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 Mbappe 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 Messi.
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 Mbappe (France)
Mbappe, 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. Mbappe 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 https://twitter.com/AP-Sports