10 young players to keep an eye on

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We compiled a list containing 10 of the most exciting talents competing at UEFA Euro 2021.

UEFA Euro 2021 finally commences tomorrow after a one-year delay of the tournament due to the spread of COVID-19.

Fans are eagerly anticipating the tournament and although the opening game is just one day away, many can’t contain their excitement. The return of fan attendance along with the prospect of watching some of the best players in the world in action should make for an unforgettable experience.

While you have your obvious household names such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Kevin De Bruyne and Kylian Mbappé, there will be those of which who are on the cusp of stardom but haven’t quite got over the line yet.

With that said, we’ve compiled a 10-man list of said players below in no particular order.

JÉRÉMY DOKU | 19 | WINGER | BELGIUM & RENNES

Despite an impressive debut campaign with French Ligue 1 side Rennes as well as accumulating 8 caps to date for his country, Jérémy Doku is still a relative unknown compared to some of his age-mates.

Doku possesses all the qualities it takes in order to become a world class winger – he has pace in abundance, quality close control, an eye for a pass and the ability to find the net.

Some Irish fans may have first heard of Doku during the 2019 u17 European Championships which was hosted in Ireland. The winger was one of the most impressive players in Ireland’s group and showed he was a cut above the rest in his performance against the host nation as well as the other games he participated in.

During that time, Doku played for Anderlecht and had already made a handful of senior appearances but it was the 2019-20 season where he showed he could compete – and excel – at senior men’s level, making 24 appearances in all competitions during that season.

Doku made his first Belgium senior international appearance on the 5th September 2020 at the age of just 18. This is no mean feat given the quality of the Belgian squad, particularly in the final third.

Just a month after his first international cap, Doku signed for Rennes. He made 37 appearances in all competitions, several of which came in the Champions League against elite competition including the eventual winners Chelsea.

Doku is unlikely to be a starter, particularly during the early stages of the tournament, but he should be guaranteed a satisfactory amount of minutes off the bench.

ALEXANDER ISAK | 21 | STRIKER | SWEDEN & REAL SOCIEDAD

Dubbed the ‘next Zlatan Ibrahimović’ for some time now due to his height, goalscoring ability and nationality of course, it’s only within the last couple of years that Alexander Isak has really begun to live up to his early hype.

Isak broke into Allsvenskan side AIK’s first team at the age of 16 and immediately caught headlines due to his impressive performances and becoming the youngest goalscorer in the history of the club in a 6-0 win against Tenhults IF in February 2016. Not only was he breaking records at club level, but also as a Swedish international. He became Sweden’s youngest ever goalscorer in January 2017, scoring against Slovakia.

Borussia Dortmund, as they so often do, decided to take a chance on the teenager in January 2017 after his prolific debut campaign. He signed for an undisclosed fee and was at the time recognised as one of the most promising strikers in Europe.

Although normally noted for their development of youth players, Dortmund may have missed a trick with Isak.

2 years of few opportunities in the first team followed before he was loaned to Eredivisie club Willem II for the second-half of the 2018-19 season. During his short time at the Dutch club, Isak made an huge impression. He played 16 league games and scored 13 goals in that time.

Despite coming off his most prolific campaign, Dortmund made the bizarre decision to let go of Isak.

He joined Spanish side Real Sociedad for just €6.5 million in June 2019 and has since taken his game to the next level.

He had a highly fruitful campaign in his debut season, scoring 16 goals in all competitions and winning the Copa Del Rey, but he really made his mark during the campaign just ended.

Isak was one of La Liga’s top scorers in 2020-21, netting 17 league goals in 34 games. Sociedad finished in an impressive 5th position much due to Isak’s goalscoring exploits.

With Zlatan Ibrahimović ruled out of Euro 2021 due to injury, Isak should be Sweden’s main source of goals.

JUDE BELLINGHAM | 17 | MIDFIELDER | ENGLAND & BORUSSIA DORTMUND

It almost feels weird to include Jude Bellingham on this list. Despite being just 17 years of age, he already feels like an established star.

Bellingham already has two full seasons of senior football under his belt, one with Birmingham in 2019-20 and the recently finished campaign with Borussia Dortmund in 2020-21.

He particularly impressed with Borussia Dortmund last season, playing a total of 46 games in all competitions and becoming an integral part of the first-team as the campaign progressed. His displays over two legs against Manchester City in the Champions League knockout stages were mature beyond his years and although he couldn’t lead his side to the next round, he was arguably the best player on the pitch over the fixtures.

England are one of the hardest teams in the competition to predict in terms of starting XI’s, particularly in the midfield areas, so it’s difficult to speculate on Bellingham’s role in the squad.

His experience at international level may hinder his chance at selection in the first-team with just 4 caps to his name. On the other hand, he has proven himself as a reliable option in those appearances. Plus, Gareth Southgate has shown in the past that he’s not afraid of trusting youth over experience.

Whether Bellingham is a starter or not, it’s almost certain he’ll get a sufficient amount of minutes throughout the tournament.

