The World Cup often offers young players a chance to shine on the biggest stage of all and Qatar will be no different. Here’s nine players under the age of 21, from some of the qualified nations, who could announce themselves next year when the action begins.
Dusan Vlahovic, 21, Fiorentina / Serbia
Already an established Serie A forward with Fiorentina, the Serbia international helped fire his country to an automatic World Cup place in the 2-1 win over Portugal and, if his development continues at its current pace, the Balkan nation might even have a potential Golden Boot winner among their ranks.
Though Vlahovic’s progress may have gone under the radar for a global audience, he scored 21 Serie A goals last season, has 12 in 14 games this term and has refined his game to arguably become one of the top 10 centre-forwards in European football.
On top of his excellent finishing skills, he can score from any distance or position in or around the penalty area, Vlahovic has also improved his link-up game and general involvement in the build-up phase (protecting and circulating the ball, winning free kicks when dropping deep.) His contract dispute with Fiorentina may get messy before his terms expire in 2023, but his position as the focal point of Serbia’s attacks is not in doubt.
Karim Adeyemi, 19, FC Salzburg / Germany
Born in Munich to Nigerian and Romanian parents, the 19-year-old is one of the most exciting young strikers in European football. Having played for a few years in the Bayern academy, he moved to fourth-tier SpVgg Unterhaching for six years and a number of clubs (including Bayern and Chelsea) missed out when he signed for Austrian side FC Salzburg in 2018.
Adeyemi possesses fine balance, finishing skills and the ability to position himself well for rebounds, but it’s his remarkable pace and directness which inevitably attracts the most attention. Extremely quick off the mark, he also accelerates when he picks up the ball and almost always seems to have another gear. With a potent left foot, quick changes of direction and calm finishing skills, the striker has every chance of making a mark in Qatar based on his 14 goals in 18 games this season. He’s already scored his first senior goal for Germany, netting on his debut in September vs. Armenia, and has plenty of top clubs watching him again.
Antony, 21, Ajax / Brazil
Called up to the Brazil senior side for the first time in October following a decent showing in the Olympics and a great start to the season with Ajax, Antony is going from strength to strength.
He is a left-footed winger who usually lines up on the right side – though he does prefer cutting back on to his stronger foot — equipped with very quick feet and able beat his full-back with his trickery and movement. Always positive in his play — either looking for quick interchanges, overlaps, flick-ons or a shot from outside the penalty area — his progression has been rapid this season. However, he does still tend to run out of energy towards the end of matches and can struggle to align properly with his teammates for extensive periods. Brazil have plenty of attacking options, but Anthony could be a superb impact player off the bench.
Charles De Ketelaere, 20, Club Brugge / Belgium
Rewarded with his first start for Belgium against Estonia on Nov.13, the multi-functional attacker cuts a somewhat atypical figure for a modern forward at 6-foot-3 tall. But once you see him move around the pitch — whether as an inverted winger on either side, a central attacking midfielder or up front — it’s obvious that the 20-year-old is more about flair, intelligence and movement than protecting or heading the ball (though he can do that too.)
Despite his size, De Ketelaere has an impressive balance and command of his body, often evading challenges with quick changes of direction or a disguised flick. He’s got a fine turn of pace too, especially when finding space in wide areas where he can leave full-backs trailing in his wake. With the forward developing fast he may not be at Club Brugge by the end of January, but should play a role for Belgium next year.
Julian Alvarez, 21, River Plate / Argentina
Alvarez has been considered Argentina’s top attacking prospect for some time, yet it’s only now that the River Plate forward is starting to produce the numbers that may see a European giant take a chance on him. Indeed, with 19 goals in 40 games this season, there’s every chance that a club will pay his reported €25 million release clause in January.
Now he has moved into a more central position, Alvarez has started to score more regularly and recently found the net four times in a league match against Patronato. Aside from his technical ability, pace and powerful shot, it’s his positioning, opportunism and instinctive one-touch finishing that makes Alvarez special. A member of Argentina’s Copa America-winning team, he came off the bench in the World Cup qualifier against Brazil last week and should get more chances to shine soon.
Rayan Cherki, 18, Lyon / France
Although Cherki’s first priority is to claim a starting place for Lyon and the France under-21 side, based on his recent performances it may only be a matter of months or even weeks before the attacking midfielder breaks into the big time. He’s still prone to trying one flick too many and trickery that borders on showboating — which will surely need to be fixed before France coach Didier Deschamps offers him a look-in for the senior side — and it often seems that he’s so full of ideas that he’s left in two minds as to what do to next.
However, the ball tends to be glued to his foot and he can turn the course of a game with one decisive penetrating pass or a speedy, well-executed one-two, either cutting in from the right on his preferred left foot (though his weaker right foot is so strong that he even uses it for direct free kicks) or playing in a more central role. A player with proper superstar potential who could be an interesting wildcard pick as France set about attempting to become the first men’s national team in 60 years to retain the World Cup.
Yeremi Pino, 19, Villarreal / Spain
Another of the many young prospects like Ansu Fati, Gavi and Pedri who are the future of the Spain national team, Yeremi was given a chance to shine for Spain when some of their senior players were forced to drop out of the squad due to COVID-19 in June and made his debut in the Nations League semifinals against Italy last month.
He scored seven goals for Villarreal last season as he made the breakthrough into their first team and, unlike some of his contemporaries, the 19-year-old stands out for his practical interpretation of football. He plays with his head up, always scanning and preparing his move prior to receiving the ball, which often results in a one- or two-touch positive pass or, when needed, a quick dribble to gain space or get out of a tight spot.
Until recently Yeremi was mainly used as an impact substitute to change the rhythm of the attack or add unpredictability, but with his defensive contribution improving he’s regularly being trusted with a starting spot for the Europa League champions, where he recently signed a new contract.
Mohammed Daramy, 19, Ajax / Denmark
Within the space of a year, Daramy has gone from being a work in progress at FC Copenhagen to sealing a €12m move to Ajax and making his full senior debut for Denmark in September. Mainly operating on the left wing, he is exceptionally dangerous when space opens up in transitional situations, but he’s also capable of beating a full-back from more static starting spot, either through quick body feints or simply pushing the ball in front of the defender and charging past.
Even more impressive, Daramy plays with high intensity in his game, both when attacking with the ball and looking for one-twos or combinations, while his pressing game is also good. Given his recent progression and Ajax’s legacy of polishing talents, he should improve in the next year under Erik ten Haag’s guidance to become even more important for Denmark in 2022.
Luka Sucic, 19, FC Salzburg / Croatia
You can tell that Austria-born Luka Sucic grew up watching Croatia midfield maestro Luka Modric. Although a fair inches taller than his namesake at 6-foot-1, and left-footed, he shares the same clear ambition as Modric, who came through as a No. 10.
Sucic’s positive passing game, efficient ball-carrying and the confidence with which he executes his long passes and switches of play are impressive for a 19-year-old. He’s also quick on the turn, often wriggling and twisting away from his markers. Susic, who was brought into the Croatia senior fold for the first time in October, also boasts an excellent shooting technique. He often starts on the right side of midfield for FC Salzburg, but likely sees his future in a more central role like his idol.
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