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Friday, 20 August 2010

European Football's Rising Stars 10/11

The landscape of football changes at a rapid pace. The best players of any given generation, limited by injuries, age, a loss of form, the arrival of new talent, or even a combination of these factors, rarely experience more than 5 or 6 years at the pinnacle of the game. Consequently, top European clubs and their fans are constantly looking to find the individuals capable of making their own mark on the sport, and of adding their names to its illustrious list of past legends. In that same spirit, I have compiled a list of the young players that I think have the ability to establish themselves this year as big names in Europe's top leagues. I have scoured the Premiership, Primera Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga, and selected 5 top prospects from each country. Here goes:

Premier League

1. Jack Wilshere

Arsenal's prodigy is now a secret to no one. The Stevenage-born 18 year old has been catapulted into the national spotlight by a call-up to the England squad against Hungary despite only having played a handful of senior competitive games for his club, with many in the media heralding him as the most technically gifted midfielder this country has produced since Paul Gascoigne. It is one hell of a tag to live up to, but Wilshere's talent justifies the comparison. The diminutive playmaker's exceptional touch is allied with fantastic vision, not to mention an eye for goal. He is the first legitimate 'wonderkid' that England have produced since Wayne Rooney, and although Cesc Fabregas' decision to remain at the Emirates will not facilitate his path into the first team, Arsene Wenger's reluctance to let the young man out on loan again suggests that he will get his chance.

2. Javier Hernandez

When Manchester United announced the signing of an obscure young Mexican striker for an undisclosed fee in April of this year, most followers of the Old Trafford club could be forgiven for being distinctly underwhelmed. What a difference a World Cup can make. After inflicting misery on the French and scoring an absolute peach against Argentina, 'Chicharito' has now come to the attention of Premier League fans, and it appears as if Sir Alex Ferguson has unearthed a North American gem. Two footed, lightning quick and surprisingly good in the air, Hernandez is a natural goalscorer who, as well as possessing bags of potential, also has all of the tools to make a more immediate impact this season.

3. Jack Rodwell

Everton may not have been too active in the transfer market, but David Moyes will be delighted to have kept his most prized asset at Goodison Park. Jack Rodwell is a classy midfielder, physically powerful and technically gifted, and the fact that his first Premier League goal last season happened to be a stunner against Manchester United shows that he is unfazed by the big occasion. He gained considerable first team experience last year under the Moyes' astute guidance, and the wise decision to stay at Everton means that his development will remain unhindered this term. Provided he stays clear of serious injury, I would be very surprised if Rodwell isn't a regular in the England squad come May.

4. Giovani Dos Santos

The second Mexican in the list, Dos Santos' career to date has been far from smooth. Another talent to emerge from Barcelona's legendary La Masia youth academy, he was deemed surplus to requirements at the Camp Nou, and made his way to North London with Tottenham. Since then, a love of the party lifestyle and lack of dedication to training have threatened to curtail Giovani's development, resulting in fairly pointless loan spells at Ipswich and Galatasaray. But at 21, the Mexican playmaker has shown a willingness to improve his attitude, and after a very impressive World Cup, it looks as though Spurs fans may finally be about to see a return on their club's investment. With his creativity and dribbling skill, Dos Santos has the tools to go as far as he wants in the game. This season could be the making of him.

5. Adam Johnson

At 23, Adam Johnson is a relative veteran on this list, but his inclusion is testament to his remarkable rise to prominence in the last 12 months. Despite establishing himself as the best player in the Championship with Middlesbrough in the first half of last season, there were doubts in many quarters as to whether Johnson would be able to replicate this form at a top Premier League club. Any such reservations were quickly laid to rest, as the winger played a starring role for City in their ultimately unsuccessful challenge for fourth place. With his excellent technique and ability to commit defenders, I would expect Johnson to kick on this season and establish himself in City's starting XI, despite his club's frivolous spending.

Primera Liga

1. Javi Martinez

Javi Martinez is older than his years suggest. Signed as a 17 year old by Athletic Bilbao for €6m despite never having played a first team game for Osasuna, the midfielder has gone on to make over 100 appearances for the Basque club in the last four seasons. His progression has been steady rather than meteoric, but recent form indicates that he is ready take the next step in his career, and in doing so continue Spain's proud tradition of producing quality technical midfielders. A World Cup call up was a just reward for a season of consistent displays, in which Martinez led his side to the Spanish Cup final. This will be the season where this powerful, cultured midfielder produces the kind of form which secures a move to a top European club.

