World Football: Top 50 Players in the World Under 21

Mohamed Al-Hendy@Mo_HendyCorrespondent INovember 3, 2011

World Football: Top 50 Players in the World Under 21

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    Premier League Talent Scout, is a series I've been running since the start of the Premier League that profiles the biggest U-21 (and sometimes U-23) stars in the English Premier League. In doing it, I like to think that I've established myself as a sort of "go-to man" with regards to young soccer stars.

    As such, I've decided to branch out a little further and profile the 50 best and brightest world football stars under 21. As is the case on Premier League Talent Scout, players already 21 years old are eligible for inclusion.

    Since number of players who can be included is so vast, I expect that many readers will have at least a couple of players that they think should've been mentioned on this list. If you happen to be one of these readers, please do leave your opinion on who you think was wrongly left out in the comments section below.

    Also, I will be ranking these players, so feel free to chime in on who is misplaced as well.

    Players will be ranked based on their current skill level, as well as their upside and potential. Current skill will weigh greater than potential, but potential will still play a major role in the rankings.

50: Jozy Altidore

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    What? Jozy Altidore is still 21?

    Yes, despite having played professional football since August 2006, Altidore is still only 21.

    Altidore has been and still is America's first-choice out-and-out striker. Despite the emergence of Juan Agudelo, no other American striker has performed nearly good enough on a consistent basis to challenge Altidore's position at the head of America's attack.

    In fact, Jozy Altidore has had such a chokehold on the position that the young American to have already picked up 42 caps, while most other talent 21-year-olds are just earning their first caps for their national team.

    But despite all his success at the international level, Jozy Altidore has struggled at the club level. He did well in the MLS with the New York Red Bulls, but spent three seasons in limbo after leaving them to join Villarreal.

    At Villarreal, Altidore was sent on loan to Xerez, Hull City and Bursaspor, and failed to truly impress at any of the clubs. He was given a run with the first team at Villarreal at the start of the 2008-09 season and again at the start of 2010-11 season, but he scored too infrequently to be retained by the club.

    This summer, Jozy Altidore made a controversial move to get his career back on track. Despite objections from the media and fans, Jozy Altidore accepted a contract offer from AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch league, and has looked better than he has ever looked in his club career with the club.

    He has scored seven goals in 14 appearances, and seems to be full of confidence. 

    However, it must be said that Altidore is not quite out of the woods yet. Far from it in fact. He hasn't scored in four US friendlies, and has now been scoreless for AZ for six league games as well, all of which he starting.

    Altidore will need to get back on the goalscoring trial soon if the Dutch giants are to keep their faith in the American.

49: Granit Xhaka

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    Granit Xhaka may not be a household name yet, but the Swiss international is easily one of the brightest talents in world football.

    At only the age of 19, Xhaka has established himself as a regular first-team member of FC Basel, one of the most successful clubs in the Swiss Super League. He has also already picked up four caps for the Swiss national team, starting all four games and registering an assist in his most recent game (a 2-0 win over Montenegro.

    This year, Xhaka has started all of FC Basel's Champions League matches, and continues to receive regular call ups to the Swiss national team.

48: Brek Shea

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    Many Americans will be upset that "America's biggest U-21 talent" comes in at only 48th on this list, but the this list is so jam-packed with talent that it would've been nearly impossible to fairly include him at a higher position on the list.

    Brek Shea has been amazing for FC Dallas this season. Since making his debut back in 2008 for FC Dallas, Shea has shown gradual improvement, but this year was his breakout year. In 31 league matches, Shea has record 11 goals, many of them stunners, and four assists.

    Shea's good form in the MLS has earned him the honor of being an MLS All-Star, but more importantly, it has earned him seven caps with American national team, where he has looked to be a fresh and inventive addition to the starting lineup.

    The big debate on Shea now is whether or not he goes to Europe or continues to develop in the MLS. For me, its a no-brainer—the guy has been developing in the MLS for four years now, its time for him to play at a higher level and take his game to a higher level.

    We'll see how things pan out for Shea in the offseason.

47: Jano Ananidze

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    At one point last season, Jano Ananidze was one of the most talked about, hyped-up footballers on the planet. Among followers of the European soccer, it'd be rare to find anyone who didn't know who Ananidze was.

    This season, the hype has died down a bit, as the 19-year-old Spartak Moscow player has had to deal with injuries but also with the lack of European football to showcase his talents on the world stage.

    Still, the young Georgian has already picked up 11 caps for the Georgian national team, and scored a goal for them as well. He has also scored a goal and record two assists for Spartak Moscow in league action.

46: Philippe Coutinho

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    Philippe Coutinho was bought by Inter Milan for €4 million in 2008 after being scouted by Internazionale's scouts. He was allowed to stay with his youth club, Vasco da Gama, till his 18th birthday, then linked up with Inter in July 2010.

    Coutinho's first season with Inter was a bit of a mixed bag. The young Brazilian did record a goal for Inter in his final game of the season, but generally was given limited playing time and was not experienced enough to really do much with the great deal of time he was given at the start of the season.

    The 2011-12 season will be huge for Coutinho. Many players have flopped at Inter Milan after multiple unproductive seasons for the Milanese giants. If Coutinho cannot produce, he may find his career seriously setback before it even has the opportunity to blossom.

45. Rafael Da Silva

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    Rafael da Silva only finds himself so far down this list due to: a) his injury which has prevented him from playing this season, and b) the emergence of Chris Smalling, which threatens to severely limit the playing time of the young Brazilian.

