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

Advertisements

Bayern Munich – The world’s first hybrid football team

Over the last few years the concept of all things hybrid has spread across the world. We now have hybrid cars – both on the road and in motorsport – there are hybrid road bikes and even ‘phablets’ which are a cross between a smartphone and a tablet.

There has, however, never been a hybrid football team – until now.

Bayern Munich, the German, European and world champions, are arguably the first tangible example of such a thing in the sporting, not technological, world.

A couple of seasons ago, Bayern were eclipsed in the Bundesliga by the burgeoning force of Borussia Dortmund.

‘Die Schwarzgelben’ had revolutionised German football with their aggressive defensive pressing –  ‘Gegenpressing’ – and their razor-sharp attacking play which regularly made fatal incisions into Bayern’s defence – most notably during a 5-2 German cup final win in 2012.

Dortmund’s powerful arrival onto the German footballing scene provoked a reaction in Munich. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes finally had the barometer that would help elevate his side and convert their huge potential – setting them on the path to becoming the world beaters they are now.

Heynckes’ response was to recalibrate Dortmund’s ‘gegenpressing’ – using it in a way that would suit Bayern. The results were devastating.

The following season Bayern defeated Dortmund in the German Supercup and later went on to win the treble – including a last-minute win over their arch-rivals in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Yet, it was Bayern’s performance in their semi-final against Barcelona – then comfortably held to be the best team in the world – that drew the most attention as they crushed them 7-0 on aggregate.

In the first leg they swamped their Spanish opponents, asphyxiating them with a brutal display of counter-attacking and finishing them off with startling lethality in a 4-0 win.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou had long been a fortress – particularly in European football – but Bayern flattened it in the second leg, cruising to a 3-0 victory.

The Bavarians sent shockwaves through the footballing community – especially the Catalonian one – and from there they have built upon that success.

Heynckes left Bayern last summer but was replaced by Pep Guardiola – a man who had been the chief architect of Barcelona’s rise to the top of the game.

Guardiola has not hindered Bayern’s progress though – he has sharpened it.

In just eight months at the helm he has developed the German giants into an all-conquering machine and the theme of hybridity is the ideal way to describe their style of play.

A key feature of the modern Bayern is the seamless transition from defence to attack.

Guardiola has drilled a sublime one-touch passing game into his new side, which serves to speed up the way Bayern shift the ball from their penalty area to the other.

Full-backs David Alaba and Rafinha have a licence to raid forward – particularly Alaba who is rapidly developing into the most potent left-back in the world.

However, it is when Bayern are faced with a wall of 11 players in front of them that they are at their most fluid.

Their defence, midfield and strike force all combine in each venture forwards, with an interchangability that is unprecedented in the modern game.

So much so that some photographs of Bayern’s offensive shape this season show a 1-8-1 formation – an almost incomprehensible form for a football team to sustain.

That ‘midfield’ eight usually comprises Alaba, Rafinha, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice Lahm’s absence in defence. Only a few years ago Lahm was seen as one of the best full-backs in the world, but Guardiola has transformed him into a free spirit that roams across midfield.

Effectively, Lahm acts an important cog between defence and midfield but, such is Bayern’s constant fluidity, the diminutive captain can pop up on either flank to assist wingers Robben and Ribery with attacks.

In Schweinsteiger, Bayern have the typical box-to-box midfielder – himself reformed from a flamboyant winger in his early career.

His partner in central midfield is contract rebel Kroos, whose growing influence during Bayern’s games has seen him linked with several top clubs in Europe.

Then there is Mueller – one of the most underrated players in world football at the present time.

Mueller has the ability to play as a striker – indeed that is where he started in his early career – but in recent seasons he has acted on the edges of an attacking three.

That Mueller is also an extremely hard-working midfielder enables his side to spring forward in numbers while also knowing that he will return goalside quickly if his side loses the ball.

This takes a huge amount of discipline and drilling on the training ground, and Guardiola must take credit for that.

What Guardiola has created is, in effect, the all-round football team.

In cricket, there are all-rounders, in cycling there are rouleurs and now in football there are hybrids.

Bayern’s influence on world football is now so strong that teams in England are dropping players whose talent only extends to one area of the game.

This is best evidenced in footballers such as Juan Mata and Mesut Özil.

Mata was allowed to leave Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in January. The Spaniard’s attacking quality was not in doubt, but his willingness to defend was.

Mourinho is keen to have the same all-round, hybrid player that Guardiola has created at Bayern. Consequently, players such as Ramires, Oscar and Eden Hazard were preferred to Mata for their greater work without the ball.

The same is true of Özil at his new club Arsenal. Although Real Madrid didn’t let him leave because of his lack of defensive diligence, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dropped the German due to his ‘tiredness’.

