The seven players to watch out for in 2012

The world of football has taken a new dynamic in the last 12 months with clubs now heavily focused on the promotion of youth. While in the past, experience had been key, the emphasis has now shifted to youth with the likes of Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester United on the forefront of promotion within the ranks.

With that in mind, and following on from the players to watch out for in 2011, below are the seven individuals that are expected to make a difference in world football over the next 12 scintillating months of professional football.

Phil Jones

A remarkable 18 months for the young England international, Jones has come from the peripherals of the Blackburn Rovers first-team to a pivotal member of the Manchester United one. Compared to the likes of Franco Baresi and Fernando Hierro, two greats who performed admirably in a role not too dissimilar to the one Jones carries out for the Red Devils. Moved to Old Trafford for around £16.5m over the summer, his mature performances far exceed his spritely young age of just 19.

Many had expected Jones to be but a squad player whilst developing under the stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson while learning to improve his overall defensive game from Nemanja Vidic, the player he will undoubtedly replace in the future for United. However, injuries have seen him utilised in a number of roles for the defending Premiership champions and he has excelled at centre-back, right-back and in midfield, with similar versatility that made the aforementioned duo successes during their time in the game.

Now considered a pivotal member of Ferguson’s starting XI, many have envisaged that Jones will go on to bigger and better things in the future. Packing captain material in abundance, the combative defensive player has been predicted to skipper United and England in the near future. Already admitting he is enjoying his time at the Theatre of Dreams, the youngster has been likened to infamous Busby Babes legend Duncan Edwards, a compliment of the highest order to the talented former Blackburn star.

Six months into his career in Manchester and fans are already looking forward to the next four-and-a-half years of the five-year deal he signed when he moved to the 19-time champions in June. 2012 is looking set to be a big year for the Preston born player and if continues to churn out the impressive displays that United supporters have become accustomed to, the next 12 months could well be another successful for the club as well.

Thiago Alcantara

Does the Barcelona youth system ever stop bringing through talented youngsters? The La Masia training facilities has become overly famous for the players that have come through the overly successful ranks with the likes of Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi all coming through the ranks. Well, now there is another to add to the first team; Thiago Alcantara.

The Italy born midfielder, and son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho, has been with the Blaugrana since 2005 and, following in the footsteps of Iniesta and Xavi, has broken into the first team with minimal ease. His level of ability can be signified by Vicente Del Bosque’s insistence in calling him up to the senior Spain squad despite his relatively young age and inexperience at club level, let alone at the national one.

Incidentally, he made his debut of his birth country Italy and already has three caps to his name. Now considered a member of the Barcelona first-team, he is expected to take over the mantel that Xavi and Iniesta will leave when the respective duo begin to, unfortunately, fade out of the game. But, in the 20-year-old, the European, and World, champions have a ready-made replacement and with Cesc Fabregas fully expected to replace the passing expert of the Barca midfield, the former Arsenal captain and Thiago can form a partnership in the middle of the park similar to the duo that remain the key components in the, at times unstoppable, Barcelona machine.

The Catalan giants feel his development will best be served at the Nou Camp and they rightfully served him with a new five-year deal back in June and signalled their intentions to keep hold of the highly rated Spaniard by inserting a €90m buyout clause. However, with the midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets ahead of him in the pecking order, it may well prove difficult to break the ménage a trois of talent currently gracing the middle of the Barca park but with 20 appearances to his name already this season, Thiago may well be adding to his tally over the next 12 months, especially if he continues to excel at club level and on the international stage.

Neymar

Could have comfortably been on the same list last season, the Brazilian has been an imperative part of the Santos starting XI since his breakthrough in 2009. Dubbed the new Pele and you would be hard-pressed to find any fan who disagrees with the comparison, his style of play, attacking prowess and dribbling flair reminiscent to the World Cup legend.

Heavily coveted by a number of Europe’s high flyers, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea especially so, and it is hardly surprising with a record of 40 goals in 85 games for the Copa Libertadores champions and runners-up in the Club World Cup. Many were in fact tipping the Mohawk sporting hit-man to move onto to Europe over the summer and despite his insistence in remaining with the Brazilian giants, the rumours are still persisting that he will be making a big money move next month, especially with the Brazilian season now over.

The iconic striker has swiftly risen up the World Class striker ranks and, at just 19, like Phil Jones, has all the potential to take the footballing world by storm. Despite the ‘Neymar vs Messi’ World Club Cup final failing to live up to the initial hype, similar to ‘Ronaldo vs Messi’, while winning the bronze trophy for the tournaments best player behind Ballon d’or contenders Messi, Xavi and Ronaldo is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, credit must go to him for outshining a number of the Barcelona superstars.

Coming through the ranks at Santos has also increased the likelihood of him becoming a success due to the influence former footballing legend Pele has at the club. The former World Cup winner believes he will be the best player in the world in the future, surpassing even Messi, and if that isn’t a compliment of the highest order, I don’t know what is. Whether he stays in Brazil for the next 12 months or moves to Europe, 2012 is set to be an exceptional year for the prodigious striker.

