A new season heralds the emergence of football’s next breakout stars.
The 2018/19 edition was lit up by the likes of Roma’s Nicolo Zaniolo, Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz and West Ham United’s Declan Rice. These players turned ample promise into remarkable progress, establishing themselves at international level and in Europe’s toughest domestic competitions.
With pre-season commitments now under way for the majority of the continent’s clubs, the time has arrived to choose a quartet of youngsters poised to, potentially, become household names in 2019/20:
Club: Bayern Munich
An interesting few weeks await for the wide man.
Venerable veterans Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben departed at the end of 2018/19, plus replacements of the same prestige are yet to be recruited. Head coach Niko Kovac has reiterated a desire and capability on the Bundesliga champions’ behalf to land either Manchester City’s Leroy Sane or Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele – but neither of these financially onerous deals is close to being pushed over the line.
This is where Davies comes in.
The prodigious 18-year-old netted once in six top-flight substitute appearances after his belated January arrival from Vancouver Whitecaps. His is a raw talent, yet a successful deployment at left-back for Canada during the recent Gold Cup points to an innate football intelligence.
Competition is already fierce at Bayern – and it may get more intense. But Davies has shown he’s got the ingredients to excel.
Club: Manchester United
“Mason will definitely play more games. And he has grown over the summer. I think his confidence has grown a lot after that Cardiff game because he was our best player in that game.”
Judged by the words of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in Australia on Wednesday, it looks like a huge season awaits for the latest talent produced by United’s profitable production line.
The buzz which had long surrounded the Bradford-born forward reached a deafening level last term thanks to his record of 42 goals and 12 assists in 45 appearances, across the various youth competitions.
This rose in frequency again upon an electric first Premier League start on the final day of the season. On an otherwise miserable afternoon for the fallen Red Devils, only inspired Cardiff goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and the woodwork could keep him out.
United’s current disorder and Solskjaer’s traditionalist principles guarantee more opportunities for a forward so technically proficient he is lethal with both feet on dead balls.
A berth on the right wing appears most likely, for now, for the sinewy 17-year-old.
Club: Real Sociedad
Isak has exhibited ability and acuity far beyond his years.
Now, the moment has come to cash-in.
When all of Europe’s biggest clubs came calling for the statuesque ‘next Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ in January 2017, Borussia Dortmund’s fruitful kindergarten was selected rather than the glamorous Real Madrid.
Important lessons were learned there by Sweden’s youngest-ever goal scorer. But with his route to the first team blocked, the embracing of a loan spell at Willem II in the second half of 2018/19 produced an exemplary 14 goals in 18 run-outs.
These sensational performances – especially the startling solo effort when he danced through the heart of the Feyenoord defence – convinced Real Sociedad to part with €6.5 million last month.
La Real’s established faith in youth is exemplified by Isak’s awarding of the No9 shirt, plus a desire to sell Willian Jose. He should also be supplied with ample chances from Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard, hometown prodigy Mikel Oyarzabal and fellow summer addition Portu.
Sociedad’s investment should be repaid many times over.
Position: Centre midfield
A Frenkie de Jong-sized hole exists in the Ajax.
Yet it is one that director of football Marc Overmars believed he filled back in April.
The Champions League semi-finalists then agreed to spend €12.5 million on one of Europe’s ascendant midfielders. Marin – who is the son of ex-Romania full-back Petre – is comfortable in all three positions in the middle of the park, with his soft touch in possession making him a natural fit at Johan Cruyff Arena.
A growing responsibility and efficacy is shown by 2018/19’s career-best return of 10 goals and eight assists in 38 Jupiler Pro League fixtures for Standard Liege.
This return, plus growing importance for the seniors, meant Romania were content to see the 23-year-old skip this summer’s European Under-21 Championship. A level of play he’s now transcended, despite being eligible.
Marin is replacing a figure that Barcelona invested €75m in and the estimable Andrea Pirlo has already judged as the game’s premier midfielder. Yet he has the ability to become a key figure in the resourceful Ajax’s next cycle of success.
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The Women’s World Cup may be over, but it has undeniably captured the attention of the sporting world.
With more than 1m people attending games in France, and more than 1bn watching worldwide the resounding success of the tournament has resonated on many levels.
And while the job on the pitch for Megan Rapinoe and her US colleagues may be done, there is still much to do in terms of growing the game and attempting to close the gaps on disparities with the men’s game.
One of them is the commercial sphere.
With sponsorship levels in the men’s game growing exponentially, the same has not always been the case for women.
