Writers covering the FIFA World Cup for The Associated Press chose their standout players of the group stage at the tournament, with Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe featuring along with surprise names who have helped to cause some of the many big upsets in Qatar.
The selection was made using the 4-3-3 formation preferred by most teams at this World Cup.
GOALKEEPER: Wojciech Szczesny (Poland)
Forget about Robert Lewandowski, Szczesny is the reason that Poland reached the knockout stage for the first time since 1986.
The Juventus goalkeeper saved penalties against Saudi Arabia and Argentina, denying Messi with one of them. Szczesny produced arguably the save of the tournament, too, when tipping over a close-range blast by Salem Aldawsari from the rebound after blocking the Saudi Arabia striker’s spot-kick. With 18, he has made more saves than any goalkeeper.
Hakimi has transferred his club form with Paris Saint-Germain to the World Cup and is the relentlessly attacking right back of one of the surprise teams of the tournament, helping Morocco top a group that included Croatia and Belgium. He is tied for the most tackles made (13) and has weighed in with two assists.
Canada have gone home, but in Davies, they have a player who could easily have graced the knockout stage. The Bayern Munich left back was at his rampaging best in Canada’s unfortunate 1-0 loss to Belgium, despite missing a penalty. Davies burst into the area to head in Canada’s first ever World Cup goal in the loss to Croatia, before delivering the cross that was turned in for an own-goal in the defeat by Morocco. He should be a poster boy for the 2026 tournament cohosted by Canada.
CENTERBACK: Josko Gvardiol (Croatia)
Known as “Little Pep” because of the similarities of his last name with that of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, Gvardiol is the hulking figure marshalling Croatia’s defense, who conceded only one goal in their three group games.
CENTERBACK: Harry Souttar (Australia)
Souttar, the tallest outfield player at the World Cup at 1.98m, is delivering one of the storylines of the tournament. He only returned from ACL surgery weeks before the tournament, but has been putting his body on the line for Australia with his many blocks and last-ditch tackles. That helped the Socceroos preserve clean sheets against Tunisia and Denmark to get into the last 16 for just the second time.
Australia were to play Argentina in the last 16 early this morning Taiwan time, while the US-Netherlands game was to start just after press time last night.
Casemiro is the midfield shield for Brazil’s defense. A master at controlling matches and positioning himself perfectly to ward off danger at the base of midfield, he also showed he has an attacking threat by popping up to score the late winner against Switzerland.
MIDFIELDER: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann typically plays just off the striker, but has been deployed in a different position by France coach Didier Deschamps, as one of two attacking players in a central-midfield three. He has been a revelation, finding pockets of space and demonstrating his creativity with short and long passes, creating 11 chances.
In his role as Portugal’s playmaker, Fernandes had a hand in four of the team’s five goals — scoring twice and assisting twice. Cristiano Ronaldo continues to hog the spotlight for Portugal, but it is Fernandes running the show behind him with his vision and non-stop running.
FORWARD: Cody Gakpo (Netherlands)
The 23-year-old Gakpo was already in demand before the World Cup. After scoring in each of the Netherlands’ group matches, he has virtually assured himself a big-money move either in January or in the off-season.
Less is proving more for the 35-year-old Messi at the World Cup. He walks around for much of his matches, often letting play develop without getting involved, then explodes into life when he does get the ball. His display in the decisive group match against Poland was inspirational, recovering from missing a first-half penalty to guide Argentina to victory. He has two goals already and is now four wins from a legacy-defining first World Cup title.
Mbappe is looking a good bet for the Golden Boot for the tournament after scoring three goals in their group games. Mbappe is playing on the left side of France’s forward three to accommodate Olivier Giroud and he looks at home there, using his pace and crossing ability.
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