Christian Cueva (right) in pre-World Cup training with Peru in Lima. Photograph: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images
Sat 9 Jun 201812.13 BSTLast modified on Sat 9 Jun 201812.15 BST
Perus Christian Cueva, Swiss midfielder Denis Zakaria, Serbias Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Denmarks Pione Sisto, Russias Aleksandr Golovin and Alireza Jahan Bakhsh of Iran. Composite: Getty Images
The numbers looked good in Zakarias first Bundesliga season with Borussia Monchengladbach, and the visual evidence was not bad either. Signed from Young Boys last summer, the 21-year-old was ranked as the leagues second-fastest player and also came joint top of the pass-completion charts. Discipline was his only significant issue, with 11 yellow cards suggesting that a primarily defensively minded player has yet to curb an overenthusiastic streak when it comes to recovering possession. He is a serious contender to start for Switzerland, though, and could partner Granit Xhaka, the man he has effectively replaced at club level, in an all-action deep midfield axis. Zakaria who has Congolese and (like Sisto) South Sudanese ancestry could be a trump card for Vladimir Petkovic in what looks likely to be a tough fight with Serbia for second place in Group E.
The whipped free-kick that flew past Petr Cech duringArsenals 4-1 victory over CSKA Moscow in Aprilproved little more than a footnote, but its provider looks destined for headlines. What little positivity Russians are able to muster about their teams prospects tends to centre on the drive and vision that Golovin, who only turned 22 in May, brings to the midfield. He is that rarity among the host nations fairly staid current vintage: a genuine game-changer who makes those around him perform better. Premier League clubs are watching closely and if Golovin, who was born in the Siberian town of Kaltan and primarily played futsal growing up, can inspire Russia to some semblance of success he may be able to take his pick.
Speculation linking Milinkovic-Savic with an80m move from Lazio to Manchester Unitedprovokes a certain degree of dj vu. He is 23, 6ft 4in, motors between the boxes, boasts a marvellous creative range and has becomea consistently dominant figure in Serie A. Everything Paul Pogba was trailed as being, in other words, and the Serbia midfielder is on track to be at least as good. Brilliance at club level has given way to enigma status for his country, though. Slavoljub Muslin, the manager who guided Serbia to qualification for this World Cup, was relieved of his duties in November largely because he did not fit Milinkovic-Savic into his system. Mladen Krstajic, his successor, is unlikely to make that mistake this summer and if things click straight away the world could see a potential superstar talent come of age.
Alireza Jahanbakhshs marauding wing play has earned comparisons with the Iranian World Cup hero Medhi Mahdavikia. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters
The emotional outpouring of support for their captain Paolo Guerrero seemingly banned from the World Cup after a positive e test has occupied Peruvian hearts and minds in the run-up to Russia 2018, but they might cheer up quickly enough once the action gets underway. That is because Cueva, the 26-year-old Sao Paulo playmaker, has the ingenuity to lift them out of Group C and is perfectly capable of filling the teams hero-shaped void. Cueva, a diminutive figure at a shade under 5ft 7in, is all darting feet and smart ideas: his wiles brought four goals, all of them significant, in qualifying, and most observers agree he is currently playing the best football of his career. Any iteration of his top form could see fretfulness quickly turn to joy on the streets of Lima, Cusco and beyond.
In Iran eyes still mist over at memories of the breakaway goal scored at France 98 by the feted right-winger Medhi Mahdavikia, which sealed victory over the US and helped earn him a successful 12-year stint in the Bundesliga. For several years Jahanbakhsh was compared to his Team Melli predecessor but a blistering season in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar suggests he can be even better. He finished 2017-18 as the Eredivisies top scorer with 21 goals, adding a dozen assists some return for a wide player and if comparisons with Mohamed Salah are premature it is easy to see the connection. Jahanbakhsh who turns 25 in August bristles with pace and power, and finishes explosively. Those facets might yet make negotiating Group B a more viable prospect than it looks forCarlos Queirozs side, while earning Jahanbakhsh a move to a top league in the process.
It was a source of considerable relief in Denmark when Sisto, jinking inside from the left before curling a slick finish into the far corner,finally injected some quality into a drab friendly against Panama. Not only because it won them the game; Sistos intervention also suggested Denmark have another way of breaking opponents down when Christian Eriksen is not firing. Sisto, born in Uganda to South Sudanese parents, is something of a throwback: a dribbler who is not afraid to try things, a stylish winger with a flair for the unexpected, but one who can fit into a system, too. At 23 he already has two seasons in La Liga with Celta Vigo under his belt; nine assists and five goals in 2017-18 were a good return and the task now is to bring that productivity into a major international tournament.
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