World Cup 2018: Five players to make major breakthrough in Russia

Which names will breakthrough onto the global stage and be on everyone's lips when the World Cup gets into full swing later this month? RealSport take a look


The World Cup finals can turn good players into gods. Even if these guys have been playing well under the radar for a while, the next five weeks could change their lives forever. 

Four years ago James Rodriguez was already a good player that had moved to Monaco for around £40 million in 2013. But it was his performances for Colombia at the finals that propelled him to stardom and made him the most sought-after signature in world football. He moved to Real Madrid after the tournament. 

So who will shock and amaze the world this year?

  1. 1 Christian Cueva (Peru)

    Reuters/MARIANA BAZO

    There are few unknowns left in football. With overseas leagues easily available to watch in 2018, it's easy to feel like there can't be many great players you've never heard of. But the Peruvian Christian Cueva just might be one of them. 

    As unknown quantities, there is still a little bit of magic surrounding those players from outside of Europe. Cueva plays in Brazil for Sao Paulo, and in full flow is a joy to watch. 

    KEY STAT: Christian Cueva scored crucial goals against Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia as Peru qualified for their first World Cup since 1982.

    Small in stature, Cueva is a gifted number ten. His low centre of gravity and natural flair allows him to bamboozle defenders in Brazil's top flight. Also possessing the natural vision that all great attacking midfielders need, the 26-year-old is the brain of Peru's team. 

    Given Los Incas' relatively kind draw, Cueva will have the opportunity to show the rest of the world what he's capable of. 

    Sao Paulo paid just £2 million for his services in 2016 and might have to brace themselves for bids a lot higher than that for their star man after the World Cup. 

  2. 2 Renato Augusto (Brazil)


    The 30-year-old Brazilian is another relative unknown that plies his trade outside of Europe, turning out for Beijing Guoan in China. 

    He did have a four-year spell at Bayer Leverkusen between 2008 and 2012, but it is only really since he moved to China in 2016 that he has become a mainstay in the Brazil midfield. 

    More of a number ten with Leverkusen, at Corinthians under current Brazil manager Tite, he dropped back into more of a deep-lying midfield role. 

    KEY STAT: Has started every competitive game since Tite took over as Brazil manager in June 2016.

    It is Augusto's intelligence that appeals to Tite the most. His ability to look after the ball, whilst remaining disciplined enough to help Casemiro plug gaps in the midfield to allow the likes of Coutinho and Neymar to shine. 

    He is also encouraged to drift around when appropriate as is his former Corinthians teammate Paulinho. With Neymar and Coutinho both possessing freedom to roam across the frontline, the Brazilian midfielders are encouraged to take advantage of spaces they may leave. 

    This was in evidence in the qualification campaign where he scored key goals against Uruguay and home and away against Peru. 

  3. 3 Rodrigo (Spain)

    Reuters/SUSANA VERA

    Fans of English football may remember Rodrigo's fairly uneventful loan spell at Bolton Wanderers in the 2010-11 season. It's fair to say much has changed for him since then. 

    Signed by Valencia for big money in 2015, the 27-year-old endured a torrid first couple of seasons, scoring just seven goals in 44 La Liga appearances for his new team. 

    KEY STAT: Went on a run of scoring in five consecutive games for Valencia this season.

    It was the appointment of Marcelino that changed things for Rodrigo, and for Valencia themselves.

    After two farcical seasons, that included Gary Neville's brief stint as manager, Marcelino could introduce a more disciplined, regimented approach to Valencia - getting rid of the dressing room's bad eggs in the process.

    This change finally gave Rodrigo the platform to showcase his talent in a Valencia shirt, when many believed it would never happen. 

    Possessing great pace, and a wonderful finisher on his favoured left foot, Rodrigo has played a big part in the Marcelino revolution.

    He scored 19 goals as Valencia sealed a return to the Champions League and caught Julen Lopetegui's eye in the process. Rodrigo was prolific for Lopetegui's under 21 side that won the European Championships in 2013 and has been handed the number nine shirt for the World Cup this summer. 

    If Rodrigo can wrestle his way past Diego Costa into the lone striker berth, he could show those that haven't been keeping a close eye on La Liga just what a good player he has become. 

  4. 4 Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)


    The CSKA Moscow midfielder is one of Russia's more exciting players, and will be carrying the expectations of the host nation on his shoulders this summer. 

    The combative midfielder is a tenacious presence at the heart of Russia's team. Brilliant at winning the ball back for his side and setting them on their way going forward, it is no surprise to followers of the Russian Premier League that Aleksandr Golovin has been attracting interest from England. 

    KEY STAT: Having made his Russia debut at just 19, Golovin is already playing under his third different manager for the national team.

    He started all three of Russia's games at Euro 2016 at the age of just 20, and now with a bit more experience under his belt could play a big part in the Russians navigating their way through a fairly weak looking Group A. 

    Has already been tipped for a move to Arsenal or Chelsea after the tournament, and some eye-catching displays could put an extra zero on whatever transfer fee CSKA hope to receive for their star midfielder. 

  5. 5 Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)

    Reuters/OSMAN ORSAL

    Iran are definitely the underdogs in Group B this summer, but Alireza Jahanbakhsh offers them hope of giving a good account of themselves in Russia. 

    AZ Alkmaar had big boots to fill when they lost Vincent Janssen to Tottenham in 2016, but it turned out they already had a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings. 

    Boasting more pace and technical ability than Janssen, Jahanbakhsh has grown in stature since the Dutchman's departure, becoming the first ever Asian player to win the Eredivisie golden boot this season as he scored 21 goals.

    KEY STAT: Has scored 31 and assisted 21 in the Eredivisie for AZ Alkmaar since Vincent Janssen left for the Premier League. 

    Football is massive in Iran, and Jahanbakhsh has previously stated his desire to emulate his childhood heroes Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karimi in playing in the Bundesliga one day. 

    He will have a tough task in Russia, given how defensively set up Iran will be, but if he can produce a few moments of magic against Morocco, Spain or Portugal, he won't be short of offers to fulfil his Bundesliga dream when the tournament is finished. 

    Which of these players are you most excited to see at the World Cup? Let us know below.

Podcast: Can Portugal topple Spain at the top of Group B?

  1. Poll: Which of these players will have the best tournament?

    1. Christian Cueva (Peru)
    2. Renato Augusto (Brazil)
    3. Rodrigo (Spain)
    4. Aleksandr Golovin (Russia)
    5. Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Iran)
    17 votes
    Share Your Result

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Etienne Fermie


Étienne Fermie is a writer for RealSport, specialising in football and tennis.

Having featured in the Guardian and on LoveSport Radio, Étienne also co-founded the 3pm Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @etiennefermie