European Soccer: Best Under-21 XI

Allan JiangTransfers CorrespondentJanuary 15, 2012

European Soccer: Best Under-21 XI

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    Many standout youth footballers fail to make the transition into senior football. 

    Sonny Pike, an English prodigy, was in the Ajax system at just seven years of age.

    Right now, he should be in the prime of his career, but he never made it. 

    This article will outline the European Football U-21 best 11 right now.

    I've based the selection on form, so someone like Jack Wilshere, will not be in the team. 

    There are two prerequisites to be included: must be 21 years or younger and must be playing for a European club but does not need to be European. 

Goalkeeper: Wojciech Szczęsny

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    Age: 21 

    Club: Arsenal

    Nationality: Polish

    Arsène Wenger is right once again. 

    During the pitiful Manuel Almunia days, rather than give in to fan pressure by buying someone like Igor Akinfeev or Manuel Neuer, Wenger gave Wojciech Szczęsny a chance. 

    Szczęsny exudes confidence and goalkeeper will finally be a position Arsenal do not need to worry about for the next decade or so.  

Center Back: Kyriakos Papadopoulos

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    Age: 19

    Club: Schalke 

    Nationality: Greek

    Along with Sotiris Ninis, Kyriakos Papadopoulos was hyped as Greece's future. 

    While Ninis has been plagued with injuries, Papadopoulos has impressed, and you would presume he'd be a mainstay in the National defence for the next decade. 

    Papadopoulos has won back possession 120 times in 15 Bundesliga games for Schalke. 

Center Back: Mamadou Sakho

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    Age: 21

    Club: Paris Saint-Germain

    Nationality: French

    Before the Qatar Investment Authority poured their limitless millions into Paris Saint-Germain, bigger clubs were looking to lure Mamadou Sakho away from the Parc des Princes. 

    Now, it's likely that Sakho will stay with PSG for the foreseeable future. 

    He has won 31 of 39 aerial challenges, completes 88 percent of his passes, and unlike teammate Diego Lugano—Sakho has looked solid. 

Center Back: Phil Jones

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    Age: 19

    Club: Manchester United 

    Nationality: English

    I was skeptical of Manchester United paying £17 million for Phil Jones, considering Nemanja Vidić was arguably the best center back in the league, and there was also Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling in the Old Trafford defence. 

    But with Vidić out for the rest of the season, Jones has lived up to his transfer fee and vindicated Sir  Alex Ferguson's decision. 

    That being said, I feel Jones could potentially be a better right-back than centre-back, given his questionable concentration levels, as shown by some mind-boggling mistakes against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United.

Defensive Midfielder: Yann M'Vila

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    Age: 21

    Club: Rennes

    Nationality: French

    French football is blessed to have young talented defensive midfielders like Yann M'Vila and Maxime Gonalons.

    M'Vila is a complete defensive midfielder, and one can understand Rennes inflating their most valuable asset's potential transfer fee. 

    the 21-year-old has a high football IQ, good positional discipline, solid tackling, reads the game well, orchestrates play and can consistently thread key passes. 

    Rennes manager Frederic Antonetti offered a near perfect summary of M'Vila to

    "He reads the game like Claude Makélélé, has the presence of Patrick Vieira and can pass the ball like Yaya Toure."

Right Winger: Gökhan Töre

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    Age: 19

    Club: Hamburg

    Nationality: Turkish

    When I was monitoring Jeffrey Bruma's performances for Hamburg, I was watching Gökhan Töre constantly fool defenders with the same scissor dribble. 

    I guess it's like Tim Hardaway's UTEP two-step crossover—you know it's coming, but you still can't stop it. 

    The flashy dribbling is great but what I love about Töre is his incisive passing and his vision. 

    That being said, I'm still shocked he's more of a prolific dribbler than Lionel Messi, as can be seen from the accompanying image. 

    What makes me so depressed is Chelsea let go of this ambidextrous and talented teenager. 

Central Midfielder: Thiago

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    Age: 20

    Club: Barcelona

    Nationality: Spaniard

    How is it that a virtual rookie like Thiago can not only understand the game like a seasoned professional but play in such an efficient manner?

    La Masia. 

    Thiago is another example of how the youth academy of the European Champions raise their juniors the right way—the Barcelona way. 

    He is blessed with nimble feet and I  thought he would be deployed as a wide forward but this season, he has played more of a central midfield role. 

    A Xavi clone. 

    Talking about Xavi, he's not the most accurate passer in Europe, because Thiago is.

