Countdown to the Golden Boot
The race for the Golden Boot -- the top scorer at the World Cup -- is something that dominates headlines and column inches every four years. Ever since Argentina's Guillermo Stabile netted eight goals in 1930, the prize for the tournament's top goal getter is something that fans simply love to debate. Sometimes, as with Just Fontaine in 1958 or Gerd Muller in 1970, it is a runaway decision, but 2014 has started off with a number of the world's top stars vying for contention.
Since 1978, the winner has scored an average of six. We have had 136 goals already in this tournament, with three players on four goals. Here are the contenders:
If you look back over the past two World Cups, it's notable that the Golden Boot has been won by a German. In 2006, Miroslav Klose (who recently equaled Ronaldo's all-time record in the competition by netting his 15th goal) bagged five, while Thomas Muller (4) netted five at South Africa 2010 to walk off with the prize. The Bayern man is being used as a false No. 9 in Brazil and his hat trick against Portugal was followed up with a well-struck winner against USA. Germany face Algeria in the round of 16, so he could well make further inroads into his goal tally in the next game.
Level with him are two men who continue to save their underperforming sides: Lionel Messi and Neymar (4 each). The South Americans are arguably two of the best in the world and, while the home pressure is on Brazilian Neymar to succeed, Messi has his own demons to overcome as he tries to win the trophy for Argentina on hostile ground. Only a fool would bet against these two battling it out at the top as Brazil take on Chile and Argentina face Switzerland in the next stage.
Colombia, meanwhile, have been firing on all cylinders and it is midfielder James Rodriguez (3) who has stepped up to become one of the players of the tournament. Showcasing his heading skills as well as his technical gift in the group stage, he has bagged three goals, set up numerous efforts for his teammates and will fancy his chances against a Uruguay side reeling from the loss of Luis Suarez.
Coming from behind
Netherlands started well in the goal-scoring stakes and Arjen Robben (3) and Robin van Persie (3) are still in the running, even though RVP was suspended for the final group game against Chile. Mexico await in the next round and, although goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa has been in top form for El Tri, the Dutch will look to their top two for goals.
France striker Karim Benzema (3) is still in the running as well, despite failing to net in the 0-0 draw with Ecuador. However, his two (and a half) against Honduras and one in the 5-2 win over Switzerland set the platform and the Real Madrid man still looks in fine fettle. A Nigeria defence that conceded three against Argentina in their last match may not hold much of a test for him and he will be out to prove that he is worthy of the starting place ahead of Olivier Giroud.
Switzerland midfielder Xherdin Shaqiri (3) didn't really do much in his first couple of games, but came to the goal-scoring party with a wonderful hat trick in the final Group E match against Honduras. The powerfully built attacker rode the crest of a wave after a sublime opening strike and could well take advantage of a sloppy Argentina defence in the knockout rounds to add to his tally.
If USA advance past Belgium, then Clint Dempsey (2) may have had something to do with it. The Americans could certainly use another goal inside the first minute to get them going.
Colombia's Jackson Martinez (2), meanwhile, has decided to show up for the World Cup. Tipped to replace the injured Radamel Falcao, he didn't fire for the first two games and then came to party with two goals against Japan in the final game of Group C. With Uruguay to come, and teammate Rodriguez laying assists on a plate, he could make a late surge to the top.
Out of the running
The first wave of teams has now been eliminated, meaning the golden boot dream is over for Ecuador's Enner Valencia (3), although the striker did much to improve his reputation before his exit.
Someone who took a bite-size chunk of his reputation is Uruguay striker Luis Suarez (2), whose goals in the group stages will not be increased as he serves a nine-match ban for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini. Uruguay are through and will face Colombia without the Liverpool front man in the round of 16.
Another who won't be in the running for this tournament's prize is the out-of-sorts Cristiano Ronaldo (1). One goal against Ghana was not what was expected of him as Portugal crashed out in the group stages; perhaps his pre-tournament injury affected him more than he let on?
Current front-runner: Thomas Muller
It's quite some company at the top of the tree, but the Germany midfielder, turned false 9, is on top form at this World Cup. Messi and Neymar have the eyes of the world upon them, but Muller is quietly putting away the goals and, at the tender age of 24, is closing rather rapidly on Klose and Ronaldo (both 15) at the top of the all-time charts. After netting five to take the Golden Boot in 2010, he now has four, which means he is only six behind the greatest strikers in World Cup history. With the rest of the tournament to come, and likely at least two more in him before he retires, we could be seeing a legend in the making.