Having come to the end of the first stage of the most intriguing and entertaining major tournament, probably of the century so far, the following is a look at the players who have impressed the most across their opening three games. All indications are that this is the competition where fast, forward and direct passing systems have finally surpassed the methodical and calculated possession game of the Spanish, as the dominant tactic in world football. And so in keeping with the ultra-modern, high-tempo dynamic of the tournament so far, here is the BlueChampions’ team of the Group Stages in a Chile inspired 3-3-1-3 formation.
GK – Guillermo Ochoa – Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas and our own Thiabaut Courtois have both had fairly immaculate tournaments so far also, but the Mexican #1 has surely been the outstanding stopper of the opening stage. After his exceptional performance against Brazil which included a full length diving save to deny Neymar, it’s hard to imagine the 28 year old being out of contract for long.
CH – Diego Godin – The Uruguayan is in the form of his career at the moment, having scored, in the past couple of the months, the goal which won Atletico the league title, the goal which came to within 90 seconds of winning the Champions League, and now the goal which has knocked out Italy and seen his country progress to the knockouts. After a shaky first game he has looked solid alongside a number of CH partners – if only his psychotic striking colleague could be as reliable.
CH – Marcelo Diaz – No team embodies the hard pressing, quick passing style with which teams have dominated so far as the Chileans, and no player embodies his country’s style more than Marcelo Diaz. As a defensive midfielder who spends most of his time between the centre halves, the Basel player is phenomenally energetic and skilful with both his tackling and passing. He is the perfect all-round midfielder for Jorge Sampaoli’s system.
CH – Kenneth Omeruo – The best Chelsea player at the tournament so far, like many excellent current Chelsea players, has never played a game for the club. Off the back of his performances in Brazil however he may very well make his way into the first team next season. The Nigerian youth plays with great tactical maturity and intelligence, as well as with excellent physicality in the air and on the ground; he looks good with the ball at his feet also – potentially the real deal.
RB – Serge Aurier – After yet another disappointing tournament for the Ivory Coast, their young right back at least was a shining light for the African side. His two crosses to assist the goals against Japan were the highlight of his performances but the supposed Arsenal target also proved himself to be an excellent all-round full back, good in the air and in the tackle as well as going forwards.
LB – Daley Blind – The key tactical player in Louis Van Gaal’s Dutch side is one of the most versatile players on the planet. Equally adept in midfield and on the left wing, Blind has been the best of many excellent wing backs at the tournament, having made more tackles per game than anyone, as well as contributing three assists, including the long diagonal ball for Robin Van Persie to score the goal of tournament so far.
CM – Toni Kroos – Rumours linking the young German to Chelsea most likely aren’t to be believed, but if he were to arrive, he would instantly become the best player at the club. Kroos is without peer in his midfield role having even surpassed Bastian Schweinsteiger in his ability to dictate play from the centre of midfield. His immaculate passing range is crucial in this Germany team.
AM – James Rodriguez – Player of the tournament so far? It seems illogical that a player could have a break through tournament 12 months after being transferred for €45m, but in his performances for Colombia so far, the 22 year old looks to have definitively made the jump from a top prospect to one of South America’s elite playmaking talents. After Radamel Falcao became injured in January, coach Jose Pekerman had no shortage of striking and midfield talent to replace him, with Adrian Ramos, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca and Juan Qunitero etc all waiting in reserve. Instead of selecting any of them however, the Argentina chose to give more responsibility to Rodriguez in a central position and he’s repaid him so far with two assists and three wonderful goals.
RW – Leo Messi – As a collective, Argentina have done little to justify their status as favourites so far. Ezequiel Garay has been lauded by certain pundits for his performances in defence but I’m not sure why. Federico Fernandez inspires even less confidence next to him, whilst Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero have both looked relatively lost up against some stoic defences in the early stages. Only Messi and his genius have saved the Argentines till now; with stunning goals in all three games so far, he could be only four games away from fully staking his claim as the greatest of all time.
LW – Arjen Robben – The key attacking player for the Netherlands just keeps getting better with age. Not only is he still lightening quick but he’s also added an increased clinical edge and variety to his play – he is without question the most lethally effective wide-player in the game. His era-ending counter-attacking goals in his country’s demolition of Spain were the most poignant moments of the group stage by far.
FW – Karim Benzema – Just edging out Thomas Muller and Neymar, the Frenchman deserves recognition as the best striker of the group stages, not only for his three goals and two assists or even for his brilliant all-round play against Switzerland (coming in from the right-wing), but also for finally stepping up for France and delivering (in the absence of Frank Ribery) as his country’s only truly world class outfield player. The Real Madrid forward has every attribute you’d associate with the perfect centre forward – if he continues in this rich vein of scoring form he could carry the French a surprisingly long way.