Mario Gotze

Young Gotze isn’t the first young German player to take the international stage by storm, and he sure as hell isn’t going to be the last. Following the likes of Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Andre Schurrle as the younger generation to have been propelled through the ranks and become an instant hit with the national team, Gotze is the one that has attracted the most attention in recent months.

Having come through the youth system with Borussia Dortmund, the 19-year-old has gone from strength to strength after making his debut for the defending Bundesliga champions over two-years ago and was absolutely instrumental in Die Borussen’s title charge last season. Now considered a key member of the starting XI, it is hardly surprising a number of Europe’s bigger sides have come sniffing around for the young playmaker.

Arsenal have been heavily linked with a move for the German international and the £30m price-tag that Dortmund have slapped on his head is fitting for a player with huge potential. The elegance in the way in which he decimates opposition defences is second to none and it is a great shame that his influence for the Bundesliga outfit has been hampered this season after suffering an injury in the 2-1 loss to Arsenal last month.

Nevertheless, you can be sure he will be as good as was once he recovers and his return will surely boost Dortmund’s if they are to close the three point gap that separates them and Bayern Munich at the top of the table once the winter break is over. When he does return to the Dortmund starting XI, you can be sure that he will give his all for the clubs hunt for the title with the next year set to be one where Gotze showcases his ability for all to see.

Christian Eriksen

Another prospect to come through the infamous Ajax ranks, Eriksen is certainly one to keep an eye on. The young Dane has been tormenting opposition full-backs for the best part of two-years now and doesn’t show any signs of slowing. When now Fulham manager took over the Amsterdam giants in 2009, the Dutchman compared the then 17-year-old to Danish legend, and former Ajax star, Michael Laudrup.

And the comparisons couldn’t be farther from the truth, with Eriksen’s style of play not too dissimilar to the ex-Mallorca manager. Now 19-years-old, like a majority of the players on the list, the world really is the tricky wingers’ oyster. Really shot to prominence at the beginning of the year in the 2-1 defeat to England where he put in a man of the match performance for the Dane’s and despite the loss, showcased his immense potential to the world.

Manchester United have recently been linked with a move and with the Red Devils currently in the hunt for a creative midfielder, the youngster fits the bill perfectly. Agile with a low centre of gravity, Eriksen can prove a real hit with whichever team wins the race for his signature, be it United or any of their competitors.

Eden Hazard

Part of the excellent youth coming through the Belgian system, Hazard can do no wrong with Joe-Cole-driven-Lille at the moment. Predicted to take the world by force over the next few years, the wide-man has been in fine form for the defending French champions contributing numerous goals and assists in their push for back-to-back Ligue 1 titles.

Like Neymar, he had been expected to depart the French outfit over the summer but opted to remain in France for another season at least. Yet, with Europe’s heavyweights sniffing around the winger like a horny dog on heat, a move over January is all but possible for the already established winger.

Real Madrid, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea are all thought to be monitoring the situation very closely but could be put off by the reported £30m asking price. Nevertheless, anyone who has the money to fork out on Hazard will have a player that is already a star and one that is going to get even better in a number of years.

Quick, tricky and packing unbelievable tekkers, Hazard is most certainly the winger of any managers’ dreams with an excellent return of 36 goals in 169 appearances, laying on a further 28 more. If he is still a Lille player after the summer, I would be very, very surprised. 

Edinson Cavani

Cavani cannot do any wrong at the moment. 46 goals in 66 games for Napoli and one of the most coveted strikers across Europe, the Uruguayan has emerged as the most dangerous striker in the world. Shocked many when he departed Palermo for Napoli, he has excelled in the Italian’s fast-paced attacking flair, with help from Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi.

Fired the Naples side to the knock-out stages of their maiden Champions League campaign, and with Napoli languishing in 7th in Serie A, despite being expected to challenge for the title, the first year rubbing the shoulders with Europe’s elite presents a real opportunity to pick up some silverware in the competition.

The main worry, however, remains Napoli’s reliance on the striker, his 13 goals in all competitions this season is a testament to this, may well be their downfall. Similar to Robin Van Persie in both style of play and goals scored, should the 24-year-old, god forbid, pick up an injury, then the Italian side may well struggle to find a striker to shoulder the burden that Cavani is carrying.

Such is their intentions to keep hold of their prized asset, Napoli have placed a £40m price-tag on his head and with only Manchester City looking like they can afford him, it is highly likely they will be able to keep hold of their man. Nonetheless, whether he is with Napoli, City or any other big spending team, the former Palermo striker is set to be one of the most viewed strikers over the next 12 months.

So there we have it, the seven players that will catch the eye of every football fan in 2012.

Have a merry Christmas.

Ben McAleer

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