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Michael Cox: My World Cup XI

62 of the World Cup’s 64 matches have been played, and with a two-day gap between now and the third-place play-off game, now seems a decent moment to discuss the competition’s best players.

Here’s a best XI from the tournament so far:

Manuel Neuer, Germany

Other goalkeepers have produced more spectacular performances, with the likes of Tim Howard, Guillermo Ochoa and Keylor Navas all excellent – all for CONCACAF nations, as it happens. But top-level goalkeeping isn’t about spectacular saves, it’s about being proactive and being consistent – and Neuer is brilliant in both respects. His performance against Algeria, where he constantly swept from his penalty box, was remarkable – and when required to make more eye-catching saves, he’s been up to the task.

Christian Gamboa, Costa Rica

There were plenty of fine right-back displays in the group stage, but the likes of Serge Aurier and Matteo Darmian failed to reach the knockout rounds. With Philipp Lahm only playing twice so far at right-back, Gamboa feels like a better choice. He was man of the match in Costa Rica’s shock 3-1 victory over Uruguay, which provided the springboard for their incredible run to the quarter-finals. Tenacious, energetic and possessing a great cross, Gamboa was the perfect wing-back – although if Lahm turns in another great right-back performance in the final, the Costa Rican might find himself out of this side…

Rafael Marquez, Mexico

Marquez made history by becoming the first player to captain his side at four World Cups – take a moment to think how unlikely that achievement is to be replicated any time soon – and his performances were fantastic. Mexico conceded just one goal in the group phase as they finished level on points with Brazil, and were only undone against Holland by a late turnaround. Marquez got tempted into committing the crucial foul on Arjen Robben, but he was a crucial reason Mexico reached the second round.

Mario Yepes, Colombia

Widely considered a weak link because of his age, his lack of pace and a couple of dodgy seasons at club level, Colombia captain Yepes rolled back the years to deliver a series of masterful centre-back displays. Still superb in the air, as you’d expect, the more impressive aspect of Yepes’ game was how he coped against pacey attackers on the ground, sticking extremely tight and refusing to be turned. This was an excellent farewell.

Daley Blind, Holland

He’s played left-back, left-wing-back, central midfield and centre-back – Blind is a proper Total Footballer. His best performance came in the stunning 5-1 victory over Spain on the second day of this World Cup, providing two assists including a brilliant long ball for Robin van Persie’s famous diving header. Blind has epitomised Louis van Gaal’s system with his tactical intelligence, his flexibility, and his tendency to keep things neat and tidy.

Javier Mascherano, Argentina

Not many Argentines have excelled, but while Leo Messi has naturally taken most of the plaudits, his club teammate – and the man he displaced as captain – has been superb at the base of midfield. More at home scrapping in central midfield rather than fighting at the back for Barcelona, Mascherano remains a great tackler and his reading of the game has improved.  He had a lot of backing through bookies like bet365 as to whether he would be red-carded form some of his clashes. He’s even played some fine passes, such as a great ball out left to Angel di Maria in the build-up to Messi’s opener against Nigeria, showing a more cultured side to his game. His crucial block on Arjen Robben last night rounded off the tournament’s best central midfield display.

Toni Kroos, Germany

Kroos is the personification of this German side – technical but physical, naturally understated yet capable of becoming the main man. Few players are capable of dominating the midfield zone so totally, and Kroos’ appreciated of space means he’s forever picking up possession in clever pockets of space, and making well-timed runs towards the edge of the box. His performance in the 7-1 win over Brazil elevated him to another level.

James Rodriguez, Colombia

He didn’t reach the final four, but that’s the only possible argument for not considering Rodriguez the player of the tournament so far. He was simply brilliant from the outset, dropping deep from his number ten role to overload the midfield and playing fine passes out to the flanks, while also scoring six goals in just five games, including arguably the best of the competition against Uruguay. Against Ivory Coast he headed in from a corner, then made a crucial tackle to set up the second. He did everything, and was only stopped when Brazil were allowed to kick him out of the game.

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Messi’s tournament was strange – at no point was it vintage Messi, and it seemed a very different Messi to the one we’re accustomed to seeing for Barcelona: more reserved, more thoughtful, much slower. But some of his contributions were fantastic: his goal against Bosnia, even if deflected, was brilliant, his last-minute winner against Iran a typically stunning strike, and the free-kick against Nigeria the best of the competition. But he’s been a creator too, and his pass for Di Maria against Belgium is surely the ball of the tournament.

Arjen Robben, Holland

Usually fielded in a centre-forward role and given license to drift into the channels, Robben’s efficiency in the final third has been devastating. He destroyed Spain on the break, was similarly effective against both Australia and Chile, and carried his form into the knockout stage. Against Mexico he launched the fightback and won the crucial penalty, then against Costa Rica he ran the show and got three opponents booked. This has been the best form of his career.

Thomas Muller, Germany

No-one understands what Muller is – forward, false forward, half-forward or not a forward at all. Whatever he is, he does it well. A hattrick against Portugal got his tournament going nicely, a fine winner against USA kept his goalscoring tally ticking along, and his incessant running in behind Marcelo was the primary reason for Germany’s lightning start in the historic 7-1 thrashing with Brazil. In a tournament lacking top-class centre-forward displays, Muller feels like the obvious choice – a goal in the final, and he’ll win the Golden Boot for the second successive World Cup, something never achieved before.

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July 10th, 2014 by Michael Cox

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