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Tom Robinson brings you the next edition of this series and talks about the best U-21 players to watch out for in the Colombian Primera A this season.
While Argentina and Brazil may get the most attention from scouts when it comes to South America, the Colombian Liga Aguila is increasingly becoming an attractive alternative following the continental successes of Atletico Nacional and Santa Fe in most recent editions of the Libertadores and Sudamericana. Part of its appeal is the number of exciting young prospects plying their trade there and clubs from Europe are beginning to cotton onto the abundance of talent on show.
This summer has seen Marlos Moreno sign for Manchester City, Rafael Santos Borre complete his move to Atletico Madrid and Ajax swoop for Davinson Sanchez and Mateo Casierra. So which other young stars could follow in their footsteps and are worth keeping tabs on this season?
A second cousin of the legendary Carlos Valderrama, Barrera is developing into a talented playmaker in his own right. Skillful and creative with the vision and, crucially, the ability to pick a defence-splitting pass, there is a lot to like about Barrera and although consistency has been an issue, that should come with age. He has already racked up close to 100 appearances for Junior, with a decent ratio of one goal every five or six games, and has been selected at U20 and U23 for Colombia but does need to add more assists if he is to kick on to the next level.
Captain of the U20 Colombia side that finished as runners up in the 2015 Sudamericano, Quintero oozed composure and class at the heart of the Cafatero defence and looked to have all the makings of a future international for the senior team. However, at club level for Deportivo Cali he was not favoured by former boss and struggled for a regular run under Fernando ‘Pecoso’ Castro. However, the arrival of legendary Mario Yepes – someone who knows a thing or two about defending – has seen Quintero get plenty more game time alongside German Mera and their potential partnership will have a large bearing on how Los Azucareros do this season.
Cali, with their extremely impressive youth academy, should be the perfect place for the ball-playing Quintero to develop alongside some of the country’s finest prospects, such as the excellent Kevin Balanta, Harold Preciado, Nicolas Benedetti, Luis Orejuela and Jeison Angulo – all of whom could have easily made this list too.
While there is a lot of the hype has surrounding wonderkid Jesus Marimon – dubbed the Colombian Yaya Toure – a ruptured ACL ruled the 17-year-old midfielder out for the rest of the year. Therefore, the focus has shifted and allowed Estupiñán to step into the limelight. The 19-year-old announced himself by coming off the bench to help himself to a brace against Jaguares back in February and has not stopped scoring since. Strong, quick and boasting impressive heading ability, Estupiñán has hit 11 goals in 27 appearances this year in his breakthrough season and looks primed for bigger things. Add young defender Jose Luis Moreno, who spent a season on loan with Valencia II, to the mix and you’ve got some very exciting talents plying their trade at the Palogrande right now.
Surprise package of the Finalizacion so far are Atletico Bucaramanga, who sit joint top of the table with 20 points after 11 games. A big part of the Auriverdes start to the season has been the form of new signing Dario Rodriguez, who has hit six goals already. The lithe, mobile striker initially came through at Santa Fe but joined Fortaleza at the beginning of the year and managed a respectable four goals in 19 games. That was enough to persuade Bucaramanga to make a move and he has flourished under Flabio Torres to become one of the most in-form finishers in the league, with goal-shy Santa Fe no doubt wishing he was back at El Campin.
Explosive, powerful and direct, with a good helping of trickery, Quiñónez is the type of player that gets you off your seat. Blessed with a howitzer of a shot and searing pace, the Tumaco-born midfielder is capable of producing something out of nothing and has an air of Juan Cuadrado about him. However, his performances are often erratic and he still lacks consistency and end product. As such, Quiñónez has mainly been used as an impact player off the bench since his move to Deportes Tolima from Quindio but he has nevertheless featured regularly in their impressive start to the Finalizacion, as well as catching the eye for the Colombia U20s last year . A goal against Huila will hopefully be the start of him affecting the game on a more regular basis.
