Pele, Pogba... PICK­FORD??

Who will be the best young star?

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words Andy Bras­sell

MARCO ASEn­SIO Spain | At­tack­ing mid­fielder | 22

One al­ways won­dered how Marco Asen­sio could top his 2016-17 sea­son. It started with him scor­ing a sub­lime goal in the UEFA Su­per Cup win over Sevilla and ended with his strike con­firm­ing Real Madrid’s 12th corona­tion as Euro­pean cham­pi­ons, adding their fi­nal goal in the 4-1 Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal vic­tory over Ju­ven­tus in Cardiff. It hasn’t al­ways been straight­for­ward dur­ing a cam­paign in which Zine­dine Zi­dane’s side laboured do­mes­ti­cally, when they were widely ex­pected to em­bark on a new era of dom­i­nance. Yet much like the team’s cen­tre­piece, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, the 22-year-old started to rev up as the sea­son moved into the home strait. Asen­sio’s sea­son is that of his team’s in mi­cro­cosm. Many awaited a show of su­pe­ri­or­ity and they haven’t quite seen it. How­ever, of all the young play­ers at the Bern­abeu who have found 2017-18 tough go­ing, the for­mer Es­panyol loa­nee has coped with it best. Cru­cially, he’s made big con­tri­bu­tions when it mat­ters. It was Asen­sio’s cameo in the Cham­pi­ons League last 16 first leg against Paris Saint-Ger­main which turned an un­con­vinc­ing dis­play into a de­ci­sive lead, and he scored the win­ner in the away leg of the semi-fi­nal with Bay­ern Mu­nich. Zi­dane trusts Asen­sio to take care of busi­ness at clutch time, and the star­let rarely dis­ap­points. The Mal­lor­can’s pace is im­por­tant, of course, but the in­tel­li­gence of his runs and the ju­di­cious way in which he uses the ball are just as key to his in­flu­ence as his ex­plo­sive power. This is great news for Spain coach Julen Lopetegui. He may choose to start Asen­sio in Rus­sia but knows for sure that he can make the dif­fer­ence from the bench, and that he has qual­i­ties in his locker that no­body else in the squad pos­sesses.

JOR­DAn PICK­FORD Eng­land | Goal­keeper | 24

The most ex­pen­sive Bri­tish goal­keeper ever, Jor­dan Pick­ford felt like an overnight suc­cess upon join­ing Ever­ton for $40 mil­lion, with only 31 Premier League matches to his name. In fact, like many overnight suc­cesses, plenty of hard – and largely un­seen – work had gone into get­ting him to that point. Com­ing through the academy at lo­cal club Sun­der­land, the young Pick­ford did a loan tour of the Con­fer­ence (as was), League One and League Two with Dar­ling­ton, Al­fre­ton, Bur­ton, Carlisle and Brad­ford, be­fore even­tu­ally be­ing thrust into the spot­light against Ar­se­nal due to Vito Man­none’s in­jury. One could ar­gue much of Pick­ford’s ca­reer has been an ex­er­cise in char­ac­ter-build­ing. He was the oft-ex­posed last line of de­fence dur­ing Sun­der­land’s rel­e­ga­tion from the Premier League in 2016-17, prior to be­ing pro­pelled into an Ever­ton side fall­ing way be­low ex­pec­ta­tions. That he held up amid the chaos around him, as well as that oner­ous price tag, says much for his men­tal strength. So it’s lit­tle won­der that the Tof­fees will look to build around him, wher­ever their fu­ture takes them. The only ques­tion, ahead of the World Cup, is whether Gareth South­gate does the same in the short term. Jack But­land is the im­me­di­ate com­pe­ti­tion, and for the first time in a while it seems like there’s healthy ri­valry for the Eng­land No.1 shirt. Pick­ford could hardly be do­ing any more. He’s a re­as­sur­ing pres­ence be­tween the sticks and has played every sin­gle minute of Ever­ton’s league sea­son. While many Ever­to­ni­ans be­came sick of the sight of Sam Al­lardyce, the man­ager’s re­or­gan­i­sa­tion gave Pick­ford a chance to en­hance his con­cen­tra­tion by work­ing with a de­cent de­fence for the first time. It could prove a valu­able and be­lated con­tri­bu­tion to Eng­land’s fu­ture by Big Sam.

OUS­MAnE DEM­BELE France | For­ward | 21

A year ago Ous­mane Dem­bele had it all, hav­ing be­come Borus­sia Dort­mund’s most in­flu­en­tial player – with apolo­gies to his then team-mate, Pierre-Em­er­ick Aubameyang – and started to break down the door into France’s XI along­side Kylian Mbappe. What fol­lowed should have trans­formed him into one of the most fa­mous play­ers on the planet. After com­plet­ing his move to Barcelona as a re­place­ment for Ney­mar (for an ini­tial $162 mil­lion, mak­ing him the fourth-most ex­pen­sive player of all time), this sea­son was set to be Dem­bele’s ac­ces­sion to the elite level. But it hasn’t quite turned out like that – yet. A se­ri­ous mus­cle in­jury tor­pe­doed the first half of his cam­paign at the Camp Nou, and var­i­ous niggles have lim­ited him to a bed­ding-in sea­son in La Liga. He has been care­fully su­per­vised by coach Ernesto Valverde, who has nei­ther over­bur­dened him with re­spon­si­bil­ity nor needed to, with Barça cruis­ing to the ti­tle. Some have sug­gested the goal­posts have moved since Dem­bele was re­cruited in a post-Ney­mar panic, and that his time in Cat­alo­nia might have been and gone. A loan move for next sea­son was even mooted, with Atletico Madrid and Liver­pool put for­ward as po­ten­tial des­ti­na­tions, but Valverde rates him higher than many claim. “He’s a very tal­ented player,” the coach said after Barcelona’s 5-1 crush­ing of Vil­lar­real shortly be­fore the cam­paign’s end, in which the French­man starred. “Tech­ni­cally, the way he can play with both feet – he is quick, a good drib­bler – means he can help us a lot. He is young and has plenty of growing still to do, but tonight he was in­cred­i­ble.” Dem­bele’s sea­son of frus­tra­tion may have left him with a lit­tle ex­tra in the tank for Les Bleus after a gru­elling year for most, and that pace and wit could be more im­por­tant than ever.

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