    Rafael da Silva is a right back who currently plays for Manchester United. At the age of 21, he has already made 73 professional appearances for the club, scoring two goals in the process.

    Da Silva looked set to establish himself as Manchester United's first-choice right back this season, with the departure of competitors Wes Brown and John O'Shea, as well as Gary Neville earlier in the 2010-11 season.

    However, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to experiment with Chris Smalling in the position, and hasn't really look back since.

    It should be noted that whenever Smalling has been injured though, Antonio Valencia, a right winger, has been forced to awkwardly slot back into the right back position.

    Whenever Rafael returns, he will almost be the one making appearances whenever Smalling is injured, and likely will be given opportunities to prove himself and compete with Smalling for playing time.

44: Ryad Boudebouz

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    Ryad Boudebouz is a massively talented player, and is the only Arab to make this list, making him a bit of a favorite of mine (even though he's Algerian, and I'm Egyptian, and football-wise we're supposed to greatly dislike each other...)

    Anyway, the only the reason Boudebouz features this low on the list is that he still plays his football at Sochaux, a decent team in Ligue 1 that just isn't strong enough to challenge for the title, and probably won't make it into Europe either.

    That doesn't mean that Boudebouz isn't a massively talented player though. The young Algerian has been a regular for Sochaux since the age of 18, playing in other 100 games for Sochaux and scoring 21 goals.

    Last season was Boudebouz's breakout season, as he played in all 38 league games and recorded eight goals and eight assists. He looks on pace to to outdo his totals from last season, with three goals and three assists in 10 games so far this season.

43: Antoine Griezmann

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    Antoine Griezmann is the third consecutive winger on this list, but also the first 20-year-old on this list.

    Griezmann is a French winger groomed at Real Sociedad since 2005. He has already made 80+ appearances for Real Sociedad in little more than two seasons with the club, and has scored an impressive 14 goals as well.

    This season is the second season Griezmann will be playing in the Primera as opposed to the Segunda Divison. Though Griezmann and Real Sociedad haven't gotten off to the hottest start, Griezmann has scored against FC Barcelona this season, and surely there are many more goals to come in the 2011-12 season. 

42: Eduardo Salvio

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    Eduardo Salvio is currently a winger for Atletico Madrid, and an Argentinian international.

    The young right winger was purchased from Argentinian club Lanus in 2010, and promptly sent on loan to Benfica. At Benfica, Salvio truly announced himself to the world, scoring 10 goals and recording eight assists in 40 matches for the club.

    His good performances would earn him a call-up and cap with the national team.

    Now back at Atletico, Salvio is battling for playing time with the likes of Arda Turan and Jose Antonio Reyes, which is not an easy proposition.

    He has been particularly impressive in the Europa league however, where he has scored a goal and recorded three assists in three matches.

41: Adem Ljajic

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    Adem Ljajic is a very promising 20-year-old winger currently playing for Fiorentina.

    Ljajic started his career out with FK Partizan in 2008, making his Champions League debut for the club at only the age of 16.

    Ljajic's quick development at Partizan raised the interest of Manchester United, but despite a deal being put in place, the agreement was dropped when issues with obtaining a work permit for Ljajic arose.

    Ljajic instead joined Fiorentina, and has slowly but surely developed with the Florence-based club. Last season, in his first full season with the club, he made 26 league appearances for the club, scoring three goals in the process.

    His performances earned him five caps for the Serbian national team. This season, Adem Ljajic has been out with injury, but he made his injury return last weekend, and looks set to make many more appearances for Fiorentina and Serbia in the future.

    And who knows, maybe Ljajic will move to a Manchester United-caliber club in the future.

40: Martin Kelly

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    Martin Kelly has been Liverpool's first-choice right back this season with Glen Johnson, and has performed admirably in all six of his games.

    In fact, here's an interesting little tidbit: In all six of the games Kelly has played in for Liverpool this season, Liverpool have won five and drawn one, with the draw coming against Manchester United. Without Kelly in the starting lineup, Liverpool have drawn twice and lost twice.

    Last season, Kelly got his big break for Liverpool, making 23 appearances for the club.

    With Glen Johnson back, Kelly's league appearances will likely be limited, but he will almost surely pick up spot starts against lower level opposition or in Liverpool's other competitions, and is also likely to make various substitute appearances throughout the season.

39: Sebastian Coates

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    Sebastian Coates is the second consecutive Liverpool player to feature on this list, an indicator of just how young and youth-invested this current Liverpool team is.

    Coates first started playing professional football with Club Nacional in Uruguay, making his debut as an 18-year-old in 2008. Over the course of the next three years, Sebastian Coates would make 68 appearances in all competitions for Nacional, scoring five goals and assisting seven.

    Coates rose to true stardom and become known around the world in the 2011 Copa America, where along with Diego Lugano he formed one-half of the most impressive center-back partnership in the competition.

    Despite going into the competition uncapped, Coates would start for four out of Uruguay's seven Copa America games, including the final. His excellent performances generated interest from Liverpool, and the promising center-back was purchased on August 30th, 2011.

    At Liverpool, Coates has yet to move up the pecking order at the club ahead of Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, but time is most definitely on his side, and it is only a matter of time before Coates establishes him as a regular for Liverpool and a regular starter for Uruguay.

38: Junior Hoilett

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    Sometimes it pays to be a big fish in a little pond.

    At Blackburn Rovers, Junior Hoilett has become the brightest star on a team rapidly sinking into the depth of Premier League despair. Amidst all struggles at Rovers, Hoilett has played all but one minute of Blackburn's EPL campaign, and has been involved in the League Cup as well.

