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With South America’s premier continental competition upon us, Eric Devin has a look at 5 young players (aged 22 and below during the start of the tournament) who are most likely to catch the eye.
The Copa America has got off to a fast start with a slew of entertaining games to feast on for football fans worldwide. The teams boast a plethora of talent including some of the World’s best players but we at OOTB like to keep track of the youngsters just as much in our Talent Radar. Here are 5 players to watch in this year’s tournament.
The only one of this list not to feature in the opening round of group games, Fabinho’s meteoric rise since joining Monaco has been nothing short of amazing. A former Real Madrid youth product and able to be deployed as both a right back and a defensive midfielder, the youngster was a surprise starter against Arsenal in the Champions’ League, deputizing for an injured Timoue Bakayoko and the suspended Jeremy Toulalan. Shackling the Gunners’ dangerous attack as well as giving Geoffrey Kondogbia license to roam, the former Rio Ave player was stellar and with more regular time in the position over the season’s last few months, has only continued to improve.
With Dani Alves and Danilo ahead of him at right back in the pecking order under Dunga, to develop as a central midfielder makes sense for the player’s international career. More of a man-marker than the type of player who bombs on from deep positions, Fabinho wasn’t used against Peru, but could perhaps be a candidate against Colombia this mid-week, tasked with limiting one of the dangerous duo of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado.
Not blessed with great pace or physical strength, the key to Fabinho’s game is a wonderful sense of anticipation. This allows him to stick close to dangerous opponents without constantly fouling them, averaging just over a foul per match in Ligue 1 this season. With only 4 bookings in 36 matches, and only one of those as a central midfielder, the player also has excellent discipline. While his passing and dribbling skills are still developing, the parts of his play that often come with maturity are already well in evidence for Fabinho, and while not yet an automatic first choice for his country, there is no doubt that the day will come, perhaps even in this tournament.
That Diego Rolan has so quickly become a part not only of Uruguay’s squads but also their first-choice eleven is, at least in part, down to the lengthy suspension of Luis Suarez and the retirement of Diego Forlan. That said, with Suarez’s ban likely to last through the tournament, the lanky Bordeaux forward has, provided he turns in a strong showing, every opportunity to make himself a fixture for La Celeste in the years to come.
The beneficiary of a teammate’s extended absence for his club, as well as his country, Rolan became Bordeaux’s main striker when injury hit Cheick Diabaté in December. In the season’s second half, Rolán has become a real force, shrugging off disciplinary issues in January to become the team’s focal point in attack. Playing alongside another striker in a 4-3-1-2, often the hulking Isaac Kiesse-Thelin, Rolan has done quite well to record ten league goals in 2015, capping off the season with a sublime brace against Montpellier. His performances in propelling Bordeaux to European qualification have been superb and perhaps Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez might take a page from Willy Sagnol’s tactics. With Edinson Cavani partnering Rolán up top, Uruguay would have the balance of an imposing target man and a sylph-like “second striker”, albeit one with a dangerous shot.
While Uruguay lack the kind of play-maker that Bordeaux have in Wahbi Khazri, Rolan showed in the first match against Jamaica that he can occupy similar positions. Even though nominally a striker, he showed no hesitation to track back or drift into wide areas, his ability with the ball at his feet driving the attack and drawing free kicks such as the one that led to Uruguay’s goal. Rolan is also no stranger to hard work, a formidable asset at a young age, and something that Tabarez has repeatedly demonstrated he values with his team selections. Rolan actually led the team in tackles against Jamaica, and the hope here is that, with a strong tournament, even upon Suarez’s eventual return, the Bordeaux youngster can retain his place, his particular blend of instinctive finishing and work rate key to any potential success for his country.
Introduced at halftime in his country’s surprising 2-2 draw with Argentina, Derlis Gonzalez was the catalyst for a stunning draw against the tournament favorites. Buzzing about the attacking half of the pitch in a free role behind striker Roque Santa Cruz, the FC Basel man was more than Argentina could handle, delivering crosses, drawing fouls and providing the energy that Paraguay had lacked, going down 2-0 at the break. Signed by the Swiss champions from Benfica’s B team, Gonzalez’s creativity was often this season the catalyst for a handful of surprising performances for Paulo Sousa’s squad, as the club saw a surprise progression to the knockout stages of the Champions’ League.
The scorer of a handful of important goals for his club in Europe this year, as well as providing key assists, Gonzalez is usually deployed on the right wing for club and country, but, as the draw against Messi and co showed, he is never shy about cutting inside to aid the attack. His creativity and attacking talent are obvious, but Gonzalez sometimes lacks the effort to track back defensively, and against such dangerous opponents as Argentina, a team defensive effort would be needed, no passengers allowed. Even as Gonzalez turned in a stellar attacking performance, however, his defensive effort was far from lacking on the night, harrying Marcos Rojo, who had been so effective in the first half, at every opportunity and getting stuck in further up the pitch as well.
