Ten youngsters to light up the Euros
Major tournaments offer a chance for little-known talent to make a worldwide name for themselves. Martin Hardy runs the rule over the young pretenders whose lives may be changed for ever in Poland and Ukraine in the next month
Jordi Alba, Spain. Defender, Age: 23, caps: 4
It is interesting to note that Alba will be the youngest player in the Spanish squad at the European Championship, and he has just turned 23. Alba can play as a left-sided defender or on the left side of midfield. That would explain why Barcelona are currently beating a path to his signature.
His current side, Valencia, have repeatedly insisted in the past fortnight that he has not gone back to Barça, the club that released him when he was a 16-year-old. Alba has developed in the last three seasons into a main part of the back four at the Mestalla, and his ability going forward appeals to both his country as well as his former club. The 23-year-old made his debut with the Spanish side only in September last year, but such has been the team's success that it is not an easy one to break into. He is seen by Barcelona as a viable alternative to Gareth Bale this summer. Some praise.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England. Winger, Age: 18, caps: 2
The call-up six years ago for Theo Walcott, for the World Cup in Germany, caused untold damage that is still yet to be fully rectified. However, for Oxlade-Chamberlain, the son of the former Portsmouth and England winger Mark Chamberlain, there feels more vindication for such a gamble.
For starters, Walcott had not even kicked a ball in the Premier League when he received the call in 2006; Oxlade-Chamberlain has, and he has looked comfortable at such a level. He is quick, intelligent, has a good football brain and is the best untried player the country has on offer.
The key could well be how long it takes before Roy Hodgson can get his system up, running and solid. If he does it quickly, and the friendly victory against Norway suggests that the players are already listening, something a bit different could be vital, perhaps, like in that game, as an impact substitute.
The only sadness for an 18-year-old on the cusp of such stardom is that his parents look unlikely to travel to Poland and Ukraine because of the threat of racist abuse. Hopefully it will be his football that will come to the fore, as this is a young English player who can cause a stir.
"The manager lets players like me, who like to run at people, express ourselves and he gives us the licence to do that," said the Arsenal winger. "For someone like me, who likes to go forward, it's exciting to have a manager who lets you do those things."
Christian Eriksen, Denmark. Midfield, Age: 20, caps: 22
It is important to start off with Christian Eriksen's age. He is 20. Got that? Here goes. Eriksen has played 112 times for Ajax, having made his debut on 17 January 2010. He has scored 17 goals and picked up 35 assists in that time.
Martin Jol, his manager at the time, compared him to Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. In 2011 he was named Dutch Football Talent of the Year. He was heavily capped at a younger level for Denmark but the Under-21s could hold on to him for only three games before the full side came calling. Since then he has played 22 times for his country and scored two goals. In 2011 he was also named Danish Footballer of the Year.
Johan Cruyff said of him that year: "You can compare him with Brian and Michael Laudrup. The talent is there, the recognition is there, now it is up to the player himself."
Eriksen is smaller than the two Laudrup brothers, at around 5ft 9in and has still to fill out so his play is about technique and subtlety. Twice he played for Chelsea in trial games when he was 14 and 15 but the move did not happen, despite an interest from Jose Mourinho, who was in charge at Stamford Bridge at the time. Even now, he will only leave Ajax when he can be promised first-team football, which sounds refreshing, but then he is used to playing, and doing rather well it has to be said.
Luuk de Jong, Netherlands. Forward, Age: 21, caps: 7
Luuk De Jong is young, in form, at a relatively unfashionable club and is not making a (comparative) fortune, which explains why he has already been spotted on Newcastle United's radar. The 21-year-old scored 25 goals in 33 games for FC Twente in the season just finished, and in his seven appearances for the Netherlands, has scored once.
His brother Siem failed to make the final 23 for the Dutch squad, having been in the 27. For Luuk the battle is now to find a starting role himself in a squad with serious firepower. The Netherlands boast the likes of Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Arjen Robben in their squad, but De Jong is the future, and that is why Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund are also keeping an eye on his situation. Standing 6ft 2in tall, De Jong may offer a different option to anything else Bert van Marwijk has at his disposal.
Alan Dzagoev, Russia. Midfield, Age: 21, caps: 20
T here are reminders in either (a) how little faith England show in young players or (b) how little talent is capable of stepping up, in the depth of experience youngsters have from other nations. Alan Dzagoev is 21 and has already played 20 times for his country, scoring four goals in the process.
