Part two of our trip around the world’s brightest young footballing talents.
10. Raphael Varane (France and Real Madrid)
One of the most electrifying centre-backs in Europe, Raphael Varane was recommended to Florentino Perez by Zinedine Zidane, one of France’s (and Real’s) greatest ever players. Reportedly, ‘Zizu’ described Varane as “the finest French centre-back” since the days of Laurent Blanc and Thuram. At just 17-years-of-age, Madrid and Perez acted on this glowing recommendation by paying Lens €10 million. This was a sizeable fee for such a young player, even for Madrid, but the versatile defender, now 20, has quickly repaid the faith shown in him, and is now probably worth twice the fee initially paid. For many, the French international’s greatest performances came in a two-legged Champions League clash with Manchester United. Interestingly, Sir Alex had the chance to sign the youngster from Lens, however, he chose Phil Jones instead. Hmmm, a dubious call by Fergie, I think many will agree.
9. Paul Pogba (France and Juventus)
Oh my, how David Moyes must be cursing Fergie for letting Pogba leave Old Trafford. It is rather shocking to think that, as of late, Everton, Moyes’ former club, have arguably a stronger starting 11 than United. Pogba, now a commanding midfielder for Juventus, is destined to become one of the most influential players on the planet. If he can control his temperament, the French powerhouse has the potential to be THE standout player for Les Blues’ in Brazil. His international debut against Spain was a classic example of both his technical brilliance and his unhinged disposition. Up until his dismissal in this very game, he had been the brightest player on the park. Very much a vital player for Juventus, Pogba is most definitely destined for greatness.
8. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil and Liverpool)
Along with Luis Suarez, the 21-year-old Brazilian is a fans favourite at Anfield. Coutinho has been a revelation since joining Liverpool and is undoubtedly one of the shrewdest signings Brendan Rodgers has ever made. A master of trickery, Coutinho compliments Suarez beautifully. With the ability to thread the most masterful of through balls, Luis Suarez feeds off this aptitude in an instinctive manner. A playmaker of supreme quality, he is one of the most dexterous midfielders in Europe. If he can sustain his impressive recent performances for the rest of 2013/2014 season, then Coutinho could secure his place in Brazil’s World Cup squad.
7. Stephen El Shaarawy (Italy and AC Milan)
Heavily linked with a summer move to Manchester City, it never actually materialized for the Pharaoh, and the move looks less likely now. I say this simply because Negredo has been sensational since joining City. The big money move that never was reflected an ominous sign, as AC Milan have been deplorably bad this season, perhaps an element of this is down to the absence of El Shaarawy. For quite some time, the exciting striker has been hampered by a toe injury. Prior to this spell on the sideline, El Shaarawy and Balotelli were beginning to form a mouth-watering partnership. Once fully fit, it would be no surprise to see AC Milan gradually improve.
6. Christian Eriksen (Denmark and Tottenham)
While it can be argued that he has been inconsistent since making the move to White Hart Lane, it is important to remember that he is just 21-years-of-age. Eriksen has shown several glimpses of sheer quality. Additionally, his recent goal at Old Trafford may have kick-started his season once more. After winning numerous trophies with Ajax, Denmark’s current player of the year may have to wait some time to lift a trophy with Spurs, as this is a side in total transition. However, I have a suspicion that there is so much more to come from this gifted playmaker once he fully adjusts to the Premier League.
5. Julian Draxler (Germany and Schalke)
The million dollar question, please. Okay, so how long can Schalke keep hold of Julian Draxler? Well, many believe that it is only a matter of time until he makes a BIG money move to one of Europe’s elite teams. Yes, yet another talented young German, Draxler is phenomenally gifted, improving week by week, putting in stellar performances in both the Bundesliga and Champions League. An imminent move to Spain or England seems inevitable, or possibly he will fellow countryman Goetze to Munich. However, along with so many of us, Arsene Wenger is a huge admirer of the youngster, and after Ozil’s surprising move to North London, anything is possible.
4. Isco, Real Madrid (Spain and Real Madrid)
Whilst serving his “apprenticeship” at Malaga, Isco was one of the most coveted attacking midfielders in world football. Eventually making the big money move to Madrid last year, Isco impressed instantaneously. In the past, the young man was lambasted for not traking back and doing the “dirty” work, however, under Ancelotti, this has all changed. Isco has added a new dimension to his game, thus making him one of the most complete midfielders in the world. A key player for his nation at the last Under-21 European Championship, Isco has maturity beyond his age, possessing both a glorious first touch and an understanding of the game that is right up there with Xavi and Iniesta.
