After a heavy dosage of T20 cricket through the IPL, the Indian sports enthusiasts now gear up for some scintillating football action on arguably the biggest stage - FIFA World Cup - which is slated to begin from 14th June. With 32 nations vying for the top prize, the month-long tournament has plenty in store to satiate the large appetite of football fanatics.
While the quadrennial event is looked upon as a great opportunity for participating nations to build on their rich footbaling history, it also acts as a pivotal platform for the young and rising stars to make a mark on one of the biggest sporting extravaganza. Whether it's a goalkeeper, defender or a midfield maestro, every player will be eager to step up for their respective sides on the world stage.
Though every player - in their own respective roles - will be key to their success in the upcoming tournament, it's needless to say that it will once again be the forwards - including the strikers and wingers - who might end up deciding the fate of their teams.
Arguably the most important players in a football team, forwards can single-handedly turn the tide in their favour during a game. A good goalkeeper and robust defence can surely make an impact for their team, but for that moment of magic to change the outcome of a match, it's the ferociously attacking forwards a coach will look to for inspiration and a potential result.
And, the coveted tournament in Russia this month could very well witness the same. With some of the biggest strikers in attendance, the upcoming tournament is surely going to see a tough battle for the Golden Boot honour. From Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo, here's a look at the top 15 forwards who are expected to shine at the mega stage:
From being one of the breakthrough stars in the 2016/17 Bundesliga to becoming Germany's first-choice striker for the upcoming World Cup, Tim Werner has undoubtedly come a long way to prove his mettle in the No 9 position for his respective clubs and country. The 22-year-old began his professional journey with VFB Stuttgart at the age of just six.
By the time he was 17, Werner had already become the youngest ever UEFA Europa League debutant in 2013. A few months later, he went on to become the youngest Stuttgart player ever to score in the Bundesliga and the youngest ever to net a brace in the history of the German league. After Stuttgart's relegation, Werner moved to RB Leipzig where he developed into a more rounded striker and established himself one of their driving forces in the league.
A strong finisher who can move pretty fast on the counter attacks, Werner also has a knack for getting in behind defences and creating spaces in deep-lying positions which has allowed him to become Germany's first-choice striker ahead of the likes of Mario Gomez and Sandro Wagner. And, the fact that Werner walked away with the Golden Boot honour in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, highlights his ability to deliver on the big stage.
Given his astronomical feats and envious exploits, Cristiano Ronaldo clearly needs no introduction in the footballing world. Labelled as one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game, Ronaldo boasts of the 2016 Euro trophy, five Champions League titles and a record-tying five Ballon d'Ors.
Today, aged 33, the mercurial forward might not be the goal-scoring machine he once was, but his presence on the field is still good enough for his side to turn the tide in their favour during crunch matches. For a man who began his career as a trickster, Ronaldo, over his career, has become a menacing force for his opponents.
A versatile attacker, Ronaldo was ostensibly right-footed, but, with training and hardwork, he has managed to become very strong with both feet. Whether with or without the ball, Ronaldo ranks amongst the world's fastest footballers.
With mercurial Gareth Southgate as their coach, England will be desperately looking to make amends for their poor showing in Brazil where they couldn't even get out of the group stages four years ago. And, if there's anyone who can make it happen for them, it's got to be their captain Harry Kane.
A leader, key player and England's undoubted talisman; Kane has been on a rampage this year scoring goals at will in both Premier League and the Champions League. He's good with both his feet, absolutely menacing in the air and not afraid to fire a long-range shot to find the back of the net. His consistency to score also earned him the Golden Boot in both 2015-16 and 2016-17 Premier League seasons.
It's needless to say that England's success in Russia will heavily rely on Kane. The Tottenham Hotspur star was pivotal in his side's road to Russia. He scored winning goals against Slovenia and Lithuania before securing a late equaliser against Scotland - all those goals alone accounting for seven qualifying points for the Poms. After impressing at the club level, Kane now finds himself staring at a much-needed opportunity to make a mark on the biggest stage.
For a man who has 90 international caps and 38 goals for Germany, Thomas Muller clearly needs no introduction to football. Aged 28, Muller has already played in two World Cups (2010 & 2014) where he scored a total of 10 goals (combined). And, that probably explains why he is guaranteed a spot in the ever-competitive German team when they begin their title defence in Russia.
Irrespective of his unconventional brand of football, Muller presents a potent goalscoring threat, especially at major tournaments. While he may lack physical strength for a forward, Muller adequately makes up for it with his pace, technique, awareness, tactical intelligence and positioning. Majority of Muller's goals have been attained through his ability to find gaps in the opposition defence.
Given the fact that he clinched Golden Boot (2010) and Silver Boot (2014) awards in the last editions, Germany will hope that Muller's knack for making the big tournaments his own by consistently scoring goals continues in Russia. For someone who describes his own role as Raumdeuter (an interpreter of space), Muller will surely not surprise anyone if he walks away with the Golden Boot award, yet again.
After losing a third final in three years with his national team, Lionel Messi sent shockwaves across the footballing world by announcing his retirement in 2016. Ofcourse, being an emotional decision, Messi's retirement didn't last long and he returned to play for Argentina to the sheer joy of his fans. Two years later, everyone's asking the same question: "Can Messi win the elusive World Cup trophy this time?"
