Qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is drawing to a close. Over the next few weeks, we will learn who will definitely be in the tournament come next summer, and who will have to fight it out in order to qualify via a play-off.
In the UEFA groups, the fate of several major nations, such as Holland, Portugal and Italy, hangs in the balance. England are one win away from a berth in the finals, while Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland will be aiming to join Northern Ireland in the play-offs.
In South America, traditional giants Argentina are anything but secure. Currently sitting fifth in the CONMEBOL table, Lionel Messi and co. will, along with continental kings Chile, have to battle for automatic qualification.
Amid all the drama, many players will simply be hoping to make their first international appearances. Here, we assess the top potential debutants.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR (URUGUAY)
Rodrigo Bentancur is one member of an exciting new generation in Uruguayan football. Other members include PSV Eindhoven playmaker Gastón Pereiro, Celta Vigo finisher Maximiliano Gómez, Sampdoria ball-winner Lucas Torreira, and ball-playing Las Palmas centre-back Mauricio Lemos.
The 20-year-old is perhaps the star of this new wave, however, having appeared for Juventus this season. He has not looked at all out of his depth thus far, showing a combination of class and grit that should help him thrive in Italian football.
Standing just over 6ft 1ins tall, Bentancur is a physically and technically astute defensive midfielder, meaning he could be the long-term successor to Egidio Arevalo Rios in front of Uruguay’s back line.
BRYAN CRISTANTE (ITALY)
After suffering a controversial early exit from AC Milan, Bryan Cristante has gradually gotten his career back on track. A spell in Portugal with Benfica didn’t quite worked out, but he is re-finding his best form on loan at Atalanta.
Dynamic, aggressive and forward-thinking, the 22-year-old is a classically Italian central midfielder. He contributes in defence and attack, and could get his chance to shine for the national team over the next few weeks.
Italy are without Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti due to injuries, leaving them short on midfield options. Cristante could, at least temporarily, help to fill the void.
For many years, Brazilian goalkeepers were not in high demand. However, the Selecao now have two fine shot-stoppers on the books of major European clubs. Roma’s Alisson may be their current No.1 thanks to his outstanding reflexes, but Manchester City’s Ederson is breathing down his neck for a starting spot.
Questions were raised over the £35million fee the Premier League side paid Benfica for the player in the summer, but many have already been vanquished. The 24-year-old has shown the combination of agility, decision-making and composure on the ball that Pep Guardiola so desperately needs.
With Brazil’s progress to the World Cup already secured, Ederson may be given his chance in one of their final two qualifiers.
BRUNO FERNANDES (PORTUGAL)
Bruno Fernandes thrived at Sampdoria last term, playing as a central or attacking midfielder in a diamond under Marco Giampaolo’s auspices. He relishes the short-passing style, evidencing his ball control and playmaking aptitude.
The 23-year-old moved back to Portugal in the summer, joining Sporting Lisbon for a fee of just over £7.5million. Since then he has hit five goals in eight league outings, establishing himself as his team’s most creative player in the process.
AMINE HARIT (MOROCCO)
Last season, Amine Harit proved himself to be one of the most accomplished dribblers in France. Only two players topped his 2.9 dribbles completed per game, a fact that may have helped convince Schalke to splash out over £7million for his signature in July.
The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has adapted quickly to life in Germany, starting all seven of his side’s Bundesliga games and setting up two goals.
Harit was born in France and appeared for them at youth level, as seen in the image above. However, he has been called into the Moroccan national team and will be aiming to make his debut in their crucial qualifier against Gabon on October 7.
PRESNEL KIMPEMBE (FRANCE)
France currently sit top of their qualification group and, with remaining fixtures against Bulgaria and Belarus, they should secure their progression to the finals with a minimum of fuss. Presnel Kimpembe may face competition for a centre-back role from Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti, but the situation may allow him to make his debut for Les Bleus.
A powerful defender with quality on the ball, the 22-year-old impressed many when making his Champions League debut for Paris Saint-Germain in the remarkable 4-0 win over Barcelona last season. And, while he may not be a regular at club level, his talent is clear to see.
HARRY MAGUIRE (ENGLAND)
Having impressed for Hull City last term, Harry Maguire earned a £12million move to Leicester City over the summer. And, just seven games into his career with the former Premier League champions, he looks worth every penny.
Despite appearing to be a traditionally brutish centre-back, the 24-year-old is surprisingly nuanced.
He can operate effectively at the heart of a back four or on the outside of a three, and that may help him in his pursuit of an international debut.
England have experimented with a three-man defensive line in recent times, and Maguire – a fine marker, tackler and passer – has the qualities to take on a key role within such a setup.
CALLUM MCGREGOR (SCOTLAND)
Following injuries to his Celtic team-mates Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong, Callum McGregor was given a call-up to the Scottish national team by Gordon Strachan. At 24 years of age and enjoying the form of his life, he is more than ready to make his international debut.
The left-footer is an attack-minded central midfielder with sound technique and the capability to make intelligent forward forays. His drive, confidence and ability on the ball could prove crucial to his country as they look to break down Slovakia and Slovenia.
M’BAYE NIANG (SENEGAL)
Shunted out on loan for the fourth time in as many years, it is becoming increasingly clear that M’Baye Niang’s future doesn’t lie with AC Milan. Having thrilled in fits and starts with Watford last term, he now finds himself at Torino in an attempt to kick-start a stalling career.
The 22-year-old, who can play anywhere across the frontline, has had a reasonable start to the campaign, scoring and setting up one goal apiece in five Serie A games. Now he will hope to make an impact on the international stage for Senegal alongside the likes of Sadio Mané and Keita Baldé Diao.
JONATHAN VIERA (SPAIN)
With their place in the World Cup all but assured, Spain may use games against Albania and Israel as an opportunity to blood new players.
And they don’t come much newer than Jonathan Viera.
The 27-year-old had never previously been called up, let alone capped.
He deserves his chance, however.
Over the last two years he has been the key influence in Las Palmas’ La Liga survival, showing an exceptional touch, creativity, vision and passing.
Viera is one of the most creative players in his country – only three players in the league have created more chances per game, while only the legendary Messi averages more completed dribbles.
The attacking midfielder may be unknown to even the most attentive of European football followers, but that could soon change if he makes his debut for Spain.
HARRY WINKS (ENGLAND)
Harry Winks broke out at Tottenham Hotspur last season, making 33 appearances in all competitions. At a club that prioritises youth development, he is in the right place to progress his career. And he is already on the verge of a crucial next step with England.
Gareth Southgate brought the 21-year-old into his squad for the coming qualifiers with Slovenia and Lithuania following an injury to Fabian Delph, and he could make use of the youngster’s control and tidy passing in the centre of midfield.