Next men up: 10 players in Europe poised to become breakout stars
Every new season brings with it new possibilities: chances for young players to make their mark, or more experienced players to take the step on a bigger stage. Perhaps nobody made that leap more prominently than Tottenham's Harry Kane, who emerged as a lethal scoring threat en route to a 31-goal campaign and parlayed that into a place on England's national team.
For the players below, next season represents a great opportunity to take it to the next level, even if some of them already have plenty of miles on the clock. It could come from this crop of rising stars across Europe's biggest leagues:
Jordon Ibe, 19, Liverpool
Say what you like about Brendan Rodgers, and many fans who dislike his buzzword style of management often do, but he knows how to improve players and is not afraid to give young players a chance. After Liverpool’s messy divorce from Raheem Sterling, another teenage winger from London could be the man to replace him, with Ibe's pace and dribbling skills similar to English football’s most expensive ever player.
Ibe did his chances of starting for Liverpool no harm while on preseason, with one goal, a left-footed drive into the top corner, going viral.
He can play on the right or left and will add to the competition for places behind Christian Benteke.
“Ibe has been outstanding,” Rodgers said after the tour. “He was very good and he has been working very hard. There are a number of qualities I think that he has. He will only improve.”
Liverpool fans, meanwhile, will hope he gets his chance this season Then it could be a case of: "Raheem Who?"
Bertrand Traore, 19, Chelsea
Victor Wanyama made Kenya No. 99. Fernando Amorobieta made Venezuela the 100th. And Traore, Chelsea's winger from Burkina Faso, could make his nation the 101st represented in the Premier League if he makes an appearance this season. He should, after a work permit wrangle was resolved in Chelsea’s favor.
The 19-year-old was spotted at the Auxerre academy and had represented his country aged 15 before playing in the 2012 African Nations Cup at 16. Chelsea signed him 18 months and loaned him to Vitesse Arnhem, where last season he scored 17 goals in 36 games from out wide.
“I learned a lot tactically, I also learned how to play without the ball, to defend, to play as a team, and I think I improved my mentality during my loan,” he told the Chelsea website.
Jose Mourinho is not known for giving young players a chance but that could change this season: with Traore an option on the wing and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, also 19, pushing for a place in midfield, the pathway from academy to first-team might finally be opening up for a few Chelsea players.
Luciano Vietto, 21, Atletico Madrid
It seems strange that a player who cost €20 million could still be on the verge of a breakout season but that's the case with Vietto, the Argentine youngster who impressed in his debut season in La Liga with Villarreal. He scored 20 goals, including a winner at Atletico for its first home defeat in over 18 months. It was not just that which convinced Diego Simeone to take the plunge: he gave Vietto his debut as a 17-year-old when coach of Racing.
“I will always be grateful to him for that,” said Vietto.
And while comparisons with a young Sergio Aguero will only add to the pressure, the more realistic comparison could be with Antoine Griezmann; he started his debut season slowly before bursting into form in the second half, and ending up as top scorer. It’s a smart move to buy a replacement for a star before he actually leaves, and Vietto could easily fill the Griezmann gap if Atletico wants to cash in.
With Simeone committed to the club until 2020, these are exciting times at Estadio Vicente Calderon. Other young talents likely to start this season are Jan Oblak, 22; Jose Maria Gimenez, 20; Koke, 23; and be on the look out for Angel Correa, 20, who missed the last year with a heart operation but is expected to return.
Kingsley Coman, 19, Juventus
The history of Juventus and French midfielders is a decent one, and Coman is hoping to follow the path of Michel Platini, Didier Deschamps, Zinedine Zidane and yes, Paul Pogba in becoming a star for the Italian champions. His background is most similar to Pogba’s: unappreciated by a big team–in Coman’s case Paris Saint-Germain–his contract expired last summer and Juventus beat Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Bordeaux–whose coach Willy Sagnol was his French Under-21 boss–to his free signing.
Coman usually plays behind the strikers but showed his versatility with a man-of-the-match performance at center forward on debut against Chievo. He is the youngest foreigner to play for Juventus and has plenty of fans in the locker room.
“For me it’s like seeing Pogba again,” said Juventus captain Gigi Buffon. “He has a level head on his shoulders that should take him far.”
Coman wants more game time next season and has publicly said he does not want to go out on loan. Expect the big clubs to circle if he does not get his wish.
Steven N’Zonzi, 26, Sevilla
It may be a subconscious bias, or it may be that the media have constructed an image of Stoke City as ugly bruisers who play unfashionable football, but it’s a fact that international coaches have ignored some of their players.