In contrast, Stewart Downing is 27 with 33, caps and no goals, James Milner is 26 with 25, caps and no goals and Theo Walcott is 23, with 22, caps and three goals.
Modest and hard-working, the CSKA Moscow attacking midfielder has huge experience at club level in his homeland, having made his debut in the Russian second division when he was just 15. By the time he was 18 he had joined CSKA. A matter of months later he had made his debut for his country. Real Madrid have been long-time admirers but Dzagoev would prefer a move to England.
Ilkay Gundogan Germany. Midfield, Age: 21, caps: 2
"The next Mesut Ozil." That was what a report on Gundogan said back in 2010. By then Ozil was 21. The Germans do not let much dust settle and there was a pace to the advancement of Gundogan that England fans will be able to recall, when they watched youth tear their side apart at the South Africa World Cup.
Gundogan was photo-fit in his development, capped at every level from the Under-18s, starting in 2008, to the Under-19s the following year, the Under 20s the next season and then the Under-21s in 2010. Inevitably, the following year he was called up into the full squad and was handed a place in the final 23 for Poland and Ukraine. The 21-year-old midfielder moved to Borussia Dortmund in May 2011, signing a four-year deal. He picked up a Bundesliga medal in the season that has just finished, scoring three times and catching the eye as he did so.
Fabio Borini, Italy. Forward, Age: 21, caps: 1
Fabio Borini's name should look familiar – he was at Chelsea as a youngster, but made only four starts. Moving back to his native country has proved hugely beneficial, although another spell over here last year with Swansea City offered a sign of his growth as a player, when he scored six times during a loan spell.
Since leaving Stamford Bridge, he has become a regular for the Italian Under-21 side (three goals in 14 games) and his move to Roma, initially on loan, saw him score nine goals this season, either as a central striker or coming in from wide. On 29 February Borini made his full Italian debut against the United States.
In light of the match-fixing scandal that is rocking Italian football a nation cries out for a new, young, goalscoring hero; the young forward will wait for his chance to be that man.
Vladimir Darida, Czech Republic. Midfield, Age: 21, caps: 2
Few players can play the wild-card tag quite as well as Darida. His is a real 11th-hour story – drafted into the Czech Republic squad as cover for Tomas Rosicky but impressing so much in the brief showing against Israel last month that he forced the hand of coach Michal Bilek.
"In the half-hour he played very well, asked for the ball, made great passes and took a shot," said Bilek. "He looked like a player who had a lot of, caps, not one who was making his first appearance." Darida has played only 13 games this season on loan for FK Banik Sokolov (from his parent club FC Viktoria Plzen), although in that brief period he has scored five times.
His would be some story if he now stars for his country on a platform that was never meant to be his so early. Think Greece and Denmark but as a player, not a team.
Yann M'Vila, France. Midfield, Age: 21, caps: 19
Yann M'Vila has gone right the way through the French footballing set-up, from Under-16s to the full side, which might make it a surprise that Arsène Wenger has taken so long to make his move.
Wenger would like him this summer but Rennes are playing hardball. It is almost two years since Laurent Blanc gave the defensive midfielder his debut, against Norway. This is a player who likes to pass the ball and how England close him down could be crucial – if he recovers from the ankle injury sustained against Serbia last week. Mentions of a similarity to Claude Makelele have surfaced since he arrived at Rennes in 2009.
A transfer fee of something around €22m (£17.5m) has been mentioned, which should give warning of M'Vila's standing throughout Europe. Internazionale have also tracked the player who is ready to move, despite being contracted to his club until 2014.
James McClean, Rep of Ireland. Winger, Age: 23, caps: 2
This time last year, McClean was playing for Derry City. Admittedly he was attracting attention but few could have predicted that his meteoric rise could yet end in European Championship stardom.
Thus far, however, nothing has fazed him. McClean has taken the Premier League by storm since he was handed his chance by the Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill, back in December. Then, on his debut as a substitute he changed a game, helping his side and his new manager to a vital victory.
The left winger is a throwback, not frightened to go past his full-back and at the same time he has weighed in with important goals, finding the net six times in his first season in English football. Such was McClean's first season that teams would double up on him by the campaign's end, to the delight of his club manager. He has energy, pace and covers back well.
Controversy surrounded his debut for the Republic of Ireland, given that he had already played for Northern Ireland seven times at Under-21 level. He was unrepentant and now he could cap off a phenomenal period in his young life by facing the world and European champions.
"Not many will know about him," said his Sunderland team-mate Jack Colback. "Ireland have a good chance of doing well there if he can make an impression on the Euros."
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