Cody Gakpo (Netherlands)
Three games, three fantastic goals and the Netherlands are through to the knockouts. Gakpo couldn’t have asked for much more in terms of making his mark in Qatar. The performances are made all the more eye-catching by the fact his goals all came at crucial times – he broke the deadlock against Senegal, equalised against Ecuador and again scored first in the final game against Qatar.
Ismaila Sarr (Senegal)
This Senegal team have stepped up to share the goals around to ensure that Sadio Mane’s absence didn’t hinder their progress, five goals and five different scorers to prove it. That said, Sarr has probably been the Teranga Lions most consistent performer across their start to the campaign. His efforts have been typified by his tireless work ethic combined with a tenacity that is not often associated with a modern winger. Also scored the all important penalty against Ecuador with a perfect Ivan Toney impression.
Marcus Rashford (England)
Club: Manchester United
It has become clear over the last year or so that Marcus Rashford is a ‘confidence player’. Thankfully for England fans, Rashford has arrived in Qatar seemingly in a great place. His first act of the tournament was to cut inside an Iranian defender and roll in a composed finish and since then he’s got two more in a very notable display against Wales. Gareth Southagte will have a real headache deciding who to start against in the knockout rounds with Rashford becoming very difficult to leave out.
Yunus Musah (USA)
Musah has had a really good tournament in the heart of the American midfield. Although sometimes sloppy in possession and a bit rushed in the final third, Musah has been absolutely everywhere for his side. Never more so than against England where Musah did what Iran and Wales couldn’t and kept Jude Bellingham quiet.
Nicolas Otamendi (Argentina)
There were a few critics saying that Otamendi’s starting place for Argentina was the very reason they wouldn’t challenge for the World Cup, in reality Otamendi has been arguably Argentina’s best player thus far perhaps bar Lionel Messi. The veteran’s best performance came in victory against Mexico where he brought an air of calm to those around him in what could have easily been a panicky display in an all or nothing clash.
Salem Al-Dawsari (Saudi Arabia)
Club: Al Hilal
It was now or never for Al-Dawsari, if one of the best players in Asian football for many years was going to show it on the big stage, it had to be at Qatar 2022. The cultured winger did not disappoint – a delightful winner against Argentina (even better celebration), a good performance against Poland and another brilliantly taken goal against Mexico capped an excellent tournament. He did miss a crucial penalty against Poland but it doesn’t cancel out three good performances.
Mohamed Kanno (Saudi Arabia)
Club: Al Hilal
There were concerns about the midfielder’s fitness going into the World Cup, having not played league football since March due to a contract dispute, but Kanno impressed across Saudi Arabia’s group games. The lanky central midfielder was vital in his side’s famous win against Argentina, protecting the defence and carrying the ball with great composure to relieve his side of pressure. At 28, Kanno has played his whole career in his native country and with reportedly a hefty salary at Al-Hilal it’s unlikely we’ll ever see him in Europe.
Wojciech Szczęsny (Poland)
The Juventus number one has matured into a very solid keeper, but he’s gone way beyond ‘solid’ so far to ensure Poland’s route through the group stage. Firstly the ridiculous double save from Al-Dawsari’s penalty and then the rebound. Then what proved to be an equally important save to deny Lionel Messi from the penalty spot, which meant Poland edged past Mexico into the top two despite a 2-0 defeat.
Harry Souttar (Australia)
Club: Stoke City
From Dundee, Ross County and Fleetwood to the World Cup. The 6ft6 (1.98m) centre back is undoubtedly one of the key reasons the Socceroos are through to the knockout stages, naturally unplayable in the air, makes hugely important blocks and has an eye for a last ditch tackle. Now Souttar’s manager has tipped him for a Premier League move and it’s easy to see why, if he’s this good off the back of being out for a year after rupturing his ACL, he’s only due to get better.
Aissa Laidouni (Tunisia)
It’s a crying shame that Laidouni is going home. The midfielder, who plys his trade in Hungary, has been a joy to watch for the neutral. Not only has he bought some iconic moments on his own – fist pumping an early slide tackle on Christian Eriksen and a skillful nutmeg on Eduardo Camavinga, Laidouni has also shown brilliant ability on the ball. A move to a top five European league surely beckons with Laidouni showing off a range of passing and tough tackling in his three group games.
