DIFFERENCE MAKERS

Not too long ago, Luka Modric lifted the 2018 Ballon d’Or — the prize awarded to the best player on the planet over the preceding 12 months. Few football experts would have predicted in January 2018 that the classy Croatian would win the award, dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the past decade. As we embark on another year of football, we look into his crystal ball to predict which players and Coaches will decide and define the major moments this year — the 2019 difference makers…

  1. HOUSSEM AOUAR

There are so many emerging young talents immediately labelled wonder-kids, and after Houssem Aouar’s impressive display against Manchester City in the Champions League last year, he was another to gain the tag.

Yet when the person doing the labelling is Pep Guardiola, you tend to take note. The former Barcelona player and Coach once earmarked a young Andres Iniesta as being capable of retiring Xavi Hernandez – something he did, winning 32 trophies for the Catalan titans along the way. Guardiola has an eye for spotting talent, and a big move could be on for the 20-year-old Lyon midfielder in 2019.

  1. GARETH SOUTHGATE

Last year was certainly an exciting one for fans of the England national team – and Gareth Southgate was key to that. Since taking charge, the Three Lions manager has shown a real desire to nurture youth, rebuild an on-field identity and reconnect with fans.

Getting to the World Cup semi-finals was considered a major achievement for his young side, but they’ll look forward to another challenge in 2019 – and a chance to get their hands on their first major trophy for over 50 years. Harry Kane’s goal against Croatia means they’ll feature in the inaugural Nations League finals this summer, and Southgate’s leadership and tactics will be vital if they’re to succeed.

  1. FRENKIE DE JONG

Ajax’s academy is renowned worldwide for its quality, and two graduates have stood out in recent seasons. Centre-back Matthijs de Ligt and versatile midfielder Frenkie De Jong are believed to be future superstars, and at the end of last year the Eredivisie club reportedly set their price tags. Midfielder De Jong was valued the higher of the duo at around £66m, and Barcelona are reported to see him as a natural replacement to Sergio Busquets as their deep-lying anchor man.

If the deal does happen, he’d form part of an exciting three-man midfield alongside Barcelona’s fellow young talent Arthur.

  1. MAURICIO POCHETTINO

A slightly speculative name on this list, but Mauricio Pochettino is reportedly one of the most-wanted managers on the planet. His Tottenham Hotspur team play some of the most attractive football in the Premier League, and he’s been hotly linked to become a future Real Madrid Coach.

Reports in Spain suggest that current Madrid boss Santiago Solari accepts that he’s their fill-in until the summer, and that Pochettino is high on President Florentino Perez’s list. The consequences of Pochettino leaving Tottenham for La Liga could be huge, with stars such as Harry Kane and Dele Alli potentially following him out the door – and that’s why the ex-Espanyol boss features on this list.

  1. LIONEL MESSI

Lionel Messi is one of the most-effective game changers on the planet, but he started a mission in 2018 – one he hopes will come to a successful conclusion in 2019. On becoming Barcelona club captain last summer, after Andres Iniesta’s departure to Japan, he made a Champions League pledge in his first public address to fans. “We promise that this season we will do all we can to bring that beautiful trophy back to the Camp Nou,” he said.

Of course, you’d expect Messi and co to do all they can for European success, but Leo’s imperious performances in the Group Stage suggests it really is his main objective for 2019.

  1. JADON SANCHO

Jadon Sancho used 2018 to break into the England squad and become an important member of an incredibly exciting Borussia Dortmund side, but it looks like he could take his game to the next level in 2019.

Sancho’s confidence seemed to grow by game at the end of 2018, and he was increasingly happy to try new tricks and be direct in his running at defenders. If the winger can continue to progress at such speed in 2019, the Bundesliga title could really be heading to Westfalenstadion for the first time in six seasons – and England will have a great shot at Nations League glory.

  1. JURGEN KLOPP

The Premier League trophy hasn’t been retained by a club since Manchester United did it in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons. City look the most likely to achieve the feat since The Red Devils managed it almost 10 years ago, but Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are on their tails.

The last time Liverpool really felt in a title race was in 2014-15, but they ultimately slipped up in the final weeks of the season. It will be down to Klopp to ensure that the ghosts of that season don’t re-appear, and that his squad don’t become engulfed by the increasing pressure and expectations placed upon them as the season goes on.

  1. NEYMAR

The Brazilian trick machine is always going to be considered one of the game’s most effective difference makers, but this year he could have as much an impact off the field as on it. He’s said to be slightly unsettled in Paris, and rumours are strife that he fancies another move in 2019.

The Parisians paid a world record fee for Neymar in the summer of 2017, and his valuation is considered to have risen to around £263m. Prospective buyers would have to break the world record once more, so a lot depends on how feasible a deal really is.

  1. EDEN HAZARD

“Real Madrid is the best club in the world. It is my dream since I was a kid.” Those were the words of Eden Hazard last October when he was asked about a potential move to the Spanish giants.

Signing a new contract with Chelsea or not, he’s laid out quite clear that he fancies a move to the European champions – and you can’t really blame him. He’s easily one of the most technically gifted players in the world, so a move to the European champions will get him the exposure he needs to challenge for a Ballon d’Or podium spot – rather than an eighth-place finish like in 2018…

  1. KYLIAN MBAPPE

Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of last year’s World Cup final scorers, and the 2018 tournament’s Best Young Player, is top of this list of 2019 difference makers. But the reason he’s our No 1 is his desire to win Europe’s most prestigious trophy – the Champions League.

Kylian Mbappe grew up with a soft toy of the trophy, and once said in an interview that he places Champions League glory above World Cup success. The exciting talent’s motivation is great news for PSG fans, who’ve seen their club dumped out of the competition before the semi-finals in the last five seasons.

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