La Liga Season Review: Top 10 U-21 Players in Spain

Michael CernaCorrespondent IMay 16, 2012

La Liga Season Review: Top 10 U-21 Players in Spain

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    La Liga proved this season that it is loaded with world class footballers. Well beyond the Big Two teams, some of the best players in the world play in Spain.

    Players like Ronaldo and Messi were already household names, but now guys like Santi Cazorla and Jesus Navas are getting more respect and recognition.

    What about future generations? Is La Liga a league full of aging stars or is there sufficient young talent to keep us excited about the league going forward?

    I decided to continue my La Liga Season Review by looking at some of the best under-21 stars in the league. With the Olympics coming up this summer, many of these stars will be the center of attention in London.

    There were countless young stars in Spain this season so I am sure many of you will be able to point out some stars I missed. Also, feel free to let me know which players you think are ranked out of order.

    The players' current level of development and their performances this season will be the main base for the rankings.

    However, since these are all young stars, potential will be a major factor as well.

    Read on to see the 10 best U-21 players in La Liga.

    Note: To qualify for this list, players must have been born after July 31, 1990.

Honorable Mentions

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    Paco Alcacer (Valencia)

    He only had two appearances this season, but he has as much potential as anyone on this list. Many already tip him as the second coming of David Villa.

    Iñigo Martinez (Sociedad)

    Martinez is famous for his two great goals, but he has tons of talent. Yet another great Basque defender coming through the ranks.

    Martin Montoya (Barcelona)

    He has had limited playing time this season, but has impressed each time he stepped onto the pitch.

    Lass (Rayo Vallecano)

    The Guinean scored three goals and added a further four assists. His four assists led the team despite only starting 15 matches.

10. Alvaro (Espanyol)

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    Alvaro continued to impress in his second season. Now that Pablo Osvaldo has left for Roma, Alvaro looks to become the main man.

    He shared time as a starter this season, but there is little question as to who the striker of the future is in Barcelona. Alvaro was second in goals on the team with five.

    He still needs to learn to work better with his teammates. He has become a better passer and a more patient attacker so there is that desire to improve.

    That continued development may not be at Espanyol, however. As with Javi Marquez and Hector Moreno, Espanyol's current financial problems will make it hard to keep Alvaro this summer.

9. Cristian Tello (Barcelona)

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    The sheer number of quality players that continue to come from La Masia must at least frustrate the rest of Europe.

    How is Barcelona able to consistently produce such talent?

    Tello was actually not even in the club's plans when he came back from Espanyol last summer. The goal was to send Tello down to the B squad and give him time in Cup and European tournaments.

    Fortunately for him—and for fans—injuries to David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay, and Pedro expedited his arrival to Camp Nou. He responded by providing three goals in three starts.

    The youngster was heavily criticized for a poor performance in the final Clasico, but the 20-year-old should never have been starting such a big match with Pedro on the bench.

    With incredible pace, great dribbling skills and a desire to improve every match, Tello is one of the hottest young prospects in Europe.

8. Varane (Real Madrid)

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    If this list was based solely on potential, Varane would be higher. He has as much upside as any player on this list.

    In all fairness, Real is not really known for using its youth players. Not that the academy is poor—it has produced the likes of Juan Mata and Roberto Soldado after all.

    It is just that most of Madrid's purchases are established stars already showing signs of greatness.

    Raphael Varane was no such thing. Granted, he showed incredible promise last season in Ligue 1, but few could have known he would adapt so well and so quickly to Spanish football.

    The youngster has done so well this season that calls for a superstar centre-back to be brought in have quieted greatly over the last nine months.

    Varane was the best defender on the team against set pieces and he uses his height and strength in the air to score goals as well. He also showed great discipline and passing ability for such a young defender.

    The relegation of RC Lens was awful for fans of that club, but it may prove to be a dream for Real Madrid. What a buy for Los Merengues.

7. Courtois (Atletico)

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    Atletico Madrid did a lot of good business last summer after losing Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan.

    With a mix of purchases and loan deals, Madrid built a top-six squad that won the Europa League for the second time in three years.

    One of its best moves was bringing this young Belgian on loan from Chelsea.

    On the season, Courtois saved 90 shots while conceding 40 goals. That 68.7 percent of shots saved is nothing spectacular, but was actually better than Victor Valdes—at 68.18 percent.

    The youngster said he would like to stay in Madrid and Chelsea may be willing to allow that so he continues to get first-team action.

