12/03 02:54 CST Messi, Mbapp and co: The AP's World Cup team of group stage
Messi, Mbapp and co: The AP's World Cup team of group stage
By STEVE DOUGLAS
AP Sports Writer
DOHA, Qatar (AP) --- Writers covering the World Cup for The Associated Press
have chosen their standout players at the tournament so far to form a best team
of the group stage.
Spoiler alert: Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbapp are in there, along with surprise
names who have helped to cause some of the many big upsets in Qatar and others
who are putting themselves in the shop window for post-tournament transfers.
The selection was made using the 4-3-3 formation preferred by most teams at
this World Cup.
GOALKEEPER: Wojciech Szczesny (Poland)
Forget about Robert Lewandowski --- Szczesny is the reason why Poland has
reached the knockout stage for the first time since 1986. The Juventus
goalkeeper has saved penalties against Saudi Arabia and Argentina, denying
Lionel Messi with one of them. Szczesny produced arguably the save of the
tournament, too, when tipping over a close-range blast by Salem Aldawsari from
the rebound after blocking the Saudi striker's spot kick. He has made more
saves --- 18 --- than any goalkeeper.
RIGHT BACK: Achraf Hakimi (Morocco)
Hakimi has transferred his club form with Paris Saint-Germain to the World Cup
and is the relentlessly attacking right back of one of the surprise teams of
the tournament, helping Morocco top a group that included Croatia and Belgium.
He is tied for the most tackles made (13) and has weighed in with two assists,
including a raking pass for Youssef En-Nesyri's for what proved the winning
goal against Canada.
LEFT BACK: Alphonso Davies (Canada)
Canada has already gone home but, in Davies, it has a player who could easily
have graced the knockout stage. The Bayern Munich left back was at his
rampaging best in Canada's unfortunate 1-0 loss to Belgium, despite missing a
penalty. Davies burst into the area to head in Canada's first ever World Cup
goal in the loss to Croatia, before delivering the cross that was turned in for
an own-goal in the defeat by Morocco. He should be a poster boy for the 2026
tournament co-hosted by Canada.
CENTER BACK: Josko Gvardiol (Croatia)
Known as "Little Pep" because of the similarities of his last name with that of
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, Gvardiol is the hulking figure
marshalling the defense of Croatia team that has conceded only one goal in its
three group games. He is only 20 and one of the most sought-after center backs
in the European game. Gvardiol is wearing a face mask at the World Cup because
he broke his nose playing for Leipzig in the German league last month.
CENTER BACK: Harry Souttar (Australia)
Souttar, the tallest outfield player at the World Cup at 6-foot-6
(1.98-meters), is delivering one of the storylines of the tournament. He only
returned from ACL surgery weeks before the tournament but has been putting his
body on the line for Australia with his many blocks and last-ditch tackles.
That helped the Socceroos preserve clean sheets against Tunisia and Denmark to
get into the last 16 for just the second time. Next up for Souttar? Lionel
MIDFIELDER: Casemiro (Brazil)
Casemiro is the midfield shield for a Brazil defense that didn't concede in its
first two group games, helping the team ease into the last 16. A master at
controlling matches and positioning himself perfectly to ward off danger at the
base of midfield, he also showed he has an attacking threat by popping up to
score the late winner against Switzerland.
MIDFIELDER: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Griezmann typically plays just off the striker but has been deployed in a
different position by France coach Didier Deschamps, as one of two attacking
players in a central-midfield three. He has been a revelation, finding pockets
of space and demonstrating his creativity with short and long passes. He has
created 11 chances, more than any other player in the tournament. Griezmann has
relished being a more integral part of France's build-up play.
MIDFIELDER: Bruno Fernandes (Portugal)
In his role as Portugal's playmaker, Fernandes had a hand in four of the team's
five goals --- scoring twice and assisting twice --- in its wins over Ghana and
Uruguay that secured a last-16 spot with a match to spare, before getting
rested for the loss to South Korea. Cristiano Ronaldo continues to hog the
spotlight for Portugal but it's Fernandes, his former Manchester United
teammate, running the show behind him with his vision and non-stop running.
FORWARD: Cody Gakpo (Netherlands)
The 23-year-old Gakpo was already in demand before the World Cup. After scoring
in each of the Netherlands' group matches, he has virtually assured himself a
big-money move either in January or in the offseason, with Manchester United
already heavily linked. His composure in front of goal has been notable, along
with an ability to score off either foot. With Memphis Depay not fully match
sharp, Gakpo is shouldering the attacking burden for the Dutch.
FORWARD: Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Less is proving more for the 35-year-old Messi at the World Cup. He walks
around for much of his matches, often letting play develop without getting
involved, then explodes into life when he does get the ball. His display in the
decisive group match against Poland was inspirational, recovering from missing
a first-half penalty to guide Argentina to victory. He has two goals already
and is now four wins from a legacy-defining first World Cup title.
FORWARD: Kylian Mbapp (France)
Mbapp, the star of the 2018 World Cup, is looking a good bet for the Golden
Boot four years later after scoring three goals in his first two games before
being brought on as a late substitute on France's third game. Mbapp is playing
on the left side of France's forward three to accommodate Olivier Giroud and he
looks at home there, using his pace and crossing ability --- he set up one of
Giroud's goals against Australia --- while also making well-timed runs at the
far post. He has had a tournament-high 16 shots.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and