And just like that, the 2018/19 season has drawn to a close at the club level, with Liverpool claiming their sixth European Cup after defeating Tottenham 2-0 in the last competitive game of the season.
As the South Americans prepare for the Copa America, Africa for AFCON while the rest of Europe gear up for Euro 2020 qualifiers, Portugal who face Switzerland, England clashing with Netherlands, have the UEFA Nations League semi-finals knocking at the door.
All teams – particularly the latter two – have named a young side and here we pick out some of the players under the age of 23 that you would want to keep an eye on.
TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (20) – England
Not many 20-year-olds can say they were heavily influential in overcoming a three-goal deficit against Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final and eventually won club football’s biggest prize.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s wide passing range, high work-rate and accurate crossing were crucial to Liverpool’s success this season.
European euphoria still very fresh in his mind, it will be interesting to see how the youngster performs in an England jersey. Should he maintain the momentum, England will have acquired an absolute gem who could play a key role in the next two games.
Alexander-Arnold will be up against a highly motivated Memphis Depay, who often prefers the wing route as he makes his way to the centre. The flying Dutchman has been in fine form for country of late and this battle could have a huge say in the grander scheme of things.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT (19) – Netherlands
Still just a teenager, Ajax wonder-kid Matthijs de Ligt shows the maturity, composure and leadership qualities of a veteran. It’s only normal that top European clubs are fighting for his signature, willing to shell out a mammoth amount in the process.
A key figure in the Oranje’s rise to glory after a woeful run post the 2014 World Cup, the Ajax skipper must replicate his club form, which saw the Dutch giants claim a domestic double and a run to the Champions League semi-final.
Fortunately for the Dutch, the best young centre-back in the world is partnered by the best centre-back period in Virgil van Dijk.
Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford are far from their best at the moment, but it would be unwise to dismiss them as threats. Besides, Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling has enjoyed the best season of his career and could trouble the solid centre-back pairing.
JOAO FELIX (19) – Portugal
The latest addition to the long and rather cursed list labelled ‘Next Ronaldo’, Benfica forward Joao Felix is another both football fans and scouts will be watching closely.
From what he has displayed over the course of the season, the 19-year-old could just be the player to break the curse and successfully work his way to the top.
Versatility, ability to orchestrate coherent strings of play, great vision and the gift to play the perfectly weighted through-ball are just some of the arrows in Felix’s vast quiver.
He can play anywhere in the front-line but is most effective as a classic number 10 or a second striker. Keep an eye on his combination with Cristiano Ronaldo and how he provides for the Juventus star, should he make his senior international debut.
His performance in the Nations League could bump up his transfer value as both the Manchester clubs and Real Madrid attempt to add him to their ranks.
MANUEL AKANJI (23) – Switzerland
Tasked to stop the aforementioned deadly duo is Borussia Dortmund defender Manuel Akanji, the beating heart of the Swiss defence who will hope the Nations League can mend his broken ticker after the disappointment of missing out on the Bundesliga title.
Akanji was the standout defender for Lucien Favre. Indeed, it was no coincidence Dortmund’s downfall domestically and their collapse in the Champions League started taking shape between December and February when the Swiss international was sidelined through injury.
Akanji is press-resistant, great with the ball at his feet and boasts a healthy passing accuracy. He likes to play it short and safe, while helping maintain a neat defensive shape.
He has often been praised for his mature understanding of the game which has helped him perform at a high level even at such a young age.
JADON SANCHO (19) – England
Any list that contains the words ‘best’ and ‘young’ but does not speak about the prodigious Jadon Sancho is one that requires some serious revision. The Englishman has been one of the best players in Europe this season, regardless of age, and was the linchpin of Dortmund’s attack throughout 2018/19.
Sancho is technically gifted player with a wide range of abilities and a very high ceiling. With Rashford and Jesse Lingard enduring poor runs of form, it would be criminal to deny the versatile forward a starting role.
England will be up against one of the most solid centre-back pairings in the world but Sancho’s ability to step on the gas instantaneously and speed his way towards the opposition goal should provide them a good chance.
