Despite some of the criticism leveled at the group phase of the 2010 World Cup there has been some excellent football played at times by a majority of the teams in the competition and, within those collective performances, a handful of quite brilliant individual performances.

Having thought long and hard about some of the very best displays we’ve seen over the last two weeks, The Equaliser has come up with a list of what we, in our humble opinion, believe to have been the five best players of the group stage. So, in no particular order, here they are…

Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Before the World Cup began many, including this blog, were concerned that Lionel Messi was at risk of having a disappointing tournament due to a lack of creative support from his fellow players in the Argentina squad and a Coach that failed to employ a system that got the best out of the world’s best player.

Thankfully those voices have been silenced as Messi has shown his true class in South Africa, the playmaker and beating heart of a dashing Argentina side that has thrilled with its attractive brand of football whilst also displaying a ruthlessness and ability to dominate possession which could serve it well in the latter stages of the competition.

With La Albiceleste in good form and a confident mood, Messi’s importance to his team could well increase as the tournament progresses, the Barcelona player having the opportunity to inspire his country to victory and write himself into the history books as one of the greatest footballers of all time.

Carlos Salcido (Mexico)

Mexico played some explosive attacking football during the group phase with the presence of marauding wing-backs key to both the defensive and attacking elements of their dynamic 3-4-3 system.

Carlos Salcido, the PSV Eindhoven left-back, has been particularly impressive with his all-action performances, getting forward intelligently and showing incredible energy levels to shuttle up and down the entire left flank for 90 minutes.

Salcido could again prove vital against Argentina in the last 16, his strength and speed on the counter-attack having the potential to expose the weakness of Maradona’s team at right-back, particularly if Jonas Gutierrez continues to be deployed in the role.

Although, at the age of 30, Salcido is entering into the final phase of his career at the highest level, he should still have one or two seasons of his best football ahead of him and it would hardly come as a surprise to see a major club in Italy or Spain make a bid for his services later this summer.

Mesut Özil (Germany)

Mesut Ozil may only be 21 years-old, but he is a midfield playmaker that plays the game with a maturity well beyond his years. Willowy in stature but stronger than he may appear, Ozil has been central to Germany’s success during the group phase with his delicate touch, superb vision and excellent shooting ability, the creative catalyst at the heart of Joachim Low’s rapidly improving young side.

Rather than being a flashy player keen to take the limelight for himself, the Werder Bremen man thrives on bringing others into play, sitting behind the striker(s) and either threading balls through the middle or spreading the ball wide to the wingers in Germany’s 4-2-3-1 at will.

Ozil has also proved himself, as his sumptuous strike against Ghana showed, capable of coming up with a goal from range when his team are struggling to pick the opposition defence apart. As his 29 goals and 12 assists in the Bundesliga testify, as if any more evidence was required, this is a truly special talent who looks likely to go on to become one of the finest players of his generation.

Alexis Sanchez (Chile)

There was much expected of Alexis Sanchez ahead of the World Cup – we highlighted his ability before the tournament began – and the Udinese and Chile right-winger hasn’t disappointed with a string of flamboyant displays for his country during the group stage.

The 21 year-old has undoubtedly been one of the most exciting players to watch during the first phase of the tournament, a key component in Chile’s wonderfully attacking 3-3-1-3 system posing a real and present threat down the right side.

Clearly a star of the future, tonight’s clash with Spain should give us an indication of just how complete an article Sanchez is. Likely to be matched up against Joan Capdevila, arguably Spain’s least technically gifted player, the Udinese forward has the chance to expose a weakness in the Spanish armoury and could well be his country’s most influential player this evening.

This World Cup has given Sanchez the opportunity to show exactly what he’s capable of at the top level, an opportunity he has seized to light up Group H. Expect to hear much more about the Chilean in the months and seasons to come, his performances in South Africa have shown that he has more than enough talent to go on to become one of the game’s most breathtaking players.

Fabio Coentrao (Portugal)

In a tournament where full-backs have been arguably the most influential players, few in the position have shone more brightly than Portugal and Benfica’s Fabio Coentrao.

Despite being relatively slight in stature, Coentrao has dealt adroitly with opponents much stronger than himself and, although his reputation is as an attack-minded full-back, shown a maturing defensive aspect to his play.

That said, it has been when going forward that Coentrao has made the most significant impact. Blessed with the quick feet of a winger (it was his original position before being converted to a defender), the left-back regularly gets up the field and overlaps his winger to give Portugal a dual threat on the left side. No better was this demonstrated that in the crushing victory over North Korea when he wreaked havoc in the Korean defence, completely unpicking what was thought to be a “solid” 5-3-2 in combination with Miguel on the right side.

His creativity and energy levels have been amongst the best on show in South Africa and, with Carlos Quieroz’s team safely through to the knock-out stages this afternoon, we can expect to see much more of Coentrao in the days and, possibly, weeks ahead.