The rookies ready to shine
Following Pele and Pogba by becoming the World Cup’s best young player won’t be easy for England’s rookie goalkeeper. Just check out the competition...
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 £25 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 £92 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.
ALEKSANDR GOLOVIN Russia | Midfielder | 22
Even the most wildly optimistic predictions would concede that Russia are in serious need of inspiration as they prepare to host the World Cup. Equally, it’s not been easy to see where they will find the required spark, especially after losing Aleksandr Kokorin to long-term knee knack.
Step forward Aleksandr Golovin; not a like-for-like swap for striker Kokorin but a midfielder of increasing influence. He made the most auspicious of international debuts in 2015. Just days after his 19th birthday, he came on as substitute for captain Roman Shirokov in a friendly with Belarus and scored 15 minutes later with a sweetly struck volley from the edge of the penalty area.
Since then, Golovin has been a crucial component for CSKA Moscow, having risen up through their youth ranks. He gained admiration for his contribution to CSKA’S run to the Europa League quarter-finals in 2017-18, with a spectacular strike at Lyon followed by a fine free-kick at Arsenal which briefly gave the Russian side hope of an upset. It’s his ability to open teams up with his dribbling and eye for a pass that excites even more, though. That could prove key this summer.
HIRVING LOZANO Mexico | Winger | 22
PSV Eindhoven have a long history of introducing Latin American talents to Europe in spectacular fashion, and Hirving Lozano is a fine continuation of that tradition. Few men have hit the ground running at the Philips Stadion in quite the same style as Lozano, popularly known as ‘Chucky’ thanks to a childhood penchant for scaring team-mates like the horror-movie doll.
Having become the first PSV player to score in each of his first three Eredivisie games, after arriving from Pachuca last year, he extended the run to notch nine in his opening eight matches.
The 22-year-old’s darting runs from the left flank to make shooting opportunities are not dissimilar to those of Memphis Depay during his stellar final season at PSV. Lozano is arguably a more accomplished team player, and laid on eight assists to go with his 17 league goals.
Europe’s sharks were circling for Lozano long before Phillip Cocu’s side won the title, and woe betide the club who don’t get a deal over the line before the World Cup. If his explosiveness can help El Tri get a result against holders Germany in Russia, you won’t be able to keep his name from the headlines.
KEITA BALDE Senegal | Forward | 23
If you were arriving somewhere with a hefty €30 million price tag on your head, you’d have wanted it to be at Monaco last summer.
Only two players have cost the Principality outfit more than Keita Balde when he signed from Lazio in August 2017 – Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, who starred at the 2014 World Cup. However, with big-name sales such as Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko and then Kylian Mbappe hogging the headlines, the Senegalese forward nearly slipped in unnoticed.
That relative anonymity has worked out well for Keita, because it took him time to settle in Ligue 1. He didn’t score until October, and although a flurry followed, it’s been a tough campaign for a player who dazzled in hitting 16 Serie A goals for Lazio the previous season. He ended 2017-18 with eight goals in 23 league games for Monaco.
He’ll still be pivotal for Senegal though, with his pace and elegance reflecting his Spanish upbringing. Keita’s undoubted quality and cool head in front of goal will eventually come good for Monaco, but he’s got plenty to contribute in Russia first.
GIOVANI LO CELSO Argentina | Midfielder | 22
Many of football’s elite players experience an early moment of disappointment that they use to spur them on to success. If Giovani Lo Celso manages to arrive at the top level of the game, it’s likely that his tough night in Paris Saint-germain’s Champions League reverse at Real Madrid, where they were beaten 3-1, will be seen as a major touchstone.
Many armchair critics wanted the 22-year-old to carry the can for the French champions falling short, as he looked ill at ease in a defensive midfield position he was still understanding and gave away the penalty from which Real equalised.
In fact it was PSG who learned a lesson rather than Lo Celso himself, and after beginning to play to his strengths more, they reaped rewards. The Argentine had moved to the French capital as an attacking midfielder in early 2017, looking every inch the graceful, slight South American No.10. Yet with manager Unai Emery in need of a midfield sentinel, Lo Celso stepped up to the plate and impressed with his organised play and tough tackling – until that tricky night in Madrid underlined he still had much to learn in the role. He has been freed from the shackles since and, operating in a midfield which is in transition, his delicate touch and eye for goal have come to the fore.
In an Argentina squad that is surprisingly light on top-quality midfield options, Lo Celso could earn himself a starting role – and the effort he’s put in outside his comfort zone will have paid off.
The steel and toughness added to his game during 2017-18’s first-team apprenticeship have given him a profile that few men in Jorge Sampaoli’s squad possess. Lo Celso might just be their secret World Cup weapon.
LEON GORETZKA Germany | Midfielder | 23
To succeed at Schalke requires a certain type of character. The pressure of turning out for the original giants of German football is sometimes underestimated, but it’s subdued many a fine talent. That was never going to be the case with Leon Goretzka.
The midfielder was already feted when he arrived in Gelsenkirchen in 2013 as an 18-year-old, with the tag of the “new Michael Ballack” freely applied to an elegant yet powerful player with a keen eye for goal. What many didn’t grasp is that while he hadn’t come through the Schalke academy, which enabled the likes of Manuel Neuer and Julian Draxler to cope with lofty expectations, Goretzka had already put in the hard yards in the second division, slugging his way through a successful relegation battle with Bochum.
He’s come a long way since, establishing himself as Die Knappen’s heartbeat and matching his gifts on the ball with lots of endeavour off it. He is mobile, strong and wins most of his tackles, thoroughly applying himself. It’s little wonder that as Goretzka’s deal ran down, Schalke pulled out all the stops to try to keep him, even offering him a €10 million annual salary which would have made him the club’s highest-paid player ever.
It didn’t work, and it was announced in January that the midfielder would join Bayern Munich in the summer – but the way in which he dealt with the initial opprobrium was something special. His excellent performances were a decisive factor in Schalke’s Champions League qualification, as they finished Bundesliga runners-up, and Goretzka was eventually given a hero’s send-off.
He can expect more of the same adulation from Germany fans if he can reproduce those displays, or the form that helped Die Mannschaft win last year’s Confederations Cup.