The Russia 2018 World Cup may be a somewhat sad and empty affair. Lionel Messi announced his retirement from the Argentina National Team (whether he means it or not remains to be seen), Zlatan Ibrahimovic has officially retired from Sweden, Cristiano Ronaldo will be 33 and Wayne Rooney will be 32. The traditional stars of the world's game are fading away, and Russia will probably be the first tournament where that truly sinks in.
We have been truly fortunate to watch so many talented players all play at the same time, and one can only hope that the next generation of stars can step up in their place. Nobody will ever be able to fill the void that Messi and Ronaldo leave behind, but there are some up-and-coming players who could certainly help lift us out of the gloom. Here are 10 players that could step up come Russia 2018 (in no particular order.)
Some have called him Messi's heir apparent, which certainly isn't the first time that tag has been bandied around. Many wondered if he could step up to the challenge when he transferred to Juventus last season, and he did so emphatically, scoring 19 goals and adding nine assists in Serie A last season. He'll be 24 by the time the World Cup rolls around, and with so many players leaving the national team, the pressure will be on him to perform. Count on him to do so.
Hazard is a divisive personality to say the least. Blessed with extraordinary talent, there were many who tipped him to be football's next big star. However, problems with his attitude and application, which were in full evidence last season as Chelsea imploded dramatically, have seen his stock drop. Hazard often looked uninterested and unwilling to be on the pitch, and he didn't score a goal in the league until April 23rd against Bournemouth.
Yet, in that final stretch of the season, Hazard proved once again why expectations of him are so high. There is perhaps no better example of this then that goal against Tottenham, which awarded Leicester City the title. Hazard has continued that form into the European Championships, masterminding Belgium's 4-0 destruction of Hungary. He needs a coach who can motivate and get the best out of him, and if he can get that, Hazard is still the most likely to make that step into superstardom.
With his two goal performance against Ireland, Antoine Griezmann became the first player to score three goals in the Euros since a certain Zinedine Zidane fellow, which is really all that needs to be said.
While most of the pressure of expectation seems to be falling on Paul Pogba (who can certainly be a world star in his own right), it is Antoine Griezmann who can be France's talisman in the future.
After a 22-goal season for Atletico in La Liga, there was a lot of pressure on his shoulders coming into the European Championships. After a slow start, Griezmann began to come into his own, with a late winning goal against Albania and a two-goal performance to help France come from behind to beat Ireland. He has the perfect mix of technique, pace and positioning to trouble any defence, so expect him to make a huge splash in Russia.
Ah, yes. Brazil's savior for some; a representation of how far the Selecao have fallen for others (looking at you, Pele). Neymar has already stepped up for his country in a big way, namely with goals, which Brazil can't seem to achieve without him. Yet, the man tipped to be the next "best player in the world" has still received criticism for not doing enough.
Like Hazard, questions surround Neymar's temperament and his application in matches. He has had his fair share of disciplinary problems in the past, and the pressure on his shoulders in his home country bears a sinister resemblance to that which falls on Lionel Messi. Make no mistake, Neymar will be the best once Messi and Ronaldo are gone, but can he do one better and lead Brazil to glory in Russia? That question is significantly harder to answer.
Harry Kane may never be the best player in the world, but then again, neither was Zlatan. There are only a handful of strikers who can come close to matching Zlatan's outrageous goal-scoring technique and vision, and Harry Kane is one of them.
The Tottenham man has everything in his arsenal required to succeed. He's exceptionally strong with his back to goal, he has excellent vision to bring others into play and he can score from literally anywhere. It's easy to forget that he's just 22-years-old, as he's already becoming the main man for his club and country.
Neymar has been called Messi's heir at Barcelona, Hazard has been touted as the next Ronaldo in the Premier League, and Harry Kane should be recognized as the next Zlatan. Minus the ego though.
In many ways, Big Rom is similar to Harry Kane. He has pace, power and an eye for the spectacular goal. However, he has been around for so long, many people have discounted him as an up-and-coming talent. Yet, he's still just 23-years-old.
Lukaku has a lot to learn yet, but if he can sharpen up his skills, then he could be a striker unlike any we've seen before. Some Everton fans have compared him to legend Duncan Ferguson, which is certainly a compliment, but Lukaku can be so much more than that. His pace and power are unrivalled, and if he can improve his finishing and learn to impose himself more in games, then he has the potential to be one of the greatest strikers of the modern game.
By the time Russia rolls around, Lukaku will be entering what many consider the "peak years." The stage seems to be set for him to finally become the star that many tipped him to be when he was on-loan at West Bromwich Albion.
There were not many people out there who could have predicted Dele Alli's astronomic rise this season. During his time at MK Dons, he was certainly making some waves as a player with a considerable amount of talent, but nobody could have foreseen how integral he would become for a title-chasing Spurs side.
Alli is one of the most technically-gifted players that England has produced in quite some time. He has invited comparison to both Paul Gascoigne and Frank Lampard, but he has the ability to surpass both. At just 20-years-old, Alli's performances have been mature beyond his years, and he has created a buzz around England fans the likes of which haven't been seen since Wayne Rooney burst on the scene.
England are perpetual tournament failures, but Dele Alli is a sign that those winds maybe changing.
It seems only fitting that Italy's next great player would be a defensive player. After all, this is a country that has produced the likes of Gigi Buffon and Paulo Maldini, and Italians truly value their heritage of strong, defensively solid teams.
With that in mind, there has to be a lot of excitement over Milan's Gianluigi Donnarumma. While Buffon has been defying his age, season after season and Scudetto after Scudetto, he will eventually have to retire. Usually, when a man of Buffon's stature is approaching the twilight of his career, worries over his replacement swirl around the national team.
However, with Donnarumma, Italians will have nothing to worry about. After making his debut at just 16-years-old, the tag of "the next Buffon" was always likely to get pinned to the youngster. Since then, he has become indispensable for Milan, keeping 11 clean sheets in Serie A and becoming a fan favorite in the process. He'll only be 19 when Russia comes around, and thus, it may be too soon for him. Make no mistake though, Little Gigi is going to be a star.
Rodriguez is already a star for Colombia. The 2014 World Cup solidified that. However, everybody assumed that he would keep growing after that. In reality, it hasn't quite worked out that way.
Rodriguez lost the faith of Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, who felt that he wasn't applying himself enough. That, and a lack of form on the field, has seen one of the most exciting players in the world largely fall off the radar.
We shouldn't forget how good Rodriguez is though. He was the standout player at the World Cup and his importance to Colombia cannot be understated. It's true that he hasn't had the greatest of times at Real Madrid, but every now and then, you see those flashes of genius that got the world to stand up and notice. He's still young enough to make a difference, and you should expect him to in Russia.
The all-conquering Spain side that won the 2008 and 2012 Euros and the 2010 World Cup is dead. Changes in tactics and the retirement of some key players have ensured that. La Furia Roja now face a difficult period of transition, but luckily for them, they have Alvaro Morata to help drive them forward.
Spain have had a torrid time replacing David Villa up front since he retired from international football, and Morata is probably the best goal-scoring option they've had in years.
He doesn't score boatloads of goals, but he scores important goals. Morata is a player for the big game. He is a poacher, he's strong, and in many ways, he represents the new generation of Spanish players. A little bit less silk, a little more edge. At the moment, the rest of the team needs a better balance, and the tactics need to be adjusted to fit the personnel, but Morata will be very important for Spain come Russia.
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