However, with a growing global audience many are now sitting up and taking notice.
When it comes to sportswear and equipment, Nike are leading the way.
Going into the tournament, they were the the sponsors for 14 of the 24 teams, adidas were in second with six – no other manufacturer sponsored more than one nation.
The final ended up being an all-Nike showpiece with the US taking on the Netherlands, after the Swoosh was visible on three of the final four teams in the competition.
It was in the final Nike had their on-field of their new Mercurial boot, with six players including opening scorer Rapinoe, donning the new footwear.
Throughout the competition more than half the minutes played across all matches were done so by players in Nike boots.
45% of goals were scored by women in Nike boots, and 54% of player of the match awards went to Nike athletes.
These numbers stack up.
To top it all off, they cleaned up in the individual awards too.
Rapinoe was the Player of the Tournament, with Lucy Bronze second. The US captain doubled up by winning the Golden Boot as highest goalscorer, with team mate Alex Morgan just behind her.
Finally, FIFA Young Player of the tournament was Giulia Gwinn of Germany.
Nike backed big at the World Cup, and won big too.
Brazil are back on the top of South American football, avenging the nightmare of their 2014 World Cup failure on home soil by overcoming Peru to take the Copa America crown.
It wasn’t always easy for the hosts as Peru held their own in the first half and came within seconds of reaching the interval on level terms, but Brazil had too much quality in the end and were deserved winners.
One man above all others shone to give his team the title, and the performance of Gabriel Jesus kicks off our talking points after the action.
Brazil give thanks for Jesus
Just as he was in the semi-final victory over Argentina, Gabriel Jesus was the star for Brazil as they claimed the Copa America title for the ninth time in total, the first time since 2007, and the first time on home soil since 1989.
The Manchester city man, who has operated chiefly on the right flank throughout this tournament, was at the centre of the action from the 15th minute onwards when he produced some marvelous trickery on the flank to deliver a perfect cross to the far post, where Everton was able to sweep home for the opening goal.
After Peru equalized, Jesus then showed the other side of his attacking game by latching onto Arthur’s through ball and dispatching a clinical finish into the bottom left corner to restore his team’s advantage just before the break.
The evening then took an unwanted twist for Jesus as he was harshly sent off, collecting a second yellow card for an innocuous challenge midway through the second half. That dismissal left him in tears, but he had already done enough, with Jesus confirming himself as the star of the show for this victorious Brazilian side.
Peruvian heads high despite defeat
Peru were unable to fulfill their dream of taking the title, but they will be proud of their efforts especially during a closely fought first half which saw them go toe to toe with the hosts.
The opening stages were spent almost exclusively in Brazil’s half as the visitors made an impressively confident start. Christian Cueva and Renato Tapia both fired ambitious long range shots off the mark before Brazil had managed to get anywhere near the opposition goal, and it came against the run of play when Jesus set up Everton for the opening goal with Brazil’s first real attack.
Even then, though, the hosts struggled to find their flow and it was far from undeserved when Peru got back on level terms before the break as Thiago Silva handled and Paolo Guerrero stroked home the resulting penalty.
The wind was taken out of the visiting team’s sails almost immediately, though, as Yoshimar Yotun dwelt in possession, Roberto Firmino took the ball off him, Arthur fed Jesus and the Manchester City man applied a neat finish. That was a devastating blow for Peru. Coming back once against Brazil in the Maracana had been difficult enough, and doing it twice proved to be on them. But at least they could depart the tournament with heads held high, having achieved for more than anyone could have expected.
Who needs Neymar?
At the start of the tournament, the Brazil camp occasionally appeared to be a little more than the setting for the latest episodes of the Neymar soap opera. The iconic forward was relieved of the captaincy in the wake of rape allegations, and was then ruled out of the tournament after suffering an injury in the warm-up phase.
Over the course of the last few weeks, however, Neymar has been consign to the status of forgotten man with his team advancing to glory in his absence and a couple of individuals – especially new star Everton and Jesus – stepping up to fill his boots.
These are dangerous days for the man who was once reckoned to be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s obvious heir as the greatest player on earth. Neymar’s move to Paris St Germain has clearly worked out very badly and he obviously realises the importance of moving on this summer. But his current club will not let him go easily, Barcelona’s board is divided over his signing, many fans are tiring of his showboating antics, and now his national team don’t even need his services to become continental champions.
As Brazil celebrates, no doubt Neymar will be feeling rather rueful. This could prove to be the wake up call he needs.