Euro 2012: 10 Youngsters Set to Shine at Euro Championship
One of the most highly anticipated summers of sport in living memory is about to commence with the Olympics being hosted in London for the first time since 1948.
But for diehard football fans, it will be hard to look beyond the European Championship hosted by Poland and Ukraine as the primary source of sporting entertainment, ecstasy and heartbreak.
Sixteen of Europe's finest international teams will contest the right to become major tournament champions, and already the experts are considering who is set to shine.
Will Robin van Persie end the season of his life by sending Holland to their first major international triumph since 1988 and atone for the World Cup final defeat two years ago?
Will Fernando Torres find redemption as a proven goal scorer after the most difficult year of his career at Chelsea?
Will Spain do the unthinkable and make it three major tournament victories in a row?
And will Roy Hodgson's pedestrian England be able to hack it with the technical prowess and fluid possession football on offer in the rest of the tournament?
In this article, however, I will be citing 10 wonder kids, as yet unproven on the highest stage, who have the potential to light up the tournament and cause Europe's top clubs to fall over themselves in their eagerness to table a bid.
Eden Hazard falls into a select category of young players that each of the top clubs in Europe would kill to have in their side. Borussia Dortmund's devastating winger, Mario Götze, is another. At the tender age of just 19, Götze has become an integral part of the Dortmund side that has won back-to-back Bundesliga titles.
Some of the highlights of the 2010 World Cup were the big-stage debuts for youthful German talents such as Mesut Özil, Thomas Muller and Sami Khedira.
Two years later, this young group of players is predicted to grasp the tournament by the scruff of its neck, with many penciling in Germany as the early favourites.
Götze could be poised to become one of the breakout stars of the tournament as his counterparts did before him in South Africa.
The wonder kid's talent is such that it even persuaded the financially prudent Arsene Wenger to make an approach of £35 million for the jewel in Dortmund's crown.
But Götze has pledged himself to the German champions by signing a long-term contract that should theoretically keep him at Signal Iduna Park until 2016.
But a big performance at Euro 2012 from a teenager described by German technical director Matthias Sammer as "one of the best talents that we've ever had" could lead to more concrete interest from Europe's big spenders, and then the lure of Barcelona or Madrid could prove too much.
Many have labelled Roy Hodgson as the conservative choice of an FA unwilling to appoint a colourful personality with radical changes in mind so near to a major tournament. Yet Hodgson has shown that he can be as bold with his team selection as Harry Redknapp by calling up the uncapped Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The son of former England international Mark Chamberlain, Oxlade-Chamberlain made his name with Southampton before being snapped up by Arsene Wenger and Arsenal.
The French tactician has been cautious in terms of the first-team opportunities afforded to his latest prodigy, with the Emirates faithful often clamouring for his selection in full voice.
Chamberlain can be deployed on the wing but looks to be more comfortable in the hole behind the strikers, where his deft touch and eye for the goal can really come into play.
He made an instant impact on his international debut as a substitute against Norway with some wonderful ball control almost leading to a goal for club counterpart Theo Walcott.
Those England fans that remember the immediate impact of Michael Owen at France '98 or Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004, both at the same age as Chamberlain is now, will hope that the Arsenal youngster can become the third 18-year-old in recent years to write his name large on English tournament history.
Polish football has been crying out for a world-class goal scorer since the retirement of Grzegorz Lato in 1982, and it seems like one may have come along at the right time for the nation set to co-host their first ever major tournament.
Twenty-three-year-old Robert Lewandowski was the focal point of the Borussia Dortmund attack that won the league and cup double and a series of top-class performances—including a Cup Final hat trick against Bayern—will make him a top transfer target.
Along with his club teammates Mario Götze and Shinji Kagawa, he has attracted the attention of Europe's finest, and the stage is set for Lewandowski to add to his impressive 30 goals in 46 club matches this season.
A strong hometown performance from the centre forward may ensure that Poland are not simply making up the numbers and could cause Manchester United and Arsenal to step up their interest.
Luuk De Jong
The Dutch national team has always been littered with academy products, including Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord. However, while Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart are reaching that age where any international tournament could be their last, the most exciting prospect in Bert Van Marwijk's squad plys his trade outside the "big three" of Dutch domestic football.
