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Tom Robinson has a look at the top 10 young players to look out for during the Copa Libertadores 2017.
The 58th edition of the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, has now reached the group stage and now after an extended qualification phase the tournament proper is beginning to heat up.
As ever, there will be a plethora of young talent on display looking to make a name for themselves and enhance their burgeoning reputations. Last year saw Gabriel Jesus, Marlos Moreno and Gio lo Celso all impress and earn big money moves off the back of their performances. So who could be the next rising stars to look out for this year?
Choosing from players aged 21 or younger at the start of 2017, there were inevitably a few exciting players who missed the cut. Vitor Bueno was a revelation for Santos last season and Yerry Mina was a rock in Palmeiras’ title win but at 22 neither are eligible, while the likes of Guillermo Maripan, Rodrigo Aguirre and Ayrton Preciado all narrowly missed out too.
After a painstaking selection process, OOTB brings you ten of the top talents to pay close attention to in this year’s Libertadores…
Jesus Medina // 19 // Libertad // Paraguay
A skillful, left-footed attacking midfielder with an eye for goal, Medina is one of the brightest prospects to emerge from Paraguay in recent years and will be key if Libertad are to qualify from Group 6. Having made his debut as a 15-year-old, it was only last year that Medina really exploded onto the scene, scoring nine goals in 38 appearances as Libertad claimed the Apertura title.
He followed that up with two goals at the U20 Sudamericano, having previously played at the 2015 edition too, and has also started the 2017 season with los Repolleros strongly. Atletico Mineiro will be favourites to top the group but Medina, plus fellow young talents Ivan Ramirez and Jonathan Valiente, will be sure to have a big say in whether Libertad can secure second place ahead of Sports Boys and Godoy Cruz.
Sebastian Driussi // 20 // River // Argentina
One of the more well-known players on the list, the Argentinian forward has recently been linked with Spurs and will spearhead the River Plate attack. Highly-rated for some time ever since his goal-scoring exploits for the Argentina U17s, it took Driussi until the second half of last year to finally prove his undoubted potential when he burst into a rich vein of form, scoring 10 in 14 appearances for his club.
Almost allowed to leave River last summer, he has propelled himself to first choice alongside the similarly impressive Lucas Alario and the strike duo will be charged with getting the goals for Los Millonarios. River may not be as strong as the side that won the Libertadores two years ago but should still have enough to qualify from a relatively straightforward Group 3.
Jefferson Savarino // 20 // Zulia // Venezuela
Though not traditionally considered a footballing powerhouse, Venezuela is beginning to produce some good players, emphasised by their impressive showing good at recent U20 Sudamericano, and arguably the best prospect still plying their trade in the domestic league is Zulia’s goal-scoring midfielder Jefferson Savarino.
Voted as the best player in the Venezuelan league last year by El Pais, the tricky, diminutive attacking midfielder will form one of triumvirate of playmakers with the legendary Juan Arango and former U20 star Yohandry Orozco which will certainly provide plenty of creativity for the Venezuelans. Usually occupying a position on the right, Savarino has started the new season as he left off, scoring four goals in five league games, and he may help inspire unfancied Zulia to pull off a couple of shock results.
Felipe Vizeu // 19 // Flamengo // Brazil
The big, burly striker made his breakthrough last season after being named best player at the 2016 Sao Paulo Youth Cup before going on to score five goals in his fifteen appearances in his debut campaign for Flamengo. Vizeu carried that form into the new year and was one of the few bright lights to emerge from Brazil’s disastrous U20 Sudamericano, scoring four times for the Selecao.
Brazil have struggled to produce old-fashioned number nines in years gone by but in Vizeu they could have a man with the physicality and aerial presence to lead the line in the not too distant future. He may not be a guaranteed starter with Guerrero and Berrio in the squad, but he should get game time and with the service from Conca, Diego and Mancuello there will be plenty of chances for him to show his worth in an admittedly tough Group 4.
Nahitan Nandez // 21 // Penarol // Uruguay
The hard-tackling, all-action Nandez is cut from the same cloth of the classic defensive midfielders that Uruguay produce with alarming regularity. The 21-year-old midfield warrior has already played over 50 games for giants Penarol and was the captain of a U20 Uruguay team that boasted the likes of Gaston Pereiro and Mauricio Lemos, leading by example as part of an excellent double pivot with Mauro Arambarri. He has since made his national team debut and a bright start to the year suggests he could kick on to the next level.