PEDRI | 18 | MIDFIELDER | SPAIN & BARCELONA

It was a somewhat disappointing season for Barcelona, finishing just 3rd in La Liga and getting eliminated from the Champions League in the round of 16 – although they did win the Copa Del Rey.

Added to their underwhelming competitive performance was the long-term injury of their most promising young player, Ansu Fati. The 18-year-old suffered a knee injury in November which kept him out for the remainder of the campaign.

Although the injury of Fati would have left those associated with the club dejected, the signing of Pedri from UD Las Palmas and subsequent performances following the move would have created a more hopeful atmosphere around the place.

Pedri more than surpassed expectations in his debut campaign with Barcelona, making the most appearances of any player in the squad. He previously just played one full season of professional football beforehand with UD Las Palmas in the Segunda División during the 2019-20 season.

After his breakthrough season in La Liga, Pedri earned his inclusion in the Spanish Euro 2021 squad alongside a number of other talented youngsters – of which he may be the most exciting.

Like Barcelona, Spain are in a transition period at the moment. The national team had unrivalled success during the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, winning the 2010 World Cup and consecutive European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012. They had what many believe to be one of the greatest national teams in history during that period. However, since their last success in 2012, their performances have gradually worsened with many of their star players aging, dipping in form or retiring.

Spain now have the youngest squad in the entire tournament with an average age of just 24.1 years old, Pedri being the youngest of the lot.

While some of the old guard still remain in the squad such as Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, there were some notable and controversial exclusions from the squad. Perhaps no more so than Spain’s record appearance holder and Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos. The 35-year-old currently has 180 caps, just 4 off the all-time record held by Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan. Given he’s been a constant fixture in the national team since 2005, his exclusion was a considerable surprise.

That absence of experience can only be a good thing for Pedri, though. The Barcelona midfielder only has 4 caps to his name, but all of those caps came in Spain’s previous 4 games meaning it’s very likely he’ll play a key role in Spain’s squad over the tournament.

SAŠA KALAJDŽIĆ | 23 | STRIKER | AUSTRIA & VFB STUTTGART

If you’re a fan of gangly strikers with unexpectedly good technique, then you’ll love Saša Kalajdžić.

Standing at 6 foot 7 inches tall, Kalajdžić is an intimidating presence to just look at for defenders, add to that his obvious goalscoring prowess and he becomes a defender’s nightmare.

He really announced himself to German audiences during the 2020-21 Bundesliga season with Stuttgart, but he still remains a relative unknown on the European scene. That could certainly change over the summer.

Before his 17 goals and 5 assists in the season just passed, Kalajdžić had an impressive CV, but not one that would immediately catch the eye.

He came through at Admira Wacker in the Austrian Bundesliga, making 35 appearances and contributing 12 goals before his move to Stuttgart in July 2019 – who were playing in the 2. Bundesliga at the time.

Whatever plans he had for the season ahead, they were quickly scrapped as he suffered a cruciate ligament injury early into his stay at the club. He would only make his debut for the club in May 2020 due to the injury, his first of 6 appearances throughout the remainder of the season as the club got promoted.

As he didn’t exactly play a huge part in Stuttgart’s promotion campaign, there wasn’t much expected from Kalajdžić going into the Bundesliga season. As mentioned previously, he surpassed all expectations and contributed to several goals as Stuttgart finished mid-table.

Despite having just 7 caps to his name, Kalajdžić should be a nailed on starter for Austria given his prolific season.

ELJIF ELMAS | 21 | MIDFIELDER | NORTH MACEDONIA & NAPOLI

North Macedonia’s qualification for the tournament was hailed as a massive underdog story, and with that, they’re seen by many as the weakest team in the competition.

While they’re not littered with superstars like other countries, they do have their share of useful players and are perhaps underrated by many. Goran Pandev is arguably their greatest player of all time and at the age of 37 he’s still going strong and was key in the small country’s qualification for the tournament. They also boast the likes of Leeds United man Ezgjan Alioski and Levante’s Enis Bardhi.

Arguably the best of the lot, though, is 21-year-old Napoli midfielder Eljif Elmas. A highly technical midfielder with quick feet and creativity to match, the performances of Elmas could be key to North Macedonia’s qualification chances – however slim they may be.

Despite being just 21 years old, Elmas already has 6 seasons of senior football under his belt as well as having accumulated 27 caps for his country.

Elmas has played 2 seasons each for his respective clubs to date, starting at Rabotnički in his native country, moving on to Fenerbahçe in 2017 before signing for his current club, Napoli, who he’s been with since 2019.

Leeds United are reportedly interested in Elmas currently, but could an impressive showing at the Euros influence other clubs to take a look at the Napoli man?

ALEX KRÁL | 23 | MIDFIELDER | CZECH REPUBLIC & SPARTAK MOSCOW

West Ham United’s signing of Vladimír Coufal and Tomáš Souček from Slavia Prague proved shrewd acquisitions during the 2020-21 season and it appears they may be looking to add another Czech to their roster in the form of Spartak Moscow midfielder Alex Král.