    Thiago completes 94 percent of his passes and remember this guy averages 73 passes a game. 

    Oh, and his brother Rafinha is supposedly a better player than him. 

    Not that I believe it but I eagerly await Rafinha breaking into Pep Guardiola's side (assuming he is better than Thiago). 

Left Winger: Andre Schürrle

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    Age: 21

    Club: Bayer Leverkusen

    Nationality: German

    Not only is Andre Schürrle a mazy dribbler but he works hard tracking back and that's something you have to admire. 

    He reminds me of Ángel di María. 

Right Forward: Mario Götze

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    Age: 19

    Club: Borussia Dortmund

    Nationality: German

    The German youth system just keeps on producing these remarkably talented footballers. 

    Mario Götze is so dangerous because he can beat players with his dribbling and split defences with his through balls. 

    Since Borussia Dortmund play such fluid possession football, you can understand why Götze plays out wide, but I want to see him in the center. 

    I love the fact that Jürgen Klopp has bought Marco Reus, because that certainly means he'll play on the right (even though he has been playing centrally this season for Borussia Mönchengladbach), so Götze may have a more central role.

    If he is this good at 19, how good will he be when he's 23?  

Center Forward: Mario Balotelli

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    Age: 21

    Club: Manchester City

    Nationality: Italian 

    What I find incredible is Mario Balotelli playing the game at a pedestrian pace, yet still scoring goals for fun. 

    Against Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final, he demonstrated a selflessness that I had never seen by tracking back and helping his defense. 

    I'm surprised he doesn't use his pace more but maybe it's because he doesn't want to get injured. 

    When he first burst onto the scene for Inter Milan, he would use his pace to leave defenders in his wake, and José Mourinho would play him wide for that reason. 

    Balotelli is well known for his life away from soccer too. Here's the most recent Balotelli story:

    "Balotelli parked his Bentley outside then came in and was asking where the toilets were, then he went to the teachers' staff room. 

    After that he was just walking round campus like he owned the place and everyone was following him around."

Left Forward: Eden Hazard

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    Age: 21

    Club: Lille

    Nationality: Belgian

    Eden Hazard leaves defenders at sixes and sevens with his mesmerizing dribbling ability. 

    On form, he is easily the best player from the Belgian Golden Generation, and the one with the highest upside. 

    His contract ends in June 2015, so he will command a massive transfer fee between 2012-2013. 


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    • Goalkeeper: Bernd Leno (19—Bayer Leverkusen)
    • Right-back: Martin Kelly (21—Liverpool)
    • Right winger: Xherdan Shaqiri (20—Basel)
    • Centre Midfielder: Christian Eriksen (19—Ajax)
    • Attacking midfielder: Gastón Ramírez (21—Bologna)
    • Right forward: Isaac Cuenca (20—Barcelona)
    • Centre forward: John Guidetti (19—Feyenoord; on loan from Manchester City)

    Of the seven listed substitutes, I've been most impressed with Bernd Leno, who is another young, talented German goalkeeper. 

    We're talking about him in the same class as Manuel Neuer, Sven Ulreich, Marc-André ter Stegen and Ron-Robert Zieler. 

    Kelly is solid and I would rather have him at right-back than current starter Glen Johnson.

    If you're a Manchester United supporter, then you'll know all about Shaqiri's ability. 

    Eriksen has already played 20 games for the Danish national team and he's just 19. 

    Ramírez is destined for a big move this month or during the summer transfer window. 

    Cuenca is raw but technically superb—as you'd expect from a Barcelona player. 

    Why do Barcelona waste their money on the likes of Keirrison when La Masia consistently produces talent? 

    Guidetti can't stop scoring for Feyenoord and I'd assume Manchester City will sell him to the Dutch club. 

Manager: André Villas-Boas

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    Age: 34

    Club: Chelsea

    Nationality: Portuguese 

    I've been extremely critical of André Villas-Boas' reign at Chelsea, but I also understand that it is a long-term project.

    After all, he is attempting to implement a new system and a philosophy on an aging team. 

    That being said, some of his decisions have been baffling: like not including a back-up left-back in the UEFA Champions League squad, not giving Romelu Lukaku a chance, using defensive substitutions even though a win is needed and implementing a high line of defence.

    Sir Bobby Robson rated him and so did José Mourinho. 

    But will Roman Abramovich stick with Villas-Boas? 

    Please read Every Premier League Club's Best Player so Far

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