10 Under-21 Stars Set to Shine at World Cup 2014
World Cup 2014 is steadily approaching.
We are just over a year away from the festival of football in Brazil. Right now, a host of young talents will be readying themselves for the biggest 12 months of their lives.
Inclusion in the national team's World Cup squad is a defining moment in anyone's career—but which starlets have a realistic shot of shining on the biggest stage of them all?
The criteria is simple. Any player included on this list must be 21 or younger. Sorry Eden Hazard, that means you're not invited.
Alexander Kacaniklic: Sweden
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Alex Kacaniklic is having a strange career. The 21-year-old produced some impressive performances for Fulham earlier in the Premier League season, but after picking up an injury, was recently loaned to Burnley (via BBC Sport).
At international level, he forms an effective part of Sweden's attack. Playing behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kacaniklic's dribbling and crossing skills have come in handy for Erik Hamren's side. He played brilliantly in the recent victory over England and should be seen as an important prospect for World Cup 2014.
First team football will certainly be vital to Kacaniklic's inclusion. He is likely to remain at Craven Cottage, where he'll be confident of nailing down a place in the starting lineup and showing the Premier League his full range of talents across the next year.
Marco Verratti: Italy
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Marco Verratti's rise as one of Paris Saint-Germain's most important players has been impressive to witness. The 20-year-old is a major reason for the club's domination of Ligue 1 and extended run in the Champions League.
The emerging talent has made three appearances for Italy, scoring one goal so far. His area of expertise isn't in and around the box; Verratti is much more likely to lay on an opportunity for his teammate than capitalise on one himself.
Verratti plays with a rawness that is extremely appealing. This season he has racked up an average of 2.6 tackles per game, as well as 12 yellow cards in 28 appearances. He often treads a fine line, but this could be vital to the Italian outfit's grit if they are to succeed at World Cup 2014.
Bruno Martins Indi: The Netherlands
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Perhaps unknown to some, Bruno Martins Indi is set to intensify the Dutch defence. It could have been so different for the Feyernood centreback, who was eligible to play for Portugal before donning the orange shirt in a senior match.
The Netherlands reached the 2010 World Cup final with a defence that I struggle to outline as world class. Whether John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen instil fear into opponents is doubtful. Bruno Martins Indi should be included to sharpen up a creaking backline.
Although the defender isn't blessed with the greatest height, he possesses tremendous aerial ability. He also has excellent pace and is strong in the tackle. If needed, he can be pushed to left back, offering the Dutch side versatility that has been missing for so long.
It's worth noting Bruno Martins Indi poses a real threat from corners too, with a couple of international goals to his name already.
Lucas Moura: Brazil
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Although the silly-haired Brazilian is likely to grab many headlines throughout the next World Cup, Lucas Moura will run things for the home nation's midfield. The 20-year-old has settled to life at PSG with ease, providing three assists in eight Ligue 1 games for Carlo Ancelotti's team.
Lucas is lightning quick. He often fills in the gaps between the midfield and forwards, acting as a go-between in sweeping moves towards goal. The youngster is a keen dribbler and excellent passer of the ball, giving Brazil an all round talent that will continue to develop for years.
Jack Wilshere: England
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England look ordinary without Jack Wilshere.
The Arsenal midfielder's long-awaited international return came in the recent friendly win over Brazil. He bossed the centre of the pitch in impressive style and assisted Wayne Rooney for the opening goal.
The 21-year-old needs to remain fit.
Currently hampered with another injury, England fans will never see the best of Wilshere if he continues to stutter through a season (via The Daily Mail). There isn't any other English midfielder who matches up to Wilshere's ability to dribble, pass and tackle with venom. In many ways, he is a continental player wearing the Three Lions' badge.
Raphael Varane: France
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How Manchester United must be kicking themselves.
Raphael Varane nearly joined the Red Devils before Zinedine Zidane tempted him to Spain (via Goal.com). The Real Madrid defender has risen to prominence this season with an array of stunning displays against elite clubs.
The 19-year-old is yet to make his international debut, although Didier Deschamps is set to give Varane his first senior cap in the upcoming game with Georgia (via ESPN). Varane's tackling still has some way to progress, but his dominance in the air could be a key feature for the French in the coming years.
Once his debut has arrived, who would bet against the defender maintaining his place all the way to World Cup 2022?
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Isco has represented Spain in some capacity since 2008.
The 20-year-old has risen through the international youth setup and is now blossoming on the world stage. His Champions League heroics for Malaga have him outlined as one of the country's hottest properties across the globe.
If Isco can get on the pitch, that is.
He has received one cap for the almighty Spanish to date. The youngster faces stern competition from a host of newcomers before stamping his authority in the squad. Still, three goals and three assists in eight Champions League fixtures stands him right at the top of Vicente Del Bosque's list of future stars.
James Rodriquez: Colombia
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Colombia is producing ridiculous talent right now. While the likes of Radamel Falcao, Victor Ibarbo, Luis Muriel and Jackson Martinez are set to play a huge part in the country's World Cup showing, James Rodriquez will also be ready to shine in front of a global audience.
The 21-year-old has enjoyed a career-defining season with Porto. He has netted eight times in 12 starts and five substitute appearances, helping the Portuguese giants to a shot at the domestic championship. A single goal in eight Champions League appearances also suggests Rodriguez is ready to play against the best, even though there's plenty of room for improvement.
Rodriguez has the talent to become a world class playmaker and attacking threat. His creativity and turn of pace is likely to continue developing across the next year. By the time World Cup 2014 appears, he could be part of a Golden Generation of Colombian stars.
Xherdan Shaqiri: Switzerland
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Xherdan Shaqiri has been around for a long time.
The 21-year-old Swiss midfielder made his international debut in 2010. Since then, his hard work at Basel was rewarded with a transfer to Bayern Munich, where he has struggled to hold down a regular place. Even so, the sturdy starlet will be Switzerland's most important player come the next World Cup.
Shaqiri is blessed with creativity, pace, power and the willingness to shoot from long range. Bayern Munich is home to a number of players who fit into this category, so there's little wonder as to why he has struggled to break into the starting lineup during his first season.
Time is on Shaqiri's side. He is vastly experienced in European and international football, especially for someone so young. The versatile midfielder will thrive when Switzerland's World Cup 2014 team is built around him.
Romelu Lukaku: Belgium
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Similar to Colombia, the Belgium squad has many people excited.
The likes of Eden Hazard, Christian Benteke, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Dries Mertens, Kevin Mirallas, Marouane Fellaini and Thibaut Courtois are nailed on to shine at the next tournament.
After his successful season with West Bromwich Albion, Romelu Lukaku should be placed in the same bracket. The 19-year-old is ridiculously powerful for his age and knows how to finish smartly. His 14 starts and 13 substitute appearances in this season's Premier League has seen Lukaku notch up 13 goals for Steve Clarke's club.
Will he return to Chelsea next season? Will another club acquire his services? Lukaku needs to be playing regular football ahead of the World Cup. If he achieves this, Belgium have a spearhead to harness alongside all of that talent.
Which players will star at next summer's World Cup? Let me know in the comments section below and be sure to follow me on Twitter:
All statistics in this article are courtesy of Whoscored.