After noticing Özil’s complete disinterest in tracking back, many critics saw this as a veiled signal to Özil that his work rate must improve.

As talented as Mata and Özil are, they are not the complete all-round footballer. They could even be considered a weakness if they do not perform to their high attacking standards because they offer little in defence.

This is where Bayern have excelled. They have changed the type of player needed to perform at the highest level and have quickly set up a squad containing players who are comfortable and capable of playing in several positions.

What used to be the utility player, a rare breed, is now a necessity.

Even goalkeepers are being asked to play as sweepers – good examples of those are Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

Having such a goalkeeper allows teams have an extra layer of defensive security, and that is just one part of how the modern game is developing.

Defenders are midfielders, sometimes even attackers, midfielders are starting to flourish in any position across the width of the pitch and strikers are doing defensive duties too.

This hybridity will continue to reign in football for years to come and until then Bayern are the team to beat – just as Barcelona were when their tiki-taka football dominated the game.

The question is which team will be able to take football onto the next level and render the concept of hybridity a thing of the past?

Man City see off disappointing Chelsea in FA Cup clash

Goals in each half from Stevan Jovetic and Samir Nasri gave Manchester City a simple win over a lacklustre Chelsea in their FA Cup fifth-round clash at the Etihad Stadium.

Jovetic had already clipped the bar with a chip before he placed an effort beyond Petr Cech after 16 minutes.

Despite the introduction of Mohamed Salah and Fernando Torres, Chelsea lacked spark throughout with the threat of Eden Hazard particularly nullified by a hungry City defence.

But it was a City substitution that finished the game off, with Nasri exchanging passes with an offside David Silva before slotting home to earn City a place in the quarter-final draw.

Before the highest-profile fifth round tie there was an impeccably-observed silence for Sir Tom Finney, the England and Preston legend, and the home side made a timid start amidst an understandably subdued atmosphere.

When City eventually settled, the opening goal was not far behind. Yaya Toure was the catalyst when his fierce shot was fumbled by Petr Cech, presenting Stevan Jovetic with a chance to score but his delicate chip grazed the crossbar.

City’s Montenegrin striker would not have to wait long for a goal though, and when Edin Dzeko found him on the right flank he finished off a quick passing move with a superbly-placed shot to Cech’s right which found the net via the post.

The goal confirmed City’s growing confidence but that was undermined by a shaky Costel Pantilimon, who ignited a goalmouth scramble with a flap at Branislav Ivanovic’s cross but, luckily for the 6ft 8in Romanian, his alert defence saw off the danger.

At the other end the hosts quickly resumed their silky attacking play and after 24 minutes another flowing attack culminated in Dzeko working Cech with a low shot from outside the box.

Chelsea’s disappointing start to the game was reflected by Eden Hazard’s anonymity, with the Belgian kept quiet by the City defence until some smart footwork drew a foul from compatriot Vincent Kompany who was booked by referee Phil Dowd.

Dowd was in action again just before the break, eventually booking David Luiz for a mis-timed challenge on Jovetic, but from the resultant advantage James Milner wasted a good opportunity when his heavy cross proved too strong for Dzeko to reach six yards from goal.

Jose Mourinho, who had been playing mind games all week with his title-hungry adversaries, reacted to a passive opening half by replacing Samuel Eto’o with new signing Mohamed Salah.

Salah replaced Eto’o up front in a move which continued Mourinho’s apparent lack of faith in Fernando Torres.

Mourinho would also have been keen to see his side establish themselves in the second half, but City continued to dominate without coaxing Cech into serious action.

Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, would have been angry when Jovetic proceeded to blemish what had been a diligent display with an embarrassing dive – prompting Dowd to brandish a yellow card.

It was to be Jovetic’s last action of the game, but he was replaced by the returning Samir Nasri on the hour with Mourinho giving Torres the chance to impose himself on his future plans at the expense of the quiet Ramires.

Nasri’s introduction would emerge as the crucial substitution when the Frenchman doubled City’s lead with a wonderful move after 67 minutes.

The attack began with Kompany, an imposing figure throughout, drilling a low ball to Nasri who fed David Silva before collecting the Spaniard’s square pass to calmly place the ball into a vacant net.

Television replays suggested that Silva was marginally offside when he received Nasri’s pass, but the officials went some way to redeeming themselves when correctly disallowing a Joleon Lescott tap-in from an offside position.

Chelsea could only muster a brief spell of pressure late on and duly failed to test Pantilimon in what was a microcosm for the whole match.

By then it was far too little far too late as City ran out comfortable winners to avenge their league defeat just 12 days previous and advance into the quarter-finals with ease.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89