As the World Cup nears its conclusion, debate ensues over who should win the golden ball for best player at the tournament. Russia 2018 has been filled with stars, but some have stood out more than others. Here is my choice for the top seven so far:
7) Romelu Lukaku: The Belgian striker is tied for second in the goalscoring charts with four goals to his name (he is tied with Russia’s Denis Cheryshev and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo) and he began the tournament well with two goals against Panama in the opening game, claiming Belgium’s second and third goals with the match ending 3-0. Lukaku followed this up win two more goals against Tunisia in the following game. His goals made the game 2-0 and 3-1 before the match eventually ended at 5-2. In the next match against England, the Manchester United forward was rested. Moving on from the group stages to the round of 16, Belgium faced Japan where Lukaku failed to make an impression on the game. His nation struggled and found themselves 2-0 down, but they found a way back into the game without too much influence coming from Lukaku. However, the winner which was scored in the last-minute of the match came after he left the ball for a better positioned Nacer Chadli. He deserves credit for leaving the ball, but I am reluctant from giving him too much praise as I feel the counterattack was all a practiced play so essentially he did what he was supposed to do rather than displaying his great awareness and composure in front of goal in the dying seconds of a knockout game. Lukaku then had perhaps his best game of the tournament in the quarterfinals against Brazil no less. His movement, strength, and pace all came together as Brazil couldn’t figure out what to do with him. His performance resulted in an assist for Kevin De Bruyne whose goal ended up being the winner as the game ended 2-1. Lukaku’s next match was disappointing as he was invisible for most of the game as France won 1-0 in the semifinal. He had one memorable chance from a header and wasted two other chances. Balls came into Lukaku and he assumed the defenders would get to them first as they were well positioned, but when they didn’t he wasn’t ready and as a result let France off the hook twice. Four goals against weaker opposition and one amazing performance against Brazil isn’t enough for me and for that reason Lukaku is seventh in my list.
6) Harry Kane: Maybe a surprise given the Englishman seems likely to win the golden boot as he leads the scoring charts with six goals, but I have Kane in sixth. The striker, like Lukaku, had a very strong start to the World Cup as he started off the campaign with two goals against Tunisia. He scored the first goal to make the game 1-0 before scoring a late winner to get the three points for England with the 2-1 result. Then he got a hat-trick against Panama as his goals made the game 2-0, 5-0, and 6-0. However, it must be said two goals came from the penalty spot and another from a lucky deflection off his heel. The following match he did not play as he was rested in the loss 1-0 loss to Belgium. The next game was a round of 16 clash against Colombia where Kane scored another penalty to give England the lead at 1-0. Yerry Mina forced extra-time with a late goal of his own to tie the game at 1-1 and the score remained the same so a penalty shootout was needed to decide who would advance. Kane stepped up for England’s first penalty and scored before his nation went on to win 4-3. In the quarterfinal tie against Sweden, England won 2-0 but their striker had nothing of note in the game. Facing Croatia next in the semifinals, England lost 2-1 after taking the lead. Kane had a chance with the game still at 1-0, but failed to convert. Although Kane is top goalscorer, five of his goals came against weaker opposition and of his six goals, three were penalties and one was a fortunate deflection off his heel. He is ranked sixth because of his goal record regardless of how they came about, the fact that only three of his goals were decisive (the two against Tunisia and the one against Colombia), and because he scored in the penalty shootout.
5) Raphael Varane: Unlikely because defenders and midfielders often aren’t appreciated unless they score lots of goals, I nonetheless have Varane in fifth. In a team that has kept four clean sheets so far in the World Cup, Varane has been integral for France at the back. He has strength, speed, great aerial ability, and a clear understanding of the game. In the first match Les Bleus won 2-1, but the goal only came about because of a Samuel Umtiti mistake as he conceded a penalty after a reckless and frankly idiotic handball. Aside from that Varane and the defense controlled Australia and limited their chances well. The next match against Peru resulted in a clean sheet with the European side winning 1-0. Again, Varane starred in a defensively sound French back four. Less credit is due in their last group match against Denmark as both sides seemed content for a draw with the game ending 0-0. Denmark didn’t attack with too many numbers which made it easier to not concede, but still Varane didn’t make any mistakes and did what he had to do. After topping the group, France were due to play Argentina in the round of 16. The match ended 4-3 in favor of France, but if a defender is a part of a defense that conceded three goals, he can’t be considered faultless. The first goal was scored from a fair distance away from the 18 yard box so that was more an issue of midfielders not marking correctly. However, the second goal came from a set-piece and the third came from a ball over the top. As a leader of the defense, Varane should be expected to help his fellow defenders to avoid allowing the opposition these dangerous chances. Up next was Uruguay in the quarterfinals which ended 2-0. Although Uruguay created a few dangerous opportunities, for the most part France limited their chances and won comfortably. Varane once again looked assured at the back and led his team to another clean sheet. He even scored the first goal in the match off a header from a free-kick. In their last match, France beat Belgium 1-0 in their semifinal game. For the first 20 or so minutes, Belgium looked dangerous without creating too much. Issues on set-pieces early on and a few crosses into the box should have been dealt with better, but in the end it was another great performance from Varane and another clean sheet for Les Bleus. Varane’s performances, along with France’s other defenders and their goalkeeper, have helped France’s defensive stability immensely and has helped lead his team to a World Cup final where they are favorites.
