The Bundesliga has in recent years established itself as a hotbed for the production of talented youth, and many of the league's top stars this season have indeed been young players in the early stages of their careers.
Players like Julian Draxler and Mario Gotze have played in the German top flight for three years but entered this season with a great deal of potential remaining—and they have tapped this potential this season, delivering some very fine performances.
Draxler and Gotze are just two of a slew of young stars in the Bundesliga. Click "Begin Slideshow" for a countdown of this season's best 23-and-under performers from the German top flight.
Promoted side Fortuna Dusseldorf have one of the most underwhelming squads in the Bundesliga, yet are six points clear of the drop zone with five games left to play.
Fabian Giefer deserves a great deal of credit for keeping the promoted side on track for a second consecutive season in Germany's top flight. The 22-year-old goalkeeper, formerly a backup at Leverkusen, proved himself as a worthy first-team player with some top-class displays.
Giefer has bailed out his defense time and time again. Although he's conceded 45 times, he also has saved 71.7 percent of all shots that have come his way. And his record of 26 "outstanding" saves as deemed by the official Bundesliga website is the highest among all players in the Bundesliga.
Sure, Dusseldorf have struggled defensively and still may be relegated. But individually, Giefer has far and away exceeded expectations and has done extremely well to keep his side out of the drop zone.
Sebastian Jung is one of several young Frankfurt stars to come of age this season, and his contributions to the Eintracht defense have greatly aided the club in their pursuit of an improbable Champions League spot in 2013-14.
The 22-year-old Jung has been a rock at right-back for Frankfurt, and was rewarded for his efforts in November when Joachim Low selected him for his Germany squad to face the Netherlands. In doing so, Jung became the first representative of Die Adler to be included in a Germany squad since Horst Heldt in 1999.
Due to his fine performances for Frankfurt and ability to play on either flank, Jung was set to be a hot item on the transfer market this summer. However, his recent decision to extend his stay with Eintracht put an early end to speculation.
Heung-Min Son only ranks 17th on the list of top U23 Bundesliga talents, although in terms of potential he would easily make the top 10.
The 20-year-old is tremendously talented, and although he is nowhere near the most prolific in the Bundesliga, his ability is undeniable. Son has 11 goals to his name this season, easily his best tally since moving to Germany, and his performances have allegedly attracted significant interest from Tottenham, via the London Evening Standard.
When Son is on form, he's on in an incredible way. The South Korean attacker scored twice against Dortmund in September, and repeated the feat in February as Hamburg won both their league fixtures against the two-time defending champions. He can become a huge star, but will first have to become more consistent.
Hoffenheim have had little joy this season, and are in severe danger of being relegated. Individually, however, it's been a good year for Kevin Volland.
The 20-year-old Volland, in his first season in the Bundesliga after transferring from 1860 Munich, has scored five goals and provided eight assists. The Germany U21 international has great pace and is very well-rounded. And in fact, his versatility and skill on the ball have resulted in his being played out of position.
If Hoffe are relegated, they may have to sell Volland. If he does leave, the striker will surely have many suitors. He's a great talent, and if used properly at the right club, he could become a star of the Bundesliga.
Long considered a talented prospect, Lars Bender has only gotten better with age. Now approaching his 24th birthday, the 1860 Munich youth product is Leverkusen's finest midfielder and one of the best in the Bundesliga as a whole.
Alongside Stefan Reinartz and Simon Rolfes, Bender is not only the best but also the most versatile member of the Leverkusen midfield. The Rosenheim native defends with all the grit and ball-winning quality of a natural anchor, but is skilled in possession and is trusted with the task of supplying the front three.
Leverkusen are poised to return to the Champions League next season, but face trouble as the futures of several key players remain uncertain. It may be difficult to resist a sizable offer, but they would be wise to hold onto Bender at all cost.
Given that he made his Bundesliga debut in early 2011, it is easy to mistake Julian Draxler for an older player. But, in his third season as a professional, the attacker is still only 19 years of age.
This season has been a success for Draxler, who has scored eight goals and affirmed the talent he has shown in previous campaigns. He has developed quickness, pace and upper-body strength, and as such has become much more capable of slipping past defenders.
Armed with a powerful shot with both feet, he is unpredictable. And Joachim Low rates him so highly he opted to start Draxler—snubbing Lukas Podolski and Andre Schurrle in the process—in place of the suspended Marco Reus in a recent World Cup Qualifier.
Draxler is rather low on this list of 20, but he also is the youngest and one of the brightest talents. Many superstars were nowhere near his level at his age. If he can continue his development, he too will become world-class.
Like Trapp, Oliver Baumann has enjoyed a renaissance of form this season. And his brilliance between the posts has led Freiburg to the verge of qualification for European competition next season.
