Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe gave us a World Cup final for the ages at Lusail Stadium on Sunday night. It felt fitting that two of football’s biggest protagonists took centre stage on the biggest night of the tournament.
But away from the spotlight the two rightly occupy, there were 10 other players that made us sit up and take notice at this World Cup.
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Argentina’s World Cup triumph was built on the performances of a genius up front and the genius Emiliano Martinez between the posts. Martinez has been otherworldly over the past month and the three clean sheets he kept was the highest tally in the tournament.
But Martinez’s true value came in his ability to stand tall under pressure. He made an incredible save in the dying minutes of Argentina’s Round of 16 game to deny Australia an equaliser and saved the Netherlands’s first two penalties in the quarterfinal shootout.
And then, of course, there was his performance in the final.
His save with his feet of Kolo Muani’s shot towards the end of extra time gets better with each viewing. He set the tone in the penalty shootout by saving Kingsley Coman’s attempt and then getting into the head of Aurelian Tchouameni, who shot wide.
The 20-year-old RB Leipzig centre back was arguably the best defender at the tournament. His poise and power formed the bedrock of Croatia’s run to the semifinal.
While Messi ran circles around him in the semifinal, Gvardiol’s response in the subsequent third-place game against Morocco showed his strength of character. A Man of the Match performance, which included a stunning goal from a diving header, made clear why Europe’s biggest clubs are vying for his signature.
The Manchester City starlet scored four goals at this World Cup despite starting the tournament as the backup striker.
What is as impressive as the goals is how different each was. The goal against Poland in the Round of 16 came on the back of a well-worked move he fired into the top corner, the one against Australia came from his doggedness and the brace against Croatia was down to his burst of speed and smart positional play.
He is the perfect foil for Messi in that he is in sync with Messi’s runs and yet occupies different spaces on the pitch.
Going into the World Cup, he was best known as the brother of Nordin Amrabat, the former Watford defender.
But his battling performances for Morocco at this World Cup have made him the toast of the footballing world.
Amrabat was immense in his deep-lying midfielder role. He imposed himself all over the pitch and was the conduit between the backline and the forwards.
His crunching tackle of Mbappe in the semifinal was one of the moments of the tournament.
Jude Bellingham is not just good for his age, he is just plain good.
The 19-year-old played a starring role in England’s World Cup campaign. He started every game, scored their first goal of the tournament against Iran and created the goal that broke the deadlock in their first knockout game.
He is as confident as he is classy. Only Mbappe had more goal-creating actions than Bellingham at this World Cup.
Jude Bellingham, that is magnificent.
— HLTCO (@HLTCO) December 10, 2022
Cody Gakpo was the Netherlands’s best player at this World Cup. In five games, he scored three goals and gave Louis van Gaal’s side the cutting edge they lacked elsewhere on the pitch.
His non-penalty xG was 2.7 – the highest of the tournament.
The 23-year-old has been tearing defences up in the Eredivisie all year but questions remained over his ability to do so in an international tournament.
The naysayers got their answer. Gakpo did not just perform, he thrived.
Griezmann’s role in France’s run to the final cannot be understated. He plugged the hole of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante’s absence with his craft and toil, from a deeper role than we are used to seeing him in.
His playmaking allowed Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot to focus on their defensive responsibilities.
Griezmann’s tracking back and ability to win loose balls only furthered his importance to this France team.
Musiala was the only bright spot in Germany’s dismal World Cup campaign.
The 19-year-old was electric in midfield and, at times, it felt like he was carrying the team.
His best performance came against Spain in the group stages. While his teammates’ heads drooped around him after Spain’s opener, Musiala remained positive and continued to probe the Spanish defence. Unsurprisingly, he played a key role in their late equaliser.
If Germany are to bounce back from their debacle of successive group-stage exits, they need to build the team around him.
Cameroon’s captain was one of the heroes of the group stages.
With Cameroon 3-1 down to Serbia and on the brink of elimination, Aboubakar entered the fray as a second-half substitute and turned the game on his head. He emphatically chipped the keeper to pull a goal back and then provided the assist for the equaliser.
In their final game against Brazil, he scored an injury-time winner and gave Cameroon their first World Cup win in 20 years. His celebration after that goal will become a part of World Cup folklore.
Brazil’s shock exit in the quarterfinal has wiped clean everything that came in their campaign before. So, it is easy to forget Richarlison’s inspired performances in the earlier rounds.
Leading the line for Brazil in a World Cup is not easy but Richarlison rose to the occasion. Quite literally, in fact. His acrobatic scissor kick in Brazil’s opening game against Serbia was one of the goals of the tournament. However, his goal against South Korea in the Round of 16 gave it strong competition.
Still only 25, we will be seeing a lot more of him for Brazil.