Predicting World Cup 2014's 5 Young Sensations
It is now less than a year until the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and international managers are looking to ensure their place in South America next summer as the race for qualification hots up.
The 20th incarnation of the tournament will return to the scene of the 1950s finals, when the heavily fancied hosts failed in their quest for a first success, being beaten in the final by rivals Uruguay 2-1 at the Maracana. Since then of course the Selecao have gone on to win the trophy on five separate occasions.
Over time, with the opening up of world borders and the onset of mass globalisation, the World Cup has changed. Whereas in previous eras players arrived as unknowns and came from seemingly nowhere to become international sensations overnight, that is not the case anymore.
With television and the internet making international parameters ever smaller, it is becoming increasingly more unlikely that a largely unheard of player takes the tournament by storm.
Nonetheless, that doesn't mean that young players can't make a name for themselves at international football's premier competition—it's just that we're already largely aware of their talents beforehand.
With all that being said, here's an attempt at predicting the five young sensations who may take next summer's tournament and make one hell of a splash, truly announcing themselves and their talent on the world stage.
Players must be 21 or under by the time the tournament roles around—thus the likes of Mario Goetze, Isco and Bruno Martins Indi are considered too old.
Players selected are expected to either start for their team or make noticeable impact appearances for their country as a vital 12th man—therefore the likes of Julian Draxler, Bernard, Lucas Digne and Adam Maher miss the cut.
Paul Pogba (France)
The imposing French midfielder's development in the last 12 months has truly been something to behold, with Manchester United's loss very much proving to be Juventus's gain.
A dominant physical specimen, the 20-year-old mixes attacking intent—intelligent passing, fierce shooting and powerful running—with a solid defensive game—positional awareness, strong tackling—that makes him perhaps Les Bleus' most complete midfielder since World Cup winner Patrick Vieira.
2012-13 saw Pogba become an invaluable 12th man to Antonio Conte and the Italian champions, making 28 appearances in Serie A and scoring five goals. He has continued in a similar manner during the new campaign, with an outstanding performance in the Italian Super Cup win over Lazio and an imperious showing in the recent league encounter between the same two sides (a performance which include a delicious assist for Arturo Vidal's opening goal).
On the international scene, Pogba's burgeoning reputation continues to grow. March saw two impressive performances at senior level against Georgia and reigning world champions Spain, although he was sent off in the latter.
Additionally, Il Polpo Paul—"Paul the Octopus," as christened by his Juventus teammates—led the French under-20 side to success at this summer's Under-20 World Cup, winning the Golden Ball for best player in the process.
Next summer will find Pogba battling with the likes of Blaise Matuidi, Etienne Capoue, Moussa Sissoko and Geoffrey Kondogbia for two spots at the heart of Didier Deschamps French midfield.
However, after another year of regular first-team exposure in Turin, expect Pogba to not only be first choice in the centre of Les Bleus midfield, but for the powerhouse to be one of, if not the, brightest young performers in Brazil next summer.
Juan Fernando Quintero (Colombia)
While Pogba was the best player at this summer's Under-20 World Cup, the player who got bums off seats most often was without doubt the wonderful Colombian No. 10 Juan Fernando Quintero.
Technically outstanding, the left-footed playmaker was nothing short of magnificent for the South American side, with his vision, intelligent movement, explosive shooting and ability to dictate proceedings ensuring his quality shone throughout.
Those qualities, mixed with his low centre of gravity, acceleration and ability to weave through the tightest of spaces with intricate dribbling, saw Quintero named most valuable player at the 2013 South American Youth Championships, won by Colombia.
That success subsequently qualified them for the World Cup, but unfortunately for Quintero and other impressive teammates such as defender Jherson Vergara, their lack of a quality No. 9 meant that they fell to South Korea in the last 16.
Such displays at junior international level and a loan spell in Serie A last season with Pescara—where he scored just once in 17 appearance but impressed with his overall game—meant that Quintero looked nothing short of a bargain when a transfer to Portuguese champions FC Porto was announced in July for a meagre £4.4 million (according to Transfermarkt).
Quintero currently stands on the fringes of the senior national XI. with three senior caps to his name for Los Cafeteros, but he will be looking to add to that number in the build up to next summer's tournament.