    Junior Hoilett is at a bit of a crossroads with his career. At 21 years old, there are still many unanswered questions about Hoilett. Is he predominantly a winger or a striker? And why doesn't he contribute more assists or goals to Blackburn's offense?

    Furthermore, the issue of which national team he will represent is still a major talking point, as both Canada and Jamaica have yet to call-up the talented Blackburn Rovers youth product.

    The sooner Hoilett answers all these questions for his fans, the sooner his profile on the world stage can become bigger and bigger. Who knows, a move to a big EPL club could be right around the corner if Hoilett plays his cards right.

37: Gabriel Torje

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    Alexis who?

    At Udinese, Gabriel Torje is making Udinese fans forget all about Alexis Sanchez's exit to Barcelona this summer. The 21-year-old Romanian winger transferred to Udinese on August 30th, 2011, and quickly made his ability known by assisting both of Udinese goals in his first game.

    Torje has already made 13 appearances for the Romanian national team, scoring three goals in the process, and is practically a fixture in the national team at this point.

    Unfortunately, Torje is cup-tied for the Europa League this season, having played in four different Europa League matches with Dinamo Bucharest. Still, Serie A should give him a more than big enough stage to showcase his talents to the world and help lead Udinese to success in the league once again.

36: Lewis Holtby

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    It would appear that wingers are the U-21 star position of choice thus far, as Holtby is the eighth winger to be included on this list.

    Lewis Holtby is a 21-year-old German winger currently playing for FC Schalke in the Bundesliga. 

    Having only just turned 21 this September, Holtby has already had a pretty decent professional career, making 35 appearances for Alemannia Aachen in the 2nd Bundesliga before making a total of 25 appearances for Vfl Bochum and FC Schalke in 2009-10.

    The 2010-11 season was Lewis Holtby's breakout season, as the young winger record six goals and 10 assists in 32 appearances for FSV Mainz. His hard work was rewarded with two Germany caps last season, as well as a spot in the Schalke starting lineup upon his return.

    At Schalke this season, Holtby has recorded five goals and three assists in 17 games, all of which he started. Back with the U-21 national team, he has also record four goals and an assist in four matches. 

    Holtby's performances have helped Schalke get off to a good start to the season, sitting comfortably in third behind Borussia Dortmund ad Bayern Munich. At the rate he is developing, its hard not to see Holtby back in the Germany squad by the end of the season.

35: Luc Castaignos

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    19-year olds are a rare commodity on this list, with Luc Castaignos being the fourth such player on this list. Even rarer, he is only the second striker to make this list, after Jozy Altidore.

    Castaignos first rose to fame at the 2009 UEFA European Under-17 Football Championship, where he helped the Netherlands to second place by scoring three goals. He was the tournament's top scorer (alongside Lennart Thy), and was included in the team of the tournament.

    Castaignos would not really feature for Feyenoord until the 2010-11 season. In this season, Castaignos established himself as one of the most promising Dutch talents on the planet by becoming Feyenoord's starting striker and scoring 15 goals in 34 games.

    By then, Internazionale had already agreed a deal to bring Castaignos to Milan, and the move was completed upon the opening of the transfer window.

    Now at Inter Milan, Castaignos faces competition from Mauro Zarate, Diego Forlan, Diego Milito, and Giampaolo Pazzini for playing time. He has only played 58 minutes for Inter Milan this season, but should pick up time in Cup matches and Champions League or lower-end Serie A games as the season progresses.

34: Carlos Casemiro

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    Another rare commodity on this list: Carlos Casemiro is the first defensive midfielder on this list, and probably the only 19-year-old defensive midfielder that will feature on this whole list.

    Carlos Casemiro has been raised and groomed by Sao Paolo since 2002, and has captained numerous youth teams at the club. He made his first-team debut in 2010, and has since made 37 appearances for the first team, 33 coming as starts. He has scored six goals and recorded six assists over the same time period.

    At present, there is reported interested in signing Carlos Casemiro from practically all the major clubs in Europe, including Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Tottenham and Arsenal. Given Casemiro's development at Sao Paolo, the Brazilian may just be ready to take the next step in his career.

33: Kyle Walker

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    Tottenham and England right back Kyle Walker comes in at 33rd on this list of the top U-21 talents in the world.

    At only the age of 21, Walker has already played for six clubs in his career, and played in a total of 96 games of professional football.

    After starting out at Sheffield United, he was purchased by Tottenham Hotspur in 2009, and loaned back to Sheffield. He followed up that loan spell with spells at QPR and Aston Villa, and is now the starting right back at Tottenham.

    Already, Kyle Walker has put in some spectacular performances for Tottenham, such as his performance against Arsenal which was culminated by a 25-yard cracker that won the North London Derby for Tottenham.

    The young Englishman still has some work to do on the defensive side of his game, but his offense looks excellent thus far.

    He faces a great deal of competition internationally for the right back spot from Micah Ricards, Chris Smalling and Glen Johnson, but should he continue to improve he may just work his way into Capello's plans.

32: Jordan Henderson

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    Many would say that 32nd is too high for Jordan Henderson, but taking in his career as a whole, I think he deserves to be rated this high.

    Jordan Henderson got his first real taste of professional football at Coventry City, on loan from his parent club, Sunderland, who had enrolled him in their academy at the age of 16. There he played regularly in the club's end-of-the-season games, as well as in the club's FA Cup campaign.

