The World Cup boosted the profiles of several known stars like Kylian Mbappe but what about the next wave hoping to use Russia 2018 as a springboard into the next phases of their career? Matt Stanger scouts three such under-the-radar talents who acquitted themselves well this summer.
Moussa Wague, DF, KAS Eupen/Senegal
In this age of information, it’s rare to see genuine unknowns emerge as potential stars at the World Cup. Moussa Wague is one such example, however, with few having heard of the teenager before he caught the eye with his performances in Russia.
Playing style: A tenacious full-back who likes to get forward, Wague impressed with his speedy overlapping runs down Senegal’s right flank. Only Sadio Mane and M’Baye Niang created more chances for Aliou Cisse’s side, with Wague capable of delivering dangerous crosses into the box.
Despite his attacking tendencies, the 19-year-old remained diligent in defence, demonstrating a sound positioning sense in a well-organised back line. He showed encouraging decision-making for such a young player, with his close control and careful distribution allowing Senegal to retain possession.
If there is one area in which Wague could improve, it’s that he occasionally needs to stick closer to his direct opponent. He was stretched in the second half against Japan by the lively Takashi Inui and failed to cut out the winger’s cross that led to Keisuke Honda’s equaliser.
Form: After joining Belgian outfit KAS Eupen from Qatar’s Aspire Academy in 2016, Wague established himself under coach Claude Makelele last season. His contribution in the club’s top-flight survival earned him a call-up to Senegal’s World Cup squad, where he featured in all three group stage matches as the African side were unfortunate to suffer early elimination.
The teenager’s goal against Japan, a thundering strike at the back post, saw him make history as the youngest ever African goalscorer at a World Cup.
Where would he fit in? Wague was linked with a move to Turkish side Bursaspor before the tournament but his displays in Russia should have increased his options. It’s likely that he will follow a similar path to former teammate Henry Onyekuru, who left Eupen for Everton in 2017 before continuing his development on loan to Anderlecht.
Rodrigo Bentancur, MF, Juventus/Uruguay
Regarded as Uruguay’s great hope for the future, there have been reports that Bentancur could leave Juventus already in pursuit of a new challenge. The midfielder started only five matches in Serie A last season but proved with his performances in Russia that he’s ready to assume a greater responsibility at the club level.
Playing style: Bentancur’s versatility has seen him play a number of different roles for club and country as he aims to establish himself in one position. Similar to Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Marouane Fellaini at Manchester United, the 21-year-old has occasionally been deployed as a target man in attacking midfield, owing to his strength and 6-foot-2 frame. Yet that particular role fails to get the best out of Bentancur’s technical qualities, with the youngster displaying his ability on the ball in Uruguay’s run to the World Cup quarterfinals.
Composed in possession, boasting excellent vision and the skill to glide past opponents, Bentancur’s greatest contribution came as a deep-lying playmaker. He has the attributes to set the tempo in midfield and can create chances for the attack with his incisive passing.
Form: Despite assisting Cavani’s winning goal against Portugal, Bentancur was substituted around the hour mark in both the last-16 clash and Uruguay’s quarterfinal with France. Oscar Tabarez moved him into a more attacking role for those two fixtures, where he often looked isolated and struggled to get on the ball.
Bentancur has usually taken up a deeper position at Juventus but played only 568 minutes in the league last season, failing to register a single goal or assist.
Where would he fit in? Arsenal have been strongly linked to the midfielder, and a move to the Emirates Stadium would see him join up with international teammate Lucas Torreira. Barcelona have also been credited with an interest in Bentancur but it will take a significant fee to tempt Juventus into selling.
Mario Fernandes, DF, CSKA Moscow/Russia
Russia’s Brazil-born right-back impressed for his adopted nation at the World Cup and could join teammate Aleksandr Golovin in earning a move from CSKA Moscow this summer.
Playing style: A driving force down the right flank, Fernandes was a tireless presence in Russia’s surprising passage to the quarterfinals. Normally allowed more attacking freedom for CSKA Moscow — where he sometimes plays on the right of midfield — the 27-year-old’s best work at the World Cup came via his defensive contributions. He made more tackles than any other member of Russia’s defence, displaying a disciplined, combative style to deny the opposition time on the ball.
Fernandes is also particularly strong in the air, which he demonstrated with a fine header to claim an extra-time equaliser against Croatia in their quarterfinal.
Form: A €15 million signing from Gremio in 2012, Fernandes has proved a huge success at CSKA Moscow, helping the club to three Russian Premier League titles. He chipped in with four assists last season, which included creating the opening goal in CSKA’s Champions League clash against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
That assist highlighted Fernandes’ quality going forward, when he made a clever, darting run behind the defence before waiting to pick the right pass for Vitinho to score.
Where would he fit in? Previously a target for United and Arsenal as well as Jose Mourinho during his reign at Real Madrid, Fernandes has perhaps been forgotten somewhat during his six years in Moscow. He reminded everyone of his talent at the World Cup, though, and could emerge as a target for Europe’s elite clubs once more as he enters the peak years of his career.