With five matches left to play, SCF are just one point away from a Champions League spot, and much of their success is due to their phenomenal defense. Freiburg have kept an impressive 12 clean sheets, and only Bayern have conceded fewer goals.
Baumann of course is the heart and soul of his team's defense. It's truly a shame that he is emerging in a golden era of German goalkeepers. He could expect an international future with almost any other country.
Daniel Carvajal is one of the few players on this list not to hail from a Bundesliga academy. The 21-year-old left Real Madrid Castilla for Leverkusen last summer and took no time to settle in.
Carvajal quickly became B04's first-choice right-back, and has since established himself as one of the Bundesliga's very best fullbacks—arguably the best among teams other than Bayern and Dortmund.
A Spain U-21 international, Carvajal has offered balance on the right side of defense. He's excellent going forward and, although he does find himself booked rather often, can defend quite well.
Following his transfer, Carvajal hinted at there being a buy-back clause in his contract with Leverkusen. If there is, Real would be wise to snap him up this summer.
A breakout star of the 2011-12 season, Bernd Leno has followed up his brilliance of yesteryear with more top class goalkeeping in his second season as a professional.
The 21-year-old is not necessarily the most outstanding goalkeeper in terms of save percentage, number of clean sheets or total saves, but one figure stands out: in 27 games with Leno in goal, Leverkusen have conceded just 33 times. In two with Michael Rensing between the posts, they have allowed five.
Leno is a cool and composed leader inside his penalty box, and his direction has made the defenders in front of him into a cohesive and strong unit. Without him, they fall apart.
Like Leno, Marc-Andre ter Stegen has followed a strong first full Bundesliga season with a superb 2012-13 campaign.
Gladbach's defense has changed significantly since lat season, with Dante having moved to Bayern Munich and the aging Filip Daems taking a spot on the bench. But the 21-year-old Ter Stegen has adapted well and commanded his back four excellently as BMG have proven to have a more-than-functional defense.
Reported by Marca to have signed a pre-agreement with Barcelona that will see him replace Victor Valdes in the Catalans' goal in 2014, Ter Stegen appears to be on his way to a high-profile career.
Part of a golden generation of Belgian footballers, Kevin de Bruyne was snapped up by Chelsea in January of 2012 and sent on loan to Bremen in August. The 21-year-old has since matured and developed into one of the brightest talents in the Bundesliga.
A pure footballer, De Bruyne has played as a classic central midfielder and all over the attack. He's extremely proactive and will seek the ball as much as a deep-lying distributor. But he also has sublime class in the final third, having scored six goals and given nine assists on the season.
There was recently a report in Bild (via ESPN) that claimed Chelsea were considering a cash-plus-player swap that would see De Bruyne move to Leverkusen in exchange for Andre Schurrle. Based on performance this season, however, the Blues might make a big mistake in letting the talented Belgian leave.
Chelsea target Andre Schurrle (via the Mirror) has enjoyed a successful season with Leverkusen as the Werkself have set course for a return to the Champions League. With five matches left to be played, the club stand third in the Bundesliga table.
Individually, Schurrle has looked sharp. Among his 12 goals in all competitions he's produced some stunning finishes. And while his total assists tally stands at eight, he has made himself involved in many more.
A technically gifted winger with the athleticism of a central striker, Schurrle is a complete package and has all the potential to be a world-class star. All he needs to work on now is his efficiency.
Frankfurt made some shrewd transfer moves last summer as they prepared for their return to first-division football, but some of their best stars this season emerged from within. One was Sebastian Rode.
Plagued with injuries for all of the 2009-10 season and much of 2010-11, the gifted central midfielder has finally begun to fulfill his potential. The now-22-year-old is a great distributor, but is also hard-nosed in defense and has all the qualities of a classic box-to-box midfielder.
A Germany U21 international, Rode has attracted considerable attention within Germany and abroad this season. Both Bayern and Dortmund have been linked with the player, as have Arsenal.
Almost exactly a year ago, David Alaba made an appeal for consideration as one of Europe's finest left-backs. Then still 19 years of age, the Austrian put on two brilliant performances against Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Alaba's talent has long been well understood, Louis van Gaal blooded the player at just 17 years of age after all. But a year ago, he had only just broken into the starting lineup at Bayern. By season's end, he still hadn't entirely established himself as an elite player.
This season, Alaba has affirmed his class. After missing the first few weeks of the campaign due to injury, he immediately reclaimed his spot in Jupp Heynckes' starting XI and has never looked back.
Gifted with great positional instincts, the skill of an attacking midfielder and tremendous agility and pace, Alaba is a complete package. And if Bayern can overcome Barcelona in the Champions League semifinals, he may soon be regarded as the best left-back in the world.