    In total, Henderson made 13 appearances for Coventry City, scoring a goal and recording two assists before returning to Sunderland following a fifth metatarsal bone fracture.

    Upon recovering from his fracture, Henderson went on to play two full seasons with Sunderland, making a total of 77 appearances for Sunderland. He would record five goals and eleven assists for Sunderland over that same time period, and was picked as Sunderland's Young Player of the Season in both seasons.

    His good form for Sunderland also resulted in Jordan Henderson earning his first England cap in 2010, and in him making the starting lineup for the U-21 European Championships for England.

    Henderson's good performances paid off with a big-money move to Liverpool in the summer of 2011. Despite starting the season as a starter for the team, Henderson's performances have not been top-class, at least not regularly, and have resulted in him being dropped to the bench and used as a substitute.

    At only the age of 21 though, Henderson has plenty of time to prove his worth and regain his starting position in the team, and surely given his versatility it is almost a certainty that he will pick up starts for Liverpool, whether they be in the League, Europa League, or cup competitions.

31: Luuk De Jong

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    FC Twente's starting striker, Luuk De Jong, is the next striker to feature on this list.

    Interesting, both Luuk De Jong and his brother, Siem De Jong, were scouted by Ajax while playing at amateur club DZC'68. Siem, who himself has matured into a fine footballer (but misses out on inclusion in this list due to being 21 years old), was signing to a professional contract, while Luuk was not.

    Luuk De Jong's road to stardom was much longer than his brother's. De Jong would join De Graafschap's youth system after leaving his amateur club, and would only make his first team debut in 2008.

    To his credit though, De Jong took his chances to play for De Graafschap well, and despite recording only three goals and two assists in 17 matches for the club, De Jong gained numerous plaudits for his performances, plaudits which would earn him a move to FC Twente in 2009.

    And the rest, as they say, is history. De Jong performed decently in 2009/10, scoring seven goals and recording three assists in 20 appearances and only six starts. In 2010/11 however, De Jong lit up the goalscoring charts, recording 20 goals and an impressive 16 assists in 49 appearances in all competitions.

    This season, De Jong shows no signs of slowing down, having already scored 12 goals and recorded eight assists in 19 games. His excellent form has earned him four caps, all as a substitute, for the Netherlands. He scored a goal for the Netherlands against Finland in Euro 2012 qualification.

    It will be interesting to see where Luuk De Jong winds up when he leaves Holland, and whether he winds up being a Klaas-Jan Huntelaar or Luis Suare. Either way, he definitely has the talent and ability to make it big on the world stage.

30: Raphael Varane

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    (For those of you who don't know which one is Varane, he's the one all the way on the right, beside Hamit Altintop.)

    Raphael Varane is an 18-year-old center back currently playing at Real Madrid. The guy is actually the only 18-year-old on this list, to give you an idea of how highly I and many others rate him. His upside is massive.

    I wrote this piece on Varane back in the summer, and most of it still holds true and valid. Since then however, we've gotten the opportunity to get a glimpse of what Varane is capable of at Madrid, and its been very impressive.

    Already, Varane has made three starts for Real Madrid, one in the Champions League and two in La Liga, and has been remarkably solid in all three games, two of which ended with Real Madrid earning a clean sheet. In the third, Varane scored to help Madrid to a 6-2 win over Rayo Vellacano.

    Varane is held in high regard by Mourinho, and is currently Mourinho's third/fourth choice center back, behind Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho and occasionally Sergio Ramos.

    With Carvalho approaching retirement and Ramos usually playing at right back, Varane could very likely find himself earning a great deal of playing time in the near future. In the distant future, Varane looks like he could easily become a legend for both Real Madrid and France.

29: Erik Lamela

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    Maybe I was wrong about 19-year-olds being a rare commodity on this list; Erik Lamela is the sixth 19-year-old to feature on this list.

    Erik Lamela made a single appearances for River Plate in 2008-09 and 2009-10, but it wasn't until the 2010-11 season that Lamela truly broke out and become a major star for River Plate.

    In 34 total games for River Plate that season, Lamela scored four times and assisted six goals, but could not save the historic team from relegation.

    In the summer of 2011, Lamela moved to Roma for a fee of up to €19 million (based on incentives), and has already garned praise from both his coach and his captain.

    He was prevented from starting the season with the team due to an ankle injury, but scored the winner for Roma against Palermo on his debut.

    It's too early to say what the future holds for the Argentine international, especially after a single game for Roma, but he certainly is in the right environment to truly blossom into a star.

28: Bojan Krkic

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    Bojan is almost surely the most experienced professional on this list. 

    Bojan Krkic was always meant to be a huge Barcelona star. Everyone expected him to mature alongside Lionel Messi, and become just as good or maybe even better than the Argentine. But it never happened.

    Bojan had an excellent debut season for Barcelona, scoring 12 goals and five assists in 48 appearances and only 20 starts. But it never really got better from there.

    2008-09 saw Bojan score 10 goals and record six assists in 42 appearances for Barcelona. To his credit though, he only made 18 starts that season, scoring seven goals and getting three assists in those games.

    2009-10 was more of the same: 12 goals and three assists in 36 appearances. Only 16 starts were afforded to Bojan this time around. 

    Finally, 2010-11 saw Bojan take a big step back, and it seemed as though management's patience with the player had run out. Bojan managed only seven goals and three assists in 37 appearances, 20 of which were substitute appearances, and was put on the trading block by Pep Guardiola.

