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Rising Football Stars: 10 Players to Watch in 2017 | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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From left to right: Alexander Isak of AIK, Juventus’s Moise Kean, Gabriel Jesus, who is leaving Palmeiras, and Liverpool’s Ben Woodburn Composite: Ombrello/Getty Images, NurPhoto/Getty Images, Reuters, Rex/Shutterstock

Naby Keïta (RB Leipzig, 21)

Keïta was relatively unheralded outside Austria when he left RB Salzburg – to all intents a sister club to Leipzig – in the summer after a two-year stay but he had already been named the country’s player of the year and cannot be a million miles from a similar honour in Germany. Four years ago he was playing for Horoya in his native Guinea, getting his breakthrough in Europe with the French second-tier club Istres; Europe’s biggest names have been interested for some time and it is not hard to see why. A dynamic, box-to-box central midfielder, he has drawn comparisons with N’Golo Kanté but distributes the ball with a range and accuracy that has evoked parallels with Deco. That is a potent enough mix without a keen eye for goal: Keïta was on the scoresheet a dozen times for Salzburg last season and there have been four more in the Bundesliga this season – including an opening-day winner against Borussia Dortmund and a cracker in the victory at Mainz. Keïta is fundamental to the high-intensity pressing game taught by Ralph Hasenhüttl and characterises the fresh, positive feel behind the entire Leipzig team; they must hope their achievements match up to their prize asset’s potential in the seasons to come. Nick Ames

Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City, 19)

Jesus arrives a little late for Christmas but the suspicion is he will be worth the wait. Manchester City’s summer signing is eligible to play in England from January, having completed his spell at Palmeiras, and it is unlikely that he will be held back for too long. The 19-year-old forward has risen to every challenge so far and his early exploits at international level suggest he feels at home: after scoring three times in the Olympics he made a bigger splash when, making his debut for the senior Brazil side in September’s World Cup qualifier against Ecuador, he came up with another two goals. A superb chip against Venezuela followed a month later. I one thing characterises Jesus, it is the invention and variety of his finishing. He is a formidable athlete with talent honed playing barefoot on concrete pitches in São Paulo; he has the blend of skill and street smarts that bode well for a quick adaptation to the Premier League’s intensity and should beef up an attack that can look thin during Sergio Agüero’s absences. Jesus, who cost City £27m, was reportedly made available to other clubs who offered him a higher salary; Pep Guardiola was desperate to get there first and if he comes close to justifying the hype, should prove exceptional value for money. NA

Alexander Isak (AIK, 17)

Alexander Isak made his senior debut in April, aged 16. He is now 17 but it still seems as if he has been around for some time. Partly this is because the way of the football world, with its insatiable desire for gossip and the next big thing, is more keen than ever to hype any youngster who shows promise. But it is also because, according to just about everyone who has seen him, this kid is special. “He was considered a top prospect but it was impossible to predict this kind of success,” Bjorn Wesstrom, the sporting director of his current club, AIK, told ESPN in November. “He is a great talent. He has great potential and I absolutely believe he will go far,” said Chinedu Obasi, another forward at AIK. “Everyone who worked with Alexander Isak during adolescence has known that we will be sitting there one day and see him deciding a derby,” said Peter Wennberg, AIK’s assistant coach, after he scored against their Stockholm rivals, Djurgarden. What stands out is an ability to score many different types of goal, brilliant close control and a clearness in thinking. All of that suggests the hype might just be right – and it is no surprise Real Madrid are rumoured to be interested. Nick Miller

Leonardo Da Silva Lopes (Peterborough United, 18)

The Peterborough chairman, Darragh MacAnthony, is rarely backwards in coming forward and was frank as ever when asked about the potential of his club’s young midfielder. “All the way to a top-four club and then further to [a] European top club honestly,” MacAnthony said and, while it is early to make bold predictions about a player who turned 18 on 30 November, it is not hard to understand his thinking. Lopes, who was born in Lisbon but joined Peterborough’s academy at 14 after playing junior football in the area, looks a remarkable talent and this season has looked an old head on young shoulders for Grant McCann’s vibrant young League One side. Tottenham are among those linked and they would be getting someone who could one day be the complete package: Lopes is exceptional at winning the ball, tackling with a cleanness that reminds one of the art’s validity, and carries it upfield slickly, posing a threat further forward too. His sole goal this season, a fierce drive in an EFL Cup tie against Swansea after he had broken up an opposition attack, proved the point – and it will not be his last such contribution. NA

Lewis Baker (Chelsea, on loan at Vitesse, 21)

Chelsea fans might be forgiven for finding it difficult to remember who of their loan contingent is doing exactly what but the following prompt could help: Baker is the one producing dominant, decisive performances in Vitesse Arnhem’s midfield on a near-weekly basis and the one who, after a relatively slow start to his professional career, looks as if he may spare a certain former manager some opprobrium. “If Baker, [Izzy] Brown and [Dominic] Solanke are not national team players in a few years, I should blame myself,” José Mourinho said in 2014. Baker, the oldest of the three, has scored some spectacular goals in his second season with the Dutch club and believes he can go the same way as Nathaniel Chalobah, who had seemed in danger of becoming a serial loanee with no clear career path but has played a part in Chelsea’s first-team under Antonio Conte this season. Whether or not things go that well, a future somewhere in the Premier League seems certain. NA

