Atletico Madrid's Rodri and four other rising young stars to watch out for in UEFA Nations League

Matt Jones 5/09/2018
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There are always groans when the domestic football action is disturbed just weeks into the new season with the introduction of an international break.

But whereas the monotony of meaningless friendlies can rightly irk club managers and supporters alike, there is definitely something a little more exciting to look forward to in the fledgling UEFA Nations League.

It feels very much like a Champions League-style competition for international sides, with group games kicking off this week and the knockout stages to follow and be completed by the summer of 2019.

European behemoths Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Croatia, the Netherlands, as well as Iceland, are the elite 12 nations competing in the top tier of the tournament.

Here we look at five young players to look out for as the tournament action in League A kicks off on Thursday.

GERMANY

Kai Havertz

Kai Havertz

Age: 19

Club: Bayer Leverkusen

Position: Attacking midfielder

Senior caps: 0

Considering the buzz surrounding all-action Leverkusen midfielder Havertz, it’s surprising to discover it’s been a rather rapid one – he was not part of the Germany squad that won the European Under-21 Championship in Poland last year for example.

In fact, he has never represented his nation at a higher level than his current age. Yet the man who only turned 19 in June became the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 50 appearances last season and won the coveted Fritz Walter Medal at U19 level.

He was awarded the silver U-17 Fritz Walter Medal in 2016 before breaking into Leverkusen’s senior side the following year.

The Aachen-born prodigy has a game which has been likened to Leverkusen legend and former Germany midfielder Michael Ballack – not afraid to go in where it hurts at either end of the pitch.

His club boss Heiko Herrlich has labelled him “the biggest talent I have seen since Toni Kroos”.

A bold statement, but his stats back up the praise – his 96 per cent pass success rate in the early throes of 2018/19 lead the Bundesliga and he has grabbed seven goals and 15 assists in just 39 league starts.

NETHERLANDS

Donny van de Beek   

Donny van de Beek

Age: 21

Club: Ajax

Position: Central/defensive midfield

Senior caps: 4

Dutch giants Ajax were ravaged by Roma this summer – Hakim Ziyech and Justin Kluivert deciding the time was right to make the next step in their careers.

Another prodigious talent the Giallorossi were also keen on prying from the clutches of the Amsterdam outfit was tenacious defensive midfielder Van de Beek – but the 21-year-old rejected the overtures of the Serie A side, claiming that Ajax is the right place for his development.

It’s not hard to see why clubs would be interested in a player who has four Oranje senior caps. Despite his role as a central midfielder, Van de Beek is afforded much more licence to roam forward for Ajax – as evidenced by his 13 goals in 39 total appearances last season.

That included 11 goals and six assists in the Eredevisie – he trailed only David Neres (14) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (13) in the goalscoring stakes for Ajax and, in November, scored a hat-trick in an 8-0 league victory against NAC Breda.

Roma are not the only big side to have taken notice, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich believed to be interested.

BELGIUM

Timothy Castagne    

Timothy Castagne

Age: 22

Club: Atalanta

Position: Right-back/right wing

Senior caps: 0

The 6ft 1in Belgian is a modern-day right-back in the truest sense, affecting the game at both ends of the pitch. He impressed on his Serie A bow last term – making 26 appearances for the Goddess and scoring one goal. The hope is the Belgian U-21 international will build on that and he is going the right away about it as he has already matched his goalscoring exploits in just two league outings this term – scoring an equaliser in the 3-3 draw against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

Atalanta signed Castagne from Genk last summer as a replacement for AC Milan-bound Andrea Conti. He scored two goals in 10 Europa League games during 2016/17 as Genk impressively reached the quarter-finals.

He was second only to Robin Gosens in tackles per game last season (2.7) while his 1.5 blocks per game leads the way for the Bergamo-based club this term.

ITALY

Nicolo Barella           

Nicolo Barella

Age: 21

Club: Cagliari

Position: Midfield

Senior caps: 0

A terrier-like talent who has been likened to Marek Hamsik and Radja Nainggolan, Barella is an energetic midfielder with plenty of substance, equally adept at forcing turnovers and flipping defence into attack as he is spraying balls out to the flanks.

The marauding midfielder has made steady progress through the Rossoblu’s ranks ever since debuting in Serie A just after his 18th birthday at the end of the 2014/15 season.

He’s gone on to make over 60 appearances for the Sardinians and enjoyed a breakout 2017/18 campaign in which he scored six league goals.

Barella has long been pegged as a future regular at international level for Italy, having represented the Azzurri with aplomb at every level from Under-15 all the way up to the U-21s. And now could be the time for him to make the step up to the elite, with national team boss Roberto Mancini looking to breathe life back into the Azzurri after a disastrous failed bid to make the 2018 World Cup finals – the first time in 60 years the four-time champions had not appeared.

Barella has a slew of admirers, including Inter and Roma in Italy, as well as Lyon, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid further afield.

SPAIN

Rodri       

Rodri

Age: 22

Club: Atletico Madrid

Position: Central/defensive midfield

Senior caps: 1

Los Rojiblancos realised the error of their ways this summer when they re-signed academy graduate Rodrigo Hernandez – commonly known as Rodri – from Villarreal for the princely sum of €20 million, plus €5m in variables.

For someone Atleti discarded in 2013 due to a “lack of physical strength”, the 22-year-old enjoyed a dominant 2017/18 campaign for the Yellow Submarine.

The busy central midfielder led Villarreal in a plethora of categories including average passes per game (66.8), pass accuracy (90.1 per cent), as well as aerials won (2.7), while his 2.8 tackles per game was second only to Mario Gaspar – evidence of his supreme all-round game and making a mockery of Madrid’s earlier folly in letting him go.

