Twelve Bundesliga players are still at the 2022 World Cup. bundesliga.com picks out three to watch in the semi-finals...
Club: Bayern Munich
Mbappe is undoubtedly the star of the show for world champions France, but one of the unsung heroes for Didier Deschamps’s side has certainly been Upamecano. By his own admission, his first season at Bayern wasn’t great. That isn’t to say it was bad, but he hired a personal trainer over the summer to ensure he was in top condition for this campaign – and it’s worked.
The central defender has become one of the first names on Julian Nagelsmann’s teamsheet at Bayern and ranks in the division top 10 across categories such as tackles won (170, sixth), possession (1,385, second) and pass completion (92.74 per cent, fourth). He’s now taken that form and confidence into the World Cup to emerge as France’s first-choice centre-back.
Watch: Analysing Upamecano, the modern centre-back
Again, Upamecano is in the top 12 for pass completion (91.5 per cent), while he has also won seven tackles, made six interceptions and 29 recoveries, and generally hasn’t put a single foot wrong to allow opponents in across the wins against Australia, Denmark (he was rested for the final group fixture against Tunisia), Poland and England.
His performances for France will be no surprise to anyone who has watched him with RB Leipzig and Bayern in recent years, constantly maturing as a rock at the back. But now he’s being viewed as one of the breakout stars of the World Cup and his status as one of football’s best young central defenders confirmed. Plaudits were vocal again as he shut out ex-teammate Robert Lewandowski – having already done so twice in this season’s UEFA Champions League against Barcelona – until an added-time penalty in a World Cup round of 16 match.
Club: RB Leipzig
There was plenty of excitement when Leipzig announced the signing of Gvardiol from Dinamo Zagreb in 2020 before loaning him back for a season, but could people really have imagined how rapidly he’d settle and progress? Well, given what we’ve seen in the past from Upamecano and Ibrahima Konate – just to name centre-back examples – at the Red Bull Arena, it’s not much of a shock that the club have unearthed and polished yet another gem.
The left-footer has faced competition in the Leipzig defence this season with the arrival of Abdou Diallo, but looked before the winter break to have muscled himself ahead in the pecking order. It’s something he also does for fun against opposition attackers. The 6’1’’ centre-back is uncompromising in his tackles, wins the ball on the ground and in the air, already possesses excellent positional play and can even pick the right pass to launch an attack. They’re qualities we’ve almost started to take for granted over the last 18 months in the Bundesliga, where he is contracted to stay until 2027 after signing a new deal in September, but now he’s demonstrating them on the international stage.
Watch: Gvardiol's best Bundesliga goals, assists and skills
Gvardiol has played every minute of Croatia’s World Cup campaign at the heart of defence alongside Dejan Lovren, ranking third in the tournament for clearances (46) and eighth for touches (450). The Vatreni have conceded just three times in five games on their way to the semi-finals, against Alphonso Davies, Japan’s Daizen Maeda and Brazil's Neymar. After the 0-0 draw with Belgium that saw his team through to the knockouts, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic went as far as to label Gvardiol “the best centre-back in the world […] He’s so strong, assured but at the same time elegant, does everything with such ease.” The praise will surely keep rolling in if Gvardiol can add Lionel Messi to that list of stars dumped out and reach the World Cup final.
Club: Bayern Munich
Mazraoui is accustomed to winning, having lifted the Dutch Eredivisie three times, the KNVB Cup twice and been named the best young player at Ajax for 2019 before his summer 2022 move to Bayern. He had to bide his time after his arrival in Munich, not starting a game until the club’s sixth competitive fixture of the season, against (lower-league) Viktoria Cologne in the DFB Cup. But when he has featured, he’s clearly impressed coach Nagelsmann and looks to be emerging as the preferred choice on the right of defence for the Bundesliga leaders.
Yet while he’s much more accustomed to having the freedom to attack as a defender at Bayern and Ajax, the Netherlands-born Morocco international has masterfully demonstrated his defensive abilities at this World Cup – despite being deployed on his unnatural left side due to Achraf Hakimi’s presence at right-back. He ranks sixth for tackles won (eight), has won 12 out of 19 ground duels, made nine clearances and produced a crucial block.
Watch: The best of Mazraoui in the Bundesliga
Mazraoui has started four of five games as the Atlas Lions, who boast the tournament’s meanest defence with just a single goal against – an own goal against Canada – their sole blot on a record that has also seen them keep out 2018 runners-up Croatia, 2018’s third-placed nation Belgium, 2010 champions Spain and UEFA 2016 winners Portugal. “You shouldn't start a journey where you don't believe in a happy ending. And that's why we're going into the tournament with the attitude that we want to win it,” Mazraoui said ahead of the tournament.
Now through to the semi-finals as Africa’s last remaining representative and first from the continent to reach this stage, there’s every chance he – or one of Bayern’s other six players still in the competition – could be the one to continue the club’s proud run of having one of their own in 11 straight World Cup finals. But first Morocco will need to claim another big scalp against holders France.
Other Bundesliga players in the World Cup semi-finals
Argentina: Exequiel Palacios (Bayer Leverkusen)
Croatia: Kristijan Jakic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Borna Sosa (VfB Stuttgart), Josip Stanisic (Bayern Munich)
France: Kingsley Coman, Lucas Hernandez*, Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt), Marcus Thuram (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
*Hernandez was ruled out after suffering an ACL injury in France's opening group game
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