Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 to Watch at the U-20 World Cup

Ghana beat Brazil in the 2009 final

Diego Maradona, Luis Suarez, Ronaldinho, Luis FigoCesc FabregasThierry Henry, Maxi Rodriguez, Michael Owen, Roberto Carlos, Sergio Aguero, Diego ForlanArjen Robben, Landon Donovan, Petr Cech, Rafael Marquez, Adriano, Michael Essien and Lionel Messi. These are just some the names that have competed at various U20 World Cups. And look how they’ve blossomed.

With the U20 World Cup just days away from launching, I’d like to take some time out to fill in the gaps on the players you’re going to need to look out for.

Our prime pick, Guadalajara Chivas and U20 Mexican striker Erick Torres, is a wanted man. And by wanted I mean desperately sought after, with rumours already suggesting that he may be on his way out of Mexico soon after the tournaments conclusion. The Chivas striker has taken the Mexican clasusura by storm following his vastly impressive debut season with 6 goals in 20 appearances – the most important and best featured from a header, which paved the way for a 3-0 win in el super clasico against sworn enemies America. Unlike his former compatriot Javier Hernandez, Torres was an exceptional individual who made his way up through the ranks. El Cubo (meaning the cube) was top scorer in the Mexican Under-17 tournament with a phenomenal goal tally of 22 goals in 29 games. Many a football pundit tend to compare Torres with Hernandez, which is fully understandable considering their meteoric rise through the ranks, but in reality their style of play suggests they are entirely different. While Hernandez is quick to seize on any mistakes and buzzes around the box like a steroid-fuelled bee, Torres is a more complete striker, in the sense that his play involves a bit of everything. He is able to hold up the ball, can occupy countless positions across the front line and is entirely comfortable with his back to goal.

Despite all this, Mexican U-20 coach Juan Carlos Chavez simply refused to bring the young ‘un to the Under-20 World Cup preliminaries, arguing the fact that bringing Torres would be unjust on the other squad players who had been competing for places the last two years. And so when the decision was made to let Torres board the plane, it was seen as somewhat a surprise, although not unsurprising, if you get my drift. He had impressed and was well rewarded with a ticket to the U-20 World Cup. Question is, will he start?

Next up is 18-year-old diminutive forward Juan Manuel Iturbe, who’s already drawn numerous comparisons with fellow Argentine Lionel Messi. Born in Argentina but bred by Paraguayan parents who came to Argentina in search of work, he’s endured several dilemmas on which national team to declare for. Having made his senior debut for the men in red and white in a friendly back in 2009, it seemed he would be following in the footsteps of his parents only to have their dreams dashed after a rather unfortunate fall out with the Paraguayan staff which resulted in his declaration for La Albiceleste.

 Iturbe’s prominent rise to fame first stemmed from his virtuoso display in this years Libertadores Cup, after featuring as a second-half substitute for Cerro Porteno of Paraguay against Colo Colo of Chile. Colo Colo had quickly found themselves two goals down and after halving the deficit, Cerro were finding themselves under copious amounts of pressure, desperately trying to preserve their lead. Cue Iturbe and cue one of the finest introductions to a Libertardores games in some time. It took him merely a minute to make a name for himself. After finding space on the left he swapped passes with a teammate, dashed through a hole in the defence, cut in on the diagonal between two Colo Colo defenders after once again receiving the ball and toe-poked home with his left-foot to restore Cerro’s two-goal cushion. But he wasn’t finished quite yet. With Cerro leading 4-2 and unwilling to wind down, Iturbe received the ball back to goal, turned his marker with remarkable ease before strolling into the box and side-footing home an accurate and precise finish that was celebrated by yet even more excessive badge-kissing.

Following his change of allegiances, Iturbe’s been a sparkling addition to the Argentinian youth sides. Earlier this year he traveled to Peru to compete at the U-20 South American Youth Championships where he was easily La Albiceleste’s best player, scoring a modest three goals and helping them to a 3rd place finish, only behind Uruguay and winners Brazil. It’s no wonder either that he’s already been snapped up by all-conquering Portuguese outfit Porto, who he signed a pre-contract agreement with back in January.

