7 Unknown Stars Ready to Take World Football by Storm
World football is already blessed with a plethora of stars and soon-to-be stars, but that doesn't mean that we should stop looking for the next potential football superstar.
Especially when there's so many players out there.
Some of them you'll have heard of and will be keeping an eye on; some of them don't attract as much attention and might have slipped through unnoticed so far.
This article focuses on the latter of those groups, with seven relatively unknown players mentioned here who could well be about to take the football world by storm very soon.
Read on to see who those players are.
Dennis Praet, RSC Anderlecht
We kick this list off with Anderlecht star Dennis Praet, who was one of the club's best performers in the most recent season. And having already chalked up experience in the club's recent Champions League campaign, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder is seemingly primed for a big season in the year to come.
For his age, Praet is an incredibly calm footballer. He has excellent vision—both for himself and his teammates—and doesn't ever seem to be rushed when he's on the ball. Even when he is under pressure, his superb technique and classy first touch often take him out of trouble and allow him to go from being in defensive positions to attacking ones in a matter of moments.
Question marks still exist about his finishing, with Praet showcasing both the good and the bad of his work inside the box last season with the Belgian champions.
Yet even then, his finishing—as shown in this video—is still very good indeed.
As long as Praet can continue to chalk up regular experience, he should shine very brightly next season. Anderlecht have paid him very well so that he will remain in the Jupiler Pro League for at least the next 12 months—and that should be enough time to allow him to truly show his skills.
Even with all the world-class options that Belgium have in midfield (Moussa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne), Praet is knocking on the door of the senior team and could very well be a surprise inclusion in their 2014 World Cup depending on his 2013-14 season.
Probably my pick to be the breakout player of the year.
Adrien Rabiot, Paris Saint-Germain
Adrien Rabiot played just one Champions League fixture for Paris Saint-Germain last season before going on loan with Toulouse for the remainder of the year.
But it was definitely a performance worth remembering.
PSG thumped Dinamo Zagreb 4-0 with superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic registering four assists, but the forgotten performance on the night was that produced by Rabiot. The 18-year-old midfielder worked tirelessly against a Zagreb team that actually won the possession battle on the night—winning the ball back an incredible 11 times with six tackles, five interceptions and just one foul against.
And that came in the second minute of injury time.
Rabiot showed similar defensive prowess for the remainder of the Ligue 1 season with Toulouse, averaging 3.0 tackles and 2.6 interceptions, but he also showcased some of his attacking talents—registering three assists and a number of other goalscoring opportunities.
His final performance of the season against Montpellier (where he registered two assists in 11 minutes) showed just how expansive and potentially deadly his passing game can be. Either in the air or on the ground, Rabiot has the skills to be a world-class central midfielder and one that can definitely leave his mark in both France and Europe—should he be given the opportunities next season.
Rabiot will have to compete with the likes of Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti for a central midfield berth at PSG, but he's more than capable of owning that spot in years to come.
Max Kruse, Borussia Mönchengladbach
His reputation has grown over the past few months given his appearances for the German national team, but there are many football fans out there who aren't familiar yet with the name Max Kruse. And if that's you, all I can say is that Kruse is definitely a name worth getting to know.
Kruse was very good last year as part of a rather surprising Freiburg team, netting 11 goals and registering eight assists in the 2012-13 season. However, when you factor in as well that the vast majority of his performances last season were played in a position that was not his preference—as a left winger or deep-lying left forward where he can cut in—then those numbers become even more incredible.
The 25-year-old was played on the left-hand side three times last season; Freiburg didn't lose any of those games, and Kruse scored a goal and got three assists.
Kruse has moved on over the summer transfer window to Borussia Monchengladbach, where he'll likely partner Patrick Herrmann and Luuk de Jong at the top of the attack. That trio have the potential to be three of the Bundesliga's best next season and could very well earn Monchengladbach a league finish higher than the respectable eighth that they finished in 2012-13.
Daley Blind, Ajax
Ajax certainly aren't short of big-name players at the moment, with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Viktor Fischer and Siem de Jong attracting plenty of media attention.
However, one of their best (and certainly most improved) players from last season continues to be overlooked and undervalued—which could lead to a breakout performance from 23-year-old Daley Blind next season in both the Eredivisie and the UEFA Champions League.
Blind has grown from a hesitant, out-of-position defender to a courageous left-back who thoroughly deserved his recent contract extension. He was twice voted in Voetbal International's Team of the Month and is now a guaranteed starter in Holland's under-21 national team.
