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This may be Messi’s Cup

Marksman - Shyam Thapa

World Cups have catapulted many players to stardom. They came as unknowns and left as the star of the meet. Did anyone think that in 1982 one Paolo Rossi would walk away with the honours? Or in 2002, who knew that the ‘original’ Ronaldo would have such a lasting impression returning from a career-threatening knee injury. And in the last World Cup, Diego Forlan surprised everyone by winning the Golden Ball.

So picking up five players to watch out for in the biggest show on earth is a tricky job. There are the usual names, but there will be someone coming out of nowhere and set the field on fire. And you will be left wondering how you missed his name while writing about five players. That’s the beauty of the World Cup… the romance of the World Cup.

The first name on the list will be Lionel Messi. This man has won everything with Barcelona, but surprisingly barring the Olympic gold in Beijing hasn’t done anything in the national colours. So much so that he hasn’t scored in a World Cup since that Argentina versus Serbia match eight years back in Germany. I think Messi is already under pressure to deliver and the time is also ripe.

He is days away from turning 27 and this is the age when a footballer is at his peak. Remember Diego Maradona in Mexico? He was also 27 and what he did in that World Cup we all are aware of. I will put my money on the Argentine captain to have a similar impact this time in Brazil. If he does that, he will be hailed as the greatest footballer of all time. There’s no second thought about that.

What may stall Messi and Argentina’s progress is the back-four. If defence stays firm and Messi conjures up the magic he does with alarming regularity for Barcelona, then the rivals will have no chance.

Messi will have an eye on someone’s progress in Brazil. That ‘someone’ responds to the name of Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano was on song for Real and also played a stellar role in the play-off against Switzerland. He also, like Messi, is stifled by injuries but I am confident that he will rise to occasion. Much of Portugal’s fate remains in his hands.

How he manages to lift up the performance level of the team will decide Portugal’s stay in Brazil. He is extremely powerful and I am waiting to see those searing runs we are so much used to with when we watch him play for Real Madrid. Cristiano had a great season with Real and, hopefully, will also have a great World Cup.

Then we have another precocious talent who is also ready to fire. Neymar is young and has just started his career, but is already a household name. Like Messi and Cristiano, this Brazilian is also under pressure to deliver.

Neymar is an exciting youngster with exceptional talent and skill. He is young, 21, and this may hinder his performance graph in front of his home crowd. How far he manages to stay calm will decide his fate.

Still Brazilians and the rest of world will strain their vocal chords rooting for this amazingly brilliant player. Neymar, in Barcelona, played on the left since the focus has always been on Messi. But with Brazil it will be different. Fred and Hulk will have to do a lot of running and hard work to create space for Neymar.

Another player I have always been a fan of is Karim Benzema. He is a striker of superb quality and goes into a goal-scoring position very easily. He is the type of footballer defenders find very difficult to mark. He may have just five to six touches in a 90-minute match but of those you can be rest assured two will be goals.

He has gained in confidence ever since Zinedine Zidane joined the Real support staff and I am sure we will see a lot of Benzema in this World Cup. Of course, you may say that France have always been bogged down by dressing room problems, but that’s a different issue altogether.

Since I was a frontliner in my playing days, pardon me for choosing four forwards of the five players to watch out for. Finally, I will go for a defender and it’s none other than Sergio Ramos. He is a defender who will fight till the last drop of blood. He will not give an inch to a rival player.

Ramos is the rock of Spanish defence and is comfortable both as a lateral back as well as central defender. He is also not scared of moving up the pitch during set-pieces as witnessed during the Champions League final.

The goal he scored was out-of-the world leaping high over the Atletico Madrid defenders. Do not be surprised if you see this man scoring a goal or two in this World Cup!