Which youngsters will shine at World Cup 2018?

Illustration by Michael Mankowski

By Matthew Celentano

 

It is time—in just a few days, the gods of the game will bless us with a month of beautiful, insane, sometimes boring (England, we’re looking at you), ugly, heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping, mouth-watering football. And we’re here for all of it. In fact, we just cancelled doctor’s appointments that conflict with Nigeria vs. Iceland.

Every tournament, a few gifted young players make their mark on the grandest stage there is, thrilling us with their unadulterated brilliance. Here are five youngsters we think will light up Russia.

 

1. Gabriel Jesus, Brazil

When asked about adapting to the Premier League, he said, “I thought it would be harder.” Gabriel Jesus’ rise to prominence has been so rapid, it’s easy to forget he just turned 21. The Brazilian striker joined Manchester City from Palmeiras last January and made an immediate impact, becoming the first player to score and assist on his full debut for City. Despite picking up an injury a few matches later, Jesus went on to finish the season with seven goals and four assists, proving himself as a clinical finisher with a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Luckily for Brazil, Jesus has been just as prolific donning the famous yellow and green as he has in sky blue. Naturally, he scored a brace on his debut for the Seleçao and went on to become their top scorer in World Cup qualifying with seven goals in ten games. Following Brazil’s crushing 2014 World Cup exit on home soil—the notorious 7-1 semifinal defeat to Germany that 17-year-old Jesus watched from his couch—the pressure to succeed will be greater than ever in Russia. Jesus seemingly has the grounding and cool head to cope, but leading the line for Brazil at a World Cup will undoubtedly be his toughest test yet.

 

2. Marcus Rashford, England

Coming from the other half of Manchester, England’s Marcus Rashford is one to keep an eye on in Russia. When he first broke onto the scene as an 18-year-old in the 2015-16 season, nobody knew a thing about him. He didn’t take long to announce himself to the world, though, as he scored two goals and assisted another on his Premier League debut. The opponents? Oh, just Arsenal.

A month later, Rashford became the youngest-ever scorer in a Manchester derby, grabbing the winner in a 1-0 victory at Manchester City. The teenager’s fearless, energetic performances earned him a spot in England’s 2016 European Championship squad, where he became the youngest player to appear for the Three Lions in the competition.

Life at Manchester United hasn’t all been easy since Rashford’s explosive debut season. With José Mourinho forced to accommodate stars like Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and Anthony Martial, most of Rashford’s Premier League minutes have come off the bench. For England, however, Rashford should be integral to Gareth Southgate’s setup. In a recent friendly against Costa Rica, the 20-year-old put in a Man of the Match performance and scored a blinder, playing in his preferred position as striker.

 

 

All the talk of England’s World Cup chances will inevitably revolve around captain and goal-machine Harry Kane—but don’t sleep on Marcus Rashford. The baby-faced assassin could be the Three Lions’ secret weapon as they look to atone for their disastrous performance in 2014.

 

3. Marco Asensio, Spain

Another player whose stock has soared in the last few seasons, Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio is the real deal. In his first full season with Los Blancos, the 22-year-old rose to the biggest occasions—the true mark of any great player. His goals against Bayern Munich in the 2017 Champions League semi-final and Juventus in the final were key to Real Madrid’s second European title in a row. Asensio seemingly only capable of scoring ridiculous goals: he started last season with two left-rooted rockets against Barcelona in the Spanish Supercup.

 

 

Screamers aside, Asensio never looks out of place on a Real Madrid team littered with superstars. Easily the club’s most promising youngster, the Mallorca-born midfielder’s ability to drive forward with pace and beat opponents will give Group B defenders nightmares.

While Asensio has gone from strength to strength in Madrid, his international career has yet to fully take off. A European champion and prolific scorer at youth level, the Spaniard is still searching for his first senior international goal. Given his history of scoring in high-profile matches, don’t be surprised when Asensio takes Russia by storm.

 

4. Hirving Lozano, Mexico

America, meet Hirving Lozano, El Tri’s 22-year-old wing wizard.

Nicknamed “Chucky” because he used to scare his Pachuca teammates in their sleep, Lozano now torments defenders for PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch Eredivisie. It’s safe to say his first season in the Netherlands was a success: Lozano’s team-high 17 goals and eight assists helped PSV pip rivals Ajax to the Eredivisie title.

Now he’ll be central to Mexico’s World Cup challenge. While Lozano is capable of playing on either flank and even as a striker, he primarily plays on the left as an inverted winger, cutting in and cracking off shots with his stronger right foot. Since Mexico use the same 4-3-3 formation as PSV, Lozano should naturally slot into Juan Carlos Osario’s front three alongside Chicharito and Carlos Vela.

Chucky’s electrifying bursts of pace, sly trickery, and penchant for long-range rips will make Mexico thrilling to watch in Russia.

 

5. Kylian Mbappé, France

2017 was the year of Kylian Mbappé. Virtually unknown at the start of the year, the teenager became a household name in the space of six months when he started scoring goals in record-breaking fashion for AS Monaco. After grabbing his first Ligue 1 hat trick, he netted 11 goals in 11 games as he spearheaded Monaco’s unlikely title victory. By the end of the 2016-17 campaign, Mbappé had scored 26 goals in all competitions despite barely playing in the first half of the season.

A year later, Mbappé is a regular for France worth a pretty £166 million. In his first season with Paris Saint-Germain, the 19-year-old proved he can kick it with superstars like Neymar and Edinson Cavani, racking up 21 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. Drawing comparisons to French legend Thierry Henry due to his lightning speed and cool finishing, Mbappé will surely be in the running for the Balon D’Or once the Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi show is over.

Make no mistake, Mbappé is a special talent. Russia 2018 may be his first international tournament, but Mbappé’s composure and decision-making belie his inexperience. We can’t wait to see what the precocious Parisian does for Les Bleus in Russia.

 

All statistics via WhoScored.com

Follow Matthew Celentano on Twitter @MattCelly