With the performance, Gonzalez demonstrated that he can be more than just a luxury player, something which he sorely needed to do, especially as Paraguay were always looking to play defensively sound football in the absence of a wealth of attacking talent. As his booking demonstrated, however, discipline is still a bit of an issue for the player, this after having missed two matches this year for his club due to yellow card accumulation, a slightly worrying statistic for an attacking wide player, but should he be able to impart a bit more judiciousness to his tackling, Gonzalez truly has all of the tools to be a top performer for club and country going forward. With Basel having once again won the Swiss Super League, more Champions’ League football is in the offing, and with a solid performance in this tournament and another strong showing in Europe, a move to a bigger club could be afoot.
While Mexico’s team for the Copa America has been derided as being somewhat of a “B” squad as manager Miguel Herrera left out the likes of Hector Herrera, Memo Ochoa and Javier Hernandez ahead of the CONCACAF Gold Cup later this summer, the inclusion of Jesus “Tecatito” Corona means that despite most of the team being domestically-based, there is still a compelling reason to watch El Tri. While the club’s opening match against a resilient Bolivia ended in a scoreless draw, the FC Twente winger was electric, consistently testing a well-organized back line by drawing fouls and running at defenders.
Having long been tipped as Mexico’s “next big thing” via a succession of accomplished performances at youth levels, Corona’s success this season in the Netherlands, notching 9 goals and 4 assists, has signaled that he is perhaps ready to replicate those performances for the senior squad. Free of collective expectations as a guest team at this tournament, Mexico can easily afford to see what Corona is made of against tough opposition, seeing how the player deals with the overly physical play that has been the hallmark of the Copa to date. Employed across the front line, Corona’s play is perhaps similar to that of another star whose impressive performances at youth level had made his arrival to the senior squad a much-heralded one. Like James Rodriguez, Corona can play either as a number ten or in wide areas, and is more likely to score than pass, especially in the absence of a top-level striker. With a wicked shot and tremendous range, Corona has scored from a variety of positions, and his dribbling ability often frees him to get into the positions that he desires.
Having led the Eredivisie this season in successful dribbles by some margin, Corona’s close control is truly impressive, but his game is far from perfect. Not always the most adept passer, Corona probably needs a move away from the less-than-rigorous defending on display in the Eredivisie for his talent to fully blossom. A resolute Bolivia demonstrated that, for all of his ability with the ball at his feet, Corona’s passing is still somewhat limited, and for him to find success on a bigger stage, he must further this aspect of his game. With Chile and Ecuador still to play, Corona will face two more gritty opponents in further stern tests of his attacking nous, but should he be the catalyst for Mexico advancing, he should rightly set his sights higher than a Dutch mid-table side.
Having only turned 20 in January, Uruguay’s Jose Gimenez is the youngest of the five players on this list, but despite his youth, he is easily the most accomplished for his national team. A regular among this website’s best of lists, Gimenez was given his full debut at just 18 in a World Cup qualifier against Colombia. While 18 is a precocious age for any player to become a full international, it is perhaps doubly so for a central defender, owing to the level of composure the position requires. Added to this was the weight of the youngster lining up alongside not the experienced likes of Diego Lugano or his club mate Diego Godin but the 37 year-old Andres Scotti in what was a crucial match for Uruguay’s qualification campaign.
Shackling the dangerous combination of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, the pair turned in a fine performance in propelling Uruguay to a 2-0 victory, with Gimenez looking the part despite his age. Included in last year’s World Cup squad on the back of continued fine performances, but left out of the eleven for the tournament proper, when Lugano was felled with injury, the youngster was called into action and responded once again with fine performances against Italy and England to lead the team into the knockout rounds.
Over the intervening season, Gimenez’s profile has continued to grow as he became first choice for Uruguay and, more recently, his club side, Atletico Madrid. As Godin and Brazil’s Miranda had been at the heart of Los Colchoneros’ title-winning campaign, this has been even more impressive, but over the course of the season’s second half, Gimenez replaced the older player as the club lost only twice domestically, to Barcelona. Not the most physically imposing, Gimenez has been the perfect fit alongside Godin by mirroring the older player’s willingness to sacrifice his body, his pace and energy countering Godin’s more reserved play. With Godin dealing more with aerial threats and Gimenez tasked with opponents with the ball at their feet, the two have become a fearsome duo for club and country.
Even as Godin is a more accomplished performer when it comes to dealing with aerial threats, Gimenez is no slouch in that department, as he easily out-muscled the much larger Michael Hector to set up Uruguay’s only goal against Jamaica. Preternaturally accomplished at the defensive aspects of being a center back, Gimenez is also an adept passer of the ball, something that bodes well for a Uruguay side somewhat lacking in play-making ability. Able to quickly connect the back four with a dynamic front three, this long ball ability is something that Uruguay desperately need, and Gimenez’s passing was the catalyst for more than a few quick counterattacks against an energetic Reggae Boyz side. Well-rounded and still developing, the youngster is easily one of the best center backs in the tournament (alongside his Atletico teammates) and is perhaps the brightest prospect on this list. With Uruguay struggling somewhat to score against a lowly regarded Jamaican side, if La Celeste are to have any chance in this tournament, they will need another composed performance from their back line, and Gimenez will be key to that.
For more reading on the Copa America, head this way.
Written by Eric Devin