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Tom Robinson writes about the 10 best players at the recently concluded U20 Sudamericano Championship.
The latest addition of the South American Youth Championships finished last week with Uruguay emerging triumphant to claim their first title at this level for 36 years. Their victory ensures them a place at the U20 World Cup in South Korea and they will be joined by Ecuador, surprise package Venezuela and an underwhelming Argentina. Meanwhile, Brazil were the big disappointment and Colombia also failed to live up to expectations.
Nevertheless, the tournament remains a great place to see young talent and there were impressive individual performers across the board, even in those teams that collectively didn’t amaze. The likes of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Arturo Vidal have all starred in previous editions of the Sudamericano and we could see some of the current crop follow in their footsteps in the years to come.
Colombia limped out of the competition after a very lacklustre showing in the Hexagonal but boy wonder Juan Camilo Hernandez nevertheless showed glimpses of why he is so highly-rated. After a breakthrough season with Deportivo Pereira in which the 17-year-old was captain and top scorer in the second division with 20 goals in 33 games, Hernandez came to the tournament with big hopes but, despite his best efforts, was unable to single-handedly drag Colombia to a place at the U20 World Cup.
Diminutive, skillful and with an eye for goal, Hernandez scored twice and laid on two assists but once Damir Ceter suffered an injury he was left isolated as he was pushed further forward. Nevertheless, he showed enough touches for us to see why Granada pounced to sign him and after a six-month loan spell with newly promoted America de Cali he will make the move to Spain once he has turned 18. This won’t be the last you’ll see of him.
Forging a formidable partnership with Cabezas on Ecuador’s left flank, full back Estupiñan was an important feature of the Mini-Tri attacking football. With his trademark explosive pace, neat passing and comfort in surging out of defence with the ball at his feet, Estupiñan was almost an auxiliary winger at times and got on the scoresheet four times, admittedly three of those coming from the penalty spot. Although the defensive side of his game was occasionally found wanting, his personality and relative experience shone through and he was easily the most eye-catching full back on show.
A key part of Venezuela’s Sudamericano success was built on their watertight defence, conceding just seven goals in nine games, and central to that was goalkeeper Wuilker Fariñez. Like the aforementioned Herrera, their young stopper had also already represented the Vinotinto national side and justified his reputation with a string of assured, confident displays.
Having played over 50 times for Caracas FC, Fariñez’s experience shone through, particularly in the group stage when Venezuela were struggling for goals and needed their influential presence between the posts to be on top of his game. Despite not being the tallest, Fariñez has great spring and agility and looks to have a big future ahead.
Although Brazil endured a thoroughly forgettable time as they failed to qualify for the U20 World Cup for the second time in three attempts, there were at least a couple of players who looked promising. Felipe Vizeu and Richarlison were two of the top performers, while Caio Henrique and David Neres showed flashes too. However, arguably their best player was centre back Lyanco.
A winner of the 2016 U20 Libertadores with Sao Paulo, the tall, powerful defender was previously an U19 international for Serbia as he was eligible through his paternal grandfather but switched allegiances to become the rock of the Canarinha. Strong in the air, good in the tackle but also good with the ball at his feet, Lyanco will be worth keeping an eye on.
The third Venezuelan player on the list and the final piece of the spine of their impressive side, Soteldo was the attacking flourish and was the brains orchestrating the Vinotinto’s attacking play. Another player with senior caps to his name, Soteldo broke through with Zamora back in 2014 and has already amassed a wealth of experience, possibly more than anyone else in the competition, and he really stepped up in the Hexagonal with three goals and two assists to take Venezuela to just their second ever U20 World Cup appearance.
What really makes Soteldo initially stand out is, ironically, his tiny stature. At 5ft 3 he is noticeably shorter than his teammates but with his low centre of gravity he is able to scurry about the pitch and his fantastic dribbling and close control were a nightmare for defenders. Possessing a wand of a right foot, he crosses well and delivers a cracking set piece too. The move to Chile with Huachipato will be an interesting one and could be a great stepping stone.
Argentina snatched the last qualification spot for the U20 World Cup but in truth they inconsistent throughout and failed to impress. Claudio Ubeda’s men were indebted to the performances of their forwards who managed to bail them and paper over the cracks of a floundering youth system. Both Marcelo Torres and Lautaro Martinez finished with five goals apiece, but it was the latter who impressed the most.
Reportedly a target of both Arsenal and Real Madrid, the Racing hotshot appeared at crucial moments to score vital goals for Argentina. Last minute goals against Peru, Colombia and Brazil were crucial and he also netted a brace against Venezuela to book his side a place in South Korea. Possessing intelligent movement and clinical finishing, Martinez should see more first team football for Racing especially with Lisandro Lopez facing a sizeable injury lay-off.
A veteran of the 2015 edition of this tournament, Amaral arrived in Ecuador with demons to lay to rest. As a precocious 17-year-old he burst onto the scene two years previous but suffered an injury in the crucial decider against Argentina, his departure swinging the momentum in favour of the Albiceleste who walked away with the title. He then missed a penalty in the U20 World Cup Round of 16 clash against Brazil in another cruel twist of fate.
Nevertheless, Amaral returned to inspire Uruguay to their first Sudamericano title in 36 years. A forward with power and skill in equal measure, the Nacional youngster tormented defences with his dribbling and shooting from distance. He ended the competition as joint top scorer with five goals and, despite questions about his physique and stamina, now will hope to take this momentum back to his club and attempt to realise his huge potential.
Hosts Ecuador were one of the most entertaining sides in the competition and booked a place at the U20 World Cup after finishing second. Their standout performer was pacey winger Bryan Cabezas who finished as joint-top scorer with five goals, as well as registering three assists.
Tall and athletic with mesmerising footwork and a sweet left foot, Cabezas recaptured the form he showed for Independiente del Valle in their amazing run to last year’s Copa Libertadores final. His career in Italy with Atalanta hasn’t got off to the best start but this will be a timely reminder for his employers of his considerable skillset.
Nicolas Schiappacasse and Rodrigo Amaral entered the tournament with big reputations but it was perhaps attacking midfielder Nicolas de la Cruz who was the most consistent player going forward for Uruguay in their title-winning campaign. The younger brother of international Carlos Sanchez, de la Cruz usually operated on the right but was equally capable of filling in as the number 10 playmaker role, as shown by his three goals and three assists.
A former captain of the U17s, he showed great personality, particularly to bounce back after his missed penalty in the opening match, and was a dead-ball specialist. Quick, direct, with good passing and shooting from distance, the Liverpool man was a constant threat and had a brilliant tournament.
Venezuela were without doubt the surprise package of the Sudamericano and at the heart of the play was midfield general Yangel Herrera. Captain of the side and already with one senior cap to his name, Herrera set the tone for the Vinotinto with his all action displays in the middle of the park.
Primarily a defensive midfielder with bundles of energy and physicality, he could just as easily burst forward to initiate attacks and chipped in with two goals, while his leadership qualities have been highlighted and is seen as a future replacement for Tomas Rincon.
A regular for club side Atletico Venezuela last season, his displays for Venezuela helped earn him a move to Manchester City, before being loaned to sister club New York City, in what could be a very shrewd signing for the Citizens.