    Some might say Bojan never really got his fair shot at Barcelona; maybe, given his consistency in his early years, he should've earned more starts in 2009-10 and 2010-11. But due to the number of quality strikers at Barcelona's disposal throughout the years, it just never happened.

    Now at Roma, Bojan has been given the freedom by his former youth coach to play and show Barcelona what they missed out on by selling him. He has yet to truly impress, with only a solitary goal coming in seven appearances and five starts, but Luis Enrique that there is much more to come for the Catalan.

27: Andriy Yarmolenko

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    Though Andriy Yarmolenko is now 22 years old, at the time this article was started he was still 21, and thus is included on that technicality.

    Yarmolenko is the brightest Ukrainian talent in the world today. Despite only just turning 22, Yarmolenko has already made 15 appearances for the Ukraine national team, scoring an impressive five goals in the process.

    Yarmolenko has also scored an impressive 36 goals in 115 appearances for Dynamo Kiev, and has been nicknamed the new "Sheva" (Andriy Shevchenko) by many journalists in Ukraine.

    Will he live up to his nickname and achieve anywhere near as much as team-mate Andriy Shevchenko achieved in his career? Only time will tell.

26: Aaron Ramsey

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    As a disclaimer before I am attacked by waves of Arsenal fans complaining about me not being able to see Aaron Ramsey's great potential, let me just say that I do believe that Ramsey does indeed have a very bright future, and is a great player-in-the-making.

    Unfortunately, the next 25 players are also great players in the making, and are either currently better than Ramsey, or have simply undeniable upside.

    This slide was also written prior to Arsenal's 5-3 win over Chelsea, and I simply refuse to continue moving Ramsey up with each passing week as his performance improves. So this is based on his performances prior to that game.

    With that stated, Ramsey is Arsenal's 20-year-old starting playmaker.

    Despite having his career setback by roughly a year and a half after an awful tackle by Ryan Shawcross in the 2009-10 EPL season, Ramsey has slowly but surely gotten himself back into top shape this season.

    His start of the season was not as good as hoped as he was burdened with the near impossible task of filling the shoes of Cesc Fabregas, but slowly Ramsey has emerged out of the Spaniard's shadow to improve his own game and be his own player.

    Since missing Arsenal's 2-1 win over Sunderland, Ramsey has returned in great form with a superb, winning goal performance against Marseille, followed by a solid game against Stoke City.

    Arsene Wenger will be hoping for more of the same from the Welshman as Arsenal continue their revival and adjustment to life after Samir Nasri and Fabregas.

25: Romelu Lukaku

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    Had I done this list just a few months back, or maybe a year back, Romelu Lukaku would be in the top 10 of this list without a doubt.

    Romelu Lukaku has had a torrid time at Chelsea thus far. From being excluded from the club's Champions League squad, to playing only 31 minutes of Premier League football, to being subbed out for Petr Cech following Ross Turnbull's red card against Everton in the League Cup, things have not gone well for the Belgian in London.

    But setting that aside, Romelu Lukaku has proven himself to be player of immense talent. Making his debut for Anderlecht, one of the biggest clubs in Belgium, at age 16, Lukaku quickly went about tearing apart the Belgian Pro League.

    After two professional seasons, Lukaku had amassed 39 goals and 14 assists in 95 matches, and was beginning to earn regular call-ups to the Belgian national team.

    Lukaku's choice to move to Chelsea is understandable considering his admiration for Didier Drogba, but it definitely is looking like the wrong move for the young Belgian. The way things are going, it looks like Lukaku's career is in serious danger of stagnating as he is being presented with very limited playing opportunities.

    With Drogba still getting playing time, and Fernando Torres returning to form, Lukaku has practically no shot at Premier League playing time, and will have to feed off whatever scraps he is given in the League or FA Cup. 

    For someone as young as Lukaku, its hard to say that that's the best path for him this early in his career. If things do not change for the better, it may be in his best interest to aggressively pursue a loan move in January, either back home or to a smaller club in the Premier League, similar to how Daniel Sturridge broke through at Chelsea.

24. David De Gea

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    The infamous Spanish donut-snatcher is the first goalkeeper to feature on this list.

    Like Lukaku, I probably would've been inclined to place David De Gea a bit further up this list had he still been at Atletico Madrid.

    At Manchester United, the Spaniard's goalkeeping has been rather up and down. He's had games where he's been absolutely phenomenal, such as against Liverpool and Stoke City, but other games where he's looked very uncertain, such as in Manchester United's win over West Brom in the first EPL weekend of the season.

    David De Gea's talent is undoubted, as he was highly impressive at Atletico Madrid, but it seems it will still take a while before he establishes himself as a consistent menace in goal for Manchester United.

23. Wojciech Szczęsny

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    Wojciech Szczesny is undeniably one of the brightest goalkeeping talents in the world today. 

    In fact, on my list of the 50 best goalkeepers in the world, Szczesny is the highest ranked U-21 keeper, ahead of David De Gea (as he is here).

    Szczesny's stats suffer from the fact that Arsenal isn't a very defense-oriented team, and will concede many goals in even their best wins (like in Arsenal's 5-3 win over Chelsea).

    He also still makes the occasional mistake, though this happens much more rarely than it happened for his predecessor Manuel Almunia. 

    Despite this, he has remarkable reflexes and ability. Read more in the link above, and weigh in in the comments section below: Would you take Szcezesny over De Gea?

22. Mateo Musacchio

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    Probably one of the lesser-known guys in the top 25, Mateo Musacchio is a starting center-back for Villarreal in La Liga.

