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La Liga's Top 20 Up-and-Coming Stars

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2014

La Liga's Top 20 Up-and-Coming Stars

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    Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

    With the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil winding down, the attention of the football world will quickly revert to club level, as the various domestic leagues around Europe get ready to commence for the 2014-15 season.

    Owning the champions of both the continent's cup competitions from last season, La Liga continues to stand as Europe's dominant league ahead of the Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A.

    Furthermore, La Liga is perhaps unrivalled in terms of up-and-coming talent, with waves of emerging youngsters continuing to prove their worth with clubs around Spain.

    Across the following slides, we examine the top 20 of those rising La Liga stars. 

     

    All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com and Squawka.

Criteria

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    Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

    For players to be considered for this list, they had to meet three primary criteria.

    Firstly, players had to be 23 years of age or under, ensuring this list focussed on the most youthful talent La Liga has to offer.

    Secondly, players must be set to compete in La Liga for the 2014-15 season, or at least be still residing at their La Liga club amid transfer speculation (Antoine Griezmann). Consequently, stars such as Alvaro Morata (moving to Juventus), Thibaut Courtois (returning to Chelsea), Oliver Torres (on loan at Porto), Cristian Tello (set to move to Porto on loan) and Suso (returning to Liverpool) were all ruled out. 

    Lastly, players must be deemed yet to reach their full potential, meaning that even star names could feature, provided that significant room for improvement remains realistic.  

Aymeric Laporte

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    Denis Doyle/Getty Images

    Club: Athletic Bilbao

    Age: 20

    Position: Centre-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 35 appearances; 2 goals; 76 tackles; won 61 percent of aerial duels

    Aymeric Laporte impressed many in 2013-14, holding down a critical central-defensive position in Athletic Bilbao's brilliant season. 

    Forming a strong partnership with Carlos Gurpegi, the talented Frenchman displayed his strong combative skills all season at Estadio San Mames, quickly rising to prominence amid his club's surge into the upper echelons of the league. 

    In addition to his strong defensive work, Laporte is also a threat at set pieces, and in the coming years could form a brilliant partnership with Raphael Varane for France. 

Leo Baptistao

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    Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

    Club: Atletico Madrid

    Age: 21

    Position: Forward

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 22 appearances; 1 goal; 2 assists; 17 chances created

    Although he endured a subdued season in 2013-14, Leo Baptistao is still among La Liga's most promising prospects after his breakout season with Rayo Vallecano in 2012-13. 

    With seven goals and six assists that year for Los Franjirrojos, the Brazilian earned himself a move to Atletico Madrid to back up Diego Costa and David Villa.

    However, limited opportunities presented themselves at the Vicente Calderon amid the excellence of Costa in particular, seeing the young forward loaned to Real Betis in January. 

    In a quirky stat, Baptistao became the first-ever La Liga player to win the league and be relegated in the same season, according to Inside Spanish Football.

Marc Bartra

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Club: Barcelona

    Age: 23

    Position: Centre-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 20 appearances; 56 tackles; 57 interceptions; 71 clearances

    In a difficult season for Barcelona in 2013-14, Marc Bartra was a source of optimism for La Blaugrana in the centre of defence.

    With injury sidelining Carles Puyol for much of the season, the inexperienced Spaniard performed admirably alongside Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, establishing himself as one of the league's most prominent centre-backs.

    A strong tackler and comfortable on the ball, the 23-year-old only needs to add greater physicality and aerial prowess to his game to continue his rise in La Liga in 2014-15.

    Impressively, Bartra finished the season with a rating of 7.39 per WhoScored.com—a figure in the top 20 of all La Liga players. 

Inigo Martinez

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Club: Real Sociedad

    Age: 23

    Position: Centre-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 35 appearances; 2 goals; 206 clearances; 64 interceptions

    Already recognised as one of Europe's finest emerging defenders, Inigo Martinez is yet another of Real Sociedad's youthful stars. 

    Starting all but three of his team's La Liga matches in 2013-14, the 23-year-old impressed with his ability to read the play and break up attacks with timely interceptions. 

    Despite standing at just 181 cm, Martinez is also surprisingly strong in the air and carries a resemblance in stature and style to Carles Puyol. 

