Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

European Football's Rising Stars 2011/12

It’s that time again, folks. Just like last year, I’ve scoured Europe and picked five top prospects from each of the continent’s biggest leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany), as well as five of the best of the rest.

But this is not simply a list of the best young players in Europe. It is rather a list of the young players who I feel will be able to take a big step forward in their careers this season, whether it be those looking to secure a move to a big club or those who are already at one and are looking to break into the first team.

Last year’s list was a bit hit and miss. For every Jack Wilshere, Javier Hernandez or Javier Pastore, there was a Sofiane Feghouli, Khouma Babacar or Diego Contento. Who? Exactly.

But hopefully I’ll fare better this time.

Finally, before we start, special thanks goes to Shaun Ottway, Nice Touch For A Big Man’s resident German football expert, for helping me identify the brightest young Bundesliga talents.

And so, without further Adu (little Rising Stars joke there…ahem), here is this year’s list…

Premier League

Aaron Ramsey, Arsenal

Were it not for a cruel twist of fate, Aaron Ramsey would probably already be star.

The 20-year-old midfielder was blossoming into an important member of the Arsenal squad before a challenge from Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross in a Premier League match last February left his leg broken in two places.

Nine months of inactivity followed, but since he returned to action last November, Ramsey appears determined to make up for lost time and show the Gunners exactly what persuaded boss Arsene Wenger to pay Cardiff £5million to bring him to the Emirates Stadium at the tender age of 17.

Armed with superb technique, great vision, two good feet and an eye for goal, Ramsey has all the tools he needs to make a big impact on Arsenal’s trophy quest this season. Now Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have left, he’ll have to.

Kieran Gibbs, Arsenal
Another Arsenal prospect blighted by frequent visits to the treatment table, left-back Kieran Gibbs has nonetheless shown more than enough ability to justify the “next Ashley Cole” tag he has been saddled with ever since making his senior debut for the Gunners as a 17-year-old.

He may still be a little unrefined defensively, but Gibbs’ rich promise is there for all to see. Injuries aside he is a superb athlete, and so comfortable on the ball that England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce has not hesitated to thrust him into the centre of midfield on several occasions.

With Gael Clichy having departed for Manchester City this summer, Gibbs now has the opportunity to battle young Frenchman Armand Traore for the Gunners’ first choice left-back berth. If he can keep himself fit, it won’t be much of a contest.

Daniel Sturridge, Chelsea

Manchester City are only now beginning to realize what a costly mistake it may have been to let Daniel Sturridge leave for Chelsea for a fairly nominal fee in 2009.

After suffering from a lack of first team opportunities at Stamford Bridge, he went on loan to Bolton for the second half of last season, showcasing the clever movement, vision and clinical finishing which marks him out as one of the most talented young strikers in England.

Now back at Chelsea after again catching the eye in this summer’s European Under-21 Championships, Sturridge is looking for his chance. Even in spite of the Blues’ rich attacking resources, the feeling is he’ll get it.

Kyle Walker, Tottenham Hotspur

Unlike many others on this list, Kyle Walker has only really come to the fore in the last twelve months.

The 21-year-old initially failed to make an impact when he arrived at White Hart Lane in 2009, and instead it was a trio of loan spells – at former club Sheffield United, QPR and most recently Aston Villa – which helped turn this promising young right-back into a top prospect.

Walker is a strong, quick, agile defender who provides a potent attacking threat with his rampaging runs down the right flank. On the rare occasions his defensive positioning lets him down, his searing pace usually gets him out of trouble.

He should get his chance at Spurs this season but, even if he doesn’t, a host of other Premier League clubs would be willing to give him the platform he needs. Either way, he’s one to watch.

Chris Smalling, Manchester United

Along with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Rafael, Chris Smalling could make a strong case for being Manchester United’s most improved young player last season - not bad going for a defender who, up until three years ago, was plying his trade outside the professional ranks with non-league Maidstone United.

The 21-year-old then continued his impressive form for England at the European Under-21 Championships this summer, forming a formidable centre-back pairing with new clubmate Phil Jones in spite of the team’s disappointing overall showing in the tournament.

Fast, strong, reliable in the air and with an impressive reading of the game, Smalling conjures memories of a young Rio Ferdinand. Fitting then, that he should be the old man’s successor for club and country.

With Ferdinand’s body continuing to be ravaged by injury, expect the changing of the guard to begin this season.

