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.
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.
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.
Antoine Griezmann – France
Mbappe might be providing the raw thrills but Griezmann is once again proving to be France’s sure thing at the business end of a major tournament. Starting with his run to the Golden Boot at Euro 2016, Griezmann now has seven goals in his past six knockout games for Les Bleus. After a brace in Atletico Madrid’s Europa League final win over Marseille, firing France to their second World Cup would cap a glittering year for the newly contracted 27-year-old.
Harry Kane – England
Sure, there are penalties and set-piece goals aplenty in his handsome tournament haul of six, but it is time to stop pretending those goals somehow count for less. Kane is the closest example of a guaranteed performer England have had in a generation. In 2017, he outscored Messi and Ronaldo. If the Tottenham favourite ends 52 years of hurt for the Three Lions he would occupy a dizzying place in the football pantheon.
Luka Modric – Croatia
Croatia’s elegant inspiration and the shrewd intellect that guides Real Madrid’s bombast, Modric’s body of work over the course of his career sets him apart from the other younger men on this list. The 32-year-old has scored twice from open play and twice more – just about – during penalty shootout triumphs in Russia and at times appeared to be dragging his flagging team-mates towards that conclusion single-handedly during the 2-2 quarter-final slog against the hosts. A four-time Champions League winner, few would begrudge Modric crowning Croatia’s golden generation in style.