2. David De Gea

When Atletico Madrid signed Sergio Asenjo from Real Valladolid at the beginning of last season, many in Spain believed it would be the move which catapulted one of the best young keepers in Europe to stardom. But 19 year old David De Gea hadn't read the script. A product of Atletico's youth academy, he got his chance in the first team when Asenjo was away on international duty, and his consistent and assured displays ensured that he kept his place between the sticks. In doing so, De Gea also played a starring role as his side broke Fulham hearts in the Europa League final. Under manager Quique Sanchez Flores he is likely to start the new season as Atletico's first choice, and a good full season could see him on the radar of Europe's top clubs. With superb reflexes and a maturity beyond his years, the sky is the limit for De Gea.

3. Sofiane Feghouli

It could well be a difficult season for Valencia. Having lost David Villa and David Silva this summer, as well as club captain Carlos Marchena to Villarreal, the perception is of a club in financial and footballing decline. But if they are to prove the doubters wrong, then a certain 20 year old from Grenoble is likely to play a key role. Sofiane Feghouli made his name in the South of France as a skilful, creative midfielder, more known for providing goals than scoring them. His position and Algerian background inevitably brought comparisons in the French media to a young Zinedine Zidane, but Feghouli has handled the hype well. Injuries hampered the latter part of his time at Grenoble, but if he can stay fit and adjust well to life in Spain, then Valencia may not miss David Silva quite so much.

4. Alvaro Dominguez

Yet another reason for Atletico fans to be cheerful. Alvaro Dominguez is a tall, rangy young centre-half who made an invaluable contribution the defensive solidity which Quique Sanchez Flores' side enjoyed in the second half of last season. After failing to make an impact in Real Madrid's academy, Dominguez joined city rivals Atletico's youth ranks at the age of 12, and seems determined to make the most of his chance. He has been linked with the likes of Liverpool this summer, but would be better served by continuing his development in Spain. If he can build on the considerable promise he showed last year and maintain his position as a first team starter, then big clubs will certainly come calling.

5. Andres Guardado

Completing the Mexican contingent in this list is Andres Guardado. After making his name for Atlas in his homeland, the left winger made his move to Europe in 2007 with Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna. Over the last three years, Guardado has become a shining light in a relatively mediocre Depor side, and further enhanced his reputation with a series of impressive displays in South Africa 2010. The 23 year old is a tricky winger with fantastic crossing ability and delivery from set pieces, and has been linked with a host of top European clubs over the last couple of seasons. Another good campaign should make him one of the most desirable prospects around.

Serie A

1. Javier Pastore

This should be the year that a genuine star is born in Palermo. Javier Pastore showed fantastic potential in his first season in Italy, quickly adjusting to the style of Serie A and playing a pivotal role as his side reached the lofty heights of fourth place. The 21 year old playmaker's physique and technical qualities have attracted comparisons to a young Kaka, and belief in his potential appears to be borne out by Palermo chairman Maurizio Zamparini's claims to have rejected a €25m bid this summer from Real Madrid for his prized asset. Upon making the announcement, Zamparini defiantly claimed that Pastore would be worth double that figure come next year. That amount may be a little optimistic, but if the Argentine continues his rapid development, it may not be too far off.

2. Davide Santon

The 19 year old Inter Milan full back is a truly exceptional talent. Brought into the first team by Jose Mourinho in January of last year, Santon first came to the attention of a wider European audience when the Special One selected him at left back for the home leg of the crunch Champions League tie against defending champions Manchester United. Consequently, the youngster was entrusted with the unenviable task of shackling the then-World Footballer of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo. That Santon more than held his own against the Portuguese superstar is testament to his mentality as well as his quality. Defensively solid and with plenty to offer going forward, his progress has been thus far hindered by both injury and the fact that he is competing with Maicon for a starting spot. The continued presence of the latter is likely to mean that Santon will get most of his game time this year on his less preferred left side, but if he can stay fit, it won't be long before everyone knows just how good he is.

3. Marek Hamsik

The 23 year old Napoli midfielder is another who has been touted for big things for some time now. But coming off the back of the best season of his career so far, in which he notched 11 goals from midfield for his club and captained Slovakia to the knockout stages of the World Cup, Hamsik looks set to finally confirm his reputation as one of European football's brightest young players. Hamsik's boyhood hero, Pavel Nedved, has already come out and described the young playmaker as his natural heir, and I believe this will be the season that the talented Slovakian finally lives up to this billing and earns a move to a top European club.