Signed by Porto as a replacement for James Rodriguez, his international colleague, if Quintero can enjoy a standout season with he may well either supplant or complement his predecessor with the national team at Brazil 2014.
Son Heung-Min (South Korea)
With their place at next year's competition already assured, South Korea manager Hing Myung-Bo has the 2013-14 season to figure out his best lineup, having seen the Taeguk Warriors qualify only on goal difference (from Uzbekistan) and having seen them drop to 56 in the FIFA rankings.
Key to their hopes will be the 21-year-old forward Son Heung-Min, who made his international debut in 2010 and this summer completed an £8.8 million move to one of Germany's Champions League representatives Bayer Leverkusen.
Playing in a number of roles across the front line, Son's mixture of intelligent movement, acceleration, dribbling and composed finishing marked him out as one of the Bundesliga's top young talents. As such his arrival at the BayArena has been seen as a rather astute piece of business; two goals in five appearances mark a decent enough start.
These next 12 months for Son are all about performing under the weight of expectation. How will he react to his move to Leverkusen and can he lead them to relative success in the Bundesliga and/or Champions League?
While at international level, can he both improve his record (two goals in 16 caps) and make himself an integral starter and lead with his quality next summer?
He did so at Hamburg, and the young Korean will likely do so both for his new club and his country in the coming year.
Lucas Moura (Brazil)
The 20-year-old Paris Saint-Germain winger is a prodigious talent, having already picked up 30 caps for the Selecao with a style reminiscent of World Cup winning legends from yesteryear such as Garrincha and Jairzinho.
Technically, Lucas is very gifted, wonderfully fleet of foot capable of slaloming his way past full-backs with the dexterity of his dribbling. Nevertheless, it is his supreme physical gifts—namely his running power and devastating speed—which make him such a fearsome opponent, marking him out as a player with the potential to define tight matches.
In 10 Ligue 1 matches last season, Lucas picked up five assists, showcasing his ability to play the killer pass, which is likely to only improve as he gathers more experience. A capable, vicious crosser he certainly is, but a return of 33 goals in 128 appearances for Sao Paulo (all competitions) during his three years with the Brazilian club also points to his goalscoring ability.
At present, his verticality and directness mark him out as a star in the making and offer Luiz Felipe Scolari something different to his other attacking options. While Neymar, Hulk and Oscar—Scolari's starting three attacking midfielders in his 4-2-3-1 formation—all like to roam into central areas, Lucas' more linear approach to staying wide and offering a direct approach down the right flank could prove very important next summer.
Moreover, given Hulk's generally disappointing Confederations Cup, the next 10 months are huge for Lucas Moura: Impress, and at the age of 21 he could find himself a starter for the five-time world champions as they head into their home World Cup.
And if he does get such an opportunity, he could well etch his name into his countries famous history.
Mateo Kovacic (Croatia)
The second half of 2012-13 was a rough one for supporters of Inter Milan, but in the midst of the ashes which were Andrea Stramaccioni's last few months at the helm came the rising phoenix of Mateo Kovacic.
Arriving from Dinamo Zagreb for £9.6 million on transfer deadline day in January, Kovacic would go on to show his undoubted quality and keep his head while those around him lost theirs, as Inter's season went belly up and they finished outside the European places in a disappointing ninth position.
Often occupying a deep-lying playmaking role—in contrast to the more attacking position he often appeared in for his former club—Kovacic has a composure that belies his tender years, the happy knack of keeping possession and an ability to play the killer ball when it presents itself. Perhaps his best ability, however, is his quality to break through midfield with the ball at his feet, swiftly turning defence into attack.
Such tendencies have led to the precocious Kovacic taking a place in the Croatia squad during 2013 and his subsequent winning of four caps—with manager Igor Stimac showing no qualms in handing him his debut against bitter rivals Serbia. That he performed with considerable aplomb was testament to both his quality and his temperament.
Croatia currently find themselves in the midst of a tight qualification battle with a much-vaunted Belgium side for automatic qualification to next year's finals. With excellent talent at their disposal such as Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Darijo Srna and Kovacic they more than have a chance.
And if the Vatreni do indeed secure a place, whether automatically or through the play-offs, then Kovacic's talents will further unveil themselves and to a far wider audience. Given his quality, only expect to be impressed.
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