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...

FourFourTwo - - 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 £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.

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