Most of us will tune into today's clash between the Ivory Coast and Colombia to see who'll leave the game atop Group C. But for some of the world's biggest clubs—Premier League giants Arsenal and Manchester United, perhaps—the focus will be on two players in particular: 21-year-old Ivorian right back Serge Aurier and 22-year-old Colombian winger James Rodriguez, two of the brightest young talents in the tournament.
Both play in Ligue 1, Aurier for Toulouse FC and Rodriguez for AS Monaco, and both caught the gaze of the English transfer-rumor Eye of Sauron before heading to Brazil. The attention has only gotten more intense after marquee performances in their countries' openers, and you can be sure that today's game will be watched by a number of EPL executives sitting on the edge of their wallets.
Aurier—whom captain Didier Drogba called "the best right-back in all of France"—is rumored as a possible replacement for Bacary Sagna at Arsenal, and Gooners would gladly welcome the kind of show he put on against Japan. With two pristine crosses in the span of just three minutes, Aurier set up Wilfried Bony and Gervinho for game-tying and -winning goals. The sequence showcased the pace, strength, and precision required to own the right flank at an elite level. Not to mention, homeboy has only nine caps and is already producing like this? That's something guys like Dani Alves can't even do on a regular basis.
And the Japan game wasn't an outlier. This past season Aurier managed to come through with six goals and six assists for Toulouse. In comparison, Sagna scored once and added a lone assist for Arsene Wenger's side. It's not a perfect comparison, but Aurier has flashed the kind of talent to suggest he could match—or surpass—Sagna's impact at the Emirates if given the chance. He'd be a great hood ornament for a club that has made a habit of replacing stars with guys who are merely meh.
On the other side of this matchup, we have Rodriguez, "The South American Cristiano Ronaldo." He has been linked with a move to Manchester United for more than two years, although his €45 million transfer to Monaco last May seemed to throw a wet blanket—woven out of Euros and soaked in Dom Perignon—on that fire. He blossomed in France while playing alongside Radamel Falcao, tying his countryman for second on the team with nine goals and leading the squad with 12 assists.
And for 90 minutes last week, the attacking midfielder showed he deserves top billing. He took on players at will before delivering the killer blow of a 3-0 victory in stoppage time, but it was his passing accuracy along the way that allowed Los Cafeteros to weave through the Greek defense. It's easy to see why Rodriguez has also been nicknamed "New Pibe"—a nod to the man behind the only 20-plus assist season in Major League Soccer history (26), Carlos Valderrama.
Rodriguez finishes, too. He put up 32 goals in league play across the past three seasons at Monaco and Porto. Add this stat to the six goals in just 23 caps for his country and you've got yourself the makings of a god in "Locombia."
Today's showdown between Aurier's Ivory Coast and Rodriguez's Colombia won't make or break either player's career, but it will go a ways toward converting flabby impressions of the two into hard opinions. How the market will shake out for them is anyone's guess, but given their current salaries—Aurier makes €360,000 (or about three weeks' worth of Sagna's new deal at Manchester City) and Rodriguez pulls €678,000—you can be certain which way it's pointed. With a good showing today, the two may next find themselves on opposite sides of the field at the Emirates or Old Trafford this fall.
C.J. Tuttle is a contributor to Howler. Follow him on Twitter, @kidceej.
Photo Credit: El Nuevo Herald.