It's a Knockaert

The ramblings of a football obsessive and Game of Thrones nerd.

An Alternate Under-21 XI

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Football fans always love to speculate about which youngsters will go on to become the best in the world. However, it can get boring just seeing the same names bandied around – the talent of the likes of Pogba, Draxler, Lukaku, Shaw and Varane is all very well known, but there are so many other young players who don’t get as much recognition as they deserve, particularly from most English fans and media, possibly because they aren’t seen regularly on a big stage. So, here are 11 brilliant young players who could go on to be some of the best in the world.

GK: Mattia Perin, Genoa and Italy

Age: 21

Genoa: 16 apps

Padova (loan): 25 apps

Pescara (loan): 29 apps

One of only two goalkeepers to save a Mario Balotelli penalty, Perin won many plaudits last season on loan at Pescara. Depsite the newly-promoted club’s diabolical defensive record, Perin put in many heroic performances and kept them in games single-handedly for as long as he could. James Horncastle wrote a great piece about him here: An outgoing character who loves practical jokes, he remains humble amid links with AC Milan and talk of a senior national team call up.

RB: Sime Vrsaljko, Genoa and Croatia

Age: 21

Dinamo Zagreb: 74 apps, 2 goals

Lokomotiva (loan): 17 apps

Genoa: 13 apps

Another Genoa player, this time a summer signing from Dinamo Zagreb rather than an academy product, Vrsaljko has named Dani Alves as his idol and the similarities are clear. He had been attracting interest at Zagreb for several years, and chose to move to Genoa this summer over several bigger clubs, but has impressed enough in Italy to already be linked with Arsenal as a replacement for Bacary Sagna. He also has four caps for the Croatia senior team, and when you consider that they have Darijo Srna for that position, this kid deserves attention.

CB: Kurt Zouma, Saint-Etienne and France

Age: 19

Saint-Etienne: 51 apps, 4 goals

Zouma has been a regular for Saint-Etienne since he was 17 years old, and has the physique of a far more experienced athlete, making him a formidable presence for opposition strikers to deal with. He doesn’t often need to go to ground to win back the ball thanks to his strength, and has made 102 clearances in his 11 appearances this season. He has won 80% of his headed duels and is one of the quickest defenders in Ligue 1. He was recently a stand-out performer as his side drew with Paris Saint-Germain. You may have heard about his current 10-match ban for breaking the leg of an opponent, but this was a ludicrous decision in my view as he clearly won the ball, and the leg break was more due to how the player fell:

CB: Eder Alvarez Balanta, River Plate and Colombia

Age: 20

River Plate: 24 apps, 2 goals

Players in South America often go unnoticed by mainstream sports media until they move to Europe, unless they are a truly world-class talent like Neymar. Perhaps Balanta deserves more attention for his performances for River Plate. Amid links with Barcelona, Javier Mascherano has praised the youngster, saying he stands out for his defensive prowess, but is also adept at bringing the ball out from the back, which would make him suited to Barca’s style of football. Despite only having made 24 appearances in Argentina, he has been called the best defender in that league, and the cash-strapped Argentine club have valued him at £12 million.

LB: Alex Grimaldo, Barcelona and Spain

Age: 18

Barcelona B: 25 apps

Barcelona’s academy La Masia is always a good place to find young talents, and left back Alex Grimaldo is just one of the current crop. Similar to Jordi Alba in style, he made his debut for Spain’s under-21s aged just 17. He suffered a serious injury this March however, which halted his progression, but it likely won’t be too long before he makes his debut for the senior Barcelona team, and attracts the attention of the world’s football giants.

CM: Bryan Cristante, AC Milan and Italy

Age: 18

AC Milan: 1 app

Cristante has only made one appearance for Milan this season, but was expected to appear more frequently for the struggling Italian giants, just as Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio did last season. However, Milan’s struggles mean it is not the best time to be throwing largely untested 18-year-olds into the spotlight, so Cristante has had to wait. He has shown considerable promise in the youth team with his creativity and passing, and is considered by some Milan fans to be the creative midfield talent the team is lacking. Looking back on how well SES and De Sciglio did when thrown in to the team last season, could Cristante do the same for them this season?

