This World Cup has proved adept at tearing up the best laid plans of much-fancied teams and individuals, perhaps none more so than Neymar.
The Brazil forward’s world-record switch from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain last August was widely viewed as an attempt to push his Ballon d’Or credentials away from Lionel Messi’s considerable shadow.
A prolific, if injury curtailed, debut season in Paris did not harm his chances but neither was it a definitive pitch to end Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s 10-year duopoly when it comes to football’s most coveted individual prize.
The opportunity created by Argentina and Portugal’s last-16 exits was not grasped by Neymar as he turned in a frustrating display in the 2-1 quarter-final defeat to Belgium.
What’s more, the wide-open remaining field in Russia features players who, if they perform decisively in a winning cause, will have demonstrably better Ballon d’Or credentials than Neymar and push the big two harder than they have been at any stage over the past decade.
Here, we take a look at the contenders.
Eden Hazard – Belgium
There was no doubting the star attacker roving from the left-hand side during Belgium’s stirring victory over Brazil as Hazard conclusively outplayed Neymar. The Chelsea star has been involved in 14 goals in his past 14 internationals, with eight goals and six assists. Continue that form into the final week of the tournament and those Real Madrid rumours will surely start to rumble again.
World Cup knockout football is not easy, but we have a great atmosphere and this team never gives up. Thank you for your support everyone, we needed it yesterday. Quarter finals we’re coming, we are #REDTOGETHER #fifaworldcup #family pic.twitter.com/0LbeOrsyS5
— Eden Hazard (@hazardeden10) July 3, 2018
Kylian Mbappe – France
Neymar’s wingman at Paris Saint-Germain, in Russia Mbappe has underlined his reputation as one of the most exciting players on the planet and performed as France’s most potent attacking threat. He won a penalty and scored twice to end Messi’s dream in a phenomenal showing that illuminated the 4-3 thriller against Argentina. Three goals overall mean only Pele has scored more as a teenager at a World Cup back in 1958. Mbappe has everything to keep operating in such rarefied company.
— Kylian Mbappé (@KMbappe) July 8, 2018
Kevin De Bruyne – Belgium
Arguably shackled by a deep-lying role in midfield during Belgium’s first four games, De Bruyne was unleashed against Brazil and the beating heart of Roberto Martinez’s team did not disappoint. A typically sumptuous strike proved decisive from the Manchester City star, who was the best player in Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking side last season. Like some of the others listed, the lack of a definitive Champions League campaign could act against De Bruyne in the Ballon d’Or reckoning.
This one is for Belgium! #redtogether
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