World Cup: Gakpo, Bellingham, Jesus Ferreira among ones to watch

World Cup football is right around the corner as Qatar prepares to become the first Arab nation to host the tournament after being awarded the right 12 years ago.

A total of 32 teams from across the world will compete in the final tournament of this size – with FIFA increasing the number of teams to 46 from the next tournament in 2026 – with 64 games being contested.

Established stars like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe will attract the headlines, but the opportunity is there for other players to make their mark on the biggest stage of all.

Here, Stats Perform has crafted a full XI of players to watch out for at the World Cup in Qatar.

Unai Simon (Goalkeeper, Spain)

Spain's depth between the sticks was highlighted by David de Gea's omission from the 55-man provisional squad, where five shot-stoppers were named, and the number one shirt for the 2010 champions is firmly in the hands of Unai Simon after playing a key role in the Euro 2020 campaign and the 2020 Olympics.

Six clean sheets in LaLiga this season is only bettered by Marc-Andre ter Stegen (11) and Geronimo Rulli (seven), with Athletic fourth in the standings as they seek a return to Champions League football.

Unai Simon
Unai Simon

Nico Schlotterbeck (Centre back, Germany)

Selected by Hansi Flick ahead of Borussia Dortmund team-mate and 2014 world champion Mats Hummels, Schlotterbeck has the attributes to slot perfectly into Germany's side for the World Cup in Qatar with core involvement in build-up play.

Of central defenders in Europe's top-five leagues this season, Schlotterbeck ranks third for involvement in attacking opportunities (711). On 203 occasions, he has started the attacking sequence – more than anyone else in his position in Europe's top-five leagues.

William Saliba (Centre back, France)

Arsenal's rise to the summit of the Premier League standings has understandably caught the eye, with Saliba playing an integral role in Mikel Arteta's side at the heart of the defence.

The centre-back has won possession for the Gunners 120 times, behind only Declan Rice (139) and Alexis Mac Allister (124) in the Premier League, while Bayern's Dayot Upamecano (12) is the only central defender in Europe's top-five leagues to have been involved in more attacking sequences that led to a goal than Saliba (eight).

Kim Min-jae (Centre back, South Korea)

Sitting pretty at the top of Serie A with Napoli, Kim Min-jae will also have a crucial role to play in South Korea's exploits at the World Cup. With Son Heung-min leading the attack, it will be Kim who leads the defence.

Across Europe's top-five leagues this season, Kim (642) ranks eighth for attacking involvement among central defenders, while only six players have won possession more times in Serie A this season than Kim (96) – many of which are midfielders.

Vini
Vini

Vinicius Junior (Winger, Brazil)

With Neymar now in the twilight years of his career, the torch of Brazil's leading man is ready to be passed on and Vinicius is well poised to snatch that honour in Qatar – having enjoyed a fine calendar year with Real Madrid.

In 2022, only Iago Aspas and Karim Benzema (both 23) have been directly involved in more LaLiga goals than Vinicius's 22 (13 goals, nine assists), and only Ousmane Dembele (16) has recorded more assists in that period.

Youri Tielemans (Midfielder, Belgium)

Out of contract with Leicester City at the end of the season, Tielemans has a chance to earn himself a big move at the World Cup, with Belgium looking to finally capitalise on their golden generation.

Tielemans ranks seventh amongst Europe's top five leagues for involvement in attacking sequences that end in a shot (69) and should see a lot of the ball in the Red Devils' midfield.

Jude Bellingham (Midfielder, England)

Bellingham's goal-scoring threat has caught the eye this season, hitting four goals in five Champions League appearances this season, but his defensive contribution could also be integral to Gareth Southgate's strategy in Qatar.

In the Bundesliga this season, Bellingham ranks fourth for tackles won (26) and third for possession won (123), which could help spark attacks for the Three Lions. The Dortmund man has been involved in 77 attacking opportunities that ended with a shot, behind only Bayern Munich duo Joshua Kimmich (98) and Jamal Musiala (88).

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Midfielder, Serbia)

In 2022, only Rafael Leao (24), Ciro Immobile (23) and Victor Osimhen (22) have been directly involved in more Serie A goals than Lazio's Milinkovic-Savic's 21 (nine goals, 12 assists), with the Serbian having more assists than anyone else.

In a tough group alongside Brazil, Cameroon and Switzerland, that creativity from midfield could prove to be decisive and Milinkovic Savic can be a source for goals himself, having outscored his expected goals (xG) in 2022.

Cody Gakpo (Winger, Netherlands)

The exciting Gakpo heads to the World Cup with an impressive record of nine goals and 12 assists in the Eredivisie this season.

A total of 21 direct goal involvements puts him level with Manchester City's Erling Haaland in that respect, with no player across Europe's top 10 leagues having more.

Jesus Ferreira (Striker, United States)

FC Dallas forward Ferreira has made a swift impression on the international stage, scoring seven goals in his first 15 caps, and has a key role to play for the USA as they return to the World Cup after missing out in 2018.

A tally of 24 direct goal involvements (18 goals, six assists) in the recently concluded MLS season is bettered by four players, though his most impressive stat is the fact his 18 goals have come from an xG of 12.4.

Jonathan David (Striker, Canada)

With nine Ligue 1 goals this season, David has only been outscored by Mbappe (12), Neymar (11) and Terem Moffi (10), and Canada will need his exploits in front of goal in their first World Cup appearance for 36 years.

David has rekindled his form at the perfect time, having scored just three times from the start of 2022 to the end of last season, though his international record has always been strong – scoring 22 times in 34 appearances.