    Despite having only recently turned 21, Musacchio has already made 72 appearances for Villarreal, and is Villarreal's first-choice center-back along with Cristian Zapata.

    Last season, Musacchio picked up two caps with the Argentinian national team, and could very likely cement his place in a rather weak Argentina defense if he continues to develop at his present rate.

21. Xherdan Shaqiri

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    I tried to keep Xherdan Shaqiri as high up this list as possible, but sometimes you have to make tough decisions when ranking these guys, and this is one of them.

    Shaqiri is one of the most exciting wingers in the world today. The 20-year-old currently plays for FC Basel, and has been a regular for the team since the 2009-10 season.

    Shaqiri has scored 14 goals in 87 games for FC Basel, but where he has really made his name has been on the international level. He has already played 14 matches for the Swiss national team, and really annouced himself to the world in Switzerland's 3-1 win over Bulgaria, where he bagged a hat-trick.

    The next Theo Walcott? Maybe, hopefully without the inconsistency.

20. Chris Smalling

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    I have some rather mixed feelings about Chris Smalling.

    Part of me is really happy for him, what with his rags-to-riches story and just his general success as a U-21 player in England, but part of me is slightly unhappy with the fact that Smalling will likely keep Kyle Walker out of the England lineup for a very, very long time.

    Regardless, Chris Smalling has been great for Manchester United this season, and has really taken his game up a notch from where it was last season. With Rafael injured, Chris Smalling has really made the right back spot at Manchester United his, and has put in some very solid performances.

    Will he be able to keep Micah Richards, Kyle Walker and Glen Johnson all out of the England NT starting lineup? So far, that looks likely to be the case.

19. Iker Muniain

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    Earlier on this slideshow, I said that Raphael Varane was the only 18-year-old on this list. It appears I was wrong; Iker Muniain is also remarkably just 18 years old.

    Iker Muniain holds the distinguished honor of being the youngest player to ever put on an Athletic Bilbao shirt in an official game, at 16 years, seven months, and 11 days. Exactly a week later, Iker Muniain become the youngest goalscorer in Athletic history as well.

    Despite Muniain's young age, the Spanish winger has already made 94 appearances for Athletic Bilbao and has scored 14 goals.

    He is currently still with Spain U-21 team, with which he won the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championships, but at his current rate of development, a call-up to the national team should be on the way very soon.

18. Danny Welbeck

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    In due time, Danny Welbeck will likely become a regular goalscorer for Manchester United, and maybe even a fixture alongside Wayne Rooney for club and country.

    However, at present, he isn't quite at that level, and currently still finds himself trying to prove himself to be a better option than Javier Hernandez for Manchester United. Personally, I believe Javier Hernandez is making the more convincing case. For that reason, Welbeck finds himself at No. 18 on this list.

    Still only 20, Danny Welbeck has a great deal of time to improve his game. He's already earned two caps for the England national team and recorded five goals and two assists in 11 matches for Manchester United. 

17. Lucas

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    Practically all the remaining talents on this list are seasoned internationals, so with that in mind, its time to introduce the final non-European based player on this list.

    Some would consider it blasphemy to put Lucas outside the top 10 of a list of the best U-21 talents in the world, but I hope that seeing the rest of the players on this list will make said people change their mind.

    For a 19-year-old, Lucas has already achieved so much in his career. He's been a regular for Sao Paolo for two seasons now, recording 15 goals and 10 assists over the span of 62 games.

    His solid performances for Sao Paolo have earned him 10 caps for the Brazilian national team in 2011 alone. He was an ever-present player in Brazil's failed 2011 Copa America campaign, and continues to feature for the team this season.

    Though he doesn't dominate the transfer headlines as much as some of his compatriots, its hard to image Lucas not being snatched up by a major team in the next year or so.

16. Cristian Eriksen

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    Like Lucas, Cristian Eriksen is another talent who I've tried to push up as high as possible up this list. After much deliberation, I've decided 16 is the appropriate ranking for Eriksen.

    Making his debut just prior to his 18th birthday, Eriksen has already made 74 appearances for Ajax despite being only 19 years old. He was a key member in both Ajax's 2009-10 KNVB Cup triumph as well as the club's 2010-11 Eredivisie league triumph.

    Already, suitors have begun to swarm around Eriksen, but the Danish midfielder has wisely chosen to commit to Ajax until at least the end of the present season.

    With Ajax struggling through, I wouldn't be surprised to see Eriksen move at the end of the year, after having given the Dutch club two-and-a-half years of solid service. 

    The Danish international has also made an impressive 18 appearances for the Denmark national team, scoring on two separate occasions. He has become a fixture in the team's starting lineup.

15. Phil Jones

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    Like Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling, Phil Jones may just be a top 10 prospect and maybe even one of the best center backs in the world by the end of the season.

    But having only been a Manchester United player for 10 Premier League matches, Phil Jones comes in at 15th on our list of the world's greatest talents today. 

    Phil Jones is an outstanding prospect. At only 19 years of age, he has been Manchester United's most reliable center back this season, and looks set to displace Rio Ferdinand from the starting lineup much sooner than anyone could have expected.

    In the one game in which Phil Jones did not start for Manchester United this season in the English Premier League, Manchester United conceded six goals. I don't think we'll see Sir Alex Ferguson selecting Jonny Evans ahead of Phil Jones again anytime soon.

14. Miralem Pjanic

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    Some people rate the Bosnian international very highly. I'm not one of them. But when a 21-year-old has already picked up 28 caps for his national team and scored on four separate occasions, you do have to give the guy a little bit of respect.