CM: Alen Halilovic, Dinamo Zagreb and Croatia

Age: 17

Dinamo Zagreb: 30 apps, 2 goals

The youngest ever goalscorer in the Croatian first division, and the youngest debutant for the national team, Halilovic is the latest talented midfielder to emerge from Dinamo Zagreb, following on from Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic. He already has 3 senior appearances for Croatia, and their midfield certainly isn’t lacking in talent. Most at home operating behind a central striker, his contract at Dinamo expires at the end of the season, and has admitted he needs to leave Croatia for his career to progress. There will be no shortage of interested parties, and he was very close to joining either Tottenham or Bayern Munich this summer. He has already achieved an incredible amount for someone only 17 years old.

RW: Juan Fernando Quintero, Porto and Colombia

Age: 20

Envigado: 40 apps, 4 goals

Atletico Nacional: 16 apps, 1 goal

Pescara (loan): 17 apps, 1 goal

Porto: 9 apps, 2 goals

My personal favourite player on this list, Quintero stands just 5 foot 6, but has a playing style just like Lionel Messi, left footed with exquisite close control and dribbling, a rocket free kick and great passing ability. He was a bright spark in Pescara’s doomed Serie A campaign last season along with Perin, but it was at the under-20 South American Championships in January this year where he really showed off what he can do, leading Colombia to the title and winning the award for best player. Upon their relegation he joined Porto, where he already has 2 goals and 2 assists in 9 appearances, mainly as a substitute. Remember the name.

CAM: Hachim Mastour, AC Milan and Italy

Age: 15

Dubbed the Moroccan Messi, Mastour has elected to play for Italy at youth level. He attracted interest when this video: surfaced of him putting in a dazzling performance for Milan’s youth team. Milan reportedly applied for special dispensation to play him in Serie A this season, despite him being below the required age to do so. They have great faith in him, having paid 500,000 Euros for him when he was just 14! Milan have no lack of young talent at the moment, but Mastour could be the best of them all.

LW: Alvaro Vadillo, Real Betis and Spain

Age: 19

Betis B: 34 apps, 4 goals

Real Betis: 29 apps, 1 goal

Reportedly on the move to Arsenal this January in a big money transfer, Vadillo is a creative player who can play on either wing and enjoys dribbling past players. Considered one of the biggest young talents in Spain, despite Real Betis’s terrible season so far, he need to improve his final product but is still young enough to go on to become a very special player. He has been called the new Cristiano Ronaldo. He started taking English lessons while sidelined by injury in 2011-12, and at the time was the youngest player to play in La Liga.

ST: Domenico Berardi, Sassuolo/Juventus and Italy

Age: 19

Sassuolo: 46 apps, 18 goals

After helping little old Sassuolo to reach Serie A for the first time ever last season, Berardi has remained there this season and so far scored 7 goals in 11 games for a side currently 17th in the table. Currently co-owned by Juventus and Sassuolo, he is expected to eventually make the step up to the Old Lady’s first team. He is not just a goalscorer, making an average of 1.4 key passes per game, and is good at holding the ball up despite his slight frame. He could also become an important player for Italy, as only two Italians have more Serie A goals this season, Giuseppe Rossi and Alessio Cerci. However, there have been questions about his attitude, as he refused to report with the Italian under-19 squad when called up, but his coach has said he has acknowledged his mistake and is determined to make up for it.

Sub’s bench:

GK: Maxym Koval, Dynamo Kiev and Ukraine

LB: Abner, Coritiba and Brazil

CB: Samuel Umtiti, Lyon and France

CM: Lorenzo Crisetig, Inter Milan and Italy

CAM: Max Arnold, Wolfsburg and Germany

LW: Julian Brandt, Wolfsburg and Germany

ST: Timo Werner, Stuttgart and Germany


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