Team of the tournament: Group Stage
BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) – Imagine having World Cup standouts Lionel Messi, Neymar, James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben all in the same team.
After two weeks and 48 group-stage games in what is widely considered the best World Cup in a generation, there are already some players who have shone above the rest.
Below is a composite team of the tournament so far, in the heavily favoured 4-3-3 formation, selected by writers covering the World Cup for The Associated Press:
GOALKEEPER: Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico
Briefly punctured the euphoria in an expectant host nation by producing a series of stunning saves to secure Mexico a 0-0 draw against Brazil. One particular save, from Neymar’s header, will go down in World Cup folklore. The only goal he conceded was a late consolation by Croatia in the final group game. Is currently a free agent and will surely get snapped up after the tournament.
RIGHT BACK: Didier Aurier, Ivory Coast
One of the few positives in an otherwise disappointing campaign for Ivory Coast, Aurier has stood out for his marauding thrusts down the right flank and his crossing ability that set up goals for Wilfried Bony and Gervinho in the 2-1 win over Japan. Expected to seal a move to a big club from Toulouse this summer on the back of his displays in Brazil.
LEFT BACK: Junior Diaz, Costa Rica
Who would have thought that tiny Costa Rica would get through a group containing Uruguay, Italy and England – and concede just one goal in the process? The whole Costa Rica defence deserves credit but the experienced Diaz gets the nod as he has complemented the attack, setting up Bryan Ruiz’s qualification-clinching goal against Italy with a superb cross from the left wing.
CENTRE BACK: Rafael Marquez, Mexico
He has lost his long-time ponytail but the 35-year-old Marquez has retained the technical, positional and organisational skills that have helped guide Mexico into the last 16. Scored one of the goals in the 3-1 win over Mexico and his qualities don’t appear to have diminished with age.
CENTRE BACK: Thiago Silva, Brazil
As a nation frets around him, Thiago Silva has remained the unruffled presence at the heart of the Brazil defence, going about his business as quietly effective as ever. Four wins away from lifting the World Cup trophy on home soil – it doesn’t get better than that for a footballer.
MIDFIELD: Charles Aranguiz, Chile
Has outshone the more illustrious Arturo Vidal in Chile’s midfield and been key for “La Roja” both going forward and protecting what can be a jittery back four. He was also the player who sealed Spain’s unceremonious exit from Brazil, scoring one goal and setting up the other in that memorable afternoon at the Maracana.
MIDFIELD: Blaise Matuidi, France
A midfield fulcrum during France’s encouraging start to the tournament, Matuidi has passed astutely, tackled cleanly and covered the ground tirelessly in displays that don’t often attract the headlines but are so appreciated by his teammates. Also chipped in with one of France’s five goals in a great performance against Switzerland.
MIDFIELD: James Rodriguez, Colombia
At the forefront of Colombia’s eye-catching march into the knockout stage, Rodriguez has scored in all three games – including one of the solo goals of the tournament against Japan – and dazzled with his vision and technical ability. The playmaker has achieved what many thought was impossible: Making Colombia fans briefly forget about injured star striker Radamel Falcao.
FORWARD: Neymar, Brazil
The poster boy of the World Cup, Neymar came into the tournament under extreme pressure and is thriving on it. Two goals in the opening game against Croatia gave Brazil the perfect start and two more against Cameroon pushed the hosts into the last 16. Brazil expect more of the same from Neymar in the knockout stage.
FORWARD: Arjen Robben, Netherlands
Scoring two goals and dovetailing in devastating fashion with Robin van Persie, Robben helped rip Spain’s defence apart in that jaw-dropping 5-1 win that signalled the end of an era for the now-deposed world champions. He then opened the scoring to set the Netherlands on their way to a 3-2 win over Australia that clinched qualification.
FORWARD: Lionel Messi, Argentina
The Barcelona great and four-time FIFA Player of the Year is finally delivering on the world’s greatest stage. Has scored four goals – two of which proved to be match-winners – and is carrying Argentina’s attacking burden on his own while fellow strikers Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain struggle. It’s shaping up to be the tournament that moves Messi into the pantheon of football legends alongside Pele and Diego Maradona.
COACH: Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica
Costa Rica didn’t just grind their way out of a tough group – the team went to-to-toe with Uruguay and Italy in their first two games and came away with two wins, four goals and a place in the last 16. The 61-year-old Pinto, who never played professionally, deserves credit for his bold and tactically astute approach.