Sporting Lisbon academy stands out as best breeding ground for World Cup 2018 superstars

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Cristiano Ronaldo (r) scoring for Manchester United at boyhood club Sporting Lisbon in 2007.

The cream of the football crop can now be found in Russia ahead of World Cup 2018’s heralded kick-off on Thursday.

But every grand adventure must have a starting point. For these 736 elite athletes, that is in the academy system.

We’ve picked out a selection of elite breeding grounds in a bid to decide which one has made the greatest contribution to this summer’s main event.

This figure isn’t decided purely on sheer volume, rather a subjective look at the players created:

SPORTING LISBON

Portugal v Chile: Semi-Final - FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017

World Cup 2018 players: 12

Famous alumni: Cristiano Ronaldo, William Carvalho, Joao Moutinho

Any success experienced by Portugal has to be shared with Sporting Lisbon.

The dozen players honed, at some stage, at Academia Sporting within the A Selecao das Quinas ranks contribute a grand total of 604 international caps. In Real Madrid icon Cristiano Ronaldo, it produced both the nation’s leading scorer (81 goals), leading appearance maker (150) and the captain of the side who helped inspire a surprise victory at Euro 2016.

To showcase the scale of the contribution, Benfica are next on the list with just five squad members.

Located at rural Alcochete, more than 30 kilometres away from the capital, the facility is one of the most modern and well equipped academies in Europe.

This emphasis on tranquility and a dedication to footballing excellence made the barbaric events of May 15 all the more surprising. A mob of approximately 50 irate supporters charged the centre, leaving several coaches and players blooded.

The fallout from this shocking incident could now cost the outfit more than €100 million (Dh431.4m) in lost transfer fees as the likes of goalkeeper Rui Patricio, defensive midfielder William Carvalho and winger Gelson Martins reportedly push to have their contracts cancelled on the grounds of safety.

DINAMO ZAGREB

Croatia v Brazil - International Friendly

World Cup 2018 players: Nine

Famous alumni: Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren, Mateo Kovacic

The grip of Dinamo Zagreb on Croatian football has been a tight – and controversial one.

From childhood prospects to players in adulthood who’ve been sold on to the biggest clubs in the world, their Stadion Hitrec-Kacian home represents a valuable talent mine since its founding in 1967.

Real Madrid metronome Luka Modric is one of nine members of the current roster to come through there, so too 99-cap Lokomotiv Moscow defender Vedran Corluka. Fellow Los Blancos midfielder Mateo Kovacic was attracted aged 13-years old even though he was born in Linz, Austria to Bosnian Croatian parents and was trailed at that point by the likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus and Ajax.

Clubs like Hadjuk Split (AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic) and Osijek (versatile Besiktas defender Domagoj Vida) cannot match both this volume of footballers produced – and the mega stars that Dinamo creates.

Yet, there is a dark side to this story.

Disgraced ex-chief executive Zdravko Mamic, his brother – and current Al Ain coach – Zoran and several other officials were found guilty last week of corruption. Custodial sentences have been issued on charges that the prosecuted vigorously contest, and plan to appeal.

This high-profile case and lengthy trial has even swept up the generation headed to Russia 2018. Modric has been charged with perjury for allegedly making false statements when questioned about his 2008 move to Tottenham, with Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren also being investigated for giving false testimony.

A murky saga in a tale of sporting excellence.

BARCELONA

Denmark v Mexico - International Friendly

World Cup 2018 players: Eight

Famous alumni: Lionel Messi, Giovani dos Santos, Andres Iniesta

La Masia holds a special place in all football lover’s affections.

Only Brazil’s Santos could claim to have made a similar contribution to the principles of ‘The Beautiful Game’.

The dormitory has housed a rich list of footballing names – and this is the case once again in 2018. Remarkably, Barcelona’s facility boasts international players external to the home country.

Spain’s trophy chasers currently boast four alumnus – centre-back Gerard Pique, left-back Jordi Alba, defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets and lauded attacking midfielder Andres Iniesta.

The most famous name will be wearing the sky blue and white of Argentina – Lionel Messi. A claim to become the greatest footballer of all time by the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will become firmer if belated success at the World Cup can be experienced after the near miss four years ago.

