from unheralded right-full Benjamin Pavard. Belgium wouldn't have made it this far without Fellaini.

But the opportunity is there to be grabbed. In a wide-open and dramatic World Cup, there's still room for a leading man.

Maybe it could be Luka Modric. Possibly even Harry Kane. But the gut feeling is that the plot for the final act will be shaped by what unfolds tonight.

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