All dates are based on EST.
Spain – Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, *Andres Iniesta
Andres Iniesta was the best of the Barcelona players, but none of the four were remarkably good or bad. Credit is owed to a Morocco team that was better than their results, and Busquets had his hands full with an attacking team with some quality. Gerard Pique was better than Sergio Ramos in the match, but that’s not saying much. Due to the intervention of VAR, both Spain/Morocco and Portugal/Iran were nail-biters, with Spain winning the group and avoiding Uruguay and Brazil’s half of the bracket.
Group Stage Matches: 3-3 v. Portugal, 1-0 v. Iran, 2-2 v. Morocco
Knockout Match: July 1 v. Russia
Argentina – Lionel Messi, *Javier Mascherano
Group Stage Matches: 1-1 v. Iceland, 0-3 v. Croatia, 2-1 v. Nigeria
Knockout Match: June 30 v. France
Brazil – Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho
Philippe Coutinho’s consistency in quality has been a wonderful sight to behold for Barcelona fans, delivering a stellar assist for Paulinho’s goal. The duo have now captured all three Man of the Match awards while Coutinho is the only player at the World Cup to have scored or assisted in all three group stage matches. Both players’ willingness to snuff out Serbia’s counter-attacks was just as impressive as their flair and combinations moving forward. Alongside a certain eccentric winger playing in France, Brazil are one of the few favorites that made it out of the group stage still looking like a heavy favorite to win the tournament.
Group Stage Matches: 1-1 v. Switzerland, 2-0 v. Costa Rica, 2-0 v. Serbia
Knockout Match: July 2 v. Mexico
France – Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti
Umtiti got a rest and Dembele came back into the starting line-up with the group already won. Yet, France has never truly clicked throughout the three games, regardless of the players on the field. The scoreless draw (the only one of the tournament in the group stages) was the worst of the bunch. Both teams were playing not to lose, and an enticing match-up with Argentina in the next round may bring France out of their shell. Dembele will most likely head back to the bench, and while he hasn’t showcased his best, he certainly has been good enough to merit an appearance as one of the first players to be subbed on.
Group Stage Matches: 2-1 v. Australia, 1-0 v. Peru, 0-0 v. Denmark
Knockout Match: June 30 v. Argentina
Germany – Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Joachim Low made the decision at the start of the tournament to go with Manuel Neuer as the starter, and maybe the World Cup winning goalkeeper had earned that right. Cules will argue that ter Stegen would have made saves that Neuer didn’t, but Germany as a whole never looked like they ever got off the plane. Even with ter Stegen in net, this was never a squad that looked up for repeating as champions.
Group Stage Matches: 0-1 v. Mexico, 2-1 v. Sweden, 2-0 v. South Korea
Uruguay – Luis Suarez
From the moment Luis Suarez scored the first goal, Uruguay took the upper hand in the match against Russia and never looked back. He was again the South American team’s best player for the second straight game and seems to be gaining momentum as the tournament goes on. It’s no coincidence that with the improvement of the Uruguayan midfield that Suarez also looks much more comfortable in this World Cup.
Group Stage Matches: 1-0 v. Egypt, 1-0 v. Saudi Arabia, 3-0 v. Russia
Knockout Match: June 30 v. Portugal
Croatia – Ivan Rakitic
Rakitic entered the contest in the 82nd minute after earning a much deserved rest for helping to lead his team to the top of the group. The Croatian has been one of the best players in Russia and Croatia have surprisingly established themselves as a favorite to make it deep into the tournament.
Group Stage Matches: 2-0 v. Nigeria, 3-0 v. Argentina, 2-1 v. Iceland
Knockout match: July 1 v. Denmark
Colombia – Yerry Mina
The injury to James Rodriguez and the doubt surrounding his health for the knockout stages looms large for Colombia, but the turnaround by their defense in the last two matches played just as important a role in their qualification as their talisman. After missing the loss to Japan, Yerry Mina has been terrific since being inserted back into the line-up. His two goals, including the game-winner against Senegal are what earned him the Man of the Match award for the last round of the group stage, but his work on the defensive end are what Cules will want to see translated to the Camp Nou next season. Los Cafeteros have been better with Mina on the field as his size and close-out speed were important against both Poland and Senegal.
Group Stage Matches: 1-2 v. Japan, 3-0 v. Poland, 1-0 v. Senegal
Knockout match: July 3 v. England
Belgium – Thomas Vermaelen
Vermaelen made his first appearance of the 2018 World Cup against England in a match that Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was willing to lose. Vermaelen got the start and was subbed off in the second half for Vincent Kompany, but it wasn’t due to anything wrong with his performance. He was needed as the experienced head on the backline with fellow centre-back Leander Dendoncker making his World Cup debut and the majority of Belgium’s regulars sitting out and he didn’t disappoint.
Group Stage Matches: 3-0 v. Panama, 5-2 v. Tunisia, 1-0 v. England
Knockout match: July 2 v. Japan