Euro 2016 is firmly coming into view now, with the next week’s raft of friendlies the last chance that most of the continent’s coaches will have to watch their players in action before deciding on a final 23-man squad.
Those players set to enter a major tournament for the first time start to hint at how heavily they could contribute. It’s also at this time that leftfield candidates pop up, making a late run to be named as the management look for the x-factor that could make all the difference.
Here are a handful of as-yet widely unheralded players who could make a splash this summer.
Renato Sanches (Portugal)
When watching the Benfica midfielder in action, it’s hard to believe he won’t be 19 until August when the finals tournament will be long since done. His quality and performance are such that it is fully expected he will be the youngest member of Fernando Santos’ squad in France this summer, following his first senior call-up last week.
Sanches has certainly been difficult to keep a secret, with Manchester United and Real Madrid tracking him despite an €80 million buyout clause in his contract. United are leading the way in the chase for his services (as per A Bola, in Portuguese) while observers such as Owen Hargreaves are already convinced by his pedigree (see below tweet, via BT Sport).
The best feature of Sanches, rather than his clean hitting of the ball and crisp passing, is his energy. It’s remarkable that an 18-year-old has the strength to hold Benfica together deep in midfield, but given the chance, Santos is well aware he could do the same for Portugal.
At the other end of the age spectrum to Sanches is Aduriz, who turned 35 in February. His recall to the national side may seem remarkable when you consider his age, but it has, in fact, seemed increasingly inevitable in recent months.
Everything has come together for Aduriz since his return to Athletic Bilbao for a third spell in 2012. He has scored 93 goals in all competitions since then, in ever-augmenting volume. After last season’s haul of 26 in all competitions, he is currently on 31.
It all started back in August’s Supercopa de Espana, when Aduriz tore Barcelona to bits with a hat-trick at an incredulous San Mames. It showcased his versatility, too; he can hold up, dominate in the air and has becoming increasingly canny on the deck. With Spain’s other target men like Alvaro Negredo and Diego Costa not hitting the spot (certainly in the case of Costa’s international form), there’s a gap to be filled.
Aduriz always described himself as a late bloomer, and it was October 2010 when he made his one previous Spain appearance, at the age of 29, versus Lithuania in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. This time, against the odds, he might get even more of a chance.
Oguzhan Ozyakup (Turkey)
If things had gone a little differently, there wouldn’t be anything under the radar about Ozyakup at all. Born in the Netherlands, he left AZ’s academy to join Arsenal weeks before his 16th birthday in 2008 and even made the bench for Arsene Wenger’s senior team in the Premier League a couple of times (without ever coming on).
Ozyakup turned out in two league cup games for Arsenal before exiting to join Besiktas in his parents’ homeland in 2012—a year after he chose to represent Turkey at senior international level, having already played for the Netherlands in the 2009 Euro Under-17 Championship (as reported by Arsenal.com, relayed by Yahoo Australia).
Now 23, he has been involved in the Besiktas first team ever since his arrival in Istanbul and has grown with a developing side. An attacking midfielder with sublime footwork and an eye for goal, Ozyakup has been in sparkling form this season as the Black Eagles have soared to the top of the Super Lig. He has become an undisputed first choice in the XI and has career-best numbers for goals (7) and assists (6).
Ozyakup could be key for Fatih Terim’s side in summer, too and, incidentally, scored his first senior goal for Turkey in the vital 3-0 win over the Netherlands in September, a turning point in the qualifying campaign.
Kamil Grosicki (Poland)
It’s been a strange season for Grosicki, hardly a household name and perhaps, at 27, never likely to be. Having arrived at Rennes from Sivasspor in January 2014, he had contributed steadily, but the club were ready to move him on after he only started five games before Christmas.
There was never any chance of him being marginalised by Poland coach Adam Nawalka. Grosicki started nine of the team’s 10 qualifying games, and his drive and directness on the right is a key factor for a team built to feed the incomparable Robert Lewandowski.
Grosicki’s assist for Lewandowski’s goal in the narrow loss in Germany in September was a case in point; a lung-busting run followed by the perfect ball in.
The good news all round is that Grosicki has regained status at club level and is playing a big part in Rolland Courbis’ team current resurgence, with a challenge for a Champions League very much on. He is contributing with goals, too, having hit eight in only nine starts for Rennes, so he is useful for more than just his industry.
Viktor Kovalenko (Ukraine)
When one door closes, another one opens. That is certainly the case for Shakhtar Donetsk, who are aiming for dual glory by snatching back the Ukrainian Premier League and in the Europa League. They’re doing that without previous star turn Alex Teixeira, who signed for Chinese side Jiangsu Suning in a huge deal during the winter window.
The main beneficiary has been Viktor Kovalenko, a left-footed midfielder with quite breathtaking poise for someone who only turned 20 in February. He was part of the exceptional academy crop that reached the UEFA Youth League final last year and that CEO Sergei Palkin (quoted here by the club’s website) hopes to build the team’s future upon.
Veteran coach Mircea Lucescu is having to work hard to temper expectations of Kovalenko’s imminent promotion in the wake of Teixeira’s exit.
Kovalenko’s form has made that hard. One of the stars of the Under-20 World Cup of last year, held in New Zealand, Kovalenko was joint top scorer in the tournament despite Ukraine being eliminated at the last 16 stage. By that stage he’d already made his Shakhtar first-team debut but is only now really establishing himself.
He scored his debut goal for the seniors with a rasping drive in the impressive Europa League win at Schalke. Coach Mykhaylo Fomenko has now called Kovalenko up for Ukraine’s friendlies with Cyprus and Wales, so the cat is going to be out of the bag soon.