Whether Argentina comes out on top or not in Russia, Messi doesn't really need to win a World Cup (though it'll be great if he does) to prove how great a player he is. Despite his short stature, Messi's lower centre of gravity has given him greater agility to move quickly and evade opposing tackles. His dribbling skills are phenomenal and when he's not busy finding the back of the net, Messi can be found setting up his teammates for crucial goals.
The road to glory in Russia will require something similar or maybe more from Messi. But, for all his might, Messi is undoubedly one of those star players whose presence on the pitch alone is capable of aiding any team. "This is Messi's Argentina, not mine," coach Jorge Sampaoli's comments further highlight just how important he is for his team.
On the back of great passing ability, tactical intelligence and vision, Sergio Aguero has undoubtedly established himself as one of the best strikers in the world. Though he's naturally a right-footed player, Aguero is more than capable of striking with his left foot. He can finish well both inside and outside the area with enough power and accuracy in his shots.
However, the last year hasn't been too exciting for someone as talented as Aguero. His troublesome knee injury denied him enough game time at Manchester City, further denting his form during the World Cup qualifiers. Struggling to nail down a starting place, Aguero failed to improve Argentina's wayward finishing in the qualifiers, scoring just one goal in eight appearances.
But, despite all that, Aguero will still be pivotal in Jorge Sampaoli's tactics in Russia. And, the fact that the 30-year-old is still chasing his maiden world finals goal in his third consecutive appearance in the tourney, might just fuel his hunger to make an impact this year. That also explains why Sampaoli still sees Aguero as Lionel Messi's ideal strike partner, just as he was at the U-20 World Cup, thirteen years ago.
For someone who is often regarded as one of the best centre forwards in the world, it's not hard to guess that Poland's play will pretty much revolve around Robert Lewandowski. The undisputed superstar of the Polish team and arguably one of the highly-anticipated players in the upcoming tournament, Lewy will be seen carrying the hopes of his nation when they travel to Russia.
An outright attacker, Lewandowski is a clever dribbler, great in the air, capable of scoring with either foot and very difficult to shrug off the ball. Making full use of those traits, the 29-year-old etched his name in the history books when he went past Wlodzimierz Lubanski's 48-goal mark to become Poland's all-time leading scorer after a hat-trick over Armenia in 2017.
Given his exploits, it's not really surprising to see Lewandowski being hailed as his country's biggest sporting idol. And, going into the mega event, Poland's number nine will be expected to rise to the occasion and drive his team to great heights in his maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup.
Back in 2014, a young Neymar carried the burden of Brazil on his shoulders as his nation played host to the FIFA World Cup. While his performance was still better than his compatriots, Brazil's dismal show including the shambolic drubbing against Geermany, was an outing the Selecao would surely want to forget.
Four years on, Brazil is completely a different team and Neymar is full of experience which puts them in contention for the coveted World title. It's needless to say that going into this year's World Cup, Neymar will once again be the main man for Brazil. And, the fact that their coach Tite has managed to provide Neymar the star status and a position of responsibility withhin the team, promises a better showing this time around.
He might have failed to score in the qualifiers prior to Tite's arrival in the dugout, but Neymar seems to have made amends with six goals and eight assists to his name under their new coach. For a man who is capable of playing as a central striker, second striker and even a winger; Neymar has rightly earned the label of a 'true phenomenon'. Playing as a left-sided forward, Neymar offers pace and energy, while his playmaking skills are second to none. In Russia, Brazil will expect their star man to lead from the front, and we won't be surprised to see this man deliver on the biggest stage.
Whether you've followed football lately or not, the name Mohamed Salah would really have been hard to miss this season. Arguably the most globally-acclaimed player in the Egypt squad, Salah has won over Europe with his goal-scoring ability lately. For a man who began playing with Arab Contractors, Salah has undoubtedly come a long way to become a key figure at Liverpool on the back of a prolific 2017/18 season.
A quick, hard-working and tactical player, Salah has a good technique and great eye for goal. He is predominantly known for his speed, dribbling skills and ball control. A versatile forward, Salah primarily plays as a winger on the right flank - a position that allows hum to cut into the centre onto his stronger left foot and either shoot for goal, or initiate quick exchanges with other players to create a scoring opportunity.
All of those attributes were in full display during Egypt's qualifying games for the World Cup. The 25-year-old scored five goals for his national team in six games during the final round of qualifiers. Two of those goals came in the crucial meeting with Congo which sealed Egypt's qualification. As the tournament begins, Salah will once again be expected to lead from the front and help the Pharaohs secure their first-ever berth in the knockout stage.
Finishing fifth in the Premier League, Chelsea might have been forced to endure a forgetful outing in 2017/18 season, but there's no denying to the plethora of talent Eden Hazard brings to the table. A natural-born footballer, Hazard is a player whose impeccable football skills are capable of filling stadiums and inspiring youngsters to take up the game.
For a man who is capable of playing either as an attacking midfielder or a winger, Hazard looks comfortable on the ball and has established himself as an elusive dribbler. Seemingly immune to pressure, the 27-year-old offers dazzling skills and can play the game with remarkable calm and ease.
After a bit of an underwhelming FIFA World Cup debut in 2014, Hazard will be eager to make the most of his second chance to shine at the biggest stage the sport has to offer. And, despite the presence of big stars in his team, expect Hazard to make a mark in Russia.