New Year, new young prospects! Expect these five breakout stars who impressed in Qatar to be snapped up when top clubs go on their usual spending sprees from this Sunday.Embed from Getty Images
Zakaria Aboukhlal, Morocco
The rapid 22-year-old forward has long been linked with a quick exit from Ligue 1 Toulouse, despite only joining from AZ Alkmaar in the summer and scoring three goals so far. The rumours have only intensified after helping Morocco go on an astonishing run to World Cup semi-finals against former champions France. The former Netherlands youth prospect really made people sit up and take notice with his well-taken goal in their shock 2-0 Group F victory over Belgium. Reliable Aboukhlal also played his part in helping to see out the narrow 1-0 victory over Portugal in the quarter-finals as a late substitute and piled on the misery for Cristiano Ronaldo.
If a young player can do it on the biggest stage, then you can almost certainly trust him to deliver domestically. That’s likely to be the thinking of Premier League duo Leicester — who know a thing or two about fairytale runs themselves — and Southampton as they both look to boost their attacks in a bid to climb the table in the second half of the season. Although if they want Aboukhlal, he’ll now cost significantly more than the bargainous £1.7 million Toulouse paid for him.
Goncalo Ramos, Portugal
Unlike some of his peers, Benfica striker Goncalo Ramos had been in eye-catching form before earning his place in Portugal’s World Cup squad. He’s not only helped fire the unbeaten Primeira Liga side top of the table with nine goals so far this season but struck a hat-trick against Danish outfit Midtjylland in their Champions League qualifying match in August — the first of what would be two memorable trebles for club and country within six months. Benfica continue to show their aptitude for nurturing an assembly line of talented young players, including Bernardo Silva, David Luiz, Joao Felix and Angel Di Maria in the past. The 21-year-old has risen quickly through the ranks from the B team in the past couple of years, so his blistering international progress comes as no shock.
He only made his senior debut in November but what an introduction it was — scoring one goal and setting up another in Portugal’s 4-0 friendly win over Nigeria. Then-manager Fernando Santos saw enough potential in the forward for him to oust struggling Ronaldo from the starting line-up for their last-16 clash with Switzerland. It’s no coincidence that the talented youngster’s inclusion resulted in their best performance of the tournament and he topped a stunning individual display with another impressive hat-trick in the 6-1 mauling. Benfica president Rui Costa’s already issued a ‘hands-off warning’ to big-spending Manchester United but whether he ends up in England or further afield, they won’t be able to ward off suitors for long.
Josip Juranovic, Croatia
The rampaging Celtic right-back is another player who has been the subject of transfer rumours for quite some time now. Juranovic has impressed since his arrival in Glasgow from Legia Warsaw for around £2.5m last August and showed immediately he could handle the big occasion. Defensively sound and strong in attack, he embarrassed Ryan Kent in their emphatic 3-0 derby victory over Rangers in February. Winning silverware and playing European football, competitions where you can bet on your favourite sporting events, has been great preparation for the high pressure of performing for one of the World Cup favourites Croatia, who some believed could go one better than their 2018 runners-up finish, in Qatar.
They may have had to settle for third place but Jura won plaudits for getting the better of Vinicius Junior during his dynamic display in their penalty shootout triumph over star-laden Brazil in the quarters. He was integral to ‘minnows’ Croatia punching above their weight once again on the world stage and a standout performer in their backline along with centre-back Josko Gvardiol, although the RB Leipzig kid was turned inside out by Messi, but let’s face it, who hasn’t been? As the oldest of our picks, you feel the time is right for Juranovic to seal his next big move at 27 years old and it’s no surprise defensively-minded Serie A clubs in Italy are sniffing around him, as well as a host of other clubs including none other than La Liga giants Barcelona.
Enzo Fernandez, Argentina
Joining Ramos as the latest starlets in a long line produced by the aforementioned Benfica, it’s Enzo Fernandez. When the skilful midfielder signed for the Portuguese side from River Plate in July, he followed in the footsteps of the great Eusebio by wearing the No.13 shirt. Some of the Benfica legend’s magic appears to have rubbed off on him as he lit up the World Cup with his mature displays and was in great company once again as he scored along with Messi in Argentina’s 2-0 Group C victory over Mexico.
Fernandez would go on to showcase his great technical ability, composure beyond his years and physical strength, deservedly earning Fifa’s Young Player of the Tournament. Now a world champion at just 21 years old, Fernandez will be a vital member of an Argentina squad that has to face the future without Messi’s genius. Looking ahead in his club career, Fernandez has caught the attention of Premier League big guns Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, who can expect to pay much more than the £15m he cost Benfica in the summer.
Alexis Mac Allister, Argentina
Another Argentina star who could be on the move is Brighton ace Alexis Mac Allister. Costing around £7m from Argentinos Juniors in 2019, the central midfielder surprised many onlookers with his performances for Lionel Scaloni’s men in Qatar. But Mac Allister’s come a long way since starting the Premier League season off with an own goal against Manchester United. Small in stature but with a huge heart and penchant for clever runs, the 23-year-old seemed to improve with every game as the World Cup went on, culminating in his elite display in the final glory over France.
It will perhaps be a bit of a comedown for the World Cup winner to return to the south coast after the jaw-dropping celebrations in Argentina, but having been linked with Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid and Arsenal to name a few, Mac Allister’s unlikely to be hanging around there for much longer. While the Seagulls will be disappointed to lose his energy, pressing and verve, they can console themselves with a considerably higher transfer fee than he would have commanded pre-tournament.
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