In this article, Bleacher Report’s Ed Dove profiles 10 youngsters who may be central to the end of season run-in at their clubs.
Once again, this year, the footballing world has witnessed a number of breakthrough stars; players who have come from nowhere to cement themselves as fixtures at top-level clubs, or figures who have long been viewed as potential superstars finally adding those crucial extra layers to their game.
However, while it is possible for many footballers to impress in a team that is doing well and prospering, or to emerge as a substitute in a contest that is already won and bang a few goals in, the season’s close brings its own pressures and its own unique demands.
Be it fighting for promotion, for European qualification, or to seal progress in a continental cup or the initiative in a title race, these 10 stars have an enormous few weeks ahead of them, and will surely be required to demonstrate their qualities under the kind of pressure they have rarely encountered before.
While Bayern Munich have rightly received plaudits right across the board this season, it is perhaps the development of David Alaba that has impressed me most.
The young player—once apparently destined for a central midfield berth—has slowly transformed into one of the most promising fullbacks in the European game.
It is a shift that makes sense; while Bayern have a surplus of promising and established players in the middle of the park, weaknesses at fullback have seen Phillip Lahm shifted from pillar to post in order to compensate.
That need happen no more, and Alaba’s progress has seen Lahm remain on the right and Jerome Boateng deployed in his favoured position in the centre of defence.
The young Austrian has all the tools to develop into one of the finest in his position; he anticipates the game intelligently and perceptively, has the physical capabilities to contribute in attack and has demonstrated his effectiveness in the tackle—Opta recorded a 75 percent tackle success rate in the first 10 months of last year.
Alaba has been an established feature in Bayern’s record-breaking title-winning side, and will doubtless play a crucial role in their attempt to win a fifth Champions League.
Despite all of the controversy and dissatisfaction that has surrounded Chelsea this season, young Nigerian forward Victor Moses has been a consistently lethal prospect and has been a major positive for Blues fans.
Arriving at the club from Wigan in the summer as a raw forward talent with searing pace and explosive dribbling, Moses has matured to emerge as one of Africa’s finest strikers. Few in the continent can ignite a crowd and transform a performance quite like Moses.
The forward has already won silverware this season, having been a key figure in Nigeria’s magnificent run to the continental championship in the African Cup of Nations. The youngster was a key component in this team, and demonstrated his improving maturity, particularly in games against Ethiopia and Mali.
Chelsea still have everything to play for, as they compete for both a Champions League spot in the Premier League, and a place in the Europa League final.
Moses’s youthful exuberance, and the explosive impact he can make on a game, may well make the difference between this season being a success or a disappointment for the West Londoners.
It’s sometimes hard to believe that Raphael Varane is still only 19. While bright, young centrebacks occasionally emerge possessing all of the raw physical abilities to rise to the top of their game—see England international Steven Caulker—Varane plays with the calmness, the elegance and the composure of a seasoned veteran at times.
And that’s not to deny his physical prowess—Varane is both quick and strong, and has long been primed to develop into one of Europe’s finest defenders.
This season has been a breakthrough year, with the youngster consolidating himself in the Real Madrid side and also making his France debut, starting against both Georgia and Spain in recent internationals.
It seems inevitable that Varane will go on to become the cornerstone of France’s defence, while in the meantime he can concentrate on Real Madrid’s assault on the Champions League. The Spanish giants’ semifinal against Borussia Dortmund may well make demands on the youngster, the likes of which he has rarely faced before.
Iconic centreback Carles Puyol isn’t getting any younger. Now 35, I’m not saying the old warrior is done, but it would perhaps be wise for Barcelona to begin looking towards a post-Puyol future.
The captain’s recent injuries have forced the Catalonians into trialling different combinations in the heart of the defence, and while Javier Mascherano is rapidly improving in a deeper position, they may need to seek a defined long-term solution going forward.
La Masia graduate Marc Bartra is the man most likely to emerge as Puyol’s successor. The youngster entered the fray against PSG in Barca’s recent Champions League quarterfinal, and took his chance with both hands.
The defender was assured and composed, and appeared to cope admirably with the increased tension and heightened pressure of the major occasion.
It may concern some that Tito Vilanova opted to employ Brazilian fullback Adriano alongside Gerard Pique at the beginning of the game, rather than giving Bartra a start, but it seems almost inevitable that the young Spaniard will receive a greater opportunity in the near future.
The production line looks like it might have churned out another starlet to slip seamlessly into Barcelona’s starting XI, and maybe 15 years from now a talented young writer will be beginning a paragraph with the words 'Iconic centreback Marc Bartra'...
Kurt Zouma is one of those defenders I described in slide 1, a youngster blessed with all of the physical capacities required for one to excel in his position. The early indication is that Zouma also has the mental and technical ability to emerge as a top centreback.
Even though he is at a markedly earlier stage of his development than Varane, Zouma, like his compatriot, has impressed many by the ease at which he has adapted to regular first-team outings this term.
A defensive linchpin for Saint Etienne in Ligue 1, Zouma has been one of the key figures in the Stephanois’ improved league performance this season. They currently look a good bet to challenge for an unlikely Champions League position, and enjoyed a terrific unbeaten run of 12 games earlier in the year.
A regular in France’s youth teams, it looks likely that Zouma will enjoy a future in the national side, as long as he can continue his progress.
I am always open about my love and adoration for Tottenham Hotspur, and few were more disheartened than me when Emmanuel Adebayor’s penalty kick flew so hopelessly over the bar in Basel.
Spurs were eliminated from a Quarterfinal tie that had, at first glace, seemed eminently winnable, and another European journey ended in disappointment.