La Liga

Iker Muniain, Athletic Bilbao

Hailed in some quarters as “The Basque Messi”, this young jewel in Athletic Bilbao’s ranks has a long, long way to go if he is to truly justify a comparison to the Argentine phenomenon, but his promise is there for all to see.

At 16, Muniain became Athletic’s youngest ever senior player. Only a week later, he became their youngest ever scorer, and later the youngest ever scorer in La Liga. Now 18, the tricky winger has already cemented his place as one of the first names on the team sheet.

Having achieved everything he has in his career significantly ahead of time, it’s no surprise Muniain is a little cocky. The nickname “Bart”, given to him by his teammates, is just as much due to his brash, cheeky persona as to any physical resemblance to the Simpsons character.

But his talent is equally obvious. He has superb balance, skill and dribbling ability, allied with the awareness which is fast becoming the hallmark of Spanish midfielders. If he continues to progress at such a spectacular rate this season, expect a top club to come calling.

Joel Robles, Atletico Madrid

It turns out Atletico Madrid might not miss David De Gea that much after all – and not because Belgian teenage sensation Thibaut Courtois has arrived on loan from Chelsea.

It’s because the club feels it already has the new Manchester United stopper’s natural successor waiting in the wings. Joel Robles, or more simply Joel, is a 21-year-old who already possesses a 6ft 5in frame and the knowledge of how best to use it between the sticks.

He spent last year learning from De Gea in the reserves and, while only two senior appearances to date is not exactly a wealth of experience, Joel is not lacking in confidence and already feels ready to establish himself as the latest off the conveyer belt of top Spanish goalkeeping talent.

Joel will likely start the season as Atletico’s number one and, although he knows there is no margin for error with Courtois and forgotten man Sergio Asenjo watching from the shadows, he’s relishing the challenge.

Thiago Alcantara, Barcelona

Son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, Thiago has some seriously big footballing boots to fill. Luckily for him, he’s got so much talent they’re bursting at the seams.

The 20-year-old is right up there with Jack Wilshere as the brightest young midfield talent in world football. The only reason he isn’t already a first team regular at club level is because the club in question happens to be Barcelona, and the first teamers Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

Nevertheless, he will get his chance this season, even now Cesc Fabregas has arrived at the Nou Camp. An outstanding showing at the European Under-21 Championships has already propelled him towards stardom, and a superb pre-season cannot have failed to catch the eye of Pep Guardiola.

Technically exceptional, relentlessly aware and blessed with a touch of genius, Thiago has the air of a footballer destined for greatness. What’s more, there’s no better club to help him get there.

Sergio Canales, Valencia (On loan from Real Madrid)

Sergio Canales has the opportunity to take a season of frustration out on an entire league of Spanish defences this year.

The young playmaker burst onto the scene with Racing Santander late in 2009, and his sensational brace in his side’s 2-1 away at Sevilla had the whole of La Liga sitting up and taking notice. Real Madrid quickly swooped to sign the youngster but, instead of loaning him out to get experience, declared he would form part of the first team squad.

A season of few opportunities followed for Canales, and his lightning progress has been halted. Now at Valencia, however, he has the opportunity to rediscover his spark and remind everyone why he was once considered the brightest young talent in Spain.

Somewhat similar to David Silva in terms of his elegant left-footed style, Canales may well be tasked with shouldering the creative burden of a depleted but still talented Valencia team. This should be his season to shine.

Pablo Piatti, Valencia

Pablo Piatti is more experienced than his age would suggest. At 22, the Argentine winger already has 150 senior appearances to his name across two leagues.

He made a stunning entry into professional football, making his debut for Argentine giants Estudiantes at the age of 17 and playing a key role as the club won the national championship.

But having moved on to Europe and Almeria only a season later, Piatti was perhaps guilty of chasing the big time too early in his career, and it has taken him a long time to make his mark in Spain.

But there were signs of his talent beginning to blossom in La Liga last season in spite of his side’s eventual relegation, most notably a sublime match-winning brace away at Sevilla, and Valencia have since been moved to take a chance on him.

Now at the Mestalla, Piatti knows this could be his one and only chance to become one of European football’s biggest names. It is one he is more than capable of taking.

Serie A

Stevan Jovetic, Fiorentina

Two years ago, Stevan Jovetic was fast becoming one of the hottest young properties in Europe.

