With the World Cup finally getting underway last night amid protests, opening ceremony of dubious taste and scandalously poor refereeing, today sees the first United players joining the action, with Javier Hernandez’s Mexico facing Cameroon, while David De Gea and Juan Mata are likely to look on from the bench as Spain face Robin Van Persie’s Holland in Group B’s ‘Death Match’.
As if Spain vs Holland wasn’t interesting enough, for the first time since he was appointed United manager, we have the chance to see a Louis Van Gaal team in action and against the defending champions too. Will he “try to make things difficult” for Spain or will he set his team out to attack?
The World Cup, however, isn’t just about current United players, indeed the attention often focuses on players who might join the club after the tournament, and with United linked with just about every player in the world at the moment and in need of massive overhaul this summer here’s five players that we should keep an eye on in Brazil.
They’re not necessarily stars, but players who might spring a surprise or two and could fit Van Gaal’s “young and hungry” policy.
1) Memphis Depay
The sort of traditional winger United have been sorely lacking for a couple of seasons, Depay’s pace and blistering shot make him a difficult clients for full-backs, something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by Louis Van Gaal, who handed the 20-year-old his Holland debut last year and has selected him in his 23-man squad for Brazil.
The PSV’s winger, who was part of the Holland U17 team what won the European title in 2011, is at ease on both flanks and is equally dangerous whether he cuts in from the left on his favourite right foot or whether he’s deployed on the right and asked to beat his man and deliver crosses.
A product of PSV’s fabled academy, Depay scored 14 goals and assisted a further 10 in 43 games in all competition for the Eindhoven outfit and has been previously linked with a move to United given he’d fit Van Gaal’s philosophy to perfection with his contract expiring in 2017, United might have to pay more than his current £5-6m value.
2) Antoine Griezmann
The Real Sociedad forward enjoyed a remarkable season in San Sebastian, scoring 16 goals in 35 league appearances as his club only missed out on a Europa League spot on goal difference but his performances were enough to convince Didier Deschamps to hand him his first France cap in March, before including him in the World Cup squad.
United faced Griezmann twice in the Champions League last season and while the Frenchman didn’t score, he proved to be a handful for United’s rearguard, particularly at Old Trafford where he led the line by himself admirably well. While not a traditional striker by any means, Griezmann’s versatility is such that he’s often been deployed up-front for his club, even though he’s at his best when he occupies his favourite attacking midfielder position, which allows him to create chances as well as converting them – even though he only assisted five goals last season.
With Franck Ribery’s injury opening a starting spot in France’s XI, Griezmann could shine this summer and if he did so then expect Real Sociedad to ask more than the £22m that would be enough to prize him away from the Basque country at the moment.
3) Dries Mertens
Having been discarded by Anderlecht for being too small, the 27-year-old has since gone to make a name for himself at Utrecht and PSV, before moving to Napoli last season where, despite not being included in the starting XI at the start of the season, he enjoyed a remarkable debut campaign, scoring 13 goals and assisting a further 12 in 47 appearances in all competitions.
With Van Gaal expected to adopt his preferred 4-3-3 system at United, Mertens would be an excellent signing for he’s the sort of fast, clever winger the Dutchman likes to have in his teams and the 27-year-old’s versatility comes as an added bonus, given Mertens can also play as attacking midfielder as well as on the right in a three-pronged attack.
With Belgium one the dark horses at the World Cup, Napoli might have to hold on the 27-year-old tight and are not likely to let him for less than £12-13m, having paid £8m for him 12 months ago.
4) Mateo Kovacic
After coming through the ranks at LASK Linz’s academy, Kovacic honed his skills at Dinamo Zagreb, the same football school previously attended by Zvonimir Boban and Luka Modric and despite being only 20 years of age the Croatian has already developed one of the most talented prospects in European football.
Versatile and capable of covering a number of roles in midfield, from deep-lying playmaker t0 attacking midfielder – a role he’s regularly deployed in for his national team – Kovacic’s progress stalled after joining Inter Milan in January 2013, when the Serie A club surprisingly announced the signing of the Croatian, who had previously attracted interest from Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich.
Things haven’t been easy for the 20-year-old at the San Siro, with Kovacic making only 14 Serie A starts last season, even though he still managed a 89.8 % pass completion rate – the highest of any Inter midfielder – but the feeling is that, under Walter Mazzarri, Kovacic’s development has progressed as expected and a good World Cup could see clubs come knocking for him.
United hardly need another number 10 in their ranks, but a player of Kovacic’s talent and versatility could become a star under Van Gaal.
5) Xherdan Shaqiri
The boy wonder of Swiss football has found opportunities hard to come by since moving to Bayern Munich from Basel two years ago and has been largely a peripheral figure at the Allianz Arena, with Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben both ahead of him in the pecking order under Jupp Heynckes and then Pep Guardiola.
Despite a limited amount of appearances – he played just 782 minutes in the Bundesliga last season - Shaqiri made the most of his time on the pitch and netted six times over 16 league games, an excellent return for a player who’s a winger by trade, the sort of quick, creative player highly respected by Van Gaal.
The Swiss’ ability to beat his man coupled with a powerful shot make the former Basel man a tricky customers to deal with for defenders, while his versatility – he can play on both wings as well as attacking midfielder – ensures Shaqiri’s game is far from being mono-dimensional and could attract suitors.
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