Lining up with U20 teammate Gaston Guruceaga and fellow prospects Diego Rossi, Nicolas Dibble and Junior Arias, La Manya have a youthful core to compliment the experienced heads in the squad but will not be able to rest on their laurels if they are to see off the threat of plucky Argentinian upstarts Atletico Tucuman and Bolivians Jorge Wilstermann to qualify alongside Palmeiras from Group 5.
Ray Sandoval // 22 // Sporting Cristal // Peru
Probably the most high profile Peruvian talent in the Libertadores comes in the form of Beto da Silva, at Gremio on loan from PSV, but in-form Cristal striker Sandoval could be a left-field choice to announce himself to a larger audience. The recently turned 22-year-old scored seven goals following his move from Real Garcilaso to help Los Celestes win the Primera Division and has started this season in fine fettle, netting 4 times from the opening seven games.
Although Cristal are unlikely to progress from a tough looking Group 2, the Peruvians’ striking options of Sandoval, Irfan, Blackburn and Avila should give them the firepower to compete at the very least. What’s more they also have internationals Joel Sanchez, Josepmir Ballon and evergreen playmaker Carlos Lobaton, as well as a number of exciting prospects such as defenders Abram and Garces, midfielders Aquino and Rojas, as well as wonderkid Fernando Pacheco – all of whom could have made the cut for this list too.
Damir Ceter // 19 // Santa Fe // Colombia
Still recovering from an injury that will keep him out until mid-April, Ceter is nevertheless one of the most exciting Colombian prospects on show in this year’s Libertadores. The big powerful striker earned his move to the 2015 Sudamericana champions after a breakthrough year in the Primera B with Deportes Quindio, scoring 14 times in 25 appearances. Ceter then scored twice in two games at the U20 Sudamericano before sustaining the injury that saw him miss the rest of the tournament.
Despite not being the quickest, his physical presence, aerial ability and deft footwork were sorely missed by Colombia who never looked the same without him. Ceter may find himself behind ex-Evertonian Denis Stracqualursi & Jose ‘Trencito’ Valencia in the pecking order but he surely will have a role to play, especially if Santa Fe are able to emerge from a tricky group including Santos and a good The Strongest side.
Brayan Angulo // 21 // Emelec // Ecuador
One of two remaining Ecuadorian sides in the competition, Emelec are going through something of a transition after the departure of stalwarts like Angel Mena, Gabriel Achilier and Fernando Gimenez but they still possess a talented side with qualification hopes. As ever they have a number of interesting prospects such as Burbano, Preciado, Rojas and Portocarrero.
However, it is powerful forward Brayan Angulo who could prove to be the revelation for them. Quick, direct and with a ferocious strike, ‘Cuco’ hit 10 goals in 26 appearances for los Electricos as they finished as runners up to cross-town rivals Barcelona de Guayaquil. The arrivals of Vides and de Jesus will provide competition for Angulo but the 21-year-old could help fire Emelec into the next round and will be one to watch.
Santiago Ascacibar // 20 // Estudiantes // Argentina
Another player with a big reputation already, Santiago Ascacibar has arguably been the most exciting youngster in the Argentinian Primera over the last 12 months with his no-nonsense displays at the base of the Estudiantes midfield. Hailed as the heir to Mascherano’s throne as the Albiceleste’s enforcer, Ascacibar was pivotal in Estudiantes’ fine start to the season and was the captain of the U20 Argentina side that managed to qualify for the U20 World Cup. Not shy of a crunching tackle, the tenacious tyro excels at breaking up play and turning over possession.
What will make him even more interesting to watch will be the fact that he could line up alongside club legend and current president Juan Sebastian Veron, after the 41-year-old made a sensational come back. Given he is roughly half the age of la Brujita, Ascacibar will be expected to provide the energy and bite for the veteran midfielder to pick his passes as Estudiantes look to progress from a fascinating and closely fought Group 1.
Roger Guedes // 20 // Palmeiras // Brazil
Gabriel Jesus was the main man for Palmeiras as they won a first Brasileirao title since 1994 but, despite the Manchester City new boy’s absence, the Verdao will still be one of the favourites to lift the trophy following decent recruitment over the off-season. Who, though, could be the next bright young thing off the production line to step out of Jesus’ considerable shadow?
One player who might fancy his chances is 20-year-old attacking midfielder Roger Guedes. Signed from Criciuma in early 2016, Guedes showed flashes of his silky skills and creativity and chipped in with four goals and four assists. While the likes of Vitinho and Raphael Veiga also seem promising options, Guedes should expect to see more game time, although not guaranteed to start. The draw has been kind to Palmeiras and it could well give Guedes and co. a chance to showcase their considerable talents.