In 2008, Fiorentina had fended off interest from the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid to sign the young Montenegrin from Partizan Belgrade (where he had become the club’s youngest ever captain) and within a year they were beginning to reap the dividends.

Jovetic played a starring role as Cesare Prandelli’s exciting Viola side reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League the next season, scoring classy braces against Liverpool and Bayern Munich. He appeared set to make further strides last season, before a cruciate knee ligament injury ended his campaign before it had even begun.

Fit again at last, Jovetic has the opportunity to pick up where he left off two years ago. If he does, there’s no limit to what he can achieve.

Luc Castaignos, Inter

Luc Castaignos scores goals. It’s just what he does. Deadly in the penalty area but fast and skillful enough to do damage from anywhere in the final third, it’s no surprise he has been compared to a young Thierry Henry.

The 18-year-old has netted 15 times in 30 appearances for Feyenoord since making his first team debut in September 2009 and, although it pays to treat Eredivisie scoring records with a sense of caution (Afonso Alves, anyone?), those numbers are impressive for one so young.

He’s also impressed at youth level for Holland, finishing joint-top scorer in the 2009 Under-17 European Championships to help his team to the final, and has since scored nine goals in his first 14 appearances at Under-19 level.

Now at Inter, Castaignos will face stiff competition for first team opportunities. But with Samuel Eto’o chasing the roubles in Russia and new Nerazzurri boss Gianpiero Gasperini favouring an attack-minded 3-4-3 formation, he should get a chance to show what he’s about.

Philippe Coutinho, Inter

The wider footballing world may not yet be aware of just how good Coutinho is, but Inter certainly are. So aware, in fact, that they paid €4million to snap him up from Brazilian side Vasco Da Gama back in 2008, when he was just 16.

The flamboyant young playmaker was allowed to stay and mature in Brazil for a further two years before finally arriving at the San Siro last summer, where he was promptly hailed “The future of Inter” by both club president Massimo Moratti and then coach Rafa Benitez.

It didn’t take long for Coutinho to begin to justify those boasts. Having been gradually eased into the squad, he played a key role in the Italian giants’ remarkable Champions League last 16 comeback against Bayern Munich and featured more prominently in the second half of the Serie A campaign.

This tricky, exciting and two-footed Brazilian should become a regular in the Inter starting XI this season, especially if Wesley Sneijder leaves for Manchester United. A special talent.

Bojan Krkic, Roma

It’s hard to believe Bojan is still only 20.

In four seasons at Barcelona the striker racked up over 100 appearances and averaged a goal every four games – a statistic which becomes more impressive when you consider he made his debut at 16 and was often employed either as an impact substitute or out of position on the wing.

Despite his obvious promise, Bojan couldn’t find a way to cement his place in the Blaugrana starting XI. But not quite making the cut in the best team in the world is no dishonour and, now at Roma, he finally has the opportunity to show everyone the full extent of his talent.

With Luis Enrique as the new coach, the Giallorossi appear to be attempting to implement the Barca model in Italy. As a La Masia graduate, Bojan can be central to that. And if he sets Serie A alight, the Catalans might decide to exercise the buy-back clause in his contract.

Erik Lamela, Roma

Having a big money price-tag slapped on your head and being charged with assuming the creative burden shouldered for so long and with such distinction by Francesco Totti at Roma is a lot for any 19-year-old to handle.

But then, Erik Lamela is no ordinary 19-year-old. Having made his debut for River Plate in 2009 at the age of 17, he had established himself as the creative hub of one of South America’s most illustrious clubs within a year.

Like every other hot young Argentine prospect of the last few years, Lamela has been compared to Lionel Messi but, in terms of style, as an advanced playmaker he has far more in common with the likes of Kaka or Javier Pastore.

Tall, fast, skillful and cool in front of goal (as this cheeky rabona finish illustrates), Lamela has all the ability he needs to emulate the successes enjoyed by either of those two against the tight, organized defences of Serie A.


Andre Schurrle, Bayer Leverkusen

Last season was a big one for Andre Schurrle. The young striker’s superb return of 14 league goals helped his team, unfashionable Mainz, to an unexpected 5th place finish in the Bundesliga. It also justified a big summer move to Leverkusen, and also enabled him to break into the German national side.

