World Cup 2018: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar among the superstars on show
By Nick Wright
Last Updated: 09/06/18 3:29pm
Our World Cup 100 series picks out the players for you to watch in Russia. We start with the superstars who carry their country's hopes...
The tournament gets underway in Moscow on Thursday when the hosts take on Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium, but which big stars will be hoping to lead their countries to glory in Russia - and how are they shaping up for the main event?
Check out our selection below, starting with old foes Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo...
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As always, Argentina's hopes of lifting the World Cup rest squarely on Messi's shoulders. He goes into the tournament in outstanding form after another brilliant domestic campaign in which he dragged Barcelona to a La Liga and Copa del Rey double, but can he reproduce his club performances on the international stage? The pressure is on.
From winning the Euros with Portugal in 2016 to lifting a third consecutive Champions League trophy with Real Madrid last month, Ronaldo is enjoying the most successful period of his glittering career. He scored 44 goals in 44 games for Madrid last season and he is sure to be a central figure for his country at the World Cup.
Salah's World Cup hopes looked bleak when he went off in tears in the Champions League final, but he has been named in Egypt's squad and it seems he is recovering quicker than expected. After a dazzling debut season with Liverpool, the 25-year-old's fitness and form is likely to be decisive for his country.
Chelsea may have struggled last season but Hazard goes into the World Cup in good shape after another impressive individual campaign. Belgium have no shortage of star quality, but few players can make the difference like an in-form Hazard, who scored 17 goals for Chelsea last season. Roberto Martinez will need him at his best.
Neymar's World Cup participation was thrown into doubt when he was stretchered off with a foot injury during Paris Saint-Germain's meeting with Marseille in February, but he marked his return to action with a superb goal in Brazil's 2-0 win over Croatia on Sunday. It's a timely boost for Brazil, whose World Cup hopes collapsed in 2014 when he was injured midway through the tournament.
Rodriguez was one of the stars of the last World Cup, claiming the Golden Boot with six goals for Colombia, and he heads into this summer's tournament on the back of a fine campaign on loan at Bayern Munich from Real Madrid. Colombia, who face Poland, Senegal and Japan in Group H, will hope for a repeat of his efforts in Brazil.
Modric remains a key figure for Real Madrid and he will be vital for perennial dark horses Croatia in Russia too. The little midfielder has amassed more than 100 caps for his country, who must navigate a tricky group which contains Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland. If he can pull the strings as effectively as he does at club level, Croatia could go far.
Eriksen has become one of the Premier League's most impressive performers at Tottenham and he is similarly important to Denmark. Age Hareide's side will look to him to unlock their opponents. Having shone in Denmark's qualifying play-off with Ireland, he will be eager to continue in the same vein in Russia.
He may have been pipped to the Premier League Golden Boot by Salah, but Kane heads to Russia on the back of his best season yet for Tottenham. Having been handed the captain's armband by Gareth Southgate, the pressure is on to hit the same heights with England.
He was the top scorer and player of the tournament at the European Championship two years ago, so will Griezmann inspire France to World Cup glory in Russia? After another prolific season for Atletico Madrid, he certainly appears to be in good shape.
Iceland will be aiming to spring another surprise after their impressive showing at Euro 2016, and their hopes of repeating that run to the knockout stages in Russia rest on Sigurdsson. The midfielder had a mixed debut season at Everton, struggling with the weight of his £45m price-tag, but he rarely disappoints for his country.
With his radar-like passing and his inch-perfect set-piece delivery, Kroos is arguably the most important player in Joachim Loew's Germany squad. He comes into the tournament after a typically impressive season with Real Madrid, and he'll be eager to add another World Cup to his extraordinary trophy collection in Russia.
Chicharito may have struggled to make an impact at West Ham last season but he remains the main man for Mexico. The former Manchester United striker has made more than 100 appearances for his country and scored more goals (49) than anyone else in their history. Mexico will be hoping he can add to that tally in Russia.
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Poland could be World Cup dark horses if Lewandowski can transfer his devastating club form to the international stage in Russia. The 29-year-old has just surpassed 40-goal mark for the third consecutive season with Bayern Munich. He'll be hoping to continue that form against Senegal, Colombia and Japan in the group stage.
It might be a stretch to describe him as a superstar, but goalkeeper Akinfeev is likely to be key to the hosts' hopes. The 32-year-old is one of the most capped players in Russia's history, and he will need to be at his best if they are to have any chance of going far in the competition.
It was a heartbreaking end to the season for Mane, whose goal in the Champions League final was not enough to prevent Liverpool's defeat to Real Madrid, so can he pick himself up in time for the World Cup? Senegal have been handed a favourable group, but they will need their star man on his game.
Spain boast extraordinary depth in all areas of their squad but few players are as important to the team as Silva. The 32-year-old has a knack of scoring crucial goals for his country and he heads to Russia having enjoyed arguably his best season yet with Manchester City, scoring nine goals and providing 11 assists in 29 Premier League appearances.
Son enjoys God-like status in South Korea and after an outstanding season at Tottenham, he looks well-placed to make a big impact in Russia. South Korea have been drawn in the same group as Germany, but with Mexico and Sweden their other opponents, they know there is a place in the last 16 up for grabs. Son could hold the key.
Luis Suarez is Uruguay's talisman but Cavani is just as important. The 31-year-old has been outstanding for Paris Saint-Germain since Zlatan Ibrahimovic's departure two years ago, scoring 89 goals in 97 games. Now the challenge is to produce the same performance levels in Russia.
Shaqiri suffered relegation with Stoke but earned plenty of individual plaudits along the way, contributing eight goals and seven assists in 36 Premier League appearances. If he can find form in Russia, Switzerland might fancy their chances of qualifying from Group E.