Last season, Kevin Trapp and Oliver Baumann lost their positions as the two goalkeepers for the Germany U21 team as the younger Bernd Leno and Marc-Andre ter Stegen emerged as top-class talents.
In 2012-13, however, the Frankfurt and Freiburg goalkeepers have both enjoyed great runs of form. Trapp has been particularly brilliant for Eintracht, who are very much in contention for a spot in next season's Champions League playoff.
Trapp is the cornerstone of Frankfurt's defense, having saved 71.18 percent of shots on his target. He's also pulled off a remarkable 24 "outstanding" saves, according to the Bundesliga's official website. Whether or not they finish in the top four, Frankfurt deserve high praise for what they've done this season—and Trapp has earned a special round of applause for his part.
Toni Kroos will miss the rest of the season due to a torn groin muscle, and his loss will be hugely felt by Bayern Munich.
The 23-year-old was a hugely important player for the Bavarian giants in their Bundesliga and Champions League campaign before he was forced off during a match with Juventus.
Kroos scored six goals and gave eight assists in 24 matches for a Bayern side that will likely end this season as the most successful Bundesliga winners in the league's history. He netted key goals against Dortmund and Schalke, and his balance of being able to play deeper in midfield as well as at the edge of the box made him a dynamic threat.
The loss of Kroos was too late to harm Bayern's Bundesliga campaign, but the Munich giants will sorely miss him in the Champions League against Barcelona.
Much like David Alaba at Bayern, Ilkay Gundogan followed up a strong finish to last season with a class-affirming 2012-13.
After initially struggling to adapt with a role change from attacking to defensive midfield last season, the 22-year-old settled and became a key figure in Dortmund's title run. He hit the ground running last fall, and has been every bit as important to BVB as Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski.
Gundogan is to Dortmund what Nuri Sahin was in 2010-11, a talismanic midfielder and the architect of all play in the center of the park. The Germany international's contribution can be described in many ways, but his influence is best summed up by one telling statistic: Injuries have kept him out of the BVB squad for four games this season, of which the club lost two and won zero.
The 2012 German Player of the Year, Marco Reus has followed up a magnificent 2011-12 season with an outstanding 2012-13. He's adapted very well to the step up that has come in moving from Gladbach to Dortmund, and now is an established starter on the left side of the attack in Joachim Low's Germany squad.
Some of Reus' Bundesliga statistics are below his previous year. Although he is well on pace to exceed his 2011-12 tally of assists, his 11 goals are well below the 18 he recorded while playing centrally at Gladbach. Reus has been less consistent this season, saving his best performances for the Champions League, and accordingly is no longer decidedly the best U23 player in Germany.
With that having been said, Reus remains a marvelous, world-class talent. He slices through defenses like butter, can shoot even from distance with both feet, and is as much a playmaker as he is a finisher. In terms of all-round attacking threat, there are few in the world who can rival Reus.
Mario Gotze has been an established mega-talent for the majority of three years now, but 2012-13 has marked his first season of true superstardom. The 20-year-old has recorded 19 goals and 20 assists in 48 appearances for club and country this season, all of which exceed Lionel Messi's record at the same age.
In 45 minutes of play against Furth on Saturday, Gotze scored with two sublime finishes and set up a third, increasing his Bundesliga tally to 10 goals and 12 assists on the season. Only Robert Lewandowski, Stefan Kiessling and Thomas Muller have exceeded him in terms of direct contribution to goals in the German league. And all three are much more mature and experienced than Gotze, who seems to get better every week and is nowhere near the limit of his potential.
With flawless technique, an exceptional brain and increasingly capable physicality, Gotze has all the tools to become a footballing legend. This season has marked a critical first step.
Once Louis van Gaal's protege, Thomas Muller struggled to adapt to life under Jupp Heynckes last season and lost his starting role in the playmaker position at Bayern as Toni Kroos established himself as the trainer's preferred choice. He scored in the Champions League final, however, and the downfall of Arjen Robben last April and May led Heynckes to give Muller a second chance in the fall.
This season, Muller has turned around his fortunes entirely. The 23-year-old took a starting role on the right wing in August, and hasn't given up his spot in Heynckes' starting XI all season. He's scored 12 goals and given as many assists in 24 Bundesliga matches, and his tally in all competitions for club and country stands at 21 scored and 18 set up in 47 appearances.
Muller's class is often underrated due to his less-than-dazzling style of play, but his productivity cannot be denied. Always a big-game player, he scored in the Superpokal against Dortmund and assisted Toni Kroos' opener against the defending champions in December. He was man-of-the-match against Arsenal at the Emirates and scored a critical second goal against Juventus in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinals tie.
The likes of Gotze and Draxler may have the potential and talent to exceed Muller by the time they reach his age, but based on performance this season, the Bayern man sets the standard for the Bundesliga's U23 players.