There’s been much talk surrounding the World Cup as to who the ‘big star’ will be? Will Lionel Messi finally become an all-time great by winning a World Cup with Argentina; can Cristiano Ronaldo carry his superb form from Real Madrid this year into the World Cup for Portugal or can Neymar finally live up to his big reputation and lead the host nation Brazil to World Cup glory. However, what is often overlooked is the impact that young players can have on the world stage and in this article I will identify a group of youngsters, 22 and under, who I believe can set the world alight this summer in Brazil.
11. Heung-Min Son – South Korea / Bayer Leverkusen – 21
Equally adept with both feet, lightening quick, an eye for goal and a venomous strike – Son might find himself a little hard done by to be at the bottom of this list. At just 21, the young Korean has already had three impressive seasons at HSV before Leverkusen splashed a reported €10 million on him and he has continued to show his class with a solid first season including 12 goals and 7 assists in all competition, the highlight of them being a hat-trick against his former club. Son already has 26 international caps to his name and has started both of Korea’s disappointing warm up fixtures, so expect the versatile attacker to be floating across their front line in their tricky group games.
10. William Carvalho – Portugal/Sporting Lisbon – 22
William is highly coveted across Europe and hopefully we’ll get to see him in the Premier League, with both Man United and Liverpool reportedly interested. The young defensive midfielder is another excellent prospect to come from Sporting’s academy. Showing maturity beyond his years, the imposing midfield figure has made the spot in front of the back four for Sporting his own this season and became a mainstay over the second half of the campaign. With pace, power and a strong tackle, William will be battling with the more experienced Fernando and Miguel Veloso for a starting birth against Germany. But having been given the full 90 in their impressive 5-1 win against Ireland, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bento keep faith in the youngster.
9. Atsu – Chelsea (on loan at Vitesse)/Ghana
Atsu is one of many young Chelsea players to be shipped out on loan, but the Ghanaian winger is probably the one who has impressed the most this season, of course after the two more obvious candidates also on this list. Picking up Vitesse fans’ player of the season award along the way, Atsu has shone in the Eredivise this season with his pace and trickery consistently troubling defenders. Dubbed ‘the African Messi’, there’s no doubt that there is much of expected of Atsu in coming years. However with a very tricky group indeed, Ghana will be playing with no fear in Brazil and this young starlet could well cause the German and Portuguese defences a number of problems.
8. Mateo Kovačić – Croatia / Inter Milan – 20
Despite the wealth of talent Croatia already boast in this position, in Rakitic and Modric, I’m still expecting this young man to make a splash in Brazil. Although he has struggled to find form this season, being deployed in a less favoured deeper role, Inter boss Mazzarri has continued to show faith in the youngster, giving him 45 league appearances across his two-year tenure. Expect to see plenty of tricks and flicks along with some mazy dribbles when he makes an impact off the bench.
7. Raheem Sterling – Liverpool/England – 19
I’m not sure this lad needs too much of an introduction following his absolutely superb season with Liverpool, which almost saw him crowned a Premier League champion, and perhaps should have seen him named Young Player of the Year. With his lightening pace he could be exactly what England need to stretch teams and hit them on the counter when our backs are almost inevitably against the wall. It will be interesting to see how much Hodgson uses him, especially now that Welbeck is reportedly out of the opener against Italy. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, plays on the left, right or through the middle, I’m backing this young man to make a big impact this summer.
6. Raphaël Varane – Real Madrid/France – 21
Hailed by Mourinho as “the best young defender in the world”, Varane has put in a string of first-rate performances for Real this season. Already a good reader of the game as well as being quick, strong and good on the ball, Varane will surely be in direct competition with the more experienced Sakho and Koscielny for a start in France’s opener against Honduras. If the youngster is allowed to impress in their relatively comfortable group games, we could well see him being one of the stand out players at the tournament.
5. Romelu Lukaku – Chelsea (on loan at Everton)/Belgium – 21
With Christian Benteke side-lined for the summer, this man is surely guaranteed a starting role for Belgium in Brazil, even if head coach Wilmots insists that it will “depend on the opponents” whether he will get the nod. That said, I don’t believe he will be capable of fulfilling the same role as the Aston Villa man who is a more natural target man due to his superior touch and general hold-up play. Nevertheless, Lukaku’s sheer pace and power, along with his clinical finishing and strength in the air means that he isn’t exactly a bad option. Having been banging them in during Belgium’s warm up games (even if his hat-trick against Luxembourg will not go on record), Lukaku will surely find himself amongst the goals in Brazil, especially considering the service he should be getting from the likes of Hazard, De Bruyne and Mirallas.
4. Thibaut Courtois – Chelsea (on loan at Atletico Madrid)/Belgium – 22
Courtois is surely the most exciting young keeper since Casillas. The young Belgium stopper has had yet another fantastic season with Athletico, keeping them in games on numerous occasions with some spectacular saves (especially his stunning stop against AC Milan in the Champions League quarter final). He has more than proven that he deserves his place in the starting 11 over the more experienced Mignolet. While Courtois may not need to be at his best to see Belgium through the group stages, with Germany or more likely Portugal to face in the next round, Courtois presence in the Belgian net may prove to be a deciding factor.
3. Paul Pogba – Juventus/France – 21
Having been ‘disrespected’ by Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, Pogba has proved to be a revelation since joining Juventus. In the mould of Vieira, with slightly more attacking intent, the bullish centre mid will be let loose in Brazil and allowed to dominate the middle of the park, complimented by Cabaye and Matuidi. With no shortage of confidence plus the power and technical ability to back it up, don’t be surprised to see Pogba help France surpass expectations and maybe even bag himself another wonder goal (see strikes vs Udinese and Napoli).
2. James Rodriguez – AS Monaco/Columbia – 22
Cleary the loss of Falcao will be a huge blow to this promising Colombia side, but I’d still back them to meet expectations in this World Cup. Jackson Martinez has proved that he is capable of filling El Tigre‘s boots, and if James Rodriguez can continue his fine form, he will have no shortage of service. In this man they have an amazingly technical and creative young player. He boasts consistently impressive goal and assist records both for Porto, and in his debut season for Monaco following his €45 million move last summer. Rodriguez is highly versatile and equally strong on either side or down the middle, he has great delivery both from set pieces and open play, and has the mental sharpness to stay one step ahead of defenders. One thing’s for sure, England will not want to come up against this guy in the second round.
1.Neymar – Barcelona/Brazil – 22
Undoubtedly the player with the most pressure on him this summer, it seems at times that Brazil’s hopes on their home turf rest entirely on this lad’s shoulders, such is the media furore surrounding the Barcelona sensation. It’s easy to see, however, just why everyone is so excited to see Neymar in action in Brazil this summer. His magical dribbling and unparalleled technical ability leave him easily amongst the World’s best at just 22. I fully expect him to justify being one of the two favourites for the Golden Boot and light up the tournament with his sensational ability.