2018 Expert World Cup Handicapping: The Most Underrated Players
Everybody loves an underdog. The players that don't get as much attention as the big boys. The guys who perform just outside the brightest spotlight but are more than capable of performing on that main stage as well as the biggest names. Everyone knows that guys like Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo will get dizzying amounts of attention leading up to and during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. What I want to look at today, though, are four underrated World Cup players - guys who are still stars but who don't get enough attention for who they are and what they do - and who could really climb to another level at this tournament.
Samuel Umtiti, France: France is among the favorites to win this tournament, but they are also a maddeningly inconsistent team. They are very likely to advance out of a very manageable Group C, but beyond that anything could happen - they could lose their first elimination game or not lose at all. Most of the storylines coming into the tournament are that the team has real offensive depth and should be able to score in bulk but that there are defensive questions that leave their ultimate fate up in the air. That's where Umtiti comes in. The 24-year-old only made his national team debut in 2016, with his first cap coming, remarkably, in the quarterfinal of Euro 2016. He played a key role through qualifying, and his game has really developed the last two years playing with Barcelona. France really needs a defensive star to stand up, and Umtiti feels poised to be that guy.
Robert Lewandowski, Poland: The captain of the Polish team, who plays for Bayern Munich, Lewandowski is a highly-respected and decorated player. But it doesn't feel like people are well enough aware of just how good he is. He is a scoring savant. He has 100 goals in 121 games with Bayern Munich and was Bundesliga player of the year last season. More significantly, he scored 16 goals in 10 qualifying games for this tournament to show just how strong his international game is right now. He is among the very best players in the entire tournament, and if he played for a much more competitive side he'd be among the biggest stars. Poland has a very manageable path to the second round in Group H, though, as they are just as competitive as Colombia and better than both Senegal and Japan. The margin for error is small, but with Lewandowski in the lead the chances are good. If Poland can advance and do some damage once they do then Lewandowski's stardom could reach an entirely new level.
Mohamed Salah, Egypt: Like Lewandowski, Salah is another great international scorer who is already a star, but he could be a much bigger one if things fall his way here. Salah joined Liverpool this year and has been almost impossibly good. He has 28 goals in 30 appearances, and has been named player of the month for the Premiership twice already - in November and February. The Egyptians got lucky in their draw, and they have a chance to advance out of Group A. The host Russians are not a hugely-talented team, and they have been short on meaningful action to improve since they didn't have to qualify. Uruguay is a good team, but they have struggled to find consistency and could be vulnerable. And Saudi Arabia is just a mess. Salah is going to get plenty of chances. If he scores with the same hot hand that he has had in his club life then he'll be a major factor - and a major star.
Luka Modric, Croatia: Croatia is very well positioned to advance out of Group D. They can give Argentina a test if the South American side isn't focused - and you can never tell if they are going to be these days. And Croatia is by far the best against Nigeria and the lovable squad from tiny Iceland. If Croatia is going to achieve their potential and advance after failing to the last three times then they have had the opportunity to try it will be their captain who leads the way. A midfielder who has played for Real Madrid since 2012, he is the heartbeat of what is a very strong defensive unit for this squad. Th team allowed just 5 goals in 12 qualifying games en route to this tournament. Modric, who is 32 so likely in his last World Cup, is viewed by many as one of the world's top midfielders. But by virtue of both his position and his nationality he doesn't get the international attention he deserves. If the team advances, and especially if they can test Argentina, that could change.
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