4) N’Golo Kante: Rather than go game by game and explain what Kante has done to deserve a place on this list, and especially as high up as fourth, I will explain the nature of his playing style which he has displayed time and time again at this World Cup. Kante is debatably France’s most important midfielder as his attributes are key to France’s defense and maintaining possession. He has an incredible work rate, tendency to intercept opposition passes, and tackling timing which are all imperative to stopping counterattacks, starting France’s own counterattacks, and screening in front of the defense. Once France is on the ball again, Kante can be relied upon to keep it safe as he rarely gives it away, but he can also play around pressure or even play a ball through the midfield and to France’s attackers. His performances have helped France limit the opposition’s ability to create danger from the midfield and the final third. Kante could potentially play a key role in the final as Croatia may sit back and try to score on the break so he will be tasked with preventing his team from conceding on a counter.
3) Kylian Mbappe: France’s wonderkid, Mbappe has had some great performances at this World Cup. Against Australia he didn’t do too much, but it was partially down to the fact that France took a while to get going offensively at this World Cup. Then he scored the winner against Peru in a match that ended 1-0 where he looked to be France’s most dangerous player going forward. Following that victory, he was restricted to twelve minutes against Denmark so one can’t expect too much from him in that game especially considering neither team seemed too interested in winning the game. Then Mbappe exploded as the world all took note of the potential that this nineteen year old possesses. Mbappe scored twice and won a penalty for France in a 4-3 win against Argentina in the round of 16. In the game his pace, control of the ball, and creativity was on display for all to see as he terrorized the Argentinian midfield and defense throughout the game. It was one of the best individual performances at this World Cup. Following that were two games against Uruguay and Belgium where although he didn’t score or get an assist, he continued to look dangerous and was at times very aggressive in his drive to be a protagonist in the match. That is exemplified by the run he made in the first minute of the game against Belgium in the semifinal. He also drew fouls that gave France dangerous opportunities and took time off the clock as France sought to see out the result late in both games. With three goals at this World Cup and an incredible set of skills as his disposal, Mbappe has been a real joy to watch and may hold the key to getting through Croatia’s defense in the final.
2) Eden Hazard: A player who has impressed me every time he has stepped on the pitch, Eden Hazard has truly been a star at the World Cup. In the opening game he got an assist for Belgium’s third goal of the game as they beat Panama 3-0. He followed that up with two goals against Tunisia, the second of which was very well taken and showed his great touch, composure, and ball control. Against England, like teammate Lukaku, Hazard was rested, but his next game was a great one. Belgium went down 2-0 to Japan in the round of 16 and Hazard looked so determined to spark a come back. He got the assist for Marouane Fellani’s equalizer as he put in another wonderful performance. In the quarterfinals, Hazard’s dribbling, movement, and creativity were a threat to Brazil as his contributions helped Belgium to 2-1 win. Then when Belgium’s backs were against the wall because Brazil were pushing to come back into the game, Hazard often collected the ball and dribbled away from opposition players and shielded the ball until he could release it to a free teammate. This helped relieve some of the pressure and was key to his country keeping the opposition from forcing extra-time. Despite the 1-0 loss to France in the final, Hazard once again was a constant threat with his dribbling ability and he linked up well with his teammates, but he was let down by the rest of his team in the final third.
1) Luka Modric: The man integral to Croatia’s unbelievable run to their first World Cup final, Modric is clearly the World Cup’s best player as of now. He scored a goal in each of his nation’s first two group games against Nigeria and Argentina while also getting an assist in the quarterfinal against Russia. Modric has displayed creativity, impeccable passing, and the ability to score a goal while also doing a spectacular job defensively in the midfield. He pressures the opposition, gets in his fair share of tackles and interceptions, and denies spaces which has all served Croatia very well. What has impressed me most about Modric is his confidence and his work rate. In the round of 16 game against Denmark, Modric had a chance to win it in extra-time, but his penalty was saved. Many players would reject the chance to take another penalty in the shootout that ensued, but Modric backed himself to take another one. Although it wasn’t the best penalty, it went in and helped Croatia to advance. Then again he scored in a penalty shootout against Russia even though it was almost saved. The self-belief to keep taking these important penalties is just incredible and truly speaks volumes to what kind of player Modric is. His work rate has also been jaw dropping. Since the first game he has exerted himself as much as he could as he played with his heart on his sleeve. The whole Croatian team have displayed performances with heart and a determination that can’t be matched, but no one has embodied it better than Modric. A player of his quality could easily save himself for creating in the final third, but Modric is a real team player. Even in extra-time when players began to struggle, Modric kept pushing and was often seen sprinting. It must be kept in mind, Modric had a long club season coming into the World Cup as his Real Madrid side won the UEFA Champions League. The fact a player who has played so many minutes still finds the energy to play the way he has is astonishing. Modric is no doubt this World Cup’s best player and if he can lead his Croatia to victory in the final, he will definitely win the golden ball.