Category Archives: Ones to watch

Real Madrid sign an unproven 16-year-old Brazilian for €46 million.

Spanish giants Real Madrid have made headlines this week for forking out a staggering €46 million for 16-year-old promising player Vinícius Júnior. The Brazilian has just one senior appearance for Flamengo, making his professional debut a mere 11 days ago.

“The player will remain at his current club until July 2019,” the La Liga champions said in a statement. “Although he will be able to play for Real Madrid before then if both clubs agree to it.”

It raises eyebrows, I must say. It seems clubs like Real Madrid are keen to find the next teenage superstar or a phenomenon like Leo Messi, and they are willing to part with massive sums of money on promising players.

That said, it could go either way. He could go on to be a giant of the game, or he could go on to be a flop. But there will be considerable pressure on Vinicius. Vasts amount of money on a 16-year-old kid won’t go unnoticed by the fans, media and even team-mates. And when the time comes, and he pulls on the Madrid jersey, he will be expected to deliver the goods.

Other Brazilian players arrived in Europe amid huge hype and ultimately failed to live up to expectation. Alexandre Pato and Robinho are just two players in recent years who, after moving to Europe, were under pressure to deliver constant performances that a Balon d’Or winning player would. Ultimately neither came close.

But football is a funny game. Anything can happen and this kid could be a superstar.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Five players in South America to watch out for.

There are a number of players plying their trade south of Donald Trump’s United States that have been catching the eye of many European scouts in, fans and this writer. Let’s have a look at some of the best players in Latin America today.

Marcos Acuña (Racing Club)
Acuña may not be too well known with fans outside of Argentina, but the 25-year-old’s style of play and recent form makes him a hot prospect for many clubs. Having been compared to compatriot Angel di Maria, Acuña made his debut for Argentina recently against Colombia. Keep an eye on this guy. He won’t be at Racing forever.

Javier Aquino (Tigres)
This 26-year-old did have a short spell in Europe with Villareal and Rayo Vallecano – albeit luckless. The pacy winger’s performances for Mexican side Tigres (where he plays alongside French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac) has been making scouts have a second look. He was at one point mentioned with Dutch giants Ajax. Keep an eye on this one.

Zeca (Santos)
Players like Neymar and Pele are often associated with Brazilian side Santos. Something tells me that 22-year-old Zeca could be another. Held in high regard in his native Brazil, Zeca is a brilliant left-back. And with an Olympic gold medal now in his trophy cabinet alongside his domestic honours with Santos, he is surely one player destined to go right to the very top.

Rodrigo Bentancur (Boca Juniors)
The Uruguyan midfielder has long been regarded by the blue and yellow side of Buenos Aires as a phenomenon. The added blessing of course being Boca legend Juan Roman Riquelme hailing the 19-year-old as his personal favourite from the team. Real Madrid were rumoured to be close to signing him at one point, but Juventus now look likely to get the Uruguayan playmaker’s signature.

Romel Quiñónez (Bolivar)
It is my personal opinion that only for the fact that the Bolivian Liga gets little or no airtime in Europe, Quiñónez would already be playing on this continent. Only 24, Quiñónez is in his seventh season with Bolivia’s most succesful club Bolivar. At the last Copa America, he introduced himself to the world by providing numerous incredible saves and was a stand out player for a limited Bolivia side by some considerable distance. If one of Latin America’s biggest teams don’t sign him, a European club will.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Five of the best under-21s in the world today.

As Francesco Totti recently celebrated his 40th birthday and 24th year in Roma’s senior side, it got me thinking how there are some supremely gifted up-and-coming players that are half his age – or in some cases, even younger.

Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)
A sublime midfielder, the 19-year-old Belgian is already into his fourth season with the Brussels side. Having made his debut in summer 2013, Tielemans became the youngest ever Belgian to play in the Champions League in October 2013. All the big clubs around Europe have been keeping an eye on him – he definitely won’t be at Anderlecht forever.


Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan)
When Diego Maradona famously said that he watched his “successor in Argentine football” in Leo Messi, I do wonder if Gigi Buffon thought the same of Donnarumma. The 17-year-old is a phenomenon to put it frankly. His athleticism for his 6 foot 5 frame is phenomenal, and he possesses the agility and footwork of any world-class ‘keeper today. He will become the world’s best between the posts, mark my words.


Carles Aleña (FC Barcelona)
Many Catalan-based journalists have for some time praised Sergi Samper as the heir to Xavi’s throne in the centre of the pitch. An intelligent holding midfielder with a eye for glorious key passes. The truth is, the most complete young player Barcelona have in that position for the next generation is 18-year-old Carles Aleña. Irish fans had a glimpse of the midfielder as he made his debut against Celtic here at the Aviva Stadium. He will without question be a big player for the Blaugrana.


Viktor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk)
The 20-year-old has with ease filled the void left by China-bound Alex Teixeira at the beginning of 2016, and has wowed crowds at most grounds he plays in. Widely regarded as one of the top young promising players, fans, critics and former pros rate the Ukrainian to go as far as Shevchenko did and even better it. A top player who will play for a huge club no doubt about it.


Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich)
The French winger is, of all the people on this list, possibly the most complete and uniquely gifted players. Currently with Bayern on loan from Juventus, 20-year-old possesses all the attributes and more to become one of the world’s best. His pace, skills, touch, and vision, combined with his diversity to play on either wing or, if needed, as a centre forward. A phenomenon with a massive future.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

In the name of the father

Enzo Fernandez currently plays with Real Madrid’s B team. He was named after former River Plate and Marseille star and Uruguayan international Enzo Francescoli. He chose his mother’s surname to try avoid the possibly unavoidable comparisons with his father, one of the greatest to ever play the game, Zinedine Zidane. The 21-year-old clearly has ability, but he is not the only up-and-coming footballer to follow in his footsteps in football.

When Paolo Maldini retired from professional football in 2009, his one and only club AC Milan retired the number 3 shirt in his honour, but with the possibility of having it reinstated should either of the former Rossoneri skipper’s sons Christian or Daniel play for the club at senior level. Actually that could well happen: eldest son Christian is touted to being brought into the senior side sooner or later which would come to no surprise given Milan’s reputation of promoting from within. He recently captained Milan’s under-19 side to much praise. Watch this space.


Former PSG, Inter and Bolton Wanderers man Youri Djorkaeff is one of the most respected names in football. Coming from a footballing family, his brother was a former pro, and his father Jean is a former French international. The Djorkaeff dynasty doesn’t end there. His son Oan currently plays for Evian’s under-19 side, yet is tipped by the French media to jump into the senior side.

Ianis Hagi is a gifted player who has made 38 appearances for Viitorul Constanța in the Romanian top tier before making a huge move to Fiorentina in Serie A. The country’s public will clearly be hoping that the 17-year-old can go forward and replicate the achievements of that of his father – the supremely gifted former Real Madrid, Barcelona and Galatasaray star Gheorghe. A natural number 10 like his father, Ianis is definitely one to watch.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Four players to watch out for in 2016.

It’s been a remarkable twelve months in football. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo battling it out for the the prestige of the being the best footballer on the planet. Again. Neymar and Luis Suarez reaching stellar heights. Robert Lewandowski has become arguably the world’s greatest no.9 striker with team mate Thomas Müller going from strength to strength as one of the most in-form and in-demand players around.

The next twelve months will witness some players emerging onto big stages. Keep an eye out for these names over the coming year.

Jonathan Calleri (Boca Juniors)

One of the hottest prospects in Argentina, the 22-year-old has been wowing crowds at La Bombonera over the past year. A remarkable touch, the gifted striker is currently being eyed up by Inter Milan according to reports. I’m not surprised, given that he casually scores goals like this


Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon)

Lacazette is one of the most sought-after strikers in Ligue 1. The 24-year-old enjoyed 27 goals in 33 games for Lyon last season. He made his name as a brilliant striker in 2015. He could make his name as a world class striker in 2016


Koke (Atlético Madrid)

A brilliant footballing brain, Koke was picked up by Atléti at the age of eight. A spectacular passer of the ball, the Spaniard is constantly creating without dropping commitment. Still just 23-years-old, the best is yet to come.


