The ongoing FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar is proving to be one of the most competitive and thrilling editions in the history of the tournament. A string of upset wins has brought back the focus to the on-field action, pushing the controversies that surrounded the tournament to the background.
While legends like Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo are being keenly watched for their performance, it is the younger generation that has taken charge in Qatar. Let’s take a look at the top five performers from the group stages of the World Cup, one of whom is likely to grab the Golden Ball award:
#5: Enner Valencia
Ecuador’s Enner Valencia grabbed all the headlines in the opening game of the FIFA World Cup 2022, scoring twice in the first half to sink the host nation’s spirits. Battling through an injury in the second game, 33-year-old scored an equaliser in the second half against the Netherlands to keep his team’s hopes alive. But despite his best efforts, Ecuador had to exit early from the World Cup.
Enner Valencia became the first South American player to score six consecutive goals for his country at the World Cup, matching Eusebio’s record in 1966. While the tournament ended in heartbreak for the South American side, Enner Valencia will be proud of his performance during the tournament.
#4: Cody Gakpo
The Netherlands’ Cody Gakpo has emerged as the surprise star of the tournament, single-handedly propelling the Dutch to the knockout rounds of the FIFA World Cup 2022. The PSV winger had been the subject of transfer rumours even before the World Cup, but his induction into a major club is now guaranteed after his brilliant run in Qatar.
Cody Gakpo has scored a goal for the Netherlands in each of their three group-stage fixtures – all of them coming at crucial junctures. He scored first in all three games – allowing the Dutch players to play more comfortably with a lead to defend.
With his heroics in the group stage, Cody Gakpo has now evinced the interest of Manchester United, who have reportedly launched an offer for the PSV star. For now, the star’s focus will remain on the World Cup, where the Netherlands will face Argentina in the quarterfinals.
#3: Marcus Rashford
Before the start of the World Cup, Marcus Rashford was not even considered a starter for England in the tournament. The Manchester United forward’s relatively poor form and the depth of talent available for Gareth Southgate meant that he was considered only as a substitute player for the Three Lions in the tournament.
But defying all expectations, Marcus Rashford has emerged as the team’s topscorer – scoring three goals in the group stage, two of them coming against Wales. In England’s first fixture against Iran, Rashford scored the third-quickest goal by a substitute in World Cup history, scoring just 49 seconds after his arrival.
The game against Wales was also the only time Rashford started for the Three Lions in the tournament – he was once again out of the starting XI for England’s Round of 16 game against Senegal. Both Gareth Southgate and Marcus Rashford seem to be comfortable with this arrangement as it allows England to give an opportunity to field different players and allow the 25-year-old plenty of game time.
#2: Bruno Fernandes
Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow looms large over any Portugal game, but Bruno Fernandes has been the most effective player for the Selecao so far in the tournament. The Manchester United midfielder has internalised his role as Portugal’s creative playmaker, leading the team from the front.
In the team’s opening game against Ghana, Bruno Fernandes provided two crucial assists to save the day for Portugal, even as Cristiano Ronaldo’s historic penalty made all the headlines. He followed it up in their next game against Uruguay – scoring both of Portugal’s goals and narrowly missing out on a hattrick.
Bruno Fernandes’ place in the team has become so critical that Portugal struggled in the field in their 2-1 loss against South Korea – with Fernandes spending his time on the bench. With a lot of action left for Portugal before they lay their hands on the trophy, Bruno Fernandes is likely to be the key man for Fernando Santos in the tournament, rather than Cristiano Ronaldo.
#1: Kylian Mbappe
With five goals to his name, Kylian Mbappe now leads the Golden Boot race in FIFA World Cup 2022. Defending champions France surprised everyone with their performance during the group stages, becoming the first team to qualify for the knockout rounds. In the absence of Karim Benzema, Mbappe has taken over the leadership of the French attacking unit, combining with Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud to propel the defending champions forward.
Kylian Mbappe scored last in France’s opener against Australia, following it up with two goals against Denmark. He also assisted the team with two more goals. Including the two goals against Poland yesterday, Kylian Mbappe has now overtaken the legendary Pele to become the highest goalscorer in World Cup history under the age of 24.
The Paris Saint-Germain star has scored nine goals in World Cups so far – moving past Cristiano Cristiano Ronaldo and equalling Lionel Messi’s record. There are plenty of World Cups to come in the youngster’s career – which makes it possible for him to break Miroslav Klose’s record of 16 World Cup goals.
VISIT OUR BLOG TO GET YOUR FIX FOR ALL OF THE MOST CURRENT FOOTBALL NEWS STORIES & FEATURES