Luuk De Jong is a proven goalscorer and a title winner with FC Twente and at the age of just 21, he has attracted attention from Premier League clubs such as Liverpool and Arsenal.
He will have to beat off fierce competition from Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but the youthful goal machine is not one to pass up opportunities, as proven by his 25 goals in 32 league appearances in the season gone by.
Greece's example in 2004 showed that solid defensive foundations can prove the basis of a successful tournament for even the most unfancy of sides.
Simon Kjaer is one of the most highly rated defenders in Europe and he will be integral in any hopes Denmark may harbour of reaching the latter stages.
The classy centre-back excelled in the World Cup in 2010 and at only 23, he has taken in impressive spells at Palermo, Wolfsburg and Roma.
His current owners, VFL Wolfsburg, reportedly beat off competition from the two Manchester clubs, Tottenham and Juventus, to sign the Dane, but Kjaer now appears to have outgrown the German side and a season-long loan at Roma does not seem to have quenched his desire for a move to a major league.
If Kjaer plays to his full potential in Poland and Ukraine, then there will be many a potential buyer looking to splash the cash on the accomplished youngster.
Another defender reported to have an extremely bright future in the game is Schalke's 20-year-old Greek talent, Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
Strong, bullish and with a command of possession that belies his young age, Papadopoulos can play equally well at centre-back or in the holding midfield role.
An excellent season with Schalke in 2010-11 led to a call-up to the Greek national team for the first time, where injuries propelled him straight into the fold, leading to a goal on his international debut.
Nobody will ever forget the plucky underdog spirit of Greece in 2004 that led to their first ever international trophy, and Papadopoulos is a player who engenders hard work, determination and a never-say-die attitude that is crucial to success in tournament football.
Ever since David Trezeguet's golden goal in 2000 that secured back-to-back international trophies for France, tournament football can only be described as mediocre at best for Les Bleus.
The World Cup fiasco of 2010 caused controversy and scandal in the French game, with senior players behaving disgracefully and a manager in Raymond Domenech who commanded little to no respect.
But since the disastrous campaign in South Africa, the French have been rebuilding under former World Cup-winning captain Laurent Blanc, and his revamped side full of youth and potential are undefeated in 19 games.
One of the brightest sparks in the French team is long time Arsenal target Yann M'Vila, whose creative link-up play with Samir Nasri and Yohan Cabaye could make or break France's campaign.
Arsene Wenger has long wanted to bring the Rennes midfielder to the Emirates to add mettle to a midfield that lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in quick succession last summer.
However, if the 21-year-old puts in the performance expected of him at the finals, then Arsenal could find themselves in another bidding war where they might come off second best.
Update: M'Vila has suffered a potentially serious injury in France's friendly with Serbia.
Controversy reigned when Sunderland's find of the season, James McLean, opted to play for the Republic of Ireland over Northern Ireland, whom he had represented at youth level.
Few could fault McClean for his decision; however, to turn out for a country with tournament prospects and his magic wand of a left foot could be the perfect provider for the Republic's key striker, Robbie Keane.
McClean is an extremely underrated player who only came to prominence at the Stadium of Light after Martin O'Neill took over. But now the stage is set for the 23-year-old winger to prove himself on the international stage.
As one of the two host nations, the Ukraine have been given a distinct advantage going into the tournament. And while even the most optimistic of fans would not predict a victory, the playing squad will be determined to exceed expectations.
With Andriy Shevchenko past his best, the host nation may need to turn to his namesake, Andriy Yarmolenko, to fire them into the latter stages.
Yarmolenko's quality left foot and finishing abilities have led to inevitable comparisons with Shevchenko, and AC Milan are reported to be interested after a recommendation from Sheva himself.
But if Yarmolenko is the "new Sheva," Yevhen Konoplyanka has been labelled the "Ukrainian Messi" by the local media. His creative talents may be another factor in how well the hosts perform.
Sir Alex Ferguson is said to be interested in Konoplyanka's signature as he strives to sign a creative midfielder, while Abramovich is still seeking to overhaul his Chelsea squad with fresh, exciting talent, and the Ukrainian playmaker fits the bill perfectly.
One to watch in Euro 2012, the scouts will be keeping a very close eye on Konoplyanka's performances in the hope that comparisons to Messi have even a grain of truth.