World Cup | Analysis

World Cup’s 11 most impressive players leave lasting impression

 

With an eye toward goal scoring that defined the tournament, here’s the World Cup Best 11.

nnehamas@miamiherald.com

What a tournament.

Marcelo’s own goal in his home country’s opener provided a foreboding start to World Cup 2014. But the quadrennial soccer showcase went on to produce thrill after thrill, culminating in 22-year-old Mario Goetze’s extra-time winner Sunday that lifted Germany past Argentina 1-0.

American fans watched in all-time high numbers, viewers around the world tweeted at historic levels, and the world’s best footballers broke some records, too.

A record-tying 171 total goals were scored over 64 matches. Eight of those contests went to extra time, which also tied the record. An all-time high 13 percent of shots found the back of the net. And Germany’s Miroslav Klose became the highest scorer in World Cup history with 16 goals.

Meanwhile, the United States scored the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history, surrendered the latest normal-time strike in 20 years and stopped the most shots since FIFA started recording saves in 1966.

Not ready to let World Cup fever subside just yet, we picked the tournament’s most impressive players for our World Cup Best 11. The attacking brilliance on display in Brazil means our lineup leans heavily on players with an eye for goals.

Goalkeeper

Manuel Neuer (GER)

Forget his shot-stopping, which was sensational. Neuer was so quick off his line and so good on the ball that he essentially played as an extra defender for Germany, sprinting out from goal to boot away passes that got behind his defense. One of the greatest performances by a goalie in World Cup history — and he didn’t even make a save in the final.

Right back

Philipp Lahm (GER)

Fritz Walter in 1954, Franz Beckenbauer in 1974, Lothar Matthaus in 1990 and now Lahm, the fourth German to captain his country to a World Cup win. He did everything Die Mannschaft needed, standing out as one of the most complete and intelligent footballers in the tournament.

Center back

Thiago Silva (BRA)

Hard to imagine Germany would have eviscerated Brazil if Thiago Silva had anchored the host’s backline (two previous yellow cards kept him out of the match). The captain often found himself doing it all in defense, and he also chipped in with a crucial goal against Colombia in the quarterfinal.

Center back

Mats Hummels (GER)

A nagging knee injury could not stop the 25-year-old from making the Golden Ball shortlist as he played a key role in Germany’s dominant defense and scored two goals at the other end. His pinpoint header pushed Germany past France 1-0 in the quarterfinals.

Left back

Daley Blind (NED)

Blind’s incredible long-range pass provided the best goal of the group stages: Robin Van Persie’s diving header against Spain. Blind was a perpetual-motion machine down Holland’s left flank and scored a goal of his own in the third-place game. At 24years old, the Ajax man is one to watch.

Defensive midfield

Javier Mascherano (ARG)

It would be easier to write about what Mascherano did not do during the World Cup. The man who finished in the top three among all players in tackles and completed passes was also an emotional leader for Argentina. His goal-saving tackle on Holland’s Arjen Robben was the best defensive play of the tournament.

Right wing

Arjen Robben (NED)

Robben jinked and juked his way down Holland’s right wing seemingly at will, leaving helpless defenders tackling air as he motored past them into open space. He looked like a man possessed as he powered Holland into the semifinal. But his quiet performance against Argentina helped doom the Dutch to defeat.

Central attacking mid.

James Rodriguez (COL)

Before scoring in every Colombia contest, Rodriguez was a 100-1 long shot to win the Golden Boot award that he earned after Sunday’s final. The 22-year-old was the most exciting player in Brazil, and his volleyed strike against Uruguay might have been the golazo of the tournament.

Left wing

Neymar (BRA)

Neymar papered over all the cracks in a weak Brazil team. Without his silky dribbling and wicked shot, the hosts looked absolutely lost against Germany and Holland. He might even have taken Brazil to the final if a nasty challenge in the Colombia game hadn’t fractured one of his vertebrae. He finished with four goals.

Striker

Thomas Mueller (GER)

Headlining a potent German attack, Mueller started the tournament with a hat trick against Portugal, tallied the only goal in a match against the United States and came one strike short of winning a second straight Golden Boot. And he’s only 24.

Striker

Lionel Messi (ARG)

Messi was overburdened in Brazil. On his small shoulders he carried both the hopes of Argentina and the mantle of its greatest player ever, Diego Maradona. It proved too much, but La Pulga still scored four goals and earned the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament.

Coach

Louis Van Gaal (NED)

In May, the Dutch outlook was bleak after injuries decimated the Oranje’s midfield. Fast forward to July, and the Netherlands left Brazil with a third-place finish after Van Gaal reorganized and reenergized the Dutch side. His decision to sub in reserve keeper Tim Krul for the penalty shootout against Costa Rica will go down as the gutsiest move by a manager in recent World Cup history.

Honorable Mentions

Tim Howard (USA), Ron Vlaar (NED), Paul Pogba (FRA), Angel di Maria (ARG), Toni Kroos (GER), Juan Cuadrado (COL), Alexis Sanchez (CHI)

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