Its fair to say that we’ll be seeing a whole lot more of the Argentine in next seasons Portuguese Super Liga and who knows, maybe he could even drive the team to European glory come the end of May.

Yet another star on the rise is Costa Rica’s outrageously talented Joel Campbell, who’s already made six appearances for the senior side and been top scorer at the CONCAF 2011 U-20 Championships, where he notched 6 goals in 5 appearances helping them to an excellent 2nd place. Campbell, who can play as a left-winger or forward, was chosen for the Costa Rican squad that competed at the Copa America earlier this month as part of a team that mainly consisted of U-22 players due to Costa Rica’s main squad being involved in the Gold Cup staged in the USA in June. The 20-year-old was one of very players who was chosen for both tournaments, after impressing - featuring sporadically as a sub - with one goal at the Gold Cup. The Ticos were heavily regarded as one of the teams that were expected to fail miserably at the Copa but ended the tournament with a rather impressive three points, considering their dilemma. Campbell was a pivotal figure in securing those three points when they took to the field against Bolivia in their second group game. During the game Campbell was a constant menace and his wonderful through ball set up the Ticos’ first goal. Then twenty minutes later, Campbell was on the score sheet, this time finishing off a lovely move that originated from the Costa Rican defence.

For a player who’s only played 8 competitive club games, it seems like he’s got the whole package. His wonderful ball skills, blinding pace and his tremendous imagination are just some of the traits he possesses and its probably the reason why English side Arsenal are / were planning a swoop for the youngster.

Rodriguez, left, lifts the Europa League trophy

Colombia have qualified for this years tournament as part of the privilege of hosting it, and captain James Rodriguez is the player who I’ve hand-picked that you should keep a particular eye on, considering he caught the eye of so many playing for Porto last term. Rodriguez began his career in football at the tender age of four after being snapped up by Colombian football side Envigado and quickly impressed when thrown into the senior team, scoring 20 times in 55 appearances before his move to Club Athletico Banfield from Argentina in 2008. He was a regular at Banfield throughout his second season at the club and earned the nickname of the ‘James Bond of Banfield’ due to his cool composure in tight situations on the ball. It was during that second season that clubs such as Udinese and Porto became interested in the youngster and in the summer of 2010 the dream was made a reality when Porto signed the then 19-year-old for €5.1 million. During his first season in Portugal, he averaged a goal every three games and also bagged a hat-trick in Porto’s treble-completing cup final win over Guimaraes late in May.

Rodriguez has also starred for various Colombian youth teams over the years and was an essential part of the squad when Los Cafeteros contested at the 2007 South American Under-17 Football Championship. Rodriguez scored three goals at the Championships, in the process helping his side finish a very impressive 2nd, only behind runaway victors Brazil. He was also part of the squad at the U-17 World Cup just a few months later where they exited the tournament losing to eventual winners Nigeria in the round of 16.

Rodriguez is a sublimely talented individual with superb technique who’s been increasingly likened to Real Madrid starlet Cristiano Ronaldo in his style of play. Already seen as a complete winger as well as a free-kick specialist, Rodriguez definitely qualifies as ‘one to watch’ for Porto in the coming years.

Last but certainly not the least on the list is Spanish and Barcelona B midfielder Oriol Romeu. Romeu, who’s preferred position is defensive midfielder but can also play in central defence, has been part of the La Masia setup since he was 13 and was handed his first team debut by Pep Guardiola in 2009. Since impressing for the Barca ‘B’ team in the 2009/10 Segunda Divison, Romeu has attracted a flurry of interest from the likes of Newcastle, Everton and surprise, surprise Arsenal, who’ve been keen to add him to their ranks but Romeu has disappointed them, with Oriol opting to sign a one-year contract extension at the Nou Camp.

As well as impressing for Barcelona, he’s also drawn attention to himself on an international stage, appearing at U-17, U-19 and U-20 for Spain. He was a major figure in Spain’s successful qualification campaign for the U-19 European Championships last year and scored the winner against Turkey in a close-fought 3-2 win.

Romeu can be described as quick and strong, which gives him the ability to impose himself in the midfield. He is yet to make the breakthrough to the first team, who has often been referred to as Sergio Busquet’s backup before Mascherano arrived, but is one of the youth players tipped to make a significant impact when he does make that eventual breakthrough.

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