The group stage of the 2018 World Cup is in the books. Of the 32 teams that began the tournament two weeks ago, half are going home and the other half will progress to the Round of 16. Which means it’s an opportune time to take a look back at the most valuable and least valuable players of the tournament’s opening rounds.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal
Ronaldo got his World Cup off to a spectacular start, netting a hat trick in Portugal’s opener against Spain and following that up with a goal against Morocco. While he failed to ignite in Portugal’s final group stage outing, a tight draw against Iran, the Real Madrid superstar lived up to his marquee billing as he illuminated the opening rounds of the World Cup.
Aleksandr Golovin – Russia
Speculations were rife heading into this summer’s World Cup that Russia could rank among the worst host nations in tournament history. But a MOTM performance from Golovin in the tournament opener against Saudi Arabia saw the CSKA Moscow midfielder make two assists and score a goal. The resulting 5-0 win went a long way toward settling nerves as Russia went on to beat Egypt, ensuring it would avoid the ignominious distinction of becoming the first host since South Africa in 2010 to fail to make it out of the group.
Diego Costa – Spain
He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but when your team is thrown into the kind of disarray that comes with sacking your manager two days before the World Cup starts, it helps to have a player like Costa. The pugnacious striker provides a devastating outlet for Spain’s tiki-taka passing and his three group stage goals were vital in steering an at times disorganized and chaotic-looking La Roja into the next round.
Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano – Mexico
The entire Mexico team acquitTed itself nicely in defeating Germany in its tournament opener, but it was Lozano who stuck in the dagger, turning around Mesut Ozil as if he were a training cone and blasting a shot past Manuel Neuer. Lozano added an assist against South Korea to his tally and in spite of a loss to Sweden, where no one in an El Tri jersey particularly distinguished themselves, he had a group stage to remember.
Harry Kane – England
Two were penalties, two were tap-ins and one bounced off his ankle. But five goals in the World Cup are five goals in the World Cup and Harry Kane gave Three Lions fans plenty to roar about, helping England to two wins and taking an early lead in the running for the Golden Boot.
Philippe Coutinho – Brazil
He may lack the ever-changing hairstyles or marketing machine of his teammate Neymar, but when Brazil needed someone to step up and make a difference in the group stage, it was Coutinho who answered the call. The Barcelona forward scored against Switzerland and Costa Rica and assisted Paulinho against Serbia, becoming the only player at the 2018 World Cup with a goal or assist in all three group stage games.
Romelu Lukaku – Belgium
Lukaku hit the ground running in Russia, netting a brace against Panama and another two goals against Tunisia, before limping off injured. The Manchester United striker rode the bench in Belgium’s final group stage outing against England but will be the man manager Roberto Martinez will be looking to for goals if the Belgians are to finally live up to their status as dark horse contenders to win the World Cup.
Hannes Halldorsson – Iceland
The entire Iceland team deserves credit for holding Argentina to a draw in its first-ever World Cup match. But no one deserves more credit Halldorsson. The goalkeeper who until recently was a semi-professional who worked as a filmmaker in his day job withstood seven shots on target and saved a penalty from Lionel Messi to help his team hold on for a point in its inaugural World Cup outing.
Christian Eriksen – Denmark
Without ever looking as if it was a particularly good team, Denmark managed to come through the group stage undefeated. This current team is a far cry from the legendary Danish Dynamite side of the ’80s and ’90s, but Eriksen, its one truly world-class player, has led the way in Russia. The Tottenham playmaker not only had a hand in both Danish goals at the World Cup thus far, assisting one and scoring the other, but he’s been a total workhorse – he covered more distance than any other player in the tournament during group play.
Toni Kroos – Germany
It seems odd to include a Germany player here, but if there was one who distinguished himself during Die Mannschaft’s World Cup implosion, it was Kroos. The Real Madrid midfielder had the most passes completed of any player during the group stage and got off more shots than any player other than Neymar or Ronaldo. His exquisite set-piece goal in stoppage time against Sweden lifted the hopes of a nation, albeit for only a brief time.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic – Croatia
Modric the maestro in the heart of the midfield with the silky passes and telling goals. Rakitic the box-to-box man who could be found taking a ball off club teammate Messi’s toe one moment and scoring the goal that put the final nail in Argentina’s coffin the next. Either player would be a standout in any team in this tournament, but together with Croatia, the duo form what is undeniably the best midfield duo at the World Cup.
David De Gea – Spain
De Gea is widely considering the best goalkeeper in the world, but it’s difficult to equate some of his performances in this World Cup with that ranking. Particularly in Spain’s opener against Portugal where he had a howler reminiscent of Rob Green’s against the U.S.A. in 2010. In three group stage outings, De Gea went on to let in five goals, or six if you count Iran’s disallowed goal in Spain’s second match. If Spain is to capitalize on its status as an outside favorite to reach the final, it will need more out of its No. 1.
Willy Caballero – Argentina
Not to pick on goalkeepers, but Argentina’s Caballero made one of the worst goalkeeping errors in World Cup history, gifting Croatia a go-ahead goal by clearing the ball right to opposition striker Ante Rebic, who returned service, volleying a shot past the keeper to open the scoring and preempt an Argentine collapse. In Argentina’s third match against Nigeria, Caballero was benched in favor of Franco Armani and it remains to be seen if we’ll see the Chelsea reserve keeper again in Russia.
Robert Lewandowski – Poland
Expectations were mixed for Poland heading into this summer’s World Cup. But hey, when you have a superstar striker who’s considered the best No. 9 in Europe, anything is possible. Unless that striker is Robert Lewandowski apparently. The Bayern Munich man utterly failed to fire at the World Cup. In three matches, he didn’t score a single goal and managed just three shots on target as Poland crashed out with a whimper.
Joachim Low – Germany
Much was made of Low’s decision to leave Leroy Sane out of the squad, his decision to stick with Manuel Neuer (despite the keeper having essentially missed an entire season) and his overall loyalty to essentially the same group of players who lifted the World Cup four years ago in Brazil. Standing amidst the wreckage of Germany’s World Cup campaign, there simply aren’t enough fingers to point at all the players who failed to live up to expectations in Russia. So really the blame rests more on the manager’s shoulders.
Carlos Sanchez – Colombia
There were barely three minutes on the clock in Colombia’s tournament opener when Sanchez earned the second fastest red card in World Cup history for a blatant handball. Reduced to 10 men and without its defensive stalwart, Colombia went on to lose to an inferior Japan team, throwing its World Cup hopes temporarily into doubt.
Jorge Sampaoli – Argentina
It’s too early to tell if Argentina has indeed righted the ship, but Sampaoli got his tactics and team selection all wrong as La Albiceleste went winless in its first two matches. It took nothing short of a player coup, a shakeup of team selection and a touch of Messi magic to rescue Argentina’s progression to the Round of 16 – a poor reflection on a manager who according to reports, has been reduced to little more than a cheerleader standing on the sidelines.
More World Cup on Yahoo Sports:
• Why World Cup champs have flopped so miserably four years later
• Brazil wins Group E, deepens World Cup bracket imbalance
• Germany crashes out of World Cup with loss to South Korea
• Mexicans celebrated South Korea’s win by carrying Koreans on their shoulders