3. Koke (Spain and At. Madrid)
Heavily linked with a big money move to Old Trafford, Koke is the name on many football fans lips. Last season, the stylish midfielder really came to prominence, displaying the skill and awareness that Diego Simeone has always raved about. His standout performance came in the Copa del Rey final victory over Real Madrid. This begs the question, with his current club doing so well, why would he even consider a move to a United side playing so poorly? When you witness his sumptuous link up play with Diego Costa, many would suggest that he should stay put. Koke is still so young, another season or two with Madrid, a club where he is the midfield maestro, could very well be the making of him. Come February, keep an eye out for At. Madrid in the knockout stages of the Champions League, they are dark horses and could very well cause a major upset.
2. Mario Gotze (Germany and Bayern Munich)
Last summer, deciding to swap the reputable Westfalenstadion for the stunning Allianz Arena was always going to be controversial, and that is an understatement. Moving for a fee of £31.5m, Mario hasn’t quite lived up to the brilliance that we all expected. Nonetheless, anybody with an iota of footballing awareness will gladly acknowledge Goetze’s abilities. Still just 21-years-of-age, the German has everything on his side, including time and one of the most capable nurturers of youth in football, Pep Guardiola. Expect to see the young man put in some impressive displays in Brazil.
1. Neymar (Brazil and Barcelona)
It took a little longer than expected for the young Brazilian to adapt to Spanish life, but the former Santos sensation is now showing the world what he can do. Having forked out a huge £48.6m for the highly rated player, Barca were taking a substantial gamble. Initially, the huge fee looked to be money ill-spent, but Neymar has evolved rapidly, and with Messi’s niggling injuries, he has excelled in the absence of the Argentinean aristocrat. The hat-trick against Celtic at the tail end of 2013 was simply poetry in motion. Now, many could argue that their grandmother could elude the current Celtic back-line – and perhaps your nan could, but it was the style and clinical precision of each goal that blew many people away. It’s exciting to know that Neymar isn’t anywhere near firing on all cylinders, so by the time the World Cup begins, he could very well be accelerating into the tournament, hitting fifth gear when Brazil open the show. While the 21-year-old has been criticised for diving and cheating (think back to his role in Scott Brown’s sending off), he has proven that he can mix it up with the best. Averaging a goal in every 1.6 international appearances, his performances for his country have been special. That is a ratio right up there with Brazil legends like Romario and Ronaldo. Both Pele and the aforementioned Ronaldo are two of Neymar’s biggest endorsers, praising him ever since he kick-started his career with Santos.
Marco Verratti (Italy and Paris Saint-Germain) Moneybags, aka PSG, are renowned for poaching some of the most exciting young talent around. Verratti, an Italian international, has firmly established himself at the Parc des Prince, seemingly unfazed by the presence of brilliant players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva. Before moving to France, Veratti was catching the eye in Serie B. Pescara was the club that gave this talented 21-year-old the chance to showcase his abilities. A clever, deep-lying, midfield playmaker, Marco has been compared with legends such as Paul Scholes and Andrea Pirlo.
Moura (Brazil and PSG) Relocating at such a tender age is always a gamble; however, Moura’s move to PSG was both premeditated and well measured. Along with receiving a sizeable weekly cheque, Moura knew he would play week in, week out. He was also going to play with plenty of teammates who speak the same language. Additionally, add in the fact that Leonardo, a fellow countryman, was the main instigator behind the transfer, and you have all the ingredients for a monumental move. Feelings of acquaintance and security are crucial at such a young age. Whilst he hasn’t quite lived up to the colossal fee paid (£38m), if Moura continues on his recent trajectory, he is destined to become one of Brazil’s true greats. After all, he did bag an impressive 33 goals in 128 games for Sao Paulo, and has almost 30 senior caps under his belt. Furthermore, Moura has four goals at international level, so it is pretty evident that this is not a regular young player. Yet again, United had the chance to secure his services; instead they decided that the fee was too hefty. Another poor call? Well, I’ll let you decide.
Marquinhos (Brazil and PSG) Becoming the world’s most expensive teenage defender is quite a reputation to carry on such young shoulders. Nonetheless, the young Brazilian has showcased his astuteness on a regular basis. Making the move to the French capital from Roma for a gargantuan fee of £27m, it looks like money well spent.
Adem Ljajic (Serbia and Fiorentina) The Serbian already looks like one of the best attacking midfielders in Serie A. Perhaps operating under the radar a little has helped him, what with the lack of interest in Italian club football, there isn’t as much pressure or media glare on him. Nonetheless, Ljajic is up there with the best young players in the world. Declaring his interest in a move to Man United a few years ago, the 21-year-old was bizarrely rejected, yet another poor decision by Sir Alex (think back to the previously mentioned duo of Pogba and Varane). After being disregarded by United, Serbia’s brightest star moved to Partizan Belgrade. He is now playing for Fiorentina, a club where he is most definitely the key man, especially since Milan Jovetic made the move to the blue half of Manchester.
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