Predicting the Next Generation of World Football Stars: Picking a Starting XI
There are very few secrets left in world football today.
Scouts will willingly travel the lengths of the globe in search of the next Messi or Ronaldo, for they know full well that careers have been made and reputations built on the back of discovering a prodigy with the potential to take the footballing world by storm.
That's the word that swirls around the group of players here—potential.
Eleven youngsters to comprise a starting XI of unrealised ability, youngsters who you are almost certain to hear more from over the next few months and years.
For the sake of the reader, there is no Neymar, no Jack Wilshere or Eden Hazard in this team—with a few exceptions, most are teenagers who haven't yet made as big a splash on the world stage.
Are you watching closely?
Club: Birmingham City
Jack Butland has hardly set the world alight on the domestic stage.
Apart from making one appearance for his current club, Birmingham City, in England's second tier, he has only really gotten a taste of first-team football whilst on loan at League Two side Cheltenham Town—hardly the bastion of world talent.
However, his is a name that has long been on the lips of British scouts due to his increasingly long list of impressive performances for his national youth teams.
Since the age of 15, he has represented his country at all age-group levels, most notably earning an unprecedented first cap for Roy Hodgson's England team in a recent friendly with Italy.
At the London 2012 Olympics, he displayed an assurance and confidence beyond his years, at times single-handedly keeping the British side in games with his acrobatics and lightening-quick reactions.
According to reports, he has been linked with a move at one time to Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle, but it seems that Liverpool are currently the No. 1 contenders for his signature (via The Metro).
Alternative: Stefanos Kapino, Panathinaikos
Country: Ivory Coast
Despite being only being 19 years of age, full-back Serge Aurier has made over 60 appearances in France's top two leagues.
Having made the move from Lens earlier this year, Aurier currently plays for Ligue 1 side Toulouse, a club that is receiving increasing awareness for its wealth of young talent.
The Ivorian is a quick but durable defender with an excellent work ethic, more than capable of playing on either side of the back four, as well as in defensive midfield.
He has been linked with Premier League clubs Manchester City, Sunderland and Fulham since first coming to prominence in the 2010/11 season. (via Daily Mail).
Alternative: Danny da Costa, Bayer Leverkusen
Club: Real Madrid
As one of the jewels in Real Madrid's already glittering crown, Raphael Varane may just be the most high-profile player on this list.
A €10 million transfer from Lens last summer, Varane's impact at the Spanish club last season was very impressive considering his age—for Jose Mourinho to trust the teenager enough to play him 15 times in all competitions shows just how highly rated he is at the Bernabeu.
For a defender, his skill and composure on the ball is exemplary. Not afraid to throw himself about, Varane's timing when making tackles also sets him well ahead of his years.
If his development continues on its current path, Raphael Varane is sure to become one of the top central defenders in world football within the next few years.
Alternative: Luiz Eduardo, Sao Paulo
Stefan De Vrij
Twenty-year-old Stefan de Vrij is the oldest player included here, but he's someone who continues to improve with every passing season.
He made his debut for the Eredevisie side Feyenoord at only 17 and has since justified the enormous faith placed in him by his coaches with numerous commanding performances in the heart of his team's defence.
Like Butland, de Vrij earned his first cap for the Dutch national side in the most recent batch of International friendlies—picked by Louis van Gaal to face Belgium in what ultimately proved a difficult encounter.
Nevertheless, the 6"2 defender is sure to develop into a key asset for the Netherlands over the next couple of years as they seek to recover their status as one of Europe's top teams.
Despite his rather skinny frame, the Dutchman is a determined and uncompromising player who is capable of filling in at right-back when his team requires him to.
With Ron Vlaar's move to Aston Villa, de Vrij has recently been named as Feyenoord's new captain for the upcoming season.
Alternative: Matija Nastasic, Fiorentina
Lining up next to de Vrij is another talented Dutchman—Jetro Willems.
Since fighting his way into the PSV starting team last season, Willems was a surprise inclusion in the Dutch first team at the recent European Championships, featuring in all three group games.
And although his team was bounced from the tournament early on, the left-back still caught the eye of those watching.
Perhaps more gifted as an attacking wing-back, Willems has skill and pace in abundance, and he's rarely afraid to take on opposing defenders with the ball at his feet.
It's little wonder he's currently being tracked by Manchester United as a long-term replacement for Patrice Evra (via The Metro).