    In the characteristic Spanish way, the defender is also comfortable in possession, completing 82.2 percent of passes, which is a strong figure given his inclination to regularly look for the longer option.

Sergi Roberto

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    Club: Barcelona

    Age: 22

    Position: Central Midfielder

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 17 appearances; 89 percent pass accuracy; 5 chances created

    Being compared with Xavi, an all-time Barcelona great, may be a touch overzealous at this point, but Sergi Roberto has already displayed his brilliant playmaking skills in his time with the Catalan giants. 

    Technically sound with immense poise, the 22-year-old looks to be one of Barcelona's brightest talents as the club begins to look for the exuberance of youth after a disappointing season in 2013-14.  

    Indeed, Roberto may begin to see opportunities fall his way during the upcoming La Liga season, given the departure of Cesc Fabregas and the expected absence of Xavi. 

Mateo Musacchio

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    Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

    Club: Villarreal

    Age: 23

    Position: Centre-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 32 appearances; 1 goal; 2 assists; 76 tackles; 108 interceptions

    Villarreal president Fernando Roig insisted back in December that Mateo Musacchio would only be sold if his €50 million buyout clause was met, according to Sky Sports, amid interest from Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona and Napoli.

    While there was some skepticism regarding that claim, the 23-year-old is among the most sought-after defenders in Europe and is a reported target for Atletico Madrid.

    Although Musacchio isn't commanding in stature at 180 cm, he's an extremely effective ball-winner and very athletic, helping him to be one of the most influential defenders in Spain. 

    With a move to a big club seemingly approaching, expect the Villarreal star to continue his rise in 2014-15.

Martin Montoya

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Club: Barcelona

    Age: 23

    Position: Right-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 13 appearances; 2 assists; 42 tackles; won 53 percent of duels

    Despite playing second-fiddle to Dani Alves for most of the season, Martin Montoya proved in limited playing time in 2013-14 that he's one of the most promising full-backs in La Liga. 

    Another product of the Barcelona academy, the 22-year-old has been a prominent component of Spain's vastly successful sides at the youth level in Europe.

    Surprisingly strong in the air at just 174 cm tall, Montoya is an excellent passer of the ball and could push to become the starting right-back for La Blaugrana in 2014-15 under new manager Luis Enrique.

Rafinha

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    Denis Doyle/Getty Images

    Club: Barcelona

    Age: 21

    Position: Attacking Midfielder

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 32 appearances; 4 goals; 5 assists; 76 successful dribbles; won 60 percent of duels

    Having risen through the Barcelona youth ranks, Rafinha was sent to Celta Vigo on loan in 2013-14 with great success. 

    A vastly talented attacking midfielder, the 21-year-old became the key offensive ingredient for Os Celticos last season, using his brilliant ball control and dribbling ability to trouble opposing defences. 

    Best used centrally, Rafinha can also be deployed on the wing—a position from which he scored three times for Celta Vigo. 

    And after switching his international allegiance from Spain to his native Brazil, it shouldn't be long before the promising Barcelona star features for the Selecao. 

Gerard Deulofeu

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Club: Barcelona

    Age: 20

    Position: Attacking Midfielder

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: N/A

    Gerard Deulofeu has returned to the Nou Camp for the upcoming La Liga season after a successful loan spell at Everton in the Premier League in 2013-14. 

    A gifted attacking midfielder, the 20-year-old was included in Spain's 19-man squad for the pre-World Cup friendly with Bolivia; Vicente del Bosque recognising the youngster's vast talent. 

    Most effective on the right, Deulofeu is a brilliant dribbler who looks to run at opposing defenders with speed and agility—qualities that excited crowds at Goodison Park.

    Of course, first-team opportunities may be limited for the midfielder in 2014-15 at Barcelona, but he's still one of the most eye-catching talents to watch among La Liga's emerging players. 

Ruben Pardo

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Club: Real Sociedad

    Age: 21

    Position: Defensive Midfielder

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 35 appearances; 3 goals; 8 assists; 29 chances created

    One of a number of emerging talents at Real Sociedad, Ruben Pardo was an impressive midfield presence for Jagoba Arrasate's team in 2013-14. 

    Typically starting as his team's deepest midfielder, the 21-year-old excelled as primarily a deep-lying playmaker for the Basque club, utilising his smart passing skills to pick apart opposing teams. 