4. Sokratis Papastathopoulos

This tenacious Greek defender originally made his sizable name for AEK Athens, eventually captaining the side at the tender age of 18, before securing a transfer to Genoa in the summer of 2008. During his time at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, he impressed many in Italy with his positional sense, consistency and marking ability. These qualities were brought to a wider footballing audience when Greece coach Otto Rehhagel charged Sokratis with the job of marking Lionel Messi out of the game in their crunch Group B encounter at the World Cup. The youngster rose to the task of neutralising the best player in the world, his relentless determination never more evident than when he followed Messi to the touchline midway through the second half as the Argentine sought some refreshments. His considerable potential has persuaded AC Milan to move to secure his services this summer, and given the high average age of the Italian giants' squad and Sokratis' ability to deputise at centre back or right back, he is likely to gain plenty of first team opportunities to develop on the big stage.

5. Khouma Babacar

Perhaps one of the more obscure names on this list, Khouma Babacar is a 17 year old Senegalese striker who caught the eye of several Serie A scouts whilst in the youth ranks at lowly Pescara, before Fiorentina won the battle for his signature in 2008. It could prove to be one of the best decisions the Viola have ever made. Standing tall at 6 foot 3 inches and already possessing a muscular physique, Babacar is the ideal fit for a target man, but his reasonable pace and keen eye for goal suggest he has the potential to become a complete centre forward, much like his idol - Didier Drogba. He scored on his senior debut in the Coppa Italia last season, and his physicality, as well as the fact that Stevan Jovetic is out for six months through injury, is likely to mean that Viola boss Cesare Prandelli is likely to give his young prodigy a sustained run in the first team this time out.


1. Toni Kroos

There are two main reasons why Bayern Munich did not join the scramble to sign Mesut Ozil from Werder Bremen this summer. The first is that the World Cup star had his heart set on a move to Spain. The second is that the German giants believe they already have a potentially world-class number 10 in Toni Kroos. The 20 year old has been making waves in the Bundesliga ever since his debut for Bayern back in 2007, when he laid on two assists for Miroslav Klose in a 5-0 rout of Energie Cottbus. During his 18 month loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen, Kroos was instrumental as the typically underachieving German club went on a 24 game unbeaten run, topping the Bundesliga for most of the first half of the season. This year, Kroos will be given much more responsibility at his parent club, and with excellent passing ability, vision and knack of scoring important goals, should play a key role as Bayern seek to repeat the successes of last season.

2. Simon Kjaer

The 20 year old Danish centre-back has been a fairly regular presence in the newspaper gossip columns over the past 12 months, having been linked heavily with Liverpool as well as a host of other top clubs. In the end, it was Steve McClaren who succeeded in prising the want-away defender from Palermo to join his revolution at VFL Wolfsburg. It could well prove to be one of the most astute signings of the summer. Kjaer is an elegant defender with excellent anticipation and good ball distribution, and the fact that he carried his assured club form into the World Cup with Denmark proves that he enjoys the pressure of big matches. If McClaren can succeed in getting Kjaer and fellow new signing Arne Friedrich to gel quickly in the centre of defence, then Wolfsburg should once again be serious challengers for the Bundesliga title.

3. Eljero Elia

Outside of the Netherlands, Elia is probably best known to Scotland fans, since it was his breakaway goal at Hampden Park in September of last year which all but ended Scottish hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa. It shouldn't be too long, however, before he attracts wider acclaim. The flying winger made his name for FC Twente in the Eredivisie, where his powerful, direct style and lightning pace established him as one of the best young players in the league, and persuaded Hamburger SV to pay €8.9m for his services in the summer of 2009. A solid if not spectacular season in Germany followed, yielding 5 goals and 7 assists in 24 appearances, but now that his adjustment period is over, I fully expect Elia to start to justify his transfer fee this term, and to establish himself as one of the most exciting talents in the Bundesliga.

4. Neven Subotic

The 21 year old Serbian international has been on quite a journey. Born in Bosnia, his family moved to Germany when Neven was 5, but had to move again 5 years later to the US to avoid deportation. Whilst representing the USA's under-17 side in the Netherlands, he was persuaded by an agent to try out for FSV Mainz in Germany. His confident performances there sealed a move to Borussia Dortmund, where he has since established himself as one of the best young defenders in Europe. Having playing every minute of every league game for his club last year, Subotic was selected by his chosen nation Serbia for the World Cup in South Africa, and his assured displays have done nothing to harm his reputation. His importance to Dortmund means he will have plenty of opportunity to continue his development this term, and provided he stays fit, it can only be a matter of time before he moves on to bigger and better things.

5. Diego Contento

The Naples-born full back first caught the eye last season, when Louis Van Gaal blooded the 20 year old in the knockout stages of the Champions League, despite him only having a handful of first team appearances to his name. Contento's composed displays against Fiorentina and Lyon were a just reward for his manager's faith, and although Holger Badstuber was preferred to the nationalised German for the final against Inter Milan, I would be very surprised if Contento does not gain more regular first team experience this term. He is an athletic defender with astute positional sense and good attacking instincts, and this could well be the season that he establishes himself at the Allianz Arena.