Mauro Icardi (Inter Milan)

Known in many Italian and Argentine tabloids for his affair with Maxi Lopez’s wife, the 22-year-old is an incredible talent. Now making more headlines in the sports pages than the tabloids, Icardi is Serie A’s youngest capocannoniere since Paolo Rossi in 1978.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Just who exactly is Martin Odegaard?

I won’t profess that I know much about Martin Odegaard before a few weeks ago. In fact I never even heard his name before last month. But the Norwegian wonderkid this week, after being eyed up by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, has signed a deal with giants Real Madrid from Stromgodset.

The 16-year-old, who has been capped at senior international level, made a switch for around €3 million mark after passing a medical in the Spanish capital yesterday. “It’s a dream come true,” he said. “It’s a bit unreal that I’m here at the biggest club in the world. It’s huge for me, an honour.”

He will play for Madrid’s reserve team for the rest of this season, coached by the great Zinedine Zidane, but will train alongside both the reserve side and the senior side, alongside world-class stars like Ronaldo, James Rodríguez, Bale and Sergio Ramos. It is possible that Los Blancos’ boss Carlo Ancelotti could feature Odegaard this season in the senior team.

Odegaard came to prominence when, in 2014, he became the youngest player to appear and score in the Tippeligaen (Norway’s highest tier of football). As a left-footed wonderkid, he is often compared to Lionel Messi due to his age and style of play (see video above).


It will be interesting to see just exactly what he can do when the time comes. Only a select few at the young age of 16 have proved that they can hold their own at football’s highest level – just think of players such as Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and even Pelé. Odegaard could join that elite, and the €3 million that Madrid paid for him could be the purchase of the decade.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ones to watch #15: Sergi Samper

Barcelona born-and-bred Sergi Samper Montaña will be 20 years old next January but is one of the most talked about young players in Spain. 

A product of Barcelona’s famous youth academy, known as La Masia, Samper has impressed immensely since joining the academy at the age of six in 2001. He has been making a huge impact in recent times with Barcelona B and has attracted the attention of many managers around Spain and especially one London-based manager in Mr. Arsene Wenger.

Indeed the Arsenal boss wants to make Samper the new Fabregas and, according to the press in Spain, is prepared to meet the club’s €12 million buy out clause for the defensive midfielder. Barça boss Luis Enrique has other plans and fully intends on bringing the player into the senior squad later this season.

Technically gifted and hugely influential around the middle of the park, the player who is so very often called “the new Busquets” is set to make an impact regardless of the jersey he will wear.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Four players in the EPL to keep an eye on this season

There has been some big money moved to the English Premier League so far. Alexis Sanchez to Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea and Ander Herrera to Man United all stick out. But, and as with every year, there will be a few players with a smaller profile that will stick out for their clubs. Let’s have a look at some hot prospects for the forthcoming season:

Bojan – Stoke City
When Bojan was the darling of Barcelona and the envy of opposing managers, plenty were heard saying if the Catalan player could do it on a rainy Wednesday night in Stoke. Well now we will see the answers. Bojan is actually a versatile player with two powerful feet. He’s not a goalscorer as such, but he has fantastic pace and agility. Something both Pep Guardiola and Frank Rijkaard have said about him. He’s been wandering around since leaving Barcelona at clubs such as Roma, Milan and Ajax. I think he may well find his suited club with The Potters.

Leonardo Ulloa – Leicester City
Ulloa has been enjoying a great pre-season with The Foxes. Add to that the great season he had at Brighton last year, he could actually be quite the player for Leicester as they enjoy Premier League football for the first time since the 2004-04 season. The £8 million man seems to have found his feet playing in England after a slow few years in Spain and Argentina. Could he be the perfect fit for The Foxes?

