I’ve been struck with the same World Cup fever that many of you are likely ill from over the past couple of weeks, so I decided to put together a new blog post. My “Underrated for club, but looking to introduce their names on the world stage” all XI for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. I’ve read the same posts and articles about the “top young players to watch this World Cup” with the same names…Fekir, Mbappe, Guedes, Fred…” it’s all the same. But how about some players who have under-performed for club or who you’ve forgotten about who could make an impact for their teams in this summer’s World Cup? Because, it isn’t always the players on everyone’s radar who turns up the best performances every four years.
Kasper Schmeichel, Denmark
While he may seem like a household name to those familiar with his father’s work at Manchester United and in between the pipes for Denmark, Peter’s son went overlooked by many in the EPL this season after superb performances by David De Gea, Ederson, Courtois, and Hugo Lloris. Add in the fact that Pope was selected by England and Jack Butland led the league in both saves and shots against, and you could easily overlook Schmeichel as one of the best in England. However, when it comes to the World Cup, club performances, stats, and results don’t always tell the story. Look for Kasper to help remind the world that he’s more than a legend’s son.
What league does Pepe play in? Go ahead and Google, I’ll wait.
That’s right, the Turkish league. After falling out of favor at Real Madrid for Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, it would be easy for someone to say “pffft, he plays in the Turkish League and averages a red card every other game, who cares?”. But let’s not forget Portugal’s performance in the 2016 Euros where he was hands down the team’s best player not named Ronaldo. In a World Cup that will feature CB’s like Thiago Silva, Ramos, Pique, Umtiti, Hummels, Varane, literally the list goes on…look for this established vet to remind everyone of his quality in defense.
Dejan Lovren, Croatia
If you’re still reading this after seeing Lovren’s name brought up in an article about underrated players, I applaud you. Maybe your mouse ran out of batteries at this very moment and you’re forced to keep reading, so here’s my argument.
Was Lovren questionable for Liverpool all season? Of course.
Is he easily the butt of everyone’s jokes? On a daily basis.
But in a talented Croatia side which could include a midfield 3 that goes Real Madrid – Barcelona – Real Madrid (Modric, Rakitic, Kovacic) and some firepower up front and on the wing in Perisic and Mandzukic, Croatia’s defense needs to step up. Lovren may just be forced to completely confuse everyone and turn in a solid World Cup performance, or he could just be terrible and I’m pulling this all out of my backside. Who knows….
Adil Rami, France
You’re probably looking at France’s World Cup roster and assuming that Umtiti and Varane are the starting pairing at CB, but Varane is only 25 and Umtiti only 24. Part of me wonders if, in an inexperienced France squad, Rami steals a starting spot from Umtiti. To be honest, I’m only including him because I can’t put out a starting XI with only 2 defenders so this one is a bit of a wild card.
Mateo Kovacic, Croatia
For those who follow us on Twitter, my appreciation for Kovacic’s game is no secret. Deployed by Zidane earlier this season in El Clasico to man mark Messi the entire match, Kovacic can play both ways, is strong on the ball and reads the game extremely well. The problem with him in this Croatia side is that the manager liked to play with a 6, which Modric and Rakitic are not. However, if Kovacic starts and is given a chance along with Rakitic and his idol Modric, look for him to prove to the world how good he really is this summer.
Sami Khedira, Germany
While Khedira might not seem like such a “sleeper pick” to many after his performance this season with Juventus, I still feel like the big man goes unappreciated by many due to his lack of pace. With a rocket of a shot, close ball control and excellent vision, he may be one of the most underrated CDM’s in this year’s World Cup yet when everyone praises the talent on Germany’s roster he is hardly ever the main focus. With rumors that he’s looking to make a move to England this summer, look for Khedira to put in a strong showing this summer.
Axel Witsel, Belgium
Possibly the most underrated player on this list, Witsel almost always goes overlooked due to the fact that he plays in Russia. However, this rangy and lanky midfield talent could be the key to Roberto Martinez’s success as he is better defensively than Dembele (Tottenham) in a 3-5-2 system where De Bruyne will have the freedom to get forward and join the attack.
Joao Mario, Portugal
After earning a huge transfer to Inter Milan after his performance for Portugal in the 2016 Euros, Mario fell out of favor with the Serie A side and was sold to West Ham this past January. It’s obvious to anyone who has seen him play for country that he has the quality, as West Ham fans quickly found out in his impressive half of a season with the Hammers as they missed out on relegation. The London club are trying to secure Mario’s services on a permanent basis, but look for him to impress this summer in a deep and talented Portugal side full of guys like Queresma and Moutinho who always remind everyone of their quality when they put on the Portugal maroon.
M’Baye Niang, Senegal
The second I saw Niang play for AC Milan the first time, I couldn’t believe it. A tall and lenky forward with pace, touch, and creativity, Niang was able to show Watford supporters last season a bit of what’s in his game before returning to Italy at Torino this season (on load from Milan). With Balde Keita and Sadio Mane on either wing, whoever starts at the 9 for Senegal will likely see service into the box from the pacy wingers. While Niang has been played primarily on the LW, if he starts at striker this summer it could be an extremely exciting front 3 in Group H which also includes Poland, Colombia, and Japan.
Jefferson Farfán, Peru
After tearing it up for Schalke in the Bundesliga from 2008-2015, the 33-year-old has since been playing in Abu Dhabi and Russia. However, scoring recently against Scotland for a Peru team which will be missing striker Paolo Guerrero this summer do to a drug ban, look for Farfan to help lead Peru in a group which includes France, Denmark, and Australia with the second place spot seemingly up for grabs.
Joel Campbell, Costa Rica
He’s now twenty-five and has yet to break into Arsenal’s first team. This past season he was on loan at Real Betis where he only made 8 appearances, and last season at Sporting Lisbon he only scored 3 goals in 19 matches (following a prior season at Villareal where he only scored 1 goal in 16 matches, and before that at Olympiacos in 2013-14 8 goals in 32 matches). But you can throw all of that out the window, because whatever you thought you knew about a player based on club performances almost always gets tossed once it comes World Cup time. Campbell’s performances for Costa Rica in the past have been strong, and he should have every chance to earn a potential move this summer.