The Dortmund star is already an established name in the world of football, but this will be the first time he will encounter a sturdy defence while plying trades for England.
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Fabian Delph believes Raheem Sterling has become one of the best players in the world at Manchester City.
The midfielder has hailed his club and international team-mate ahead of Thursday’s Nations League semi-final with Holland in Guimaraes.
The pair are with England after winning the domestic treble with City, with Sterling scoring 25 goals and winning the PFA Young Player of the Year.
Delph joined City three days after Sterling moved from Liverpool in a deal worth up to £49million in 2015 and the former Aston Villa captain has seen his development first hand.
“He’s an amazing young man, people forget he’s only 24. When we both signed he was 19 (sic) and he looked like a little baby,” said Delph, who has won two Premier League titles with Sterling.
“When he came to City he had three seasons under his belt and he’s not that young in football terms but he’s always had the mindset he will be one of the best players in the world.
“For the last four or five years he’s never questioned himself and I’ve never questioned him.
“People always question what type of player he’d be and whether he’d go to the next level but I was like ‘this kid has everything. Once he finds his path and what works for him you’re going to see something incredible’.
“I believe he’s operating at about 80 per cent so if he can push himself a little more – which he will because his mindset is very good – the sky’s the limit.
“I’m speaking from knowing Raheem since he was 19 and seeing his progression. Right now he’s one of the best players in the world.”
Sterling will win his 50th England cap should he play, as expected, against Holland and Delph feels his colleague deserves to reach 100 caps.
“Yeah, I hope so, and there’s a lot of young guys in the squad who could go on to get 100-plus caps, not just Raheem,” said Delph, who has 18 caps.
“But from knowing him and what his mindset is like, I’m pretty sure that he’s got that in the back of his mind that he wants to go and break that record or head towards it.”
Delph, 29, retained his spot in the England squad despite starting just one Premier League game since Christmas.
He added: “It’s frustrating for anyone who doesn’t get as much time as they want. I’m quite experienced now, I’m very level-headed and my main focus was to help my team-mates.
“I always talk about being a team player, I’m a really good team player and I had the lads’ back all the way through.
“It’s always such a big deal for me to be selected for my country. Over the last 18 months we have been doing really well.”
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France manager Didier Deschamps said his side’s 2-0 friendly win over Bolivia was “good preparation” for Euro 2020 qualifiers against Turkey and Andorra.
Thomas Lemar opened the scoring for the home side at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes on five minutes, with Antoine Griezmann getting his 29th international goal just before half-time.
But an injury suffered by Kylian Mbappe, a week before the trip to Turkey, took some of the shine off the win.
The Paris St Germain forward had to go off at half-time with an ankle problem.
Speaking after the match on fff.fr, Deschamps said it was good to get a positive result before heading to Turkey, who are joint top of their Euro 2020 qualifying group.
He said: “It was good preparation. I could largely do what I had wanted to do.
“I have no regrets, even if we did not show enough efficiency in the second half given all our chances.”
The hosts took an early lead when Griezmann found Lemar on the left-hand side of the penalty area and the Atletico Madrid winger took a touch before lifting the ball over advancing Bolivia keeper Carlos Lampe.
It was Lemar’s fourth goal for France, all of which have come on home turf with his left foot.
It was predictably one-way traffic in the first half and Lampe did well to cling on to Mbappe’s driven cross, with Griezmann waiting to pounce.
Lampe did even better to claw away a Griezmann header from Lucas Digne’s cross, colliding with the near post as he did so.
Lampe could not hold out until half-time, though, as Griezmann struck in the 43rd minute.
Lemar’s neat touch kept his own cleared corner in play on the byline and when Bolivia failed to deal with his second cross, Griezmann spun onto the loose ball and drilled it home.
Bolivia fashioned the odd chance too, with Leonel Justiniano forcing France keeper Alphonse Areola into a save low to his left from a free-kick and then heading Alejandro Chumacero’s cross wide.
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