Moise Kean (Juventus), 16

Often, when a club have a prodigy in their ranks, they like to be cautious, to keep him back so as to not rush him. Sometimes, though, they are confident enough in that youngster’s abilities to throw him in at the deep end, which leads on to the Juventus forward Moise Kean. “For me it is normal to play with older players,” the 16-year-old Italian told Gazzetta dello Sport, as if he was shrugging off the idea of appearing alongside Gonzalo Higuaín, Paulo Dybala et al in the manner of a kid wandering down to the local shop. Born in February 2000, Kean became the first player born in this century to appear in Serie A and the Champions League, when he came off the bench against Pescara and Sevilla this season. Juventus do not have a great record of bringing young players through but Kean could be different, a centre-forward who scored 24 in 25 games for their youth team last season. Perhaps Juve were just being pragmatic in giving him an early debut: his agent is Mino Raiola. NM

Andre Dozzell ( Ipswich Town, 17)

History repeated itself – to an extent at least – in April when Dozzell made his senior debut for Ipswich at Sheffield Wednesday and, aged 16 years and 350 days, promptly scored. His father, Jason, is still the youngest-ever goalscorer in England’s top flight after making a spectacular bow of his own in 1984 but the early evidence suggests Andre can go further than his father, whose career never quite bloomed after a big-money move to Tottenham. Dozzell is in some ways an old-fashioned playmaker, with an uncanny ability to make time on the ball and with a killer eye for a pass, and has a happy knack of scoring from free-kicks. He can cover ground in the way the modern game requires, though, and it seems only a matter of time before he is phased into Mick McCarthy’s Championship side more regularly. A first start of this season came in a 3-2 win on 17 December at Wigan; Dozzell, who has captained England’s Under‑17s, has largely been insulated from a scrappy and frustrating campaign but his natural ability is making a persuasive case and perhaps Ipswich fans will have to enjoy him while they can. Liverpool have been strongly linked and there is a sense that were it not for Jason’s guiding hand and love for the Suffolk club, he might already have gone. NA

Pablo Maffeo (Manchester City, on loan at Girona, 19)
Manchester City have invested plenty in their academy over recent years, which is now starting to bear fruit, at what could be an opportune moment for Pep Guardiola. With Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna ageing and fading, the emergence of the exciting 19-year-old right-back Pablo Maffeo is most convenient. Maffeo made his first-team debut this season and was particularly impressive in City’s EFL Cup defeat by Manchester United, part of a substantially changed City side in which not many other players did much to recommend themselves. “He was amazing – fighting with Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, he won almost all of his duels,” said Guardiola of his fellow Spaniard, whose agent is the manager’s brother, Pere. Maffeo will spend the first six months of 2017 on loan at Girona in the Spanish second division and it will be interesting to see how he fares. NM

Malang Sarr (Nice, 17)

Nice’s ascent to the top of Ligue 1 has caught many by surprise and the fact they have done it with a 17-year-old centre-back adds to the achievement. Not that Sarr is in any way a weak link; on the contrary, it would be hard to find another young defender in Europe who has performed with his consistency and he appears well on the way to mastering a position that usually privileges experience. Sarr was born in Nice and having joined the club aged five, has them and the city in his blood; that was further evident when, after scoring on his league debut against Rennes in August, he dedicated his goal to the victims of the terror attack in his home city a month previously. Evidence of his flexibility on the pitch is the fact that he has looked equally comfortable when Nice have switched to a three-man defence; such a quality, along with his speed and strength, will not have gone unnoticed by others – Arsenal and Chelsea are among those said to be interested – and a player who was barely known outside his city a year ago looks sure to become a much bigger name. NA

Ben Woodburn (Liverpool, 17)

It is fairly standard practice for the smartest clubs to take good care of their brightest talents these days but it is notable that Liverpool employed a driver to take Ben Woodburn from his family home in Cheshire to training because it was the best way to make him feel comfortable. One can tell how highly rated the 17-year-old forward is from how cautious Jürgen Klopp was about hyping him up after he scored in the EFL Cup against Leeds at the end of last month. “I’m really happy for him but the problem is I’m also a little bit afraid,” Klopp said. “So, quiet please. Only write ‘goalscorer Ben Woodburn’. That’s quite a challenge!” Woodburn should have been with the under-16s last season but his ability is such that he spent most of his time with the under-18s, has played for the under-23s this season and, as his appearance against Leeds shows, he is on the fringes of the seniors. Now he is Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer, the question is when, rather than if, he will become a first-team regular. NM

The Guardian Sport
Nick Ames and Nick Miller