    Of course, the defensive side to Pardo's game could improve, particularly his tackling and work in the air. But the Spaniard has been compared to Real Madrid star Xabi Alonso, with his attacking capacity from a deep position causing him to stand out above others. 

Alberto Moreno

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    Toni Rodriguez/Associated Press

    Club: Sevilla

    Age: 22

    Position: Left-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 29 appearances; 3 goals; 73 interceptions19 chances created

    At just 22 years of age, Sevilla's Alberto Moreno appears to be Jordi Alba's long-term understudy for the left-back position in the Spanish national team. 

    Indeed, the young defender shares many of Alba's qualities, with his pace up the length of the sideline enhanced by his strong defensive contribution, which saw him become an integral player for Los Rojiblancos in 2013-14. 

    Garnering interest from Premier League clubs such as Liverpool, Moreno looks to be a prototypical modern full-back, capable of stretching defences and picking out forwards with crosses as well as being able to break up the play near his own goal.

Paco Alcacer

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    Alberto Saiz/Associated Press

    Club: Valencia

    Age: 20

    Position: Forward

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 23 appearances; 6 goals; 2 assists; 17 chances created

    There wasn't a lot to say about Paco Alcacer in the opening stages of the 2013-14 La Liga season, with two of his three goals before the new year coming in Los Che's Europa League campaign.

    But a blistering run in the second half of the year propelled the Valencia forward to prominence around Europe.

    Four goals and an assist in three games against Espanyol, Barcelona and Real Betis in January and February rapidly showcased the 20-year-old's talent, with further goals against Granada and Athletic Bilbao solidifying his growing reputation. 

    Then, in Valencia's incredible second-leg comeback against Basel in the Europa League, Alcacer bagged a stunning hat-trick in his team's 5-0 rout of the Swiss champions. 

Raphael Varane

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    Club: Real Madrid

    Age: 21

    Position: Centre-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 14 appearances; 47 clearances; won 58 percent of duels

    Among the most talented young defenders in Europe, Real Madrid's Raphael Varane looks to be a genuine star in the making.

    At just 21 years of the age, the Frenchman only seems to lack strength in one-on-one contests—something that should be rectified as he matures. 

    Quick across the ground, composed on the ball and an elite passer, the 21-year-old should prove to be a worthy successor to the likes of Pepe and Sergio Ramos in the centre of Los Blancos' defence. 

    And although Varane made limited league appearances in 2013-14, his consistent presence in the French national side at such a young age is an obvious indicator of his talent. 

Daniel Carvajal

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    Denis Doyle/Getty Images

    Club: Real Madrid

    Age: 22

    Position: Right-Back

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 31 appearances; 2 goals; 2 assists; 35 chances created; won 57 percent of aerial duels

    After an extremely successful stint in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen in 2012-13, Daniel Carvajal returned to Real Madrid last season to become an important figure in Carlo Ancelotti's side. 

    Benefitting from Alvaro Arbeloa's injury-hit season, the 22-year-old enjoyed regular playing time despite his relative lack of experience, shining as a potent attacking full-back for Los Blancos. 

    Promisingly, some of Carvajal's best performances came in critical contests, such as the Copa del Rey clash with Atletico Madrid and the first leg of his team's Champions League tie with Borussia Dortmund. 

Jese

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    Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

    Club: Real Madrid

    Age: 21

    Position: Forward

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 18 appearances; 5 goals; 4 assists; 13 chances created

    After scoring five times in six matches (all competitions) for Real Madrid from late January onward, Jese appeared set for a major breakout season in 2013-14.

    That run, which was preceded by an 11-game stretch that saw the forward net three goals and provide four assists, quickly elevated the talented forward as a possible candidate to solve Spain's striking issues in the national squad. 

    However, injury cruelly ended the 21-year-old's season when he suffered serious knee damage during Real Madrid's second-leg Champions League clash with Schalke in March.

    Consequently, the exciting forward is likely to endure a difficult beginning to the 2014-15 season, but he can still be considered among the league's brightest prospects. 

Antoine Griezmann

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Club: Real Sociedad

    Age: 23

    Position: Attacking Midfielder/Forward

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 35 appearances; 16 goals; 3 assists; 34 chances created

    Those who watched La Liga closely in 2013-14 won't have been surprised by Antoine Griezmann's superb displays for France at this year's World Cup in Brazil.