    Miralem Pjanic first made his debut for FC Metz on August 18th, 2007, almost eight months prior to his 18th birthday. Pjanic played 38 games in all competitions for FC Metz that season, recording 4 goals and 4 assists, and earning a move to Lyon following FC Metz's relegation.

    At Lyon, Pjanic made 121 appearances for the team over the span of around three seasons, recording 16 goals and 16 assists. 

    Impressive as that may be, it becomes a tab less impressive when you consider that 11 of those goals and 10 of those assists were recorded in 2009-10, Pjanic's best career year, in which also made a record 53 appearances. The 2010-11 season was rather disappointing for Pjanic.

    Now at Roma, Pjanic has the opportunity to step out of the shadow of the various play-makers he played behind at Lyon and truly establish himself as a premier play-maker in world football. Will he be able to fulfill the expectations of the fans, his teammates, and his coach? Time will tell.

13. Andre Ayew

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    Andre Ayew is another player whose vast international experience propelled him up this list. At just the age of 21, Ayew has already made 32 appearances for Ghana.

    In addition to being a regular for Ghana's national team, Ayew has established himself as one of the most potent weapons in Marseille's offense. Ayew has already played in 127 official matches, but had his breakthrough season last year when he scored 13 goals in 51 appearances. 

    This year he's improved his scoring rate significantly, scoring nine goals in 13 appearances.

    The Ghanian has been linked on-and-off with Arsenal, and may be seriously considering a move to a bigger league with Marseille already looking likely to be out of contention for the Ligue 1 title.

    He has already won the Ligue 1 title, and could be ready for a change in scenery and the opportunity to win even more prestigious silverware.

12. Alan Dzagoev

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    Alan Dzagoev is one of those guys who you feel has been around for years now, but surprises you with just how young he actually is.

    Despite only turning 21 this June, Dzagoev has featured in over 175 matches for CSKA Moscow and Krylia Sovetov. He made his debut for Sovetov as a 15-year-old, and moved to CSKA Moscow at the age of just 16.

    Since then, he's recorded a remarkable 36 goals and 43 assists for CSKA Moscow in three-and-a-half seasons, and been ever-present in the team's starting lineup. He's also made 16 appearances for the Russian national team, scoring four goals.

    Alan Dzagoev is one of those guys where the next step isn't very clear. Will he stick with CSKA, winning trophies and living the good life, or ambitiously pursue a career in one of the bigger European leagues?

    There haven't been very many Dzagoev rumors circulating, so we're leaning on the former, but anything is possible in football.

11. Andre Schurrle

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    Bayer Leverkusen's 20-year-old winger barely misses the cut for the top 10.

    Schurrle burst onto the scene in 2010-11, scoring 15 goals for Mainz in 33 Bundesliga games. His remarkable league form earned him a call-up to the German national team in 2010, and since then he has made 10 appearances for the team and scored on five separate occasions. 

    Though Schurrle has not set the Bundesliga alight in his first season at Bayer Leverkusen, he still has an incredibly bright future ahead of him and is sure to develop into a regular start for Germany in the future.

10. Toni Kroos

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    We start our top 10 with Toni Kroos. Nobody really thinks of Toni Kroos as a young player anymore, but the truth is that the German international with 22 caps to his name is still only 21.

    Toni Kroos made his Bayern Munich debut back in September 2007, providing two assists to Miroslav Klose in a 5-0 win over Energie Cottbus. However, in his first one-and-a-half seasons at Bayern Munich, Kroos found playing time hard to come by, and was loaned out to Bayer Leverkusen.

    At Bayer Leverkusen, Toni Kroos made his breakthrough. Though he took half-a-season to settle, he excelled in the 2009-10 season, scoring nine league goals in 33 matches, and providing 12 assists as well. Following his excellent season, Kroos was recalled to Bayern Munich.

    With all the big names at Bayern Munich, Kroos has struggled to replicate the outstanding form he showed at Bayer Leverkusen. He still remains a solid contributor, for both club and country, and is very versatile, capable of playing in midfield or on the wings.

9. Stefan Jovetic

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    At the end of the 2009-10 season, Stefan Jovetic had the world at his feet. He was 20, and yet he was already a starter and a frequent goalscorer for one of Serie A's better teams, plus a regular goalscorer for his national team, Montenegro.

    Then came the cruciate knee ligament injury which kept Jovetic out of the game for a year and set his career back considerably from all the heights he reached in 2009-10.

    Jovetic is now out to get back to where he was and become even better. He's certainly on the right path, having scored five goals and assisted two in his first nine games this season.

    Recently, Fiorentina tied Jovetic down on a contract till 2016. Clearly, they know just how good Jovetic is and just how much he is worth to the team.

8. Mamadou Sakho

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    Introducing the center back Arsene Wenger spends day and night dreaming about: Mamadou Sakho!

    In all seriousness though, Arsene Wenger probably would love to have this guy and the next guy on the list in his team.

    At present, Wenger has a decent selection of center backs at his disposal, with Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny all looking good at various points this season, but I'm sure Wenger would be delighted if he were able to field someone like Sakho along Koscielny or Vermaelen.

    Mamadou Sakho has been with Paris Saint-Germain since 2002, and made his debut for PSG only a day after his 17th birthday. In October 2007, he made his league debut as captain of the team, becoming the youngest captain of a Ligue 1 team ever, at only 17 and eight months old.

    Since then, Sakho has made a total of 136 appearances for PSG, as well as earn four caps for the French national team.