But amid the heartache and anguish of that evening, the professional part of me was secretly delighted by the progress of Mohamed Salah.
Even though he tore apart Kyles Walker and Naughton over two legs, I was profoundly encouraged by the progress of Egypt’s golden son.
The Pharaohs are one of the national sides that I write about more than most, and I, like many, was concerned that the recent upheaval and tragedy that had fallen on the nation—along with the gentle withdrawal of the triumphant generation of the Noughties—would have spelt the end of Egyptian success.
Salah makes me imagine that the opposite might actually be the case, and the young forward looks primed to figurehead a fresh new era for the North African side.
Similarly, for Basel, Salah looks to be a key player, and I will relish watching Chelsea’s defence try and deal with the young Pharaoh as he hopes to guide Basel on their way to their first ever continental honour.
At times over the last nine years, Petr Cech has looked irreplaceable between the sticks for Chelsea. The question of his succession is unlikely to provoke a headache at Stamford Bridge, however, as within their ranks, the Blues look to have an ideal replacement lined up.
Since signing for the West London side back in 2011, Belgian stopper Thibaut Courtois has yet to feature for Chelsea. Instead, he has been afforded regular first-team football through a loan move.
While this is a regular procedure for many and almost any young player arriving at a club, Courtois hasn’t been cast off down the leagues or back to his homeland, he has been developing his game at Spanish giants Atletico Madrid.
Currently sitting third in La Liga, only three points behind local rivals and eternal neighbours Real Madrid, Atletico have finally bridged the gap between the ‘top two’ and the rest. With over 10 points separating them from fourth-placed Real Sociedad, it looks a safe bet that both Madrid sides will be featuring in the Champions League group stage next term.
And how crucial a figure has Courtois been to their drastic improvement; the Colchoneros have the best defensive record in the league, having only conceded 25 goals in 30 games to date.
A huge portion of this record should be attributed to Courtois, who has been the league’s outstanding stopper this year. He himself broke a club record after going 820 minutes without conceding a goal.
When the Belgian finally does return to Stamford Bridge, the question may not be whether the club have an eventual successor to Cech, but whether the successor should take over the goalkeeping reins straight away!
Recent rumours have linked Mario Gotze to the Premier League, and to EPL holders Manchester City. Indeed, it is not hard to believe that the Sky Blues have a keen interest in this prodigal talent and have taken quite a shine to the breathtaking German youngster.
Unlike some of the others on this list, Gotze is a genuine bona fide, established star. Still only 20, he has already won 22 caps for the German national side, facing some intense competition along the way, and is closing in on 100 appearances for club side Borussia Dortmund.
He is already in possession of two Bundesliga winners' medals, and has been identified as one of the finest talents ever produced by his nation.
It’s certainly not shabby progress!
While Dortmund have been outclassed in the German top flight this season, it could be suggested that Gotze’s greatest chance of greatness yet is waiting just ahead of him.
Having been drawn against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal, Dortmund fans can be under no illusion as to the gargantuan task that faces them in the weeks ahead.
But, with Gotze firing on all cylinders, and ably assisted by his co-creator-in-chief Marco Reus, I sense a quiet optimism on the part of last year’s German champs.
Jonathan Williams may not have a name as illustrious as some of the others on this list, but the youngster is proving himself to be one of the finest prospects in British football.
Crystal Palace have an excellent record of producing young talent, and the club’s stretched resources often mean that young players have been blooded in the first team earlier than they would have been at other sides.
The latest starlet to emerge from an academy that is responsible for the likes of Nathaniel Clyne, Wayne Routledge, John Salako, Ian Wright and, latterly, Wilfried Zaha, this has been Williams’s breakthrough season for both club and country.
An attacking midfielder, he has been a major contributor in Palace’s transformation from relegation candidates to play-off hopefuls. Last season he managed 14 appearances for the side, despite being struck by injury, but this year his fortunes have improved, and he has already featured 22 times in the league alone.
March was a major month for the 19-year-old as he made his Wales debut. After replacing Gareth Bale in victory over Scotland, he then went on to deliver a Man of the Match performance against Croatia at home.
While Williams and Wales will surely be a fascinating narrative to follow over the years, the youngster’s immediate concerns come in the Championship, as he looks to propel Palace into the promised land.
I close with Adem Ljajic, the most controversial, but perhaps the most intriguing, of all the characters on this list.
Unlike many of the other players featured, Ljajic is not in the midst of a barn-storming, record-breaking, award-winning season. In fact, he has, at times, been underwhelming and inconsistent. 5 goals in 22 appearances isn’t as impressive return as he’d have hoped for, and in truth, he perhaps isn’t the man many Viola fans would want to be relying on in their hour of need.
However, in a squad beset with injuries, and shorn of the likes of Stevan Jovetic, Giuseppe Rossi, Matias Fernandez, Luca Toni, Manuel Pasqual and Stefan Savic, other figures need to step up to the plate.
And Ljajic is capable of excelling—in a squad laced with creativity, the 21-year-old is one man who could provide the inspiration and the impulse. He did so recently against Milan, as his darting run prompted a foul from Nocerino, allowing the Serbian to convert from the penalty spot.
Having finished 11th, ninth and 13th in recent seasons, few expected Fiorentina to pull up any trees this season. The fact that with seven games to go they sit in fourth place is testament to the team spirit and desire fostered within the side.
Their recent comeback victory against Milan, despite having only 10 men, was evidence of their communal belief in the destiny that may well await them.
To push them over the finishing line, and to keep them above close rivals such as Lazio, Internazionale and, to a lesser extent, Roma, they may need that spark or that extra ounce of creativity to seal qualification.
Perhaps Ljajic, their enigmatic No. 22, might be the man to see them through.