Jack Rodwell – Sunderland
Rodwell joined Man City from Everton is 2012 with a reputation as being one of the hottest prospects in England following some wonderful displays while with The Toffees. But effectively he sat on the bench for two years and his career lost some momentum. Now at Sunderland, the 23 year old still has time on his side as well as a superb manager in Gus Poyet. I feel he could be just the man to make Man City furious he was sold.

Daryl Janmaat – Newcastle
The Toon managed to get themselves a superb defender in Daryl Janmaat. The 25-year-old Dutchman enjoyed two great seasons at Feyenoord recently before being selected by Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands side for the recent World Cup (where he performed well and even managed an assist in the famous 5-1 win over Spain). Alan Pardew’s replacement for the Arsenal-bound Mathieu Debuchy is, in my opinion, a superb bit of business from Newcastle. Keep your eye on this guy.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Five talents to watch out for in the World Cup (part 1)

Not long left now until football’s biggest festival is due to start. The World Cup will no doubt have some mouth-watering fixtures, some upsets, some moments of sheer brilliance and maybe the occasional blooper. But it should also introduce the world to some young talent who could be making big money moves after the competition should they fare well on football’s biggest stage.

Here are five players that I have picked to keep an eye on during the competition. The first five that is:

  • Georginio Wijnaldum (The Netherlands)
    Twenty-three year old Wijnaldum was a product of both Sparta Rotterdam and Feyenoord’s youth academies. An incredibly strong playmaker, the Dutchman moved to PSV Eindhoven in 2011 where within two season he would become club captain. He’s not a regular starter in Louis van Gaal’s side due to the sheer strength of Holland’s midfield, but given the chance at the World Cup he can impress everyone watching – including future Man United boss van Gaal.
  • Granit Xhaka (Switzerland)
    “Xherdan Shaqiri is the best talent in Switzerland,” Thorsten Fink once said when he was manager of FC Basel. “After Granit Xhaka”. That is some praise given how Bayern Munich’s Shaqiri plays. Indeed Xhaka is quite the talent with critics comparing to one Bastian Schweinsteiger. He has been a mainstay in the Swiss national team since his debut in 2011 and in that time earned an €8.5 million transfer from Basel to Borussia Mönchengladbach where his dazzling displays in the Bundesliga has made people sit up and take notice.
  • Bernard (Brazil)
    There’s going to be at least one Brazilian who will whip the home crowds and viewers around the world into a frenzy. It may be the likes of Neymar, Hulk or Oscar. It may not. Don’t rule out the sheer brilliance of Bernard. The 21-year old winger, who currently plays for Shakhtar Donestsk, has the speed and energy to leave defenders stranded. He’s also not afraid of scoring the odd goal or two. He’s the full package and is exactly what the doctor ordered for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men.
  • Steven Defour (Belgium)
    Belgium can boast an incredibly strong midfield with names such as Hazard, Mirallas, Witsel and Fellaini to name but a few. Twenty-six year old Steven Defour is one that would rank up there with them. The FC Porto midfielder should be a starter Marc Wilmots’ starting XI at the World Cup and will be one of the most impressive on the pitch. He was heavily linked with a move to Fulham last January. A fine performance or two during the competition should witness him being linked with some much bigger clubs.
  • Marco Verratti (Italy)
    Twenty-one year old Verratti is one of the craftiest young players around. The PSG star may have to compete with the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Alberto Aquilani to get into the starting XI, but I would have no doubt that he will. Verratti’s passing skills and ability to change the tempo of the game is something Cesare Prandelli will be looking for when the Azzurri line-up against England on June 14th. Verratti could be his man.

Stay tuned for five more next week. And do get in touch with which promising young stars you think will make a huge impact in the World Cup.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)


Ones to watch #14: Alen Halilović

I must introduce you to this guy. The son of former Valladolid midfielder and Bosnian international Sejad Halilović is also youngest ever goalscorer in Croatia’s top tier with his current club Dinamo Zgreb, and he is also the youngest debutant for the Croatian national side. Meet 17-year-old wonderkid Alen Halilović.

By the age of 14, Real Madrid spotted young Alen at a youth tournament and tried to immediately sign him. After holding talks with his father, it was his youth club Dinamo that had to fight hard to hold onto him, which they did.

