Pele, Pogba... PICKFORD??
Who will be the best young star?
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.