Alternative: Nicolai Boilesen, Ajax
Position: Centre-back/defensive midfield
Club: Club America
As a key component of the Mexican team that emerged triumphant at the recent London Olympics tournament, Diego Reyes is currently being hailed as one of the nation's top young talents.
Although perhaps more suited to a central defensive role, Reyes is more than capable of playing at the heart of midfield in a holding position.
He is tall, athletic and more than willing to throw himself around.
If he can add some bulk to his wiry frame, a move to one of the continent's top leagues surely beckons.
Alternative: Gary Gardner, Aston Villa
The youngest and least experienced player in the team, Raheem Stirling's inclusion is based on the promise he has shown in Liverpool Reserves games and for England's U17 team.
Last season, the Reds' previous manager, Kenny Dalglish, saw enough promise to give the flying winger his first-team debut, making him the second-youngest player to put on the shirt.
Although it is doubtful he will break into new boss Brendan Rodgers' team this year, Sterling is an invaluable asset for the club going forward and will surely electrify the Anfield faithful for years to come.
He is lightening quick, has excellent balance and awareness and is capable of unleashing a powerful long-range shot at goal.
Having scored in a preseason friendly earlier this month, Rodgers was quick to praise the 17-year-old.
"His movement off the ball was very impressive—he’s made a great run and Jose played a terrific pass, and the rest was that imagination and creativity that I love when he cut inside and scored with a wonderful finish," he told reporters (via Liverpool Echo).
Alternative: Julio Gomez, CF Pachuca
Position: Central Midfield/Attacking Midfield
Club: Spartak Moscow
Jano Ananidze has long been tipped as a future great.
Having made his debut for Spartak Moscow at 16, the Georgian playmaker became the youngest player to ever score in the Russian Premier League months later, days after his 17th birthday.
He has also scored twice for the Georgian national team.
Doubts surround Ananidze in regard to his size (5"7) and injury-checkered past, but his ability when fit suggests a potential that transcends such worries.
A tricky, skillful player, Ananidze is a good finisher who can pick out a difficult pass with seaming ease.
He has, in the past, been tracked by several top clubs: Arsenal, Juventus and Milan (via The Mirror).
Alternative: Lucas Piazon, Chelsea
Position: Attacking Midfield
Club: River Plate
Having suffered a disastrous 2010/11 campaign, River Plate—arguably Argentina's most storied club—last season had to face the embarrassment of a campaign in the country's second division.
As a consequence, one of the club's stars, Manuel Lanzini, was farmed out on loan to Brazilian side Fluminense, where he became a regular starter, scoring five goals in 37 league appearances.
Having now returned to Argentina with the experience under his belt and his team promoted, the diminutive attacking midfielder is set to take the Primera Division by storm and will surely attract attention from Europe.
Lanzini is versatile—he has played on either wing and has even filled in at wing-back in the past. At only 5"5, he uses his size to his advantage, dancing around opposition defenders with the greatest of ease.
But it is perhaps his excellent passing ability and vision that sets him apart from his contemporaries.
Alternatives: Lucas Ocampos, AS Monaco/Zakaria Labyad, Sporting CP
Position: Attacking Midfield/Second Forward
Despite only looking about 12 years old, it feels like the Brazilian wonder kid Adryan has been on the world football scene for years.
Now just turned 18, his name will surely become the next "word du jour" over the next few months, as he is tracked by Europe's biggest and best.
He has already made 11 appearances for Brazilian club Flamengo, but it has been his excellent form for his nation's U17 side that has really caught the eye.
In 14 appearances, he has scored eight, dazzling the watching scouts with his trickery, balance and finishing.
In an interview with Globo Esporte earlier this year, the player himself claimed that he has already turned down advances from Manchester United, though whether or not Flamengo will be able to resist a big-money offer in the future remains to be seen (h/t The Mirror).
Alternatives: Stephan El Shaarawy, AC Milan/Ahmed Musa, CSKA Moscow
Club: Red Bull Salzburg
Assuming the role of world football scout for a moment, it is my belief that Havard Nielsen is fast developing into one of the best young strikers in Europe.
He has already netted three times since joining Red Bull Salzburg, and if he continues his fine form, he may only spend a year in Austria before heading to a top European league.
Although it may be a little detrimental to call Nielsen a "poacher," he is certainly developing a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Also capable of playing on either wing, he is a pacy threat with the ability to unleash a blistering shot at goal.
If he can improve his ability in the air, his time in Salzburg will most likely be brief.
Alternatives: Paco Alcacer, Valencia/Angelo Henriquez, Manchester United