11 Young Players Waiting to Take The Premier League by Storm
Although Chelsea are set to be crowned as Premier League champions this weekend, there have been rumors circling in the national press that manager Carlo Ancelotti is ready to disperse much of the aging squad to make room next season for the club's impressive youth players.
Despite yet another vintage season for the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Edwin Van Der Saar, it may also be time for Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson to shift the balance of power from the club's elder statesmen to younger, fresher legs.
Over at Arsenal, Aaron Ramsey's promising season was ended by a gut-wrenching, bone-crunching tackle by Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross. Yet another season in which his team has failed to win a trophy may make Arsene Wenger question the wisdom of offering the likes of veterans Sol Campbell and Mikael Silvestre another contract.
Danny Rose's wonder-goal on his Tottenham debut against Wenger's men instantly gave him cult status among Spurs' fans.
So, who are the players who have the attitude, skill, and temperament to become the next generation of Premier League superstars?
In this slide-show, I take a look at a team full of players whose moons are waxing and whose stars could be shining bright come this time next year.
The Goalkeeper: Matej Delac (Chelsea)
Despite the grainy photo, I can confirm that yes, Matej Delac is a real footballer and yes, he is rather talented.
Chelsea's Frank Arnesen was quick to spot this when he signed up the 17-year-old Croat stopper from Inter Zapresic to join the Stamford Bridge club for the 2010-11 season.
Delac is the youngest player to have appeared for a team in Croatia's top flight and has represented his country at U16, U17 and U19 levels.
In fact, Delac saved a penalty last season on his debut at the tender age of 16, and he has since confirmed his status as Zapresic's number one.
When asked about Delac back in September, manager Carlo Ancelotti said: 'He is very young, but he is having very good experience in his country, and we think that he can be a very good goalkeeper in the future. Now he will stay in Croatia to play before he comes to play with us.'
The Right Back: Kyle Naughton (Tottenham Hotspur)
When Spurs manager Harry Redknapp paid a combined fee of £8 million to bring young English full-backs Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton from Sheffield United in July 2009, Tottenham fans scratched their heads in disbelief.
Not only did they not really know anything of these players, they wondered how much use they would be given that Spurs already had Pascal Chimbonda, Vedran Corluka, and Alan Hutton on their books.
Despite impressing in preseason for Spurs, Naughton had to make do with a place on the substitutes' bench at the start of the season. He struggled to break into the first-team and was eventually loaned out to Middlesbrough on February 1 this year for the rest of the season, where he has impressed fans and manager Gordon Strachan: "I like Kyle a lot...he can play in different positions, and I think he's someone who could have a really bright future."
Next season, Naughton—whose pace and composure won him Sheffield United Young Player of the Year award and included him in the PFA Championship Team of the Year last season—could break through at Spurs to become a first-team regular.
The Center Backs: Jeffrey Bruma (Chelsea)
Big, strong, composed—and still only 18 years of age. That's Chelsea's impressive Dutch center back Jeffrey Bruma, the outstanding player of their youth team this year.
As a 15 year-old, Bruma signed for Chelsea from Feyenoord in 2007 for a fee of £100,000. In a few years' time, this will be considered peanuts for a player who could in time command an eight-figure transfer fee.
In fact, Bruma has already made two substitute appearances for a Chelsea team this season which already boasts in its squad the likes of John Terry, Alex, Paolo Ferreira, and Ricardo Carvalho.
If, as expected, Ancelotti sells the aging Carvalho, it is Bruma to whom he will look to fill his place.
The Center Backs: Dedryck Boyata (Manchester City)
One of the more experienced players in this slideshow, imposing Belgian center back Boyata has already made seven league and cup appearances at Eastlands this term despite his tender age.
Next season, whoever is in charge at Manchester City may see the man with the confusing name as an ideal companion to compatriot Vincent Kompany at the heart of the team's defense.
Boyata impressed manager Roberto Mancini with his all-action debut performance at Middlesbrough in the F.A. Cup Third Round. With the likes of Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott unavailable, Boyata was a big reason for the team keeping a clean sheet on the day.
Mancini commented afterwards: "He is a good player, he is a young player, but he has a good future. He played very well."
The Left Back: Patrick Van Aanholt (Chelsea)
Slightly older than teammate and compatriot Bruma, 19 year-old Dutch left back Patrick Van Anholt could be another member of a potentially stunning future Chelsea defense.
Less stock than Bruma, but quicker and more agile, Van Aanholt has also made two league appearances for Chelsea as a substitute. He has also enjoyed successful loan spells at both Coventry and Newcastle, where he filled in commendably for the injured Jose Enrique to form an exciting and productive partnership on the left flank with the more experienced Jonas Gutierrez.