After playing for Spain at U-16, U-19 and U-21 levels, Rodri was first called up to the senior side in March this year for the friendlies with Germany and Argentina. He made his debut in the 1-1 draw against Die Mannschaft in Dusseldorf, replacing Thiago Alcantara.

There may be a lot of talent ahead of him in La Roja’s ranks but with the retirement of Andres Iniesta and the need to lighten the load on Barcelona pivot Sergio Busquets, Rodri could well have arrived at just the right time.

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Kieran Trippier out to ride England wave of confidence against Spain

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Kieran Trippier believes England have earned a warm Wembley welcome when they host Spain on Saturday and is eager to land a big result to keep the feel good factor going.

The Three Lions’ run to the semi-finals of the World Cup united the nation this summer, restoring public affection after several tournaments that succeeded only in eroding the side’s status.

On Saturday, almost two months after their agonising exit to Croatia in Moscow, fans have the chance to show their appreciation at the opening fixture of the new Nations League competition.

“Somebody said it’s nearly sold out and that’s a good feeling, hopefully we get a good reception,” said Trippier, whose fine displays at right wing-back made him one of England’s breakout stars.

“I think we did well in Russia, so hopefully we can keep performing and put smiles on people’s faces.

“After the World Cup, the fans realised how much it means to the players here to represent England. We love coming here every opportunity that we get and we want our performances on the field to show how much it means to us.

“We were happy to put a smile on the nation’s face again but we have got another tough task ahead of us and hopefully we can make many more memories.”

For all England’s clear progress under Gareth Southgate, the feeling lingers that a major scalp is required to take the team to the next level.

There have been creditable draws with Germany, Brazil and Italy – as well as a 2-2 scoreline when the Spaniards last visited London – but they have found it difficult to put away elite opposition.

For Trippier, that leaves a clear target.

“We need to beat the very best and Spain are certainly one of the best,” he said.

“We want to play the likes of Spain to show that we are here and we are ready. It’ll be a tough test but we know the quality we have got in our dressing room and on our day we can beat anyone.”

Trippier has already transferred some of his World Cup form to Tottenham in the early weeks on the season, recreating his opening goal in the semi-final by lashing home a free-kick against Fulham.

Harry Kane, the golden boot winner in Russia, also scored in that game but questions marks linger over his heavy workload and potential for burnout.

Both Spurs and England rely increasingly heavily on the 25-year-old but Trippier is confident the striker can keep producing.

“I’m not concerned, he’s first in and last out (of training). He recovers well and everybody knows Harry’s a top professional,” said Trippier.

“I can’t see him slowing down, you’ve seen his work-rate in the games we’ve played this season. He’s as fit as anything.”

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England coach Gareth Southgate disappointed to lose Adam Lallana

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Gareth Southgate took charge of training on Tuesday

Gareth Southgate has revealed his disappointment at losing Adam Lallana to another injury as the midfielder’s England return was cut short due to a groin strain.

Last season’s injury issues cost the 30-year-old a place in the squad that reached the World Cup semi-finals over the summer.

Lallana was recalled for the upcoming UEFA Nations League clash with Spain and friendly against Switzerland, but the Liverpool attacking midfielder will have to wait to add to his 34 caps.

The Football Association confirmed in a short statement on Tuesday that the former Southampton man was withdrawn from England’s opening training session due to a groin complaint.

“Adam Lallana has returned to his club for further assessment of a groin strain,” it read.

“The Liverpool player was withdrawn from training earlier this afternoon and will play no part in England’s forthcoming fixtures against Spain and Switzerland.”

Southgate, who included Lallana on his standby list for the World Cup despite an injury-hit 2017-18 campaign, later expressed his dismay.

“He has just picked up a muscular injury,” he told Sky Sports.

“It was quite close to the beginning of training so it is the worst thing as far as we are concerned because you never want to send players back injured.

“Adam has had such a difficult run personally. He is a player we think so much of and I know Jurgen (Klopp, Liverpool boss) does.

Missing again: Adam Lallana

Missing again: Adam Lallana

“So at the moment he is having a really difficult run and you review what you might have been able to do differently but today was just really out of the blue.

“I am really disappointed for him because he has had such a tough year – missing so much football. Hopefully he will be back strong as quickly as possible.
Lallana’s injury setback is a blow for a player that had worked with the Three Lions throughout their World Cup preparation camp, only to watch the finals from afar.

The attacking midfielder is the second player to withdraw from Gareth Southgate’s squad after Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling pulled out on Monday evening with a back problem.

While no outfield replacement has been called up for either Lallana or Sterling, the surprise name of Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli was drafted in.

The 26-year-old was part of the Under-21s set-up when Southgate was in charge, heading to the European Championships with them in 2015.

Bettinelli won just one cap for the Young Lions and started the last two Premier League matches for Slavisa Jokanovic’s promoted side, having failed to make the first two squads.

Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and the uncapped Alex McCarthy trained with Southgate’s squad at St George’s Park on Tuesday, with the England boss explaining the maiden senior call-up for the former Chelsea youngster.

“All of our goalkeepers have been modified one way or another with their training,” he said.

“We felt it useful to bring another goalkeeper in for training. Marcus is another player we have worked with in the Under-21s in the past.

“We obviously have a situation in the Premier League at the moment where there aren’t many English goalkeepers playing.

“Marcus is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and fits that prototype of goalkeeper and there is no point in us calling up a senior goalkeeper who has worked with us in the past just for training. So it is a good opportunity for Marcus.”

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