If Ryan Shawcross played for Everton, for example, he might have had more than one selection to an England squad.
And then there’s N’Zonzi: three seasons powering the Stoke midfield, in which he missed only two league matches, and never on the France radar. And how’s this for value: N’Zonzi moved to Sevilla for £7 million, while his countryman Morgan Schneiderlin cost Manchester United £25 million.
“I want to test myself in the Champions League, and unfortunately I can’t do that with Stoke,” N’Zonzi said. “I would love to play international football and all I can is my best to get into the squad.”
Playing for a top-four side in Spain–and back-to-back Europa League winners–is the best chance for N’Zonzi, who may now finally get the credit his performances have long deserved.
Ali Adnan, 21, Udinese
Udinese has a long track record at spotting talent in unlikely places–it first brought Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Kwadwo Asamoah and Samir Handanvoic to the big time–but in the case of Adnan, it was not the only one who spotted him.
Chelsea, Napoli, Roma, Galatasaray, Arsenal and Sevilla were all interested in the attacking left back who burst to prominence for Iraq when it reached the semifinal in the 2013 Under-20 World Cup. He moved to a Turkish side, Caykur Rizespor, after that tournament and after two years in Europe, is ready for the next step.
Unhelpfully dubbed "Asia’s Gareth Bale," Adnan has already impressed in preseason and could be the latest smart signing from a club that knows the market better than most.
Julian Weigl, 19, Borussia Dortmund
It’s a new beginning at Dortmund these days but it has a familiar feel. Coach Thomas Tuchel has replaced Jurgen Klopp, just as he did at Mainz seven years ago. Back then the highly rated Tuchel took Mainz to fifth place; Dortmund’s target is higher than that and after an interesting summer, it could happen.
Two new midfielders, though, could have contrasting fortunes: Gonzalo Castro cost €11 million from Bayer Leverkusen, but might be riding the bench as he was bought to replace Ilkay Gundogan, who stayed at the club. The star of preseason has been Weigl, who cost €2.5 million from 1860 Munich, and has impressed in the No. 6 role in front of the defense. His hero is Sven Bender and on current form it looks like Weigl will be keeping him out of the side.
“He has brought a freshness and insouciance,” said Tuchel. “He learns things very quickly and will adapt to our higher intensity. It’s going to be fun with him around.”
Breel Embolo, 18, FC Basel
FC Basel captain Marco Streller announced his retirement in the middle of last season, and that came just off the back of Alex Frei hanging up his boots. No matter: perennial Swiss champion FC Basel is onto a good thing at the moment, and in Cameroon-born teenage striker Embolo, has a star of the future on its hands.
Embolo scored 10 goals last season, and he made Champions League appearances against Real Madrid and Liverpool. His challenge is to keep improving while Basel’s is to hold onto its latest talent. Chairman Bernard Heusler has shown he is smart in the market–recent sales of Mohamed Salah, Raul Bobadilla, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka have proved that–but both parties know that at the moment, Basel is the best place for Embolo to be.
He has been linked to many Premier League clubs, but should stay for one full season in Switzerland–unless Basel receives a mega-offer it cannot refuse in January.
Arkadiusz Milik, 21, Ajax
Milik scored against Germany and Scotland last season as Poland celebrated a new striking hero to partner Robert Lewandowski. He also bagged 23 goals in 33 games for Ajax, whom he joined on loan from Bayer Leverkusen. Ajax has now made that deal permanent, for €2.8 million, which seems like a bargain for a player coach Frank de Boer has already compared to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Luis Suarez.
Milik now has the No. 9 shirt and this is his season to prove his talent. Dennis Bergkamp, Ajax's assistant coach, has described his talent as “unique” and he has a prolific goals-to-chances ratio. Another strong season in the run-up to the European Championships and Europe’s top clubs will once again be knocking on Ajax’s door.
Jack Cork, 26, Swansea
Another player in his prime years, but it’s only in the last six months, since joining Swansea for £3 million in January, that Cork has been a regular Premier League starter. A former England Under-21 international, Cork was unable to get guarantees from Southampton coach Ronald Koeman, but since his move was one of the league’s outstanding players in the second half of the season.
“If I can start playing regularly my ideas can change, but for now my target is just to play regularly,” he said of suggestions that an England call-up could be in the offing.
Carry on where he left off last season, and it might be hard for Roy Hodgson to ignore him.