With the Qatar 2022 World Cup finally getting underway, PLZ Soccer takes a look at 5 players who might have gone under the radar but have the potential to make an impact on the biggest footballing stage.
Qatar – Akram Afif
The hosts come into their first World Cup with the benefit of being an unknown quantity. Managed by former Barcelona youth coach Felix Sanchez, Qatar will adopt an attacking style of play through a possession-based game.
It is no surprise then that they are much better going forward than sitting back and their key players come further up the field.
Top goal scorers at the 2019 Asian Cup and 2021 Gold Cup, ‘The Maroon’ often adopt a 3-5-2 formation, with an emphasis on high pressing and high turnovers in attacking areas.
Forward Akram Afif will play just behind central striker Alimoez Ali and is recognized as the creative lynchpin of the side.
The 25-year-old is naturally left sided but is often given licence to roam throughout the offensive positions and will be tasked with unlocking stubborn defences.
Afif plays his club football in Qatar with Al Sadd, alongside a number of his teammates, meaning there should be less time needed for the team to gel.
This will be crucial as they will need to hit the ground running to pick up points against Ecuador in their opening match, should they have ambitions of progressing through the group.
Uruguay – Federico Valverde
For a long time, Valverde was Real Madrid’s best kept secret. Burrowing away in their midfield, stage left, whilst Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos held the limelight.
Following a successful Champions League winning campaign in 2022 and a blistering start to the season however, and everyone is starting to take notice of ‘Fede’.
The 24-year-old wasn’t fit enough to be included in the Russia 2018 squad but will look to show the world what he can do when he finally gets his chance on the biggest stage.
Valverde is a key cog in a combative Uruguay midfield that strikes fine balance of tough tackling and poise, alongside Lazio’s Matias Vecino and Tottenham’s Rodrigo Bentancur.
Uruguay icon Luis Suarez has already gone on record comparing Fede to former teammate Steven Gerrard – high praise indeed, but as those who are already on the Valverde train know, he isn’t far off.
Mexico – Edson Alvarez
From Alberto Garcia Aspe to Rafael Marquez, Mexico has a long-standing tradition of producing top quality central midfielders.
Next out of the talent factory comes 25-year-old Edson Alvarez, who currently plies his trade in the Netherlands for Ajax.
Alvarez has been a standout in this season Champions league, where his ability to read and disrupt the game from deep, alongside a fearless approach to taking the ball makes him an almost perfect mould of a midfielder for any European club.
Given the nickname EL Machin (The Machine) in his home country, Alvarez will be vital in allowing the explosive Hirving Lozano and Alexis Vega cause problems in the final third, as he anchors the base of midfield.
USA – Tyler Adams
Despite only being 23 years old, Adams is expected to be named USA captain for the tournament ahead of ‘golden boy’ Christian Pulisic.
It comes as something of a shock that the relatively inexperienced Adams would be given the armband, however Leeds United fans would attest to the midfielder’s leadership skills and ferocious defensive mindset.
Leeds coach Jesse Marsch praised Adams for his ability to focus on his instructions, a key component in the both the searing heat and pressure the Qatar World Cup stage will bring.
His versatility in also being able to switch to the right back position when needed, only makes him more of an asset to this high tempo USMNT side, who will look to unleash their vibrant attack at any possible opportunity.
Morocco – Nayef Aguerd
West Ham United fans will be looking forward to Aguerd stepping out at this World Cup, given they haven’t seen much of him following a £30 million move from Rennes in the summer.
The central defender needed ankle surgery after an inexplicable injury picked up in a pre-season friendly against Rangers ruled him out for a significant portion of the season and kept Hammers fans waiting for their new arrival.
The 26-year-old has only managed 21 caps for his country but is fast becoming a defensive stalwart for a team that will be up against some of the most potent attacks in the tournament, when they face Belgium, Croatia and Canada.
PSG’s Achraf Hakimi is undoubtedly the creative force in the side, however his work from left back can at time leave the North African side’s back line exposed, illustrating even more the importance of Aguerd in retaining defensive solidity.