Heading home, but this great eight still left a mark on the World Cup

While collectively their performances weren’t good enough, there were a number of standout individual performances from players representing countries who fell at the first hurdle
Heading home, but this great eight still left a mark on the World Cup

STANDOUT PERFORMER: Ghana's Mohammed Kudus celebrates after he scored his side's second goal during the World Cup group H soccer match against South Korea. Pic: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

Half of the competing teams at the World Cup went home after the group stages. And while collectively their performances weren’t good enough, there were a number of standout individual performances from players representing countries who fell at the first hurdle.

Tunisia finished third in Group D behind Australia and France. Despite this, midfielder Aissa Laidouni put in three superb performances. He set the tone early on in the first game against Denmark when he put in a feisty tackle on Christian Eriksen. It highlighted the 25-year-old’s physical side.

He was an important part of Tunisia’s midfield structure throughout the tournament and was equally comfortable both stopping opposition attacks and helping his team move forward when in possession.

Laidouni was the best player in his team’s famous win over reigning champions France. When up against the likes of Aurelien Tchouameni, he stood out and even cheekily nutmegged Eduardo Camavinga.

Although Tunisia went home early, the man who plays his club football for Ferencvaros in Hungary can be proud of his performances in Qatar.

While Canada’s first World Cup since 1986 didn’t go as they hoped, 23-year-old Tajon Buchanan was impressive in Qatar. In a tough group containing Belgium, Croatia and Morocco the winger really caught the eye.

His performances were elegant and full of technical ability which was best showcased when he expertly picked out Alphonso Davies for Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal just 66 seconds into their game against Croatia.

Although his side lost all three games, Buchanan did his reputation no harm with his performances. And with Canada co-hosting the next tournament he is sure to have a part to play in four years’ time.

Ethan Ampadu showed exactly why he deserves to be in the Wales team by how well he played in Qatar. Playing with passion, heart and no little talent, the 22-year-old defender, who is on loan at Spezia from Chelsea, also highlighted just how much he has improved in recent years.

Ampadu reads the game well and at the same time plays with intensity and offers relentless running — he covered the third-highest distance by a Welsh player against England (10,009 metres). He made three or more blocks in every Wales game and against England he made more clearances (four), regained possession more times (four), made more interceptions (two) and made more successful tackles (two) than any other Wales player.

Host nation Qatar made history for a number of reasons at this year’s World Cup, but not all of them were milestones they would have wanted as they were the first hosts to lose all three games, conceding seven goals and scoring just once.

However, winger Akram Afif can hold his head high after putting in some solid performances for the hosts. Afif was forced to drop deep a lot due to Qatar not seeing much of the ball. However, he did well and helped his side escape high presses and get the ball moving up the field.

He was a reliable ball-carrier and passer throughout Qatar’s campaign and was their best player at the World Cup.

Saudi Arabia gave football fans one of the greatest World Cup upsets ever seen with their 2-1 win against Argentina in the opening game of Group C. They fell short against Poland and Mexico, finishing bottom of the table, but the football they played under manager Herve Renard was entertaining to watch.

This was made possible by Mohammed Kanno, the 6ft 5in maestro with a physical stature comparable to the likes of Yaya Toure and Paul Pogba, who controlled the Saudi midfield. Kanno was impressive across all three games but particularly against Argentina.

The 28-year-old, who plays for Al-Hilal, showed off his ability to control the ball in tight places and also how effective he can be charging up and down the pitch.

He linked the Saudi defence and attack throughout the tournament and his performances didn’t deserve a first-round exit.

Germany may have crashed out in the group stages for the second consecutive World Cup, but Jamal Musiala has now been introduced on the world stage.

Throughout the group matches, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder, who has already established himself as a key figure at Bayern Munich, showed why he deserves to represent Germany.

He was a threat in every game, with his incredible dribbling abilities, his neatness in progressing the ball up the pitch and his calculated passes all causing opponents problems.

In the final game against Costa Rica, he dictated the tempo of the match from the middle of the pitch, regularly getting forward and creating chances. Despite heading home early, Musiala will no doubt grace many more international tournaments over the course of his career.

With two goals in three group matches, Mohammed Kudus was Ghana’s best player in Qatar.

The Ajax forward translated his brilliant club form onto the world stage, though he did not play a full game in any of his country’s three fixtures.

The 22-year-old scored a brace in his team’s stunning 3-2 win over South Korea and showcased his dribbling abilities and speed on and off the ball throughout the tournament.

This was the talented Kudus’ first World Cup appearance, and all neutrals will be hoping it is not his last.

In a Serbia team containing Aleksandar Mitrovic, Dusan Tadic, and Dusan Vlahovic, Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic still stood out and showcased the versatility, technical positioning and finishing ability that have helped him excel at club level.

Milinkovic-Savic got on the scoresheet against Cameroon in Serbia’s second game, catching the eye with a well-drilled shot into the low corner. He also recorded the most movements in build-up (52) against the African side which meant he allowed himself to be an outlet for the team progressing forward.

His contributed in defence, too. He registered the highest number of possession regains in the midfield (eight) against Cameroon.

Although Serbia struggled and didn’t win a game, the 27-year-old can be satisfied with his performances at the World Cup.

This article first appeared in The Athletic.

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