With the World Cup just two days away, MLSsoccer.com is taking a looking at some of the brightest stars, best young players and toughest group-stage matches to keep an eye on as the tournament unfolds in Brazil. Today, we're looking at five potential breakout players in the tournament, from two rising stars in Italy's Serie A to England's great hope to the Bundesliga's South Korean sensation. Also be sure to check out the first piece in the series, on five strikers you can't miss in Brazil.
Paul Pogba, France – The powerful central midfielder is already well-known to Serie A fans through his performance for reigning champions Juventus. If you haven't heard of him before, you surely will have by the time the dust settles in Brazil.
The constant comparison is to France and Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira, but the energetic, athletic Pogba, at age 21, has already looked like he will be a star in his own right. He has already been the subject of two controversial transfers (from his youth club, Le Havre to Manchester United when he was just 16, and three years ago from United to Juventus) and will be one of the centerpieces of a young France team aiming to put a 2010 disaster behind them.
Here's a taste of what he's capable of in a game alone:
Mateo Kovacic, Croatia – Pogba may steal the spotlight, but he’s not the only supremely talented young midfielder coming out of Serie A these days. The 20-year-old Kovacic broke almost immediately into Inter’s first-team squad after moving from his homeland in January 2013.
He is primarily a deep-lying playmaker – known in Italy and now in wider tactical parlance as a regista (director) – but this season found himself further up the field after Walter Mazzarri took the helm at Inter. It's not a surprise, though, given that Kovacic was a childhood admirer of Croatian legend Zvonimir Boban. He should play a similar role in Brazil, even while rubbing shoulders with two great Croatian No. 10s in their own right, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
The diminutive left winger (5-foot-5) is blessed with gobs of natural talent, which he first showed to the world in a series of impressive substitute cameos at the Confederations Cup last summer. His performances there and in the Copa Libertadores with is club, Atlético Mineiro, earned him a blockbuster move to Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, but the troubled political situation in that country means he could well be on the move to a big European club if he impresses in his home country.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England – Is "Ox" the great English hope in this tournament?
OK, we won't hit the same level of hysteria over the 20-year-old as the English press is wont to do with young stars, but there's no denying he could be a game-changer for the Three Lions in a brutally tough Group D.
He's showed glimpses of talent and sometimes more when he's been on the field for Arsenal, and his versatility should earn him a fairly regular place on the field for Roy Hodgson's England. He came up as a flank player, a sensible proposition given his exceptional speed, but has also lately impressed in a central midfield position and could spell the venerable duo of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard there.
Oh yeah, and he did this against Brazil ... in Brazil:
Son Heung-Min, South Korea – The South Korean wunderkind will step out onto the world stage for the first time after a hugely impressive start to his Bundesliga career, first with Hamburger SV and this season with Bayer Leverkusen, for whom he guaranteed Champions League soccer with a goal on the penultimate weekend of the league.
The 21-year-old Son wears No. 7 for club and No. 9 for country — a reflection of his diverse skill set and ability to play almost anywhere across the attack. He has six goals in 25 caps for his country and is the reigning Korean Player of the Year after a three-goal haul in 2013. He’s already bagged one goal in March of this year against a World Cup team (Greece), and will be expecting to add to his total this summer.