Mexico internationals Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos came through La Masia, before departing for pastures new. Both can now be found at Los Angeles Galaxy.

South Korea winger Lee Seung-woo was a key figure in 2014’s transfer ban about the registration of international players under the age of 18. He was sold to Serie A’s Hellas Verona last summer.

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Goncalo Guedes is an emerging force for Portugal and other key World Cup 2018 issues

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Portugal are ready for World Cup 2018.

World Cup 2018 is now just a matter of days away and several major contenders have already landed in Russia after they completed their final warm-up matches.

But how are they shaping up? Which players are in form and will the head coaches be forced into any last-minute tactical tweaks?

Here, we review where Portugal find themselves ahead of Friday’s Group B-opener against Spain at Fisht Stadium:

FRIENDLY RESULTS

The Euro 2016 holders will have been content to begin this month’s friendly double header with a 0-0 draw against Belgium, from which Real Madrid icon Cristiano Ronaldo was not present. They then enjoyed a glorious send-off at Estadio da Luz as Algeria were beaten 3-0, Paris Saint-Germain-owned attacker Goncalo Guedes getting a double.

WHO IS IN FORM AND WHO IS IN A SLUMP?

Guedes’ fine campaign on loan at Valencia – where he got nine assists and five goals in 33 La Liga run-outs – on the left wing looks set to be rewarded with a roving striking role. He started both matches there. This comes in place of Andre Silva. An awful debut AC Milan season, two goals in 24 Serie A games, appears to be hurting his World Cup hopes.

TACTICAL TWEAKS

Head coach Fernando Santos is sure to unleash his charges in a 4-4-2 system that accentuates the strengths of 33-year-old Ronaldo. His main selection headache revolves around the right wing. Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva should retain his spot in the XI. But Bruno Fernandes scored his first international goal against Algeria and is pushing.

BURNING QUESTION

Friday’s Group B-clash against resurgent Spain will provide the acid test for Portugal’s creaking centre-backs. Besiktas’ Pepe and Dalian Yifang’s Jose Fonte were pivotal to the success two years ago, but now boast a combined age of 69. In reserve, Rangers’ Bruno Alves is 36-years old and Benfica’s Ruben Dias, 21, has just one cap. A true problem area.

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Colombia look critically undercooked and other key issues ahead of World Cup 2018

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Colombia v Egypt.

World Cup 2018 is now just a matter of days away and several major contenders have already landed in Russia after they completed their final warm-up matches.

But how are they shaping up? Which players are in form and will the head coaches be forced into any last-minute tactical tweaks?

Here, we review where Colombia find themselves ahead of Tuesday’s Group H-opener against Japan at Mordovia Arena:

FRIENDLY RESULTS

Colombia’s preparations have been alarming. A flat 0-0 draw on June 1 against Egypt in Italy was meant to be followed by at least one more friendly. Yet, games with Greece and Uzbekistan fell through leading to a scratch match with Genoa’s Under-19s. This means 18 days will have gone by without a fixture, prior to Tuesday’s Group H-opener versus Japan.

WHO IS IN FORM AND WHO IS IN A SLUMP?

First-choice left-back Frank Fabra of Boca Juniors will be absent after suffering a serious knee injury. AC Milan centre-back Cristian Zapata and Deportivo Cali veteran Abel Aguilar also missed much of the camp. The 2014 quarter-finalists must hope a lack of activity doesn’t hamper stars such as Monaco striker Radamel Falcao, 32, eager to play his first World Cup.

TACTICAL TWEAKS

Coach Jose Pekerman’s faith in the old guard is being tested. Deportivo Cali’s Aguilar made seven starts in qualifying, but his spot in the centre-midfield pairing of the 4-2-3-1 formation alongside Espanyol’s Carlos Sanchez is threatened by Levante’s Jefferson Lerma. Barcelona’s Yerry Mina and Tottenham’s superb Davinson Sanchez should keep out Zapata.

BURNING QUESTION

Even though Falcao remains one of Europe’s most-lethal strikers, as 24 goals for Monaco attests last term, a dull air surrounds Colombia. A sterile stalemate against Egypt followed a qualifying run that contained just 21 goals in 18 matches – 2014 hero James Rodriguez scored six of them. Can the likes of Club America winger Mateus Uribe ease the burden?

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