Picking an Under-21 Premier League Best XI for the 2012-13 Season So Far
With the Premier League campaign now past the halfway point, things are beginning to take shape in the race for the title. Chelsea's 2-1 win over Arsenal gave them a significant boost toward catching leaders Manchester United, who conceded a last-gasp equalizer to Tottenham to draw 1-1 at White Hart Lane.
The likes of Eden Hazard and Adam Le Fondre shone in this weekend's round of fixtures, but we were intrigued to find out who would make the cut for an "All Under 21" lineup from the Premier League.
As a result, we put our knowledge to the test and mustered a frighteningly brilliant starting XI to challenge the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona. Your comments, opinions and whatnot are welcomed as always! Prepare for something big, ladies and gentleman.
GK - Paulo Gazzaniga (Southampton)
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It's fair to say that as a 21-year-old goalkeeper, Paulo Gazzaniga has had a rather alternative route to making his name in top-flight football.
After coming through the ranks at La Liga side Valencia, Gazzaniga signed for League Two outfit Gillingham, where he made 20 appearances before signing for Southampton this summer.
And after being forced to watch from the bench while Kelvin Davis was handed the No. 1 shirt, Gazzaniga was gifted a rare chance to make the position his own when Davis was ruled out through injury, and he made his debut in the 4-1 thumping of Aston Villa back in September.
He continued to impress between the sticks and was becoming hot property due to his mature performances in the Saints' goal. However, his mistake against Norwich, where he let Robert Snodgrass' free-kick slip through his grasp, has cost him his place in the team, with Artur Boruc now the preferred choice.
Nevertheless, the Argentinian goalkeeper will learn from the mistakes and, if he can continue developing at St. Marys, he could become a fine goalkeeper under new coach Mauricio Pottechino.
RB - Davide Santon (Newcastle United)
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After enduring a difficult start to his career at Newcastle, Italian youngster Davide Santon is starting to get to grips with life on Tyneside.
The full-back, who turned 22 this month, made a £5 million switch from Serie A giants Inter Milan back in September of 2011, but his adaptation to English football was made all the more difficult when he suffered from a serious knee injury.
However, this season Santon's displays in defense have been nothing short of terrific. Although he is predominantly a left-back, his versatility and ability to use both feet means he is equally adept playing on the other side of the pitch. His tendency to venture forward can leave him exposed, but his sheer pace and stamina allows him to track back and get into position.
Santon has previously been linked with a move back to Italy, with Roma and Lazio holding an interest in the Italy international (ESPN), but he has remained loyal to the side, insisting that he is happy in Newcastle despite the arrival of Mathieu Debuchy from Lille.
It seems that although their season may be a far cry from last season's heroics, the likes of Santon may able to give Alan Pardew a helping hand in restoring order at St. James' Park.
CB - Steven Caulker (Tottenham)
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2012 was a good year for many footballers and sportsmen, but none quite had a year as good as Steven Caulker's.
A product of the famed Tottenham youth academy, Caulker was highly rated by the staff at White Hart Lane and was farmed out on loan to Yeovil, where he made 44 appearances despite being just 18 years of age.
Loan spells at Bristol City and Swansea showed that Caulker was improving with every season, and after impressing hugely for the Swans in their debut campaign last season, Andre Villas-Boas opted to keep Caulker with the first-team squad.
He then represented Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics in London before scoring his first international goal for England in the 4-2 defeat against Sweden.
His rise to prominence means he has been one of the bright lights in Tottenham's impressive season so far, making 13 appearances and scoring two goals. In addition to this, he has formed a solid partnership with summer signing Jan Vertonghen and has kept seasoned internationals such as Michael Dawson and William Gallas out of the side.
Almost a carbon copy of England veteran Rio Ferdinand, his power and aerial ability make him an asset to both club and country, and Caulker's rapid development suggests that the 21-year-old can get even better. Villas-Boas and Roy Hodgson will be licking their lips, for sure.
CB - Matija Nastasic (Manchester City)
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Is there a faster-maturing 19-year-old in the world right now other than Matija Nastasic?
He only made his professional debut for Partizan Belgrade back in 2010, but since then, he's gone on to play for Fiorentina and the Serbian national team, and finally, Manchester City.
He's reminiscent of a young Nemanja Vidic, challenging for aerial duels and looking to pass from the back. His reading of the game makes him a genuinely talented player, and with him turning 20 in March, Nastasic has many successful years ahead of him.
The amount of faith that Roberto Mancini has placed in him is astounding, condemning the likes of Joleon Lescott to the bench while the Serb enjoys a run in the first team. But with Kompany and Nastasic leading the defense, the Citizens look well organized.
Of course, his young age means that mistakes are bound to happen occasionally, but with that being said, the nurturing provided by Mancini and leadership shown by defensive partner Vincent Kompany will see him develop into a fantastic player. He'll be hoping that when May comes around, he'll be the one with a winner's medal.
LB - Luke Shaw (Southampton)
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Although he is the youngest player chosen to feature in the lineup, Southampton starlet Luke Shaw is certainly one of the figures who deserves it most.
Despite being at the tender age of just 17, he made his full debut back in August when the Saints beat Stevenage in the League Cup, and since then he has gone on to make 13 appearances.
In those games in a Southampton shirt, Shaw has well and truly established himself as one of Europe's most promising defensive talents. His pace and work rate far exceeds what is expected of a player of his age, and it's his excellent performances which have led clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea to bid for his services.
And make no mistake—Shaw is not just another name on the team sheet. His run down the left-hand side and excellent low cross found Jason Puncheon, who scored the equalizer against Chelsea last week in the 2-2 draw.