When the 20-year-old came on alongside Mario Gotze in a friendly against Sweden last November, the pair became the first capped players to have been born in reunified Germany. Such a moment seemed to herald the dawning of a new chapter in the country’s football history, and if the likes of Schurrle and Gotze are anything to go by, it looks a promising one.

Schurrle has made the transition onto the international stage look easy, bagging three goals in his first six appearances, including a superb strike in the German's friendly victory over Brazil.

Strong enough to play as a central striker but fast, skilful and intelligent enough to also be effective on the flanks, Schurrle looks sufficiently equipped to trouble defences with both club and country for many years to come. And this season he will get to showcase his skills in the Champions League.

Mario Gotze, Borussia Dortmund

When an 18-year-old scores in a full international, you get the feeling he could be a bit special.

When that international happens to be against Brazil and caps a man-of-the-match performance, you realize you could be dealing with what Germany legend Mathias Sammer describes as one of the best talents his country has ever produced.

It is not yet clear whether Gotze will ultimately kick on and live up to all the hype. But what is clear is that while his virtuoso display against the Samba Stars was sensational, it was not all that surprising.

After all, the playmaker had already inspired his club, Dortmund, to their first Bundesliga title since 2002, scoring six times and providing 15 – yes, 15 – assists along the way.

Gotze is an exceptional talent. Technically sublime, he has both the vision to see weaknesses in the opposition and the ability to exploit them, be it either with a killer pass or a mazy dribble which leaves defenders slipping and sliding in his wake.

What’s more, with Dortmund in the Champions League this year, Gotze can showcase his genius to a much wider audience. Big clubs should be queuing up for him now, but they certainly will by the end of the year.

Ilkay Gundogan, Borussia Dortmund

Gundogan was a big reason why Nurnburg defied expectations to finish 6th in the Bundesliga last season, and why the summer departure of Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid might not be as big a blow to Dortmund as first feared.

In many ways, Gundogan and Sahin are quite similar. Both are products of Germany’s Turkish immigrant population, and both are midfielders blessed with great skill and technical gifts.

But Gundogan is more versatile, able to be effective both in the deep-lying playmaking role vacated by Sahin and in the hole behind the strikers. His responsibilities will largely lie in deeper areas this term, and he has the opportunity to become the creative hub of the brightest young team in Europe.

Shinji Kagawa, Borussia Dortmund

Not much was expected of Shinji Kagawa when he arrived in Dortmund from J-League giants Cerezo Osaka for the paltry sum of €350,000 last summer, but he’s now one of the club’s most prized assets.

The young Japanese attacking midfielder started last season on fire for Dortmund, showcasing outstanding skill, dribbling ability, work rate and an eye for goal. Before a match against the club’s bitter rivals Schalke, he predicted he’d score twice. He did, and Dortmund won 3-1.

Unfortunately an injury sustained while representing his native Japan at the Asia Cup brought a promising campaign to a premature end. In his absence, Mario Gotze came to the fore in the Borussians’ midfield, and now it is the young German rather than Kagawa who is the name on everyone’s lips.

But, barring any further misfortune, the 22-year-old should be able to grab his fair share of the limelight this term.

Marco Reus, Borussia Monchengladbach

Marco Reus was, to all intensive purposes, the reason why Gladbach weren’t relegated from the Bundesliga last season. The winger’s ten goals and nine assists ensured his side amassed enough points to face a two-legged playoff for their top flight status rather than direct relegation, which they then won.

Fast, skilful and a superb dribbler, Reus is refreshingly direct when running with the ball, meaning he can rarely be accused of lacking an end product. He also appears to thrive on the responsibility of being the main man at Gladbach.

After carrying a struggling team last term, it’s surprising to say the least that Germany’s top clubs haven’t fallen over themselves to try and sign a 22-year-old who has quickly established himself as one of the country’s brightest young attacking talents.

But Reus is clearly far too good for Gladbach and, if he carries on performing at this high level, it surely won’t be long before a big club comes to the same realization.

Best of the rest...of Europe

Christian Eriksen, Ajax

Staff at Ajax consider him the best young player they’ve seen at the club since Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart. The Danish press have hailed him “the new Michael Laudrup”. Whatever else he may be, Christian Eriksen is certainly a player to get excited about.

The 18-year-old was the youngest player to feature at the World Cup in South Africa, but it was only really last season the wider footballing community got to see what he is all about.