Ligue 1

1. Miralem Pjanic

In many ways, Lyon's Miralem Pjanic is already a star. Since arriving at Stade Gerland in 2008, the 20 year old Bosnian sensation has progressed rapidly, rising to the challenge of filling Juninho Pernambucano's number 8 shirt with consummate ease. A diminutive midfield playmaker with exceptional technique and vision, Pjanic was instrumental as a previously unheralded Lyon generation achieved their best ever Champion's League finish, reaching the semi-finals. Along the way, their midfield maestro made headlines by scoring the equaliser in the second leg of Lyon's round of 16 clash with Real Madrid's Galacticos, mark II. It was the goal which sent Ronaldo and co. out, and confirmed Pjanic's enormous potential to the many top clubs who are tracking him. The world is at his feet, and if he continues to develop this term, then a big money move is inevitable.

2. Maxime Gonalons

Pjanic's Lyon team-mate last year may not have caught the eye of casual fans with dazzling skills and incisive passing, but 20 year old Maxime Gonalons was nevertheless a significant player in Lyon's European adventure. A technically accomplished and unfussy defensive midfielder, Gonalons' most notable contribution last term was scoring the first of two goals against Liverpool in the Champion's League group stage, which plunged the Anfield club into freefall and all but secured Lyon's passage through to the knockout rounds. Goal-scoring aside, however, Gonalons' impact is more generally felt in the less glamorous task of shielding the Lyon back four and breaking up opposition attacks, and it was in this role that the 20 year old has shone whenever called upon. Last season he was mainly employed as a reliable deputy to Jeremy Toulalon and as an aerial threat from the bench, but I expect him develop more in the first team this term.

3. Alexandre Lacazette

Completing the Lyon triumvirate in this list is 19 year old Alexandre Lacazette. A pacey attacker who can play either as a central striker or on either wing, Lacazette rose to prominence as one of the stars of France's European Championship-winning Under-19 side this summer, scoring the winning goal in the final against a much-fancied Spain. Capped at every youth level for his country, Lacazette has only played one competitive game to date for Lyon, although the early signs are that he will gain more exposure in the first team this year. He was one of the French club's shining lights in pre-season, impressing on both days of the Emirates Cup in London and, at 19, is certainly ready for first team action. If this skilful and pacey attacker does get his chance, I fully expect him to make his mark.

4. Mamadou Sakho

There aren't too many 20 year olds who are already the talisman of their club. Mamadou Sakho is one of the few. Having joined Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 12, the powerful centre-back has risen through the ranks, making over 50 appearances for the first team and, on his league debut against Valenciennes in 2007, became the youngest ever player to captain a Ligue 1 club. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches with an imposing physique, Sakho is a formidable athlete and ferocious tackler. His physical and technical attributes, as well as his leadership qualities, have led many in France to compare him to French legend Lilian Thuram, and if he continues to develop at such a fast rate, then Sakho is perfectly capable of emulating the success of the World Cup-winner.

5. Andre Ayew

Few young players have had to deal with the sort of hype and pressure which has surrounded Andre 'Dede' Ayew. Son of the Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele, much was expected of the young winger when he was signed by the club which did much to establish his father's legacy, Olympique Marseille. Thankfully for Andre, he has not disappointed. Loan spells at Lorient in 2008 and Arles-Avignon in 2009 have given him much needed first team experience, but it is on the international stage that Ayew has truly shone. At youth level, he captained the Under 20 Ghana side to victory in the 2009 African Youth Championships and, even more impressively, the Fifa 2009 Under 20 World Cup, where they defeated Brazil on penalties in the final. Milovan Rajevac included Ayew in a young squad for the World Cup in South Africa, and the winger justified the selection by helping his country to the quarter finals, and being nominated for Young Player of the Tournament in the process. This year, Ayew is likely to be entrusted with a first team spot for Marseille, and if he can replicate his international form, then the French champions may have quite a player on their hands.


  1. the biggest rising star in ligue 1 is eden hazard. He has more talent than anyone on this list, ask zidane

  2. Given his obvious talent and performances this season, Hazard is admittedly a fairly glaring omission from this list. I know Zidane rates him highly, and I also know Arsenal and Liverpool are interested in him, so hopefully I'll soon be getting to see him a bit more often.

    This was never going to be a full-proof list of the best up-and-coming youngsters in Europe. Rather, it was simply my prediction of which young players would take a big step forward this year.

    Inevitably, there have been players unfairly omitted (Hazard, Bale, half the Dortmund team), and some of the players included (Dos Santos, Feghouli) have thus far not lived up to my expectations. All in all, however, I think I could have done a lot worse.