Although he may have to bide his time to displace Ashley Cole or Yuri Zhirkov, Van Aanholt nevertheless has a bright future ahead of him and may build on his first-team experience next season, especially if the disappointing Russian international is sold on.
The Right Winger: Danny Rose (Tottenham Hotspur)
After nine minutes of last month's clash between Champions League contenders and bitter rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, a corner was punched clear of the penalty box by Manuel Almunia into the path of little-known 19 year-old winger Danny Rose.
What happened next was the stuff of boyhood dreams: "a volley so thunderous that you could hear the whack off his boot above the din of the raucous crowd," according to The Times' football reporter. The result was a sweet left-footed, 30-yard volley which set Spurs on their way to their first league victory over Arsenal in more than a decade.
Although Rose has not started a game since then, he proved during that moment and also during a loan spell under Brendan Rogers at Watford that energy, intelligence, and talent pose a threat to fellow ex-Leeds whizzkid Aaron Lennon's starting place.
The Center Midfielders: Tom Cleverley (Manchester United)
Despite an injury ending his season prematurely, Manchester United's 20 year-old midfield maestro Tom Cleverley was voted by fans of Watford United, where he has played on loan this season, as their Player of the Year.
In fact, Cleverley scored 11 goals and created many more in 35 appearances for Watford, and, with Michael Carrick short of form, Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to draft Cleverley into the first-team squad to provide competition for the likes of fellow youngsters Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson.
To his advantage, Cleverley can also play well at center back, and his ability to return to top form after two bad injuries in the last three years shows that he is tough enough to make it at the top.
The Center Midfielders: Fran Merida (Arsenal)
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger knows a thing or two about talented young footballers. After all, he has unearthed and developed the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas, and Thierry Henry to turn them into world-class superstars.
So when the Frenchman described Catalan midfielder Fran Merida as "an absolutely amazing player," you tend to sit up and take note.
Arsenal signed Merida back in 2007 as a 15 year-old apprentice learning his trade at the greatest club in the world, Barcelona. Merida's parents were concerned, however, that the teenager would be frozen out at the Nou Camp, so they contacted Cesc Fabregas' agent to talk about the player joining Arsenal—much to Barcelona's discontent.
Merida was forced to pay La Blaugrana €3.2 million for breaching the terms of his contract.
Since his move, Merida has made sporadic appearances for the London club, but his stunning Carling Cup goal against Liverpool last year and the fact that Wenger blocked a loan move to Levante this season because the player had "too much quality" suggests that big things can be expected of the explosive midfielder.
The Left-Winger: Gael Kakuta (Chelsea)
Anyone reading this article who has not heard of Kakuta must have been in the footballing equivalent of a coma for the past year.
After all, this is the 18 year-old Congolese-born French left-winger whose "invalid" transfer from RC Lens to Chelsea in 2007 led to the London club being sanctioned with a two-year transfer ban. Although the ban was later lifted due to to insufficient evidence, the case caused much concern among FIFA officials.
After playing alongside Kakuta in a reserve team game, Ballack commented: "Go see the French lad, he is the star." More recently, compatriot Nicolas Anelka heaped further praise on the skillful and quick Kakuta by comparing his skills with those of Ronaldinho.
If Chelsea are to build on this year's success, he may be the most important player over the next five years.
The Strikers: Jose Baxter (Everton)
There is much excitement this season at Goodison Park, and it is not just due to the players turning around a season which looked likely to slump the club into a depression.
On the opening day of last season, coming on as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers, the Bootle lad with a Spanish name became the youngest Evertonian ever to appear in a Premier League game.
Since then, his career has not developed as quickly as was expected. This is due to several issues, notably Louis Saha's excellent form and Baxter's arrest last autumn for possession of cannabis and forged bank notes.
If the 18 year-old striker can stay on the straight and narrow, he may go some way to emulating a certain Wayne Rooney's achievements.
The Strikers: Daniel Pacheco (Liverpool)
On the other side of Merseyside, Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has high hopes for the diminutive Spanish striker dubbed "El Asesino" (The Assassin) by former Barcelona youth teammates for his scoring ability.
With Fernando Torres often struggling with injury, Pacheco would have hoped that his involvement in this season's campaign would have extended beyond the two substitute appearances and one start which he has to his name.
But it does take some time to adapt the pace and physical demands of the Premier League, especially for an 19 year-old Spaniard who is far from home.
If his idol, Fernando Torres, can be persuaded to remain at Anfield next season, what better mentor and strike partner to learn from?
Expect his name to come to the fore next season.