Alen Halilovic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic


Within two years he made his senior debut for the club, aged 16 years and 102 days , and in the massive derby game no less – Dinamo Zagreb versus Hajduk Split.

By last year, he was a much-loved regular in the Dinamo senior squad and he became their youngest ever Champions League player when he featured against PSG.

Massive names such as Real Madrid, Man United and Man City were, for some time, at the head of a very lengthy queue to secure the young lad’s signature, but it was the lure of FC Barcelona that proved to be too irresistible for the 17-year-old.

He will move to the Catalan giants in the summer after a €2.2 million fee was agreed and the La Liga club’s recent transfer ban was suspended pending an appeals decision.

The kid who is hailed “as the next Luka Modric” has quite the future ahead of him. Especially now at one of the world’s biggest clubs.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Five players to watch out for during the World Cup

At this year’s World Cup, all eyes will be on the usual suspects in Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Suarez, Ribery etc. But here is a list of players that will feature in the competition this summer that may just shake things up a little.

Miralem Pjanić (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
While Edin Dzeko is the main man for Bosnia and Herzegovina for some, upon closer inspection it is twenty-three year old Miralem Pjanić that is the engine for the team. The Roma midfielder is a classic playmaker with a sharp eye for creating chances. In Bosnia and Herzegovina’s group is Argentina and it will be this man, Pjanić, that Argentine manager Alejandro Sabella should certainly not underestimate.

Axel Witsel (Belgium)
Belgium have an incredible side for this summer’s competition: Hazard, Lukaku, Kompany, Fellaini, Benteke are just some of the big names in the side. Along with all of them is one Axel Witsel – a supremely talented player who can play all across midfield. It’s no wonder Zenit St Petersburg paid a staggering €40 million for his services to Benfica in 2012. One of the sharpest players in the Belgium squad, Witsel possesses all of the attributes to be one of the competitions biggest stars.

Fredy Guarín (Colombia)
Like Witsel, Fredy Guarín is an incredibly versatile player with, by the looks of things, no weak foot. Currently plying his trade for Inter Milan (after a decade of moving around clubs in Argentina, France, Portugal as well as his native Colombia), the 27-year old is a massive talent and when he’s in the same side as Radamel Falcao, it can only mean bad news for Colombia’s opponents.
Inter - Vaslui

Bernard (Brazil)
This 21-year old kid is probably the fastest player in the Brazil squad. In the highly likely event that he’ll make the cut into the final squad for the competition, the Shakhtar Donestsk winger will stun both players and fans as he doesn’t seem to have an off switch. Renowned Spanish newspaper El Pais named Bernard as one of the eleven best South American footballers of 2013.

Keisuke Honda (Japan)
A mainstay of the Japanese national team since his debut in 2008, Keisuke Honda is a growing talent. Signing from CSKA Moscow to AC Milan last month, the 27-year old is now at the perfect stage of his career to showcase his incredible abilities at the highest level. A technically gifted attacking midfielder, Honda will be at the heart of Japan’s engine – and he is not one bit easy to stop.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Four players to keep your eye on in 2014

Happy new year, dear readers. There’s some wonderful young talent out there. Vast amounts of talent seem to be pouring out of clubs’ academies left, right and centre. But here are four that I feel you should definitely keep your eye on over the coming months.

1. Marco Rojas (Stuttgart & New Zealand)
At just 22, Rojas had already been making a name for himself in Australia by winning both the Johnny Warren Medal (for player of the season) and Young Footballer of the Year at the end of the 2012/13 season. As his contract expired last April, there was no shortage of takers for the New Zealander of Chilean descent. The winger set his sights on Europe and it was German outfit Stuttgart who snapped up Rojas.

2. Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan & Italy)
A convincing full back that has worn the red and black of AC Milan at various youth levels right up to the senior squad, De Sciglio has spent more than half of his life with the Rossoneri. His versatility has earned him a call-up to the Italian national side in recent times and the 21-year old will be looking to be added to Cesare Prandelli’s squad in the summer’s World Cup. Keep your eye on him – we may well have another Maldini on our hands.

