The 2018 World Cup just got a lot more interesting for Manchester United fans. On Tuesday, the club announced its first signing of the summer — Brazilian midfielder Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk. Unless you’re an aficionado of Ukrainian football, this World Cup could be your first exposure to Manchester’s newest Red.
But it’s not all about Fred. Eleven other United players will suit up for their countries in Russia and this summer means a lot for all of them.
Pogba stands at a crossroads for both club and country. The 25-year-old midfielder just finished a most uneven season for United, clashing with José Mourinho and too often looking a bystander on the field. His international duty hasn’t started too well either — France supporters whistled Pogba off the pitch during Friday’s friendly win over Italy.
Mourinho’s not the only manager frustrated with the young Frenchman. Didier Deschamps challenged Pogba to play better for Les Bleus — or risk losing his starting place beside N’Golo Kante.
While his inconsistency grates on fans and management alike, Pogba’s innate talent remains undeniable. But he has a lot to prove this summer — to himself, to Manchester United, and to his country. If France hopes to reclaim the Cup for the first time since 1998, it needs Paul Pogba in top gear.
Four United players — Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones, and Ashley Young — will line up for The Three Lions in Russia. England desperately seeks redemption after a pitiful showing at Euro 2016. In the run-up to the World Cup, new manager Gareth Southgate has tinkered with a three-man defense, often sticking Young at left wingback.
He also handed Lingard the #7 shirt and the United man might be in line for a starting role after impressing against Nigeria last weekend. Meanwhile, Rashford finds himself in a familiar position, asked to come off the bench late in games to terrorize tired defenses and chip in with a few big goals. Rashford won’t dislodge Harry Kane from the starting eleven, but could still make his mark as an impact sub.
Jones missed the Nigeria match for personal reasons, but seems a likely starter in Southgate’s new-look back three.
No matter what jersey he wears, Lukaku just keeps on scoring. After tallying 27 goals in his debut season at United, Big Rom enters the 2018 World Cup as Belgium’s all-time top scorer. Roberto Martinez’s squad ranks among the tournament’s favorites, with sky-high expectations heaped on this “golden generation.”
And there’s some evidence that the pressure is starting to get to the players. Lukaku recently spoke out about a perceived lack of appreciation from Belgium supporters, claiming that they don’t clap for him enough. This episode casts new light on Mourinho’s controversial comments back in October that United fans at Old Trafford needed to offer the forward more vocal encouragement.
For United’s purposes, this will be a great summer for Alexis Sánchez. Mostly because Chile failed to qualify for the World Cup, giving Alexis some much-needed rest before a July return to Carrington. After a chaotic year of transfer sagas and a surprising January move from Arsenal to Manchester United, the Chilean playmaker deserves a chance to catch his breath.
For a flair player, Alexis works really hard on the pitch. He wants to play every minute of every game, expending tons of energy trying to create chances for his teammates. That style of play takes its toll — as we saw during the second half of the season. Alexis needs some time to recover and he’ll get just that during his World Cup-less summer.
Matić could use a rest too, but he’s not likely to get one. Serbia are desperate to advance out of their World Cup group for the first time in two decades and will rely heavily on the 29-year-old midfielder. Matić is an integral part of his country’s side, breaking up attacks and providing leadership and stability in the middle.
Don’t miss Serbia vs. Brazil in the Group E finale on June 27 as new teammates Matić and Fred go head-to-head in Russia.
David De Gea
There’s not much to say about De Gea — he’s the best in the world and gets another chance to prove it this summer. If Spain hopes to wrestle the World Cup back from Germany, DDG will play a big part in it. The goalkeeper rarely puts a foot — or hand, in his case — wrong and can keep a clean sheet in front of even suspect defenses.
On Sunday, De Gea briefly looked human — fumbling a Swiss shot to allow the equalizer — but was probably just getting that gaffe out of his system before the main event in Russia.
Victor Lindelöf is slated to start in Sweden’s backline, while Marcos Rojo will have to settle for a spot on Argentina’s bench. With United looking to splash some cash in defense this summer, both center backs could use a strong performance.
Marouane Fellaini, still a United player for the moment, should provide a bit of steel off the bench for Belgium.
And, finally, Didier Deschamps controversially left Anthony Martial off France’s World Cup roster. Who knows what Martial’s club future holds, but he won’t get the chance to change any minds from his couch.