The league season has come and gone but peeking it’s head around the corner is the World Cup in Russia. The month-long football fiesta promises to be a feast both for fans and players alike as they all battle it out to see who will reign supreme.
However, one of the most enjoyable things about World Cup competitions is finding the unheralded players who shine. While it is much more difficult to have that sense of wonder in the modern era, it can still be fun to find out about an exciting footballer that you had not seen much of before.
Here’s a quick look at four players that ply their trade in Ligue 1 who could put their name on the map during this summer’s tournament:
Ismaila Sarr – Senegal and Rennes
While it’s not quite been the breakout campaign some had expected from the 20-year-old, Ismaila Sarr is exactly the kind of x-factor talent that less-fancied nations adore and Premier League clubs salivate over.
The former Metz wide man has had a strange season since joining Rennes in the summer, playing across the forward line and never really settling in one position. Christian Gourcuff was determined to make him a striker but he has been far more effective out wide, picking the ball up deep and driving at teams.
If he can put an indifferent year behind him, where he notched just five goals and three assists, he could prove to be the perfect foil to superstar Sadio Mané. Another Ligue 1 star in Moussa Konaté may be pushing for a start, but Sarr’s ability to transform games with his pace and ability means he will likely get the nod.
Ellyes Skhiri – Tunisia and Montpellier
Having committed his international future to Tunisia earlier this season, Ellyes Skhiri is set to be a major part of the nation’s first World Cup since 2006.
The 23-year-old has been a lynchpin at Montpellier this season, having stayed away from the international set-up in order to focus on his club career. That investment has paid off in droves as Skhiri is the heartbeat of La Paillade, controlling games with his passing ability and his strong defensive instincts.
He also has a penchant for a strike from distance, with a style akin to stroking the ball into the back of the net like an artist gently brushing in the sky on a portrait. If he can show how he can be a real force in midfield, especially against a strong Belgium side, clubs may start ordering a queue for his services.
Naim Sliti – Tunisia and Dijon
The Carthage Eagles have another Ligue 1 starlet in their midst as they try to secure their first-ever World Cup win and Naim Sliti of Dijon will be one of their main goal-scoring threats.
Predominantly a left winger that also operates as a central attacking midfielder, the 25-year-old has great close-ball control and creativity in his feet that could help inspire his side to not be the pushovers some are expecting. Him linking with the wideman-turned-striker Whabi Khazri will be crucial for them, with the on-loan Rennes star benefitting from good service with the Brittany club.
With five assists this season and seven goals, Sliti is the ideal man to supply him but also to take some of the goal-scoring burden from him as well. With the underdog tag firmly on their backs in a group with Belgium and England, Tunisia will be hopeful that the Dijon man cuts the mustard this summer.
Giovani Lo Celso – Argentina and Paris Saint-Germain
Ever-present in the Paris Saint-Germain side to end the season, Giovani Lo Celso could be the Swiss Army knife that Argentina desperately need to boost their midfield in Russia.
The 22-year-old had to bide his time but was one of the first names on the teamsheet at the Parc des Princes at the end of Emery’s era. Best in the final third creating and scoring goals, he has contributed to seven goals in total, he has also added more dynamism to his game both in terms of keeping possession and putting in the defensive work as well.
That versatility added to manager Jorge Sampaoli’s penchant for playing him practically guarantees him a starting berth. With it likely to be Lionel Messi’s final chance at a World Cup, he will need all the support he can get and with the rest of the midfield out of form or aging rather ungracefully, it will be up to Lo Celso to pick up the slack.