3. Adam Maher (PSV Eindhoven & The Netherlands)
Don’t let the surname fool you – this brilliant midfielder isn’t eligible for Martin O’Neill’s green army. Which is a shame, believe me. Though I am unsure of the actual origin of the Moroccan-born Dutch international’s surname, I am very sure of his talent. Maher is an extremely clever midfielder and is like a young Roy Keane – minus the Cork accent (yet with an Irish name). In 2012, the 21-year old won the Dutch Football Talent of The Year Awards – previous winners include Van Persie, Kluivert, Seedorf, Sneijder, Robben and Bergkamp.

4. Abel Hernandez (Palermo & Uruguay)
23-year old Hernandez isn’t afraid of a bit of competition. A gifted striker, he competes with Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez for a place in Uruguay’s starting XI. That said, with his eleven caps for La Celeste, he has scored seven goals. A nice ratio I’m sure you’ll agree. His club form is also spot on. This season for Palermo so far, he has played 17 games with 11 goals. It’s no wonder the likes of PSG, Liverpool, Arsenal, Galatasaray and Inter Milan have been keeping their eye on this lad.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Deulofeu: future superstar and current heartbreaker for Arsenal fans

Back in 2003, when a nine-year-old boy named Gerard Deulofeu turned up at the FC Barcelona offices, an hour south from his tiny village of Riudarenes, he arrived as a kid with great promise. Like many in Barça’s youth academy, known as La Masia, the club were taking on a great talent. As the years passed, Deulofeu was constantly making a name for himself more and more and in 2011, he was called up the Barcelona’s B team.

Usually the Catalan sports press are Barça-mad, with very little written about their B side. However, like Messi and Pedro before him, Deulofeu’s name would be creeping into the likes of newspaper Sport frequently. “Who is this kid? Is he any good?”. The answer was an unmistakable yes!

As well as playing as a striker, Deulofeu caused opposition serious damage when fielded as a right-winger. Plenty could see the similarities between himself and World Cup winner and former-Barça B star Pedro (or Pedrito – little Pedro – as he was known in those days.)

Having played with Spain’s youth teams since 2009, Deulofeu was drafted into the squad for the under-19’s European Championship in July 2012. A competition they won. And guess who got player of the tournament? Correct!

Of course, that wasn’t his first honour. He won the same tournament the year before again with the under-19’s ( including scoring against Ireland in a 5-0 thrashing en route to the final).

Having made two senior appearances for Barcelona, his 2012-13 was incredible for the reserve side and many had predicted him to progress into Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s side permanently. However, with the purchase of Brazilian superstar Neymar as well as more established youth players in the senior side such as Isaac Cuenca and the hugely talented Cristian Tello, it was decided that, rather than just selling him and cashing in, a loan-move would be best for Deulofeu.

Everton snapped him up.

After his wonderful goal for Everton against Arsenal at the Emirates, the 19-year old will become the talk of Monday morning’s back pages. As Stuart Clark of this parish commented on Twitter: “We’re seeing the emergence of a world class player”. Indeed. It’s very hard not to agree. Sunday evening’s performance was merely the tip of the iceberg for what this kid can be capable of.


Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ones to watch: 5 players you need to keep an eye on during 2013/14

The Confederations Cup is tying some of us over, but the new season will be upon us quicker than you think. Here’s a list of players from various leagues that I predict we all should be keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

