By Gabriele Marcotti
May 18, 2010

The thing about the World Cup is that it's a mini-season unto itself.

The near monthlong break before the tournament begins makes it somewhat unrelated to what happened during the club campaigns. And because you need to shine for a maximum of seven games, there's plenty of opportunity for underperforming players to reinvent themselves or previously injured ones to make a splash.

Zinedine Zidane was voted player of the tournament at the last World Cup. He was on the eve of his 34th birthday and had come through an unspectacular season in which he was limited to just 24 league starts. Francesco Totti, who was instrumental for Italy in that same World Cup, was coming off a knee injury; he had not started a game for Roma since February. Hernan Crespo, also voted to the team of the tournament, struggled through a tough year at Chelsea, often finding himself on the bench.

In 2002, Ronaldo was the World Cup's top goal scorer. This was after a season in which he missed four months, returned from injury in April and wound up with just nine league starts. Defenders Fernando Hierro and Alpay Ozalan also made FIFA's All-Star team after low-key seasons (Alpay actually started just 14 league games for Aston Villa). Go back through history and you'll find plenty of other examples dating back to Paolo Rossi in 1982, another top goal scorer who was coming off a two-year ban.

With that in mind, here's a list of 10 guys in search of World Cup redemption. Ten talented men who, whether through injury or bad performance, will probably want to forget their 2009-10 club season but who just might turn it around in time for the World Cup:

Kaka (Real Madrid/Brazil): Despite his mega-transfer from AC Milan, he was thoroughly overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo all season. Some Real Madrid fans wonder whether he was worth it, others speculate that he has been saving himself for the World Cup. But you need to turn back the clock only 12 months to know that this is one of the best players in the world who evidently took his time to settle at Real on a team that perhaps isn't ideally suited to his skills. Brazil, a side coach Dunga has built around him, could well be a different story.

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool/England): He's coming off what is probably his worst season since the turn of the millennium. Liverpool's disappointing campaign hasn't helped and neither have those niggly groin injuries. But his ability -- both technical and athletic -- is obvious. His play for England could improve, particularly if the opposition's focus shifts entirely on Wayne Rooney.

Lukas Podolski (Cologne/Germany): He has actually been on the slide for several seasons. Leaving Bayern for his hometown club Cologne was supposed to regenerate him. It has not, as a return of just two Bundesliga goals in 27 outings is an embarrassment. But national team coach Joachim Loew has kept the faith and, curiously, Podolski actually scored more this season for Germany than he has for Cologne.

Roque Santa Cruz (Manchester City/Paraguay): Injuries have once again dogged him (he has made more than 21 league starts just once in his career) and he has lasted 90 minutes just three times in the past 12 months. Yet, when he's fit, his combination of size, strength and grace makes him a nightmare to play against. All he needs to do is to squeeze out enough fitness to last a half-dozen or so games next month.

Andrea Pirlo (Milan/Italy): Subpar all season long, much like the Rossoneri, Pirlo looked especially jaded in the first half of the season. Gone was the usual spark and creativity, replaced by plodding, predictable sideways passing. We've seen the real Pirlo, and we know this version isn't it.

Yoann Gourcuff (Bordeaux/France): Last season he was voted Le Championnat's Player of the Year, scoring 12 goals and leading Bordeaux to the title. This year he was injured late in the campaign, but even before that he looked lackluster and faded away much like his club side. If Raymond Domenech gives him a shot, he might just reestablish himself as one of the world's best at playing in the hole.

Michael Essien (Chelsea/Ghana): His season ended in January at the Africa Cup of Nations. It's the second straight year that his campaign was cut short, but the upshot is that he has had six months to rehab his knee injury and regain his sharpness. If he does regain his mojo and status as one of the best all-around midfielders in the world, Ghana can go far.

Miralem Sulejmani (Ajax/Serbia): There's a reason why Ajax broke the Dutch transfer record to sign him two years ago. He just hasn't lived up to it ... yet. After a poor debut season last year, things got worse in 2009-10, as injuries and poor performance limited him to just three league starts. He was even demoted to the Serb U-21 side. But, who knows? If Radomir Antic gives him a shot, things could turn around quickly. His ability certainly isn't in doubt.

Pepe (Real Madrid/Portugal): He started the season serving his long ban from last year (for kicking Getafe's Javier Casquero) and ended it in December with a knee injury. But he's racing to be fit for South Africa, where, in Carlos Queiroz's plans, he will be the defensive bulwark in midfield (unlike with his club, where he plays at the back). No telling how fit he'll be, but no question he'll be hungry.

Obafemi Martins (Wolfsburg/Nigeria): Bought from Newcastle, he was supposed to be a valuable, pacy alternative to the big men Grafite and Edin Dzeko at Wolfsburg, but he never really made an impact. But Martins' blistering speed and directness are just the kind of qualities that can make a difference at a World Cup, particularly in the knockout stages.

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