The man who gave him his chance and a new five-year deal, Nigel Adkins, may have been sacked, but his quality should shine through, giving new coach Mauricio Pottechino no option but to start this magnificent talent.
RW - Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)
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Raheem Sterling has been of the revelations of the 2012-13 Premier League campaign, and it's no shock that he makes the starting XI this time round.
Few eyebrows were raised when Liverpool swooped for the starlet when he was at QPR as a 16-year-old, but the Merseysiders will be glad they took the gamble by spending £500,000.
His impact in the youth tournament NextGen Series convinced Brendan Rodgers to give him a run out in the Europa League, and he made such an impression on the Northern Irishman that it would be unusual not to see the youngster on Liverpool's team sheet.
Sterling, who only turned 18 in December, simply oozes confidence. When he takes on defenders, he does so with pace, agility and conviction. His crossing needs to improve and, of course, the amount of goals he scores.
But after making his England debut last year, it's clear he will have a bright future in the game. And under the nurturing wing of Rodgers, he's poised to become a key player for the Reds in the years to come.
MC - Jonjo Shelvey (Liverpool)
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It's amazing to think that Jonjo Shelvey is only 20 years old, given his experience in professional football already, but the former Charlton man has come on leaps and bounds since signing for Liverpool.
Despite receiving a red card for his challenge on Jonny Evans in their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, Shelvey isn't a dirty player. He's a passionate midfielder who can also play as a striker, as he did against West Ham.
And at some points, he can be like Joe Cole. Creative, seeing passes that others don't. And at other times, he can be guilty of going missing in the important games.
But Shelvey's work rate is second to none, and with his energy and desire to win the ball for his team, he's a useful player to have.
It's not quite clear where his career will go under Brendan Rodgers, but a handful of England call-ups suggest he is on the right track.
MC - Francis Coquelin (Arsenal)
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Uncovered as one of Arsene Wenger's "gems," French midfielder Francis Coquelin is a man who goes about his business in a quiet but efficient fashion.
Signed from the obscurity of French football from minnows Stade Lavallois, Coquelin has already been with the Gunners for five years, making his debut against Sheffield United when he was just 17.
Since then, his career has stagnated somewhat, moving back down to the reserves to aid his development, and a loan spell back in France at Ligue 1 side Lorient. But after making 24 appearances and scoring his first career goal, he was recalled to the Arsenal senior squad.
He's been somewhat unfortunate, playing in the 8-2 crushing defeat by Manchester United and booed as he was replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But the 21-year-old has improved vastly in the past year and was handed a new long-term deal after deputising well in midfield.
His passing ability is of the expected standard at Arsenal, but his awareness and positioning means that Wenger can call on the youngster to do a decent job in the middle of the park if needed.
An Under-21 international for France, it surely won't be long before Didier Deschamps gives the green light to a call-up for Coquelin.
LW - Oscar (Chelsea)
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The trio that every single pundit have admired this season? Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and, of course, Oscar.
The Brazilian has enjoyed a fruitful start to his Chelsea career since his big-money switch from Internacional, believed to be in the region of £25 million. In his 34 appearances for the Blues, Oscar has chipped in with six goals and eight assists, including a superb total of five in six in the Champions League.
It was only in the 2-2 draw with Juventus when Europe stood up and took a bow at the next big thing emerging in West London. Oscar was on the edge of the box, took a touch and unleashed an, unstoppable effort past Gianluigi Buffon even though the Blues drew the match.
His link-up play with Hazard and Mata has been nothing short of mesmerizing, with the trio earning rave reviews for their "tiki-taka" style of play in the Premier League.
Oscar is widely seen as the player to take over the precious No.10 jersey when Kaka retires from international football, and his contribution of three assists in the 8-0 drubbing of Iraq shows exactly why that is.
The 21-year-old has been hailed as the next Kaka, but who knows? He may be even better than Kaka.
CF - Christian Benteke (Aston Villa)
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When you watch Christian Benteke play football, it's difficult to comprehend how he is just 22 years of age. His frame, consisting of a height of 6"3" and strong enough to knock over Rio Ferdinand, Benteke has been one of the bright lights in a dark spell for Aston Villa.
Paul Lambert took a massive gamble on the towering forward, paying Belgian club Standard Liege the better part of £7 million to take him to Villa Park this summer.
But rather than waiting for time to settle in West Midlands, Benteke has hit the ground running in the Premier League, netting seven goals in 20 appearances for the Villains, making him their top scorer this season and keeping record signing Darren Bent out of the side.
In addition to his move to Aston Villa, Benteke is now a regular in the Belgium national team, where he's scored four goals in nine games. And despite interest from Arsenal in the current transfer window, Benteke has reaffirmed his commitment to helping Lambert's side rescue their season.
CF - Romelu Lukaku (West Brom)
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It remains a mystery how Chelsea could pay £18 million for one of the world's best upcoming strikers and play him in just eight Premier League games, starting just one of them.
But that was the reality for Belgian starlet Romelu Lukaku, who left his club Anderlecht to join the European champions and was almost immediately dubbed "the new Didier Drogba."
Lukaku's style of play has some similarities to Drogba—the way he holds up play and uses his strength to hold off defenders is admirable. His attitude needs some work for sure, with Lukaku unhappy at being a bit-part player at Chelsea despite being just 19 years old.
His loan spell at West Brom has worked a treat, though, with Lukaku scoring nine goals in 19 League games, and has enjoyed his spell to the extent that he admitted he'd like to stay another year.
Whether Chelsea will allow that is another issue altogether, but Premier League defenders will be quaking in their boots for at least another five months while Lukaku stays at the Hawthorns.