  1. Oscar (Chelsea)
    The one thing you must remember about the Brazilian is that he is only 21 years old. He made quite the contribution to Chelsea since joining the Blues in 2012. In the forthcoming season, his contribution will be even more prominent. He has incredible skills and reminds me a lot like his compatriot Kaká during his AC Milan peak. I feel he will be crucial to The Special One’s side for 2013/14.
  2. Kevin Strootman (PSV Eindhoven)
    The Dutch Roy Keane as the press call him. No, he didn’t fall out with any international managers before any major tournaments nor to the best of my knowledge does he have a dog named Triggs. It’s probably due to his uncompromising style of play. The PSV midfielder is a powerful leader and manager Philip Cocu handed the 23-year old the club captaincy immediately after legend Mark van Bommel’s retirement last month. If he doesn’t leave PSV for bigger prospects in the mean time, he’ll be the best player in the Netherlands in 12 months time.
  3. Stephan El Shaarawy (AC Milan)
    Ignore the flash hairstyle for a minute, the 20-year old Italian international is one of the hottest prospects in, not only his club, but in all of Serie A. He enjoyed a fine season during 2012/13, but I believe that by next year and just before the World Cup in Brazil, that he will be a major, major player in Italian football. His team-mates compare him to the likes of Messi, Kaka, Neymar and Ibrahimovic. But with his style of play, I see him more like a young Cristiano Ronaldo: flash, gifted, quick, and hugely talented.
  4. Julian Draxler (Schalke 04)
    Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp is a fan of the 19-year old midfielder. As indeed is national team coach Joachim Löw. And is every single Schalke fan. So much so that when Draxler signed a contract extension, ending speculation that he was due to join Jurgen Klopp’s side, hired a fleet of billboard trucks to tease Dortmund. Indeed he is one of the hottest prospects in the Bundesliga with his eye for goal and his ability as a play-maker. Keep your eye on this kid.
  5. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool)
    He has only been in Merseyside for a few months, but since joining Liverpool back in January, Coutinho has been dazzling the fans with his pace, flair, trickery, incredible vision and an eye for goal. Not anyone gets handed the no. 10 jersey at Anfield – but that’s exactly what Brendan Rodgers handed this 21-year old kid. His time at Inter Milan and Espanyol, he has been considered as a promising player. He stepped it up a gear with the Reds. If Suarez leaves Liverpool, and he does want to, then Coutinho could be the man to help the Reds into the Champions League spots.

Who do you reckon needs to have an eye kept on next season in world football? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ones to watch #13: Mateo Kovačić

It’s been just under a year since I last blogged about a young up-and-coming footballing star. Some of my previous ones to watch, such as Juan Mata, Neymar, David de Gea, Alexis Sanchez and Hernanes have all gone on to make big money moves (well, except Neymar – but that will change in the summer – more about that at a later date). Let’s hope my 13th pick as a One To Watch doesn’t have an unlucky future ahead of him. May I present Mateo Kovačić.

Kovačić was born in Linz, Austria to Bosnian Croat parents. Having played outstanding with LASK Linz‘s academy, scouts from some of Europe’s top clubs, such as Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich, tried to lure the then-13 year old to their academy. In the end, it was Dinamo Zagreb that was Kovačić’s preferred destination.

Three years in Zagreb’s academy, witnessed the youngster progress into Zagreb’s senior team alongside the likes of Mario Mandžukić and Igor Bišćan. As a technically gifted midfielder, it was no surprise when he became the youngest goalscorer in the history of Croatia’s top tier, at the age of 16 years and 198 days in 2010.

By the 2011/12 season, he was a regular in Zagreb’s starting eleven and the Croatian – and indeed European media – hailed Kovačić as “the next Robert Prosinečki” and “the next Zvonimir Boban“. I wonder who he would be compared to had he been Argentine.

On the final day of the January transfer window of this year, Zagreb accepted a €15 million bid for Kovačić. The team? Italian giants Inter Milan. And with star player Wesley Sneijder Istanbul-bound with Galatasaray mere days prior, Inter’s coach Andrea Stramaccioni handed the 18-year old the number 10 jersey. Not just any kid gets handed the number 10 jersey at any club – let alone Inter Milan.

Despite being Austrian-born, Kovačić has played only for Croatia’s youth teams and then, only last month, made his senior debut for Croatia against Serbia. Fellow compatriot and former-Spurs star Niko Kranjčar hailed him as a “professor of football”.

He’s still only 18. You will be hearing his name a lot more in the future – mark my words.


What do you think of Kovačić? And what other youngsters have you spotted? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland) and be sure to check us out on Facebook by clicking here.