English Premier League footballers are treating the upcoming World Cup like a dentist appointment, a necessary but unwanted interruption in an otherwise pleasant year.
So the build-up is critical.
Between now and the EPL hibernation period from November 13 until December 26, players are expected to reach a unique mid-season peak to scale the heights of Qatar 2022. With less than a hundred days to go, none of the major clubs are spared.
But there are six footballers that particularly intrigue, six EPL players who find themselves at pivotal career points ahead of the World Cup. In the coming weeks, their performances may shape an entire season, for both club and country.
1) Édouard Mendy - The quiet keeper who could
Goalkeepers are like referees. They are supposed to be invisible, unnoticed, unflappable, a soothing presence in all that thunderous hubbub. When was the last time you gave serious thought to Édouard Mendy? He’s the Scarlet Pimpernel between the sticks, taking out opponents with minimal fuss. Ederson and Alisson Becker’s swashbuckling, ball-playing tends to catch the headlines, but Mendy catches just about everything at Stamford Bridge. Having replaced the unfortunate Kepa Arrizabalaga, Mendy’s assured consistency has almost undermined his sterling work. He has settled an otherwise unsettled Chelsea defence – playing a crucial role in winning both the Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup. He added the Africa Cup of Nations trophy with Senegal a few months later.
His superlative reflexes have encouraged the Blues to open new contract negotiations – despite the keeper having three years left on his current deal – to anchor their beacon of reliability for the long-term. Watch him this weekend. Watch the confidence he instils in those around him. Mendy encapsulates the unsung hero. The Blues continue to grapple with their fragility in attack. Luckily, they have the rock of Senegal at the other end.
2) Virgil van Dijk - The one true master
Admiring the Dutch defender at work always feels like an artistic privilege. As he strides out of the penalty box and looks up, that’s the moment, the moment of anticipation just before Andrea Bocelli hits the highest notes on Nessun Dorma or Sir Ian McKellen clears his throat, the realisation that an artist’s God-given talent is about to show itself again. Some perform. Some paint. Others dance. But van Dijk reads. He reads the game like no other. He’s the overeager taxi that arrives before everyone else, the flawless airline that always takes off on time - he’s just so extraordinarily efficient. And, for good measure, he gets stuck into another man’s ankles like a hormonal terrier. He belongs on a shortlist of rare centre-back-quarter-back hybrids with Bobby Moore and Paulo Maldini, comfortable on the ball anywhere in their half. The World Cup could put him near the top of that list.
Van Dijk already dominates the domestic game. Repeat the trick at international level and he might prove to be the greatest defender of them all.
3) William Saliba – The young one to watch
Every World Cup has one, the young starlet that shines brightest, but it’s rarely a centre-back. Forwards invariably dominate, whether it’s Michael Owen in 1998 or Kylian Mbappe in 2018, slaloming speedsters typically catch the eye. But Saliba might be that rare exception.
His EPL debut for Arsenal against Crystal Palace displayed an astonishing level of maturity. His positioning was exceptional, instinctive even, cutting off spaces and checking runs to avoid those last-ditch tackles that look great on camera, but often betray a positional error earlier in the build-up.
Despite France’s excellent defensive resources, Saliba has already staked a claim for selection at Qatar 2022. There is still room for improvement – particularly in the air – but a year spent at Marseille added muscle to a sharp mind and has given the Gunners real defensive stability.
Saliba has come from nowhere for his club and delivered. It will be astonishing if he achieves a similar feat for his country.
4) Declan Rice – The Lions captain in the making
Club: West Ham United
Position: Attacking midfielder
Pundit Jamie Carragher has tipped Declan Rice for the England captaincy. Rice has three months in the EPL and one World Cup in Qatar to stake his claim.
The happy-go-lucky Hammer is certainly not short of confidence. He formed an integral part of England’s engine room, driving them towards the Euro 2020 Final defeat against Italy, and has called upon his generation to go one better in the World Cup.
But the West Ham skipper may find his greatest obstacle is West Ham. A shaky start left the Hammers at the wrong end of the table as the sense of overachievement last season gives way to a more grounded reality this time around. Rice must take charge in the coming games.
As a sitting midfielder, Rice can rival the industry of N’Golo Kante, but the splintering Hammers could use a touch of Gerrard and Lampard in their pomp, an English lion prepared to surge forward and cover the attacking shortcomings of those around him.
Rice’s bid for the England captaincy begins not in Qatar, but in his next game for West Ham.
5) Kevin de Bruyne – The one reaching a glorious peak
Club: Manchester City
Position: Attacking midfielder
Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit, Ferenc Puskas and George Best are just a few names that make up the herd of GOATs and mavericks that fell short on the World Cup boulevard of broken dreams. Kevin de Bruyne does not deserve to be another.
He has inexplicably failed to win any silverware at international level, despite being part of Belgium’s Golden Generation through several tournament cycles. His time, surely, has to be now, if he is going to maximise his current individual and collective advantages.
At 31, De Bruyne is close to his creative peak. The Belgians might say the same. At club level, Manchester City certainly can, improving upon an already exceptional squad with the addition of Erling Haaland. The striker’s burgeoning relationship with De Bruyne is fascinating, allowing the midfielder to showcase his peerless skillset.
Having perfected the art of peripheral vision, somehow finding colleagues like a horse wearing blinders, De Bruyne now goes forward more than sideways, hitting passes into Haaland’s stride rather than towards nifty wingers on the flanks.
He won’t have Haaland at the World Cup, but he will have that passing range at what feels like a last chance saloon in Qatar. Between now and then, he can’t miss.
6) Harry Kane – The one with the most to prove
Club: Tottenham Hotspur
Harry Kane has everything, the likeable centre-forward who never stops scoring. For England, he’s knocked in 50 goals in 71 games – an average of 0.68 goals per game. He’s every child’s 2D fantasy brought to life, leaping from comic book pages like an old A-ha pop video and sticking one in the top corner.
But he’s won nothing, for Tottenham or the Three Lions. Putting loyalty before guaranteed glory in the EPL and not putting the ball away often enough against elite opposition in the knockout stages for England have cost him dearly.
This is the season, perhaps the only season, where he might erase that grubby asterisk. He could conceivably lift something silver with Antonio Conte’s Tottenham. There’s even a chance of going gold with Gareth Southgate’s England.
But it’s got to be now. In his 30th year, the striker can defy neither age nor Conte’s tendency to self-destruct after a season or two. Kane’s trophy-winning crusade is on a definite timer.
Fortunately, he’s blessed with more attacking support than at any other time in his Tottenham career, with redoubtable team-mate Son Heung-Min also eager to please ahead of South Korea’s World Cup expedition.
And Spurs are lucky to have the most reliable centre-forward since Jimmy Greaves, another striking great who was forever haunted by his World Cup near-miss. Both deserved better, but only Kane still has a chance to make amends.
The next few months may well define the rest of his career.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author. He has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and written 26 books.
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