His average numbers last season—2.9 tackles, 2.4 interceptions, 61.8 passes at 86 percent completion—are very impressive and ranked him as one of the Eredivisie's best defenders. If he can continue to grow and improve on those averages next season like he has done over the past few seasons, Blind could very well grow into one of world football's most solid left-backs.
Blind's progression won't happen overnight like some other stars on this list, but he's certainly on the right track and is definitely one to watch for in years to come.
Amin Affane, Energie Cottbus
Former Chelsea player Amin Affane is certainly a long way from being the breakout star that he threatened to be at the start of 2012. And while there are no guarantees that he'll ever be able to deliver on the potential that he seemingly offered, there's little doubting that he will be a big improver in 2013.
Having won the FA Youth Cup in 2012 with the Blues' under-18 team, Affane found himself on the verge of possible first-team football with the West Londoners. However, following a crazy summer transfer window that saw the Blues bring a slew of new midfielders, Affane found himself unlikely to ever get a starting spot—hence the decision to leave on loan to Eredivisie side Roda JC.
Yet not even that went well for him, with his attitude and behavior forcing Roda to cut his loan spell short and send him back to Chelsea—who then decided to let him leave.
Affane was picked up earlier this transfer window by 2. Bundesliga side Energie Cottbus, and while it's unusual to suggest that such a player could be a breakout star in the next few years, the Swedish international is perhaps the exception to that rule.
The 19-year-old definitely has the talent to succeed in Germany, and given how far he's fallen, he will no doubt see just how important it is to bring his attitude in check.
If he can deal with those personal demons, then he should thrive at Energie Cottbus and potentially even earn himself either promotion or a transfer next season into first division German football. And with the reputation of the Bundesliga over the past few seasons thanks to Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, that could well be enough to bring the spotlight back on Affane once again.
It's a long process, but certainly one that could happen for a talent like Affane.
Hiroshi Kiyotake, Nurnberg
Having rejected interest from Aston Villa (according to The Daily Mail), Nurnberg will be the glad recipient of Hiroshi Kiyotake's services next season. Which, given the strong season that the Japanese international just had in the Bundesliga, was a very shrewd piece of business indeed.
Kiyotake could very well be the next Japanese star to break out in the Bundesliga, and it could very well happen as early as the upcoming 2013-14 season.
Kiyotake scored four goals and registered 11 assists last season, but given the lack of class that was in Nurnbeg, that assist tally could very well have been in the 20-plus range. The 23-year-old created an average of 2.7 goalscoring chances per game last season, which as you can see below, rank him amongst some of the best playmakers in football—just without the assists.
- Mesut Ozil (13 assists)—2.9 chances created per game
- Juan Mata (12 assists)—2.7 chances created per game
- Andres Iniesta (16 assists)—1.4 chances created per game
- Hiroshi Kiyotake (10 assists)—2.7 chances created per game.
In fact, Kiyotake's chance creating was so good that he created more chances last season than the likes of Mario Gotze, Jesus Navas, Jack Wilshere, Thomas Muller, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic did in their respective domestic seasons.
If Nurnberg can get their attack going—and perhaps bring in a world-class striker—Kiyotake would instantly become one of the most recognized playmakers in world football. Alternatively, if the Japanese international opts to move in the next year or two to a club that does have some premier strikers, then he would also finally start to get the praise that he deserves for his passing game.
Tonny Vilhena, Feyenoord
Last but not least is Feyenoord midfielder Tonny Vilhena, and as far as exciting prospects go, Vilhena is definitely one you're going to want to keep your eye on.
Despite being just 18 years of age, Vilhena has already chalked up over 30 domestic appearances and 18 appearances for the Dutch junior national team.
The central playmaker might have only registered four goals and one assist in his most recent Eredivisie season, but that doesn't mean for one minute that he's a mediocre midfielder. Anyone who's watched the tape on him will know that's definitely not the case.
Vilhena's passing game is world-class, while his through balls are some of the best in Europe. He has great poise and timing on the ball as well as excellent vision for someone still so young.
There's plenty of growing still to be done in his game, but with a great ability to read the game (both in attack and defense), Vilhena could very well be one of the most underrated stars in world football at the moment. Add another world-class winger or striker around him, and he could very well flourish even further than what he already has done in the Dutch competition.
Vilhena will be a world-class footballer in the not-too-distant future.
Agree? Disagree? Other unknown players that deserve mentioning?
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All statistics provided via WhoScored and Transfermarkt.