6. Mateo Musacchio

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    Just another reason Villarreal had no business getting relegated. That club is loaded with talent least for now.

    The Argentinian played so well last spring that he earned the chance to start the season in competition for a starting role. He did not disappoint. In fact, he was the only consistently solid defender on the team.

    Musacchio averaged five interceptions per game, good for fifth in the league among central defenders. He also completed over 80 percent of his passes.

    Musacchio is just one more Villarreal player who will likely get sold this summer. He will be a great investment for any team looking for a talented young defender.

5. Antoine Griezmann (Real Sociedad)

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    The Basque region of Spain is one of the few that can rival Catalonia for the amount of talent it produces. Griezmann is another name that can be added beside the likes of Javi Martinez and Natxo Monreal.

    This young Frenchman is one of the most experienced on this list. He was signed at the age of 14 and has already made over 100 appearances in the first division.

    This season he was the third most capped Sociedad player. He scored seven goals and had five assists—both good for third-most on the team.

    Griezmann has great footwork, acceleration and technique. He is a clinical finisher that is still very rough around the edges, but has potential to develop into a top-class striker.

4. Isaac Cuenca (Barcelona)

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    Isaac Cuenca has had a great debut season in Barcelona first team. He only made 11 starts, but he showed that he is extremely versatile and hard-working.

    Isaac is actually an attacking midfielder, but is mostly used as a winger in Pep Guardiola's team. He has adjusted very well to playing a demanding position. He was used on both side of the pitch throughout the season.

    Learning how to play midfield at Barcelona is extremely difficult—as evidenced by Cesc Fabregas this season.

    Cuenca will need some time and maybe a loan move before being ready for more first-team action, but he showed that he has tons of potential this season.

    Isaac is fearless and willing to take on defenders. He is learning how to get creative when dribbling. He also proved to be a great passer and crosser and is ambidextrous.

    A few big clubs were looking into potentially getting the youngster, but he renewed his contract last fall, much to the satisfaction of the Barcelona faithful.

3. Isco (Malaga)

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    Isco was relatively unknown outside of Spain before this season. If he plays in the summer Olympics the way he did for Malaga, that relative anonymity will all but disappear.

    He is a former Valencia youth product who never quite got his chance to shine with the likes of Juan Mata and David Silva playing ahead of him. This season he showed to have as much potential as both of those stars.

    After forming one of the best midfields in La Liga at Malaga, Isco is now building a reputation as one of the best young players in Europe.

    If Malaga can bring in another top striker now that they have qualified for the Champions League, Isco could be the continent's breakout star next season.

2. Thiago (Barcelona)

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    The future leader of Barcelona's midfield.

    It was actually Thiago, not Xavi, who had the highest pass completion percentage in La Liga this season. He completed 92.7 percent of his passes.

    When Cesc Fabregas was brought back to Barcelona this past summer, many saw it as the arrival of Xavi's replacement.

    However, Cesc is really more similar to Andres Iniesta than Xavi. He is quicker and much more attack-minded, often struggling to stay back and control the entire match from closer to midfield.

    It is Thiago who is Xavi's natural replacement. He has excellent touch and ball control and is a phenomenal passer.

    No Barcelona fan is comfortable wit the idea of their legend retiring from the club, but if Thiago continues to develop as he has, fans can at least rest a little easier.

1. Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao)

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    Taking the top spot is arguably the most exciting teenager in football.

    This young Basque star's potential is sky high. He could be a future Ballon d'Or winner.

    Athletic Bilbao's youngest capped player was also the youngest to score a goal for the club. He is still only 19 years old, but is already nearing 100 appearances for the Basque club.

    This season, he shared the pitch with the likes of Iniesta, Jesus Navas, Nani and other world class players without ever looking out of place.

    He took part in only five goals this season, but was the team's best passer and most relentless threat. Muniain was outstanding in the Europa League against teams like Manchester United, but fell short in the final against Atletico Madrid. In the final, he was Bilbao's hardest-working player.

    Iker missed out on that trophy, but is no stranger to silverware. He was part of the Spanish National Team that won the U-21 Championships last summer.

    Muniain will certainly be leading the Olympic team this summer and may even play in the Euro. A 19-year-old playing in a Euro squad alongside Juan Mata and Xavi will speak volumes about this kid's potential.

    Iker Muniain—the best U-21 player in La Liga.

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