    As an incisive left-sided attacker, the 23-year-old Real Sociedad star was the sixth most prolific player in front of goal in Spain last year, consistently breaking into the penalty area to unleash his brilliant left foot. 

    Announcing himself as a star of the future with five goals in three games against Almeria, Valladolid and Osasuna in October and November, Griezmann alerted football's biggest clubs of his talent, attracting interest from Real Madrid and Arsenal, as reported by Football Espana.

    Should he remain in Spain in 2014-15, it's likely he'll further entrench himself among La Liga's most influential stars. 

Iker Muniain

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Club: Athletic Bilbao

    Age: 21

    Position: Attacking Midfielder

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 35 appearances; 7 goals; 3 assists; 99 successful dribbles

    Iker Muniain is one of a wave of up-and-coming talents from Athletic Bilbao, lighting up La Liga in 2013-14 with his attacking prowess that helped the Basque club to a brilliant fourth-placed finish behind only the league's heavyweights. 

    Armed with brilliant dribbling skills that allow the 21-year-old to glide past defenders, Muniain looks like one of his nation's brightest emerging stars as Spain look to a new era in the wake of their 2014 World Cup disappointment. 

    Recognising the midfielder's supreme talent, Athletic Bilbao have also extended his contract until 2017, per Inside Spanish Football, as well as elevating his buyout clause to €45 million. 

    And with the Champions League returning to Estadio San Mames in 2014-15, expect Muniain's stature in Europe to continue to grow. 

Isco

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    Club: Real Madrid

    Age: 22

    Position: Attacking Midfielder

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 32 appearances; 8 goals; 6 assists; 70 chances created

    Real Madrid's purchase of Isco from Malaga prior to the 2013-14 season already looks to be one of the club's best pieces of recent business, with the 22-year-old midfielder establishing himself as one of La Liga's finest players under Carlo Ancelotti.

    Regularly used as the team's most advanced midfielder ahead of deeper-lying players such as Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Sami Khedira and Asier Illarramendi, Isco's creative flair played a key role in Los Blancos' league-leading attack (104 goals) last season.

    Extremely unlucky to miss out on selection for Spain's World Cup campaign, the emerging midfielder will look to build on his impressive debut season at the Bernabeu in 2014-15, hoping to push for selection for La Roja's Euro 2016 qualification process. 

Koke

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    Denis Doyle/Getty Images

    Club: Atletico Madrid

    Age: 22

    Position: Central Midfielder

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 36 appearances; 6 goals; 13 assists, 67 chances created

    Starring in Diego Simeone's robust Atletico Madrid outfit, emerging Spanish midfielder Koke announced himself as one of the most promising players in Europe in 2013-14.

    Relentless in his work rate, the 22-year-old was instrumental in Los Rojiblancos' title run, combining beautifully with Diego Costa to rip through opposing teams.

    Excellent in possession and a supreme dead-ball specialist, Koke was rewarded with selection to Spain's World Cup squad for this summer's tournament in Brazil.

    Although the team endured a miserable campaign, the precocious Atletico midfielder immediately made an impact when used as a substitute against Chile and as a starter vs. Australia. 

    Having penned a long-term contract in Madrid, Koke will be among La Liga's most dominant players in years to come. 

Neymar

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    Clive Rose/Getty Images

    Club: Barcelona

    Age: 22

    Position: Forward

    Key La Liga 2013-14 Stats: 26 appearances; 9 goals; 8 assists; 41 chances created

    Perhaps the brightest of all the emerging talents in La Liga, Barcelona's Neymar enjoyed a fine debut season with the Catalan giants in 2013-14. 

    Blessed with spectacular footwork, sumptuous passing skills and strong finishing abilities, the 22-year-old Brazilian has already entrenched himself among the league's elite by forming a lethal partnership with Lionel Messi. 

    Neymar was also one of the most influential players at this summer's World Cup prior to suffering a spinal injury in his team's quarter-final clash with Colombia, leaving crowds in awe of his trickery and masterful ball control. 

    And if Barcelona are to recover from an underwhelming 2013-14 campaign, the emerging Brazilian superstar will have a large role to play. 

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