The Hammers have been reportedly interested in Král for months and could make a move for the 23-year-old this summer. That said, acquiring his services won’t be easy.

“Spartak want to let him play in the Euros first and then see what price they can get for him,” claimed reliable West Ham United news source ExWHUemployee while speaking on the West Ham Way Podcast a couple of days ago.

This could be detrimental to West Ham’s chances of securing his transfer, particularly if he shows his undoubted quality at the tournament.

Král should be noted for his all-round qualities as a midfielder, particularly excelling with his quick feet, anticipation and passing ability.

He started his career with Teplice in the Czech Republic where he made 48 league appearances over 3 seasons at senior level with the club. He made the move to Slavia Prague in 2019 but didn’t stay long, briefly playing with Vladimír Coufal and Tomáš Souček during that time. His talent was noticed by Spartak Moscow later that year who paid over €12 million to get their man. Král has made 53 appearances for the club since joining and firmly established himself as one of the top players in the Russian Premier League.

Král will probably be a starter at the tournament, but Czech manager Jaroslav Šilhavý has been known to rotate his midfield options frequently.

CHRISTOPH BAUMGARTNER | 21 | MIDFIELDER | AUSTRIA & HOFFENHEIM

Playing regularly in the Hoffenheim first team for the last couple of seasons, Christoph Baumgartner has been quietly establishing himself as one of the most promising talents in  the Bundesliga.

Playing in an advanced role, Baumgartner often operates between the lines and doesn’t shirk an opportunity to shoot. In fact, he scored 9 goals in 41 games in the season just passed which is an excellent return for any midfielder. He also managed 7 assists in a fine individual season.

He also managed 14 goal contributions in 32 games in his full debut season for Hoffenheim the campaign previous, showing that consistency isn’t a problem for the 21-year-old.

Baumgartner has only made 10 appearances for the Austrian senior team to date, but has started in their last 5 games. This should indicate that he’s destined for a key role over the course of Austria’s involvement in the tournament.

Austria aren’t favoured by too many, but that’s not to say they have a bad team. Their squad includes a good mix of young stars such as Christoph Baumgartner and Saša Kalajdžić and established internationals like David Alaba, Marcel Sabitzer and Marko Arnautović. Combine that with their relatively easy group and they have a fantastic chance of at least making the knockout stages. Don’t count them out.

NUNO MENDES | 18 | FULL-BACK | PORTUGAL & SPORTING CP

Despite being Portugal’s youngest player selected for the tournament by quite some margin, all signs point to Nuno Mendes playing an important role over the next month or so.

After a highly impressive full debut season with Sporting Lisbon, Mendes has worked his way into the Portugal squad with the tournament approaching quickly. The left-back made his debut in March against Azerbaijan which ended in a 3-0 win and has featured in every match since, starting three of them.

Mendes has strangely gone under the radar compared to other promising teenagers in European football, despite being one of the more talented.

The 18-year-old is the perfect modern full-back, excelling both at the back and going forward. An excellent tackler with defensive intelligence rarely seen at such a young age, Mendes is also a great crosser of the ball, first class dribbler and has an abundance of pace to burn.

You can expect to see a lot of Nuno Mendes over the tournament.

OWEN WIJNDAL | 21 | FULL-BACK | NETHERLANDS & AZ ALKMAAR

One of three AZ Alkmaar selected in the Netherlands’ Euro squad, Owen Wijndal is likely to start most – if not all – games for the country.

Since his debut just last year, Wijndal has started 8 games for his country, most of which coming in a left-back/left-wing-back role.

Despite being just 21, he already has plenty of experience at senior level. Between playing for Alkmaar’s youth side Jong AZ in the second tier of Dutch football and the senior squad in the Eredivise, Wijndal has accumulated 159 appearances in all competitions since 2016.

Like the previously mentioned Mendes, Wijndal is the quintessential modern full-back, capable in both defensive and attacking areas. He doesn’t have any major weaknesses in his game which makes him perfect for the wing-back role.

His stats from 2020-21 show just show effective he is in the final third as he made 8 goal contributions over 43 games at club level, making him one of the most effective European left-backs in that department.

With Netherlands being one of the favourites to win the competition, Wijndal’s performances could have a major say in their progression through the various stages.

Honourable mentions: Ryan Gravenberch (19 | Midfielder | Netherlands & Ajax), Jamal Musiala (18 | Midfielder | Germany & Bayern Munich), Adam Hložek (18 | Winger | Czech Republic & Sparta Prague), Illya Zabarnyi (18 | Defender | Ukraine & Dynamo Kiev), Jurriën Timber (19 | Defender | Netherlands & Ajax), Kacper Kozłowski (17 | Midfielder | Poland & Pogoń Szczecin), Jordan Larsson (23 | Striker | Sweden & Spartak Moscow), Pedro Gonçalves (22 | Midfielder | Portugal & Sporting CP).

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