Having broken into the Ajax first team in the latter half of the previous campaign, Eriksen was given the responsibility of being the team’s main creative force last term. He responded by propelling the Dutch giants to the Eredivisie title.

Eriksen also came the attention of English football fans when he produced a man-of-the-match performance for Denmark in a 2-1 defeat to the Three Lions back in February, drawing praise from the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard.

He may not be the quickest player on this list, but Eriksen is a playmaker full of class and invention, able to see gaps almost before they appear as well as chip in with a goal or two himself. Another outstanding year at Ajax should see him able to move on to bigger and better things.

Xherdan Shaqiri, Basel

Given his exploits over the past 18 months, it is a mystery as to why Xherdan Shaqiri hasn’t already been snapped up by a major European club.

Certainly, the 19-year-old midfielder has already shown he possesses all the ability required to shine on a bigger stage. He is no stranger to English football fans, having scored a screamer for Switzerland against the Three Lions in a Euro 2012 qualifier last September.

Shaqiri also played a key role as the Swiss Under-21s reached the final of this summer’s European Championships. At club level he’s already been an integral member of the Basel side which has won the Swiss league for two years running.

Much in the image of Arjen Robben or Lionel Messi early in his career, Shaqiri is a right-winger who loves to cut in on his stronger left foot, where he can either beat several men with his superb dribbling ability, play a killer pass or unleash an explosive shot from range.

He can be a touch individualistic at times, but this is probably a result both of his youth and of the fact that he is already a big fish in a small pond at Basel.

Shaqiri is clearly good enough to be playing in one of Europe’s major leagues, and another good season in Switzerland should leave his potential suitors in no doubt.

Alan Dzagoev, CSKA Moscow

With Andrey Arshavin’s star having apparently been on the wane in the last couple of seasons, it’s good news for Russian fans that a new talent is emerging in the country.

Alan Dzagoev has been highly-rated ever since making his debut for CSKA Moscow in 2008, but now, at 21, he appears ready to take the next step in his career and secure a move to a big European club.

The young playmaker is quite similar to Arshavin in style – both are quick, skilful, direct runners with the vision to pick out a killer pass and the ability to strike a ball well with either foot, as Dzagoev showed with this left-footed stunner against Manchester United in 2009.

Arshavin himself has hailed Dzagoev as his successor in the Russian national team, and a big move appears a matter of when rather than if. The 21-year-old has already indicated the Premier League is his preferred destination, and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is thought to be keen.

Eden Hazard, Lille

As far as prospects go, Hazard is just about the worst-kept secret in Europe. Last season the young Belgian inspired Lille to their first French championship title in 57 years, and also the French Cup as part of an historic Double. Now he is coveted by every top club in the continent.

Hazard’s achievements are extraordinary for a 20-year-old. He already has over 100 appearances to his name for Lille and 20 full international caps for Belgium. He also became the youngest ever winner of the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award as a result of his part Lille’s title triumph last term.

He has not been short of attractive offers this summer, but Hazard is in no rush to leave France. Nor are Lille likely to sell him yet, especially having already lost one key attacker in Arsenal new boy Gervinho.

Instead, he will stay and spearhead the Ligue 1 champions’ title defence and maiden Champions League campaign, hopefully once again showing the pace, flair and sublime technique which has earned him his burgeoning reputation. If he does, a big money move is a certainty next year.

Steven Defour, Porto

Some footballers are just born to lead, and Steven Defour is the perfect example. Having become the cornerstone of his Racing Genk side at just 17, the midfielder was picked up by Standard Liege where, after just one season, he was made the club’s youngest ever captain at 19 years of age.

Far from being intimidated by the responsibility, Defour thrived, leading Standard to their first Belgian league title in 25 years and being awarded the Golden Shoe award for most valuable player. The next year, he helped his side repeat the feat.

Defour’s exploits didn’t go unnoticed among Europe’s elite clubs. Sir Alex Ferguson is known to be a long-time admirer, and even wrote the midfielder a letter wishing him a speedy recovery when he broke his foot late in 2009.

The injury appears to have slowed the momentum of Defour’s rise and cooled interest in him, but Portuguese champions Porto felt confident enough to give him a chance. They’re unlikely to regret their decision.

Now with the Champions League as his stage, Defour can once again show the work rate, creativity and leadership qualities which made him one of the most coveted young midfielders in Europe.

No comments:

Post a Comment