2014 World Cup: Ten young stars to watch out for

Can you hear the sound of the world’s biggest carnival yet?

When it wheels into the newly-built Arena Corinthians on June 12 over one billion viewers will be gripped by World Cup fever.

Home nation Brazil will take on Croatia in Sao Paulo to begin the month-long festival of football.

Of course, there is much expectation and pressure on the Brazilian team to win on home turf and there have also been well-documented clashes and protests surrounding the judiciousness of the finances released by the Brazilian government to host this magical tournament. (There will be more on that in a later blog).

To help get your football juices going this blog will be the first of ten special World Cup blogs to supplement your enjoyment of the greatest sporting event on the planet.

Blog number one previews ten of the best young footballers to feature at the World Cup this summer.

To qualify, there are two criteria: A player must be aged 23 or under and must be making his World Cup debut.

So, let’s start the countdown. Who is set to be the brightest young talent of the World Cup?

10. Fabian Schär – Switzerland, age 22, centre-back (5 caps, 3 goals)

Perhaps a surprise inclusion at ten on this list, Schär is arguably one of the most exciting defenders in the world. His aerial ability from set-pieces is allied to an instinctive reading of the game and his impressive pace serves him well when faced with one-on-one duels. Recent performances for Basel in the Europa League suggest that Schär excels on the big stage and will be in contention for a starting place in Switzerland’s first game against Ecuador.

9. Mario Götze – Germany, 21, attacking midfielder (27 caps, 7 goals)

Undoubtedly one of the best German talents, of which there are many, but will he get a regular starting spot in Brazil? The competition for places in the German midfield could hinder Götze’s chances of making a big impact on the tournament but he has proven his goalscoring prowess at international level despite being in and out of the Bayern Munich side this season.

8. Son Heung-Min – South Korea, 21, attacking midfielder (23 caps, 6 goals)

After an impressive season with Bayer Leverkusen, Son will be carrying the affection of South Korea on his shoulders. Son usually plays just off the lead striker but such is his versatility and talent he can switch positions across a forward three and is also deployed on the wing. Son’s flexibility rids South Korea of a rigidity which had plagued their game in recent years but with their new hero they should be a threat to Belgium, Russia and Algeria in group H.

7. Adnan Januzaj – Belgium, 19, attacking midfielder (0 caps, 0 goals)

At just 19, Januzaj is part of a youthful and promising Belgium squad in Brazil. A long wrestling match between several countries is to blame for his lack of international experience but, after opting for Belgium, manager Marc Wilmots has wasted no time in including the Manchester United star in his plans. With the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin de Bruyne ahead of him in the pecking order Januzaj could make a significant impact coming off the bench against tiring opponents with his jinking runs.

6. Ross Barkley – England, 20, attacking midfielder (3 caps, 0 goals)

Barkley’s place on this list is dependent upon Roy Hodgson giving him the playing time many onlookers are craving. The precocious young talent has drawn comparisons with Paul Gascoigne but his technical ability stretches far beyond that of Gazza’s. Even if Hodgson prefers to be conservative in Brazil he is set to make substantial contributions when coming off the bench, particularly with his energetic and creative game.

5. Paul Pogba – France, 21, central midfielder (8 caps, 1 goal)

An authoritative and commanding presence in midfield, Pogba is very much in the Yaya Toure mould of footballer. He can rampage forward and score goals as a stellar season at Juventus has proven. Doubts still remain about his mentality but bearing his age in mind that is a problem he will overcome with maturity and should that process happen this summer he could be France’s star player in Brazil.

4. Mario Balotelli – Italy, 23, striker (29 caps, 12 goals)

Commeth the spotlight, commeth the maverick. Balotelli relishes attention and a World Cup in Brazil presents him with an opportunity to display his skills in the biggest arena of them all. His superb performances at Euro 2012 saw a coming of age for the rebellious striker and he has built upon that with some assured displays at AC Milan. He will be the spearhead of Italy’s attack versus England but can he control his temper to replicate his Euro 2012 showing?

3. Thibaut Courtois – Belgium, 22, goalkeeper (15 caps, 8 clean sheets)

Some may be surprised that a goalkeeper makes third place on this countdown, but Courtois will be one of the stars of the tournament. His potential is staggering and his acclimatisation to Spanish football with Atletico Madrid at a young age has been exceptional. A series of assured displays coupled with some outstanding saves shows why Chelsea paid €9m for him when he was just 19.

2. Eden Hazard – Belgium, 23, winger (43 caps, 5 goals)

A world-class talent but inconsistent with it, Hazard has the chance to exorcise his critics with a memorable display in Brazil. His tally of five goals in 43 games for Belgium is underwhelming but after enjoying a spectacular season for Chelsea there are signs he could flower into an international star this summer as part of a dangerous Belgium team.

1. Neymar – Brazil, 22, forward (47 caps, 30 goals)

There has been no expectation as high as this on any player in history. A home World Cup in a land where football is a religion. It seems made for Neymar and all his astonishing skill, but can he deliver under such a burden? His goal-laced performances at the 2013 Confederations Cup would offer a resounding yes to that question, even after an unconvincing opening season at Barcelona. Despite that, the Brazilian team is built to utilise his incredible talent with some tipping him to earn the Golden Boot. Could this tournament belong to the darling of Brazil?

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

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Defoe breaks record as Spurs progress

Jermain Defoe scored his 23rd European goal for Spurs to break Martin Chivers’ record in a 2-1 win against Sheriff Tiraspol at White Hart Lane that saw them progress to the next round of the Europa League.

A drab match was enlivened by an encouraging performance from Spurs’ record-signing Erik Lamela, who opened the scoring on the hour with a simple finish before a superb run earned a penalty, which Defoe scored with aplomb.