Captain of the U17 Colombia side at the 2015 Sudamericano, Vega was also the youngest Millonarios player to play in the Clasico Capitalino when he made his league against Santa Fe at the age of seventeen. Since the turn of the year Vega has become a regular for los Millos, making 17 appearances and generally impressing with his committed performances. Capable of playing in either full back position or in the centre of defence, Vega’s versatility should ensure he gets plenty of time under new boss Diego Cocca. Vega has now been called up to the U20s, along with teammate Brayan Silva, while Harold Mosquera is another player worth monitoring for Millonarios in the near future.
Cortulua currently have a good crop of youngsters coming through, with many graduating from the side that finished third at the U20 Libertadores earlier this year. The likes of Juan Carabali, Juan Valencia and particularly Oscar Camilo are all beginning to get regular game time but it is 20-year-old combative midfielder Luis Caicedo who looks to have most cemented his place in the senior first eleven. Having spent some time in the Sporting Lisbon youth set-up, Caicedo returned to Colombia and has featured 26 times for Cortulua this year, impressing with his athleticism, intelligent positioning and hard pressing. Though El Corazon del Valle are languishing near the bottom of the table, Caicedo has put in consistently solid performances and has drawn interest from Millonarios, while Cali loanee Jown Cardona and young prospect Aldair Guzman Chaverra have also caught the eye.
One of the most highly-rated young strikers in Colombia, Ibarguen broke through at the aforementioned Cortulua, making his debut at the age of 17 back in early 2013. After spending two seasons getting plenty of game time in the second division, Cortulua gained promotion and Ibarguen set the league alight in his maiden campaign in the Primera, netting 15 goals in 30 games. Quick, strong and absolutely lethal in front of goal, U20 international Ibarguen was snapped up by Mexican side Tigres before being promptly loaned to Santa Fe where he managed a respectable five goals in 15 appearances. Another season and another loan, this time to Apertura champions Medellin but his playing time has been curtailed by injury so far, only making his first Poderoso appearance recently. If Medellin can get him back to full fitness quickly then he could easily provide the goals to fire them to back-to-back league titles.
Along with Deportivo Cali, Envigado boast one of the most prominent youth systems in Colombia, having produced the likes of James Rodriguez, Luis Muriel and Fredy Guarin to name but a few. Once again their current squad is replete with promising youngsters and they have made a good start to the Clausura, sitting a couple points off the top of the table. Cristian Arrieta and Jefferson Gomez are regulars in defence, as are 19-year-olds Michael Lopez and Ivan Rojas in midfield, while up front Duvan Vergara (19), Cristian Arango (21) and the excellently named Michael Nike Gomez (19) have all been among the goals. If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also loaned in Brayan Rovira from Atletico Nacional.
Among all this talent, it’s hard to pick out one name but midfielder Yairo Moreno has stood out since his move from La Equidad at the start of the year. The 21-year-old has scored four times from 22 appearances and his powerful surges from the centre of the park have become a feature of Envigado’s play this season. Although not having quite the same reputation of some of those on this list, Moreno is quietly but effectively going about his business and has attracted the attention of Ecuadorian giants Liga de Quito.
The extremely high-rated Sanchez, on loan at Deportivo Pasto from Deportivo Cali, has long been tipped for big things. In 2014, The Guardian rated him as one of the top 40 youth talents in world football after he had scored an impressive 36 goals in the Colombian U17 championship as a 15-year-old. He was fast-tracked to the Cali first team but has found opportunities limited due to injury and the impressive form of Preciado, Santos Borre and Miguel Murillo. Now the electric quick, technically gifted ‘Tola’ has the chance of some regular football at Pasto, although he will have to play second fiddle to main striker Cristian Nazarit – something of a former boy wonder himself. The talent is there and hopefully this will be Sanchez’s chance to prove it.
It’s not just the top flight that is worth keeping tabs on, as the Primera B also has some stars in the making. 17-year-old sensation Juan Camilo Hernandez has taken the second division by storm with 16 goals in 25 games for runaway leaders Deportivo Pereira, while Steven Lucumi has remained at sleeping giant America Cali in their long-sought attempt to return to the Primera A and 18-year-old Damir Ceter has hit 9 goals in 15 appearances in his debut season at Deportes Quindio. It would be no surprise to see any of these three pitch up at a bigger club in the not too distant future.
Read all our Talent Radar 2016-17 Young Players to Watch across all leagues, here.