    As PSG continue their climb up the table, and enter into the Champions League next season, Sakho will only become better and earn more France international caps.

7: Yann M'Vila

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    Yann M'Vila was actually a target for Arsene Wenger this summer, but the Professor was unable to sign the Frenchman prior to the transfer deadline. Reports claim that he will try again in January.

    Like Sakho, M'Vila has been a one-club man thus far, joining Rennes in 2004 and making his debut in August 2009. Since then M'Vila has hardly missed a game for Rennes, making 95 appearances already in under two-and-a-half seasons.

    Already, M'Vila has established him as a regular French international, making 15 appearances for France since August 2010. He is a powerful kind of defensive midfielder of which few exist; hence his rapid build-up of France national team caps.

    Even though he isn't really what Arsenal need, as they already have Alexander Song for as a defensive midfielder and both Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin coming through, it'd be nice to see the Frenchman playing in front of a bigger audience.

6: Thiago Alcantara

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    I wrote a piece on Thiago Alcantara this summer, and since I love citing my own work, here it is.

    Following a remarkable summer, Alcantara has been a bit of a passenger at Barcelona. His first game saw him pick up a goal and two assists, but since then, he's done nothing statistically significant in 10 games, which is a tad worrisome for a young offensive weapon like Alcantara.

    It can be hard to bag goals in an offense filled with powerful midfielders though, like Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, so I'm sure that with time Alcantara will start piling up assists and goals.

5. Jack Wilshere

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    Out of all the new English talents being introduced to life with the England national team, Jack Wilshere is undoubtedly the brightest and most promising. At only 19-years-old, he's already a firm starter for Arsenal when fit, and a fairly regular member of the England squad as well.

    Jack Wilshere is Arsenal's youngest ever debutant, at 16 years and 256 days, breaking Cesc Fabregas' record. Last season, as a holding midfielder behind Cesc Fabregas, Wilshere managed two goals and nine assists in 35 total games.

    Unfortunately for Arsenal, Wilshere is out recovering from ankle surgery until at least January, but Arsenal will be eagerly anticipating his return to take their game to the next level.

4. Mario Gotze

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    In recent years, Borussia Dortmund have become a youth factory of sorts, pumping out great talents like Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic, Kevin Großkreutz, Marcel Schmelzer and many more.

    But the brightest of them all has to be Mario Gotze, who seems to be attracting serious interest from Real Madrid as of late.

    Nineteen-year-old Gotze only really burst onto the scene last year, and only became a real potent threat following the injury to Shinji Kagawa. Nevertheless, he took his opportunities well, and finished the season with an impressive total of eight goals and 16 assists in 41 games.

    This season Gotze has continued his impressive work, scoring three goals and recording seven assists in only 16 matches.

    The young play-maker looks like a real assist factory, and I can't imagine Borussia Dortmund will be able to prevent him from joining ex-teammate Nuri Sahin and fellow German playmaker Mesut Ozil for too long.

3. Eden Hazard

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    Eden Hazard may be the most-talked about player on this list, due to the numerous transfer rumors that he's always surrounded by. He recently added fuel to the fire by admitting that he will be looking to leave Lille this summer.

    Bleacher Report's Will Tidey recently wrote an article on the top six possible destinations for the 20-year-old Belgian, and personally, I think he'd be a great fit for Arsenal.

    Of course, Arsenal are already loaded with quality wingers in Gervinho, Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott, as well as Ryo Miyaichi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain coming through, but who would take Theo Walcott over Eden Hazard?

    Not me, and not anyone who favors consistent greatness over sporadic greatness. It seems Arsenal agree with my opinion as well.

    With a remarkable 33 goals and 27 assists in 158 games, as well as 24 caps for Belgium, Eden Hazard is ready to give whatever team he moves to a huge boost in quality.

2: Mario Balotelli

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    Okay, I lied. The most talked about player on this list HAS to be Mario Balotelli. It isn't even close.

    After years of dominating the headlines with stories of indiscipline, sneaking into jail, setting off fireworks in his own home, swearing on live TV, putting on his team's rival's jersey, etc, many would think that Balotelli is well into his mid-20s. But no, the young Italian is only 21, and only just turned 21 as well.

    Skill-wise, its hard to place Mario Balotelli on this list. He's a solid striker who's in the middle of a transformation from good to world-class. But does that put him above the likes of guys like Eden Hazard and Jack Wilshere, who are also among the best players in their position?

    It's hard to answer that, but based on his form this season, and the fact that his team is dominating both England and Europe, I think he deserves his place on this list.

    Will he keep it up, and go a whole season without getting caught up in indiscipline issues with Roberto Mancini? Unlikely, given his past, but who knows? Mario Balotelli does seem, at least partially, to be a changed man.

1: Neymar

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    Many claim that Neymar is overhyped; that he is bound to fail whenever he moves to Europe. However, personally, I believe its very hard to say he doesn't deserve the hype.

    The 19-year-old scored 78 goals and record 37 assists in 154 games for Santos; very solid numbers for any player, but insane numbers for a 19-year-old. Internationally, he's lived up to the hype as well, scoring 8 goals in 15 games with the national team.

    ESPN recently reported that Real Madrid has agreed a deal with Santos to bring in Neymar for a whopping £53 million, which to me is an insane amount of money to be spending for anybody, let alone a 19-year-old.

    But, at the very least, Real Madrid and its shareholders, investors, etc, can all rest easy knowing that they've signed easily one of the brightest talents in the world today, and arguably in the history of football.


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