Sheriff midfielder Ismail Isa grabbed an acrobatic consolation from close range to prevent Spurs recording a fourth consecutive clean sheet, but the North Londoners were thereafter untroubled and comfortably held on for the win.

Spurs, who rested Hugo Lloris and welcomed back Etienne Capoue from injury, dominated the early exchanges and forced the first save of the game when Mousa Dembele’s powerful shot was pushed clear by Sheriff goalkeeper Vjekoslav Tomic.

The visitors, who were playing without any away support, suddenly burst into life after a timid start when Ricardinho led a swift counter-attack before finding Ismail Isa, whose deflected shot hit the post with Brad Friedel stranded.

Moments later, a wayward pass from Christian Eriksen presented Ricardinho with a good opportunity 20 yards out, but the Brazilian could only hook his shot wide of goal.

Spurs, who had barely threatened Sheriff’s well-organised defence, then went close two minutes before the break when the lively Lamela’s cutback was deflected onto the base of Tomic’s near post.

After a dour opening to the second half, Spurs were unlucky not to take the lead when Eriksen’s well-struck drive was superbly tipped over the bar by a flying Tomic.

It was a moment that clicked Spurs into gear, and they took the lead soon afterwards when Eriksen’s scooped pass deflected perfectly into the path of Lamela, who scored with ease from twelve yards.

The Argentine forward, who has endured a tough start to his Spurs career after a £25m summer move from current Serie A leaders Roma, then turned provider when a dazzling run drew a rash challenge inside the area, leaving referee Kenn Hansen with no alternative but to point to the spot.

Lamela’s good work was rewarded when Jermain Defoe slammed home the penalty to score his fifth Europa League goal of the season, breaking Chivers’ long-standing record in the process.

At this stage, Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas might have been expecting an uneventful finish to the game, but his team handed Sheriff a lifeline five minutes later when Friedel could only parry Cadu’s long-range shot to the feet of Isa, who tucked the ball home from a tight angle.

Drawn forward in search of an unlikely equaliser, Sheriff were always in danger of conceding a third and it almost came via Lewis Holtby, whose follow-up effort was saved by Tomic after the Croatian could only fumble a drive from substitute Harry Kane.

There was late tension in amongst the home fans when Kyle Naughton conceded a free-kick in stoppage time, but Spurs held firm and took the win which booked their place in the next round.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Spurs ease past toothless Anzhi

First-half goals from Jermain Defoe and Nacer Chadli guided Spurs to a simple 2-0 Europa League win against an insipid Anzhi Makhachkala side at Saturn Stadium.

Spurs now lie top of Group K with maximum points from two games having kept consecutive clean sheets.

In truth, Spurs were never troubled by a limited Anzhi side, whose budget was slashed by billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov in August, prompting an exodus of star names such as Samuel Eto’o and Willian.

The effect of the two-thirds budget cut also saw Anzhi play at FC Saturn Moscow’s compact Saturn Stadium, several hundred miles from their Dagestan home.

In cold conditions, Anzhi made an enterprising start with striker Pavel Solomatin twice troubling a high Spurs defence, but the North Londoners registered the first shot on target when Sandro’s bobbling effort found the gloves of Yevgeny Pomazan.

An uneven playing surface ensured that the fluency of both teams was hindered in a first 30 minutes that passed without incident, but Anzhi finally threatened when a firm pass from Solomatin found Serder Serderov, forcing Hugo Lloris to hastily smother the ball at the midfielder’s feet.

Spurs tried to feel their way into the game, with Lewis Holtby ubiquitous, and the German playmaker linked up with Walker down the right before cutting inside and curling a long-range shot which Pomazan acrobatically palmed clear.

Moments later Holtby turned provider for the opening goal, sliding a perfect pass into the feet of the in-form Jermain Defoe, allowing him to lash home emphatically into the roof of the net from 12 yards.

Holtby was fast proving to be the controlling influence on an otherwise indifferent first-half, and he aimed an inviting cross-field pass to Kyle Walker, affording the right-back time and space to find the incoming Nacer Chadli who swept home past the grasp of Pomazan to give the visitors a 2-0 half-time lead.

Anzhi boss Gadzhi Gadzhiyev reacted to a poor first half by fast-tracking Ivorian striker Lacina Traore onto the pitch at the restart, despite his ongoing recovery from a shoulder injury.

Traore, recognised as the last remaining big name at the club following the U-turn in ethos ordered by Kerimov, was instantly a problem for the Spurs defence.

Holding the ball up well, he started an Anzhi move which led to right-back Benoit Angbwa shooting wide from outside the area, before Spurs replied when £25m forward Erik Lamela found Chadli who curled a shot wide after a quick break – again down Anzhi’s left-hand side.

Russian full-back Andrey Eschenko was introduced before the hour-mark, and he combined with fellow substitute Traore to work Lloris following a quick move on the left as Anzhi showed signs of improvement.

Solomatin drove ambitiously from an angle to force Lloris into a smart save, but Spurs cleared the resulting corner and broke forward with Holtby tamely shooting at Pomazan.

As the ambient temperature plummeted the quality of play also dropped off, but Spurs were dealt a blow on an otherwise easy night for them when Younes Kaboul hobbled off with a quarter of the match remaining.

Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas reacted by making two quick changes, with captain Michael Dawson replacing the Frenchman in central defence and the disappointing Lamela making way for in-form Gylfi Sigurdsson.

Solomatin again tried his luck from range late on, volleying towards goal, but Lloris calmly pushed his dipping shot wide of goal.

If the travelling Anzhi fans needed any excuse to leave early after their team’s meek display, the special charter train laid on by Kerimov to escort them back to Moscow left the ground five minutes from the end. Yet, they could have left at half-time as Spurs were never in danger of relinquishing their grip on an easily-earned three points.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89