Kylian Mbappe (France)
An incredible start to the tournament for Mbappe, a goal against Australia, two more against Denmark and then rested for the knockouts in the final game bar a late cameo. The unstoppable winger is now up to seven World Cup goals, leaving him with plenty of time to chase down Miroslav Klose’s record of 16.
Niclas Fullkrug (Germany)
Club: Werder Bremen
One of the very few German players who will leave Qatar with his head held high. The Werder Bremen striker didn’t start a single game, maybe Germany would be in a better position if he had, but made a lasting impression in his three substitute appearances. He thumped home a brilliant equaliser against Spain and then scored and assisted off the bench against Costa Rica but by that time it was all too late. Regardless, Fullkrug did exactly what was asked of him in very limiting circumstances.
Ritsu Doan (Japan)
He came on as a substitute and scored in both Japan’s famous victories over Germany and Spain. Doan provides a lethal end product that is sometimes missing from this Japan outfit as shown by his two emphatic finishes. On a side note, Germany will be pained to know that all of Japan’s group stage goals were scored by players playing in Germany.
Kaoru Mitoma (Japan)
It’s impossible to criticise Japan Manager Hajime Moriyasu having just guided his team to the top of group with Germany and Spain in, but.. his decision not to start Kaoru Mitoma in any of the three group games was definitely a head-scratcher. The Brighton winger has looked unplayable when he’s come on, assisting the controversial winner in the Spain match summarised the impact he’s been making.
Alvaro Morata (Spain)
Club: Atletico Madrid
A character who always divides opinion, Morata has really turned up so far in Qatar. Not a definite starter going forward, the striker has been equally effective starting and off the bench with three goals in three games. Perhaps the one caveat is the instinctive nature of Morata’s finishes so far, he tends to struggle with chances where he has time to consider his options which Spain will hope doesn’t cost them in the knockouts.
Josko Gvardiol (Croatia)
Club: RB Leipzig
Gvardiol was being tipped by anyone with an interest in European football to star at this World Cup and he hasn’t let anyone down. Just the one goal conceded in the group stages for Croatia speaks to the solid partnership between Gvardiol and Dejan Lovren, the youngster also had his glory moment when he denied Romelu Lukaku with an incredible last ditch tackle.
Hakim Ziyech (Morocco)
Ziyech wasn’t even in the Morocco squad a few months ago. That was until the sacking of Vahid Halihodzic, who was replaced by the domestic based Walid Regragui. The decision looks to have paid off – the new manager had no problem putting the disputes that Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui had with the old regime behind him, welcoming them back with open arms. Ziyech has looked completely invested for Morocco scoring in both wins against Belgium and Canada.
Club: Manchester United
Of all the attacking gems in the Brazil squad, it’s a defensive metronome who’s been lapping up the plaudits early on. Casemiro only played the two group games but Brazil didn’t concede whilst he was on the pitch. Typically bullish and unflappable, the Manchester United man allows the forward players the freedom they need. Also a quick nod to the exceptional winner Casemiro scored against Switzerland, even if it did take a slight deflection.
Breel Embolo (Switzerland)
In tournaments gone by, the talk of Breel Embolo has been about a player who wasn’t quite the complete forward, something seemed to be missing. That accusation cannot be thrown at Embolo in 2022, two excellent games sandwiched between a tough isolated outing for Brazil mean the group stage has been a success for him.
Bruno Fernandes (Portugal)
Club: Manchester United
Fernandes has been one of the best players at the World Cup so far without doubt. He’s always been largely about the end product in the final third and so far he’s delivering; two goals and two assists in two starts. Any question that he might not step out of Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow have already been put to bed.
Gue-Sung Cho (South Korea)
Club: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Surely the least-known name on this list before the tournament started. South Korea are through to the knockouts thanks to their goal difference and two of those goals were wonderful headers from the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors target man. Big, strong and with a real desire to get on the end of deliveries Gue-Sung Cho looks a great prospect at 24 years old.
By: Wilf MacDonnell / @WilfMacdonnell
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / @GabFoligno / Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA / Getty Images