2015 Sudamericano Sub20: Ten to watch
ARTICLE FIRST FEATURED ON JUST FOOTBALL
The South American U20 championship begins this week in Uruguay and offers the chance to catch a glimpse of some of the continents hottest prospects in action. The likes of Neymar, Alexis Sanchez and Lionel Messi have all represented their countries at the tournament in years gone by and there are a whole host of promising starlets hoping to follow in their footsteps.
Gabriel Barbosa (Brazil)
18-year-old forward Gabriel Barbosa, nicknamed Gabigol, is the latest jewel to emerge from Brazil and will be the key man for the Seleção. Inevitably drawing lazy comparisons to Neymar, the Santos striker enjoyed a sparkling 2014 in which he scored 21 times in 56 appearances, including finishing as the leading marksman in the Copa do Brasil. Exquisite technique, bags of creativity and an uncanny knack of finding the back of the net, Gabriel is a born goalscorer.
Gabriel’s importance will grow further after injuries ruled out Otavio and Carlos and the surprise omission of Boschilia but nevertheless he should be ably supported by the likes of Nathan, Thalles and Kenedy as Brazil look to make amends for their poor showing two years ago. Also worth keeping an eye on are the exciting Malcom Silva and Gerson, both 17 and very highly rated.
Alexis Zapata (Colombia)
In 2011, James Rodriguez starred for Colombia as they reached the quarter-finals of the U20 World Cup on home soil. In 2013, the magic of Juan Fernando Quintero inspired the Cafateros to victory in the Sudamericano before almost single-handedly dragging them to the round of 16 in Turkey. This time, the man entrusted with the number 10 shirt is Udinese’s Alexis Zapata.
Like Rodriguez and Quintero, Zapata is another product of the prolific Envigado youth academy that has also yielded internationals Fredy Guarin, Luis Muriel and Gio Moreno. After starring at the Juegos Bolivarianos and Torneo di Viareggio, Udinese swooped for the playmaker in January 2014 before loaning him to Sassuolo for the remainder of the season. Blessed with a sweet left foot, intelligent movement and decent pace, Zapata is equally adept at beating his man or providing a killer pass and will be expected to provide the stardust along with former teammate and Juventus target Andres Tello and Joao Rodriguez, on loan at Bastia from Chelsea.
Emanuel Mammana (Argentina)
Though the biggest name in the Argentina squad is Atletico Madrid forward Angel Correa, another man who will be equally crucial to any chance of success for the Albiceleste will be centre back Emanuel Mammana. An elegant defender, Mammana exuded class and composure as he captained Argentina to the semi-finals of the U17 World Cup two years ago and even made his senior international debut last year after impressing Alejandro Sabella as part of a sparring squad despite having not made his club debut with River, just as Javier Mascherano did back in 2003.
Mammana has since gone on to make a handful of appearances for Marcelo Gallardo’s vibrant River side and was handed a starting berth in the first leg of the Copa Sudamericana final away at Atletico Nacional – another measure of how highly rated he is for club and country. There is a strong River contingent in Humberto Grondona’s U20 squad that should form the spine of the squad and Mammana will be a pillar at the heart of their defence.
Sergio Diaz (Paraguay)
The second youngest player in the competition, 16-year-old sensation Sergio Diaz only made his professional debut for Cerro Porteno back in June but is already one of the most talked about talents in South America. After netting 30 goals for the Cerro U15 side he was fast tracked into the reserves and it wasn’t long until Leonardo Astrada gave him a chance for the first team.
Diaz seized that opportunity and has scored an impressive 8 goals in 20 games, drawing comparisons with namesake Sergio Aguero due to his diminutive stature, slaloming runs and razor-sharp finishing. Alongside Roma’s Tonny Sanabria, Paraguay will have one of the most feared strikeforces in the tournament and, should he translate his stunning club form, Diaz could really announce himself on the world stage as a future star in the making.
Luis Abram (Peru)
Awarded the Revelation of 2014 prize at the Peruvian end of year awards, 18-year-old centre back Luis Abram was a regular for Sporting Cristal as they won the Campeonato Descentralizado. In his debut season he racked up 22 appearances and chipped in with two goals, impressing with mature performances beyond his tender years.
A strong defence will be crucial to Peru’s chances of qualifying for the U20 World Cup in New Zealand so Abram will need to be at his best. Fortunately he can also count upon teammate Alexis Cossio, a promising left back who also featured heavily for Cristal, alongside him as well as Andy Reategui, who also had a strong season for Universitario. The hope will be that Abram and co can provide a solid platform for the likes of Sergio Pena, Fernando Canales and Luiz da Silva to make something happen in the final third.
Jaime Baez (Uruguay)
Hosts Uruguay boast a squad replete with exciting attacking talent so it is difficult to pick out one stand out player. Franco Acosta was deadly for the U17s and has since been snapped up by Braga, MLS-based Diego Fagundez has already racked up 22 goals in 88 games before the age of twenty, while languid playmaker Gaston Pereiro is a joy to behold and 17-year-old Rodrgio Amaral could be a surprise revelation. Nevertheless, one player that has got people really excited is striker Jaime Baez.
Uruguay has a strong tradition of producing forwards and Baez looks to be the next in line. The 19-year-old striker made his debut back for Juventud in 2012 and has since gone on to make 67 league appearances, scoring on 16 occasions for the minnows from Las Piedras. Blessed with great pace and movement, sublime technique and composure in front of goal, Baez is absolutely lethal and is capable of scoring from anywhere. He also has the strength to hold the ball up well and bring others into play. It’s no surprise that Liverpool are interested in the ‘new Suarez’, while Valencia are also very keen on him too.
Expectation will be high for Uruguay to do well on home soil but with a talented squad the young Charruas could be the team to beat.
Erwin Saavedra (Bolivia)
Bolivia aren’t exactly known for their footballing prowess and will probably face an uphill struggle to qualify from the groups, let alone the round-robin stage. Their chances were dealt a blow when it was announced that they would be without Sebastian Gamarra, the young midfielder on the books of AC Milan who has been dubbed the Bolivian Pirlo. However, there is always an outside possibility that they could upset the apple cart and if they are do so then midfielder Erwin Saavedra is likely to be a central figure in any success.
One of the most experienced members of the squad, the 18-year-old midfielder made 21 appearances for Apertura champions Bolivar this season and was also part of the side that made an unexpected run to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. He will form an important partnership in the centre of the park alongside Carlos Anez, with captain Pablo Pedraza an important player in defence.
Sebastian Vegas (Chile)
Captain of the Chilean team and a rock in the heart of their defence is highly rated centre back Sebastian Vegas. The 18-year-old has only featured intermittently for his club Audax Italiano but has been a regular at international level at every age group and has a long list of admirers, with Valencia at the head of the queue.
Strong, good in the air and left footed, Vegas is a ball playing defender who has the skill to play his way out of trouble and a good reading of the game that allows him to make timely interceptions. He has even drawn lofty comparisons to the great Elias Figueroa. Leading by example from the back, Vegas will hope to provide the defensive stability for the likes of Ramirez, Cuevas and Jeraldino to flourish and propel Chile to another U20 World Cup in the summer.
Andres Ponce (Venezuela)
Second top scorer at the U17 Sudamericano two years ago, Andres Ponce will be hoping to go one better this time around. The star man for the Vinotinto bagged seven goals in eight games to help Venezuela qualify for the U17 World Cup in the UAE, immediately marking himself out as one to watch. It’s famously difficult to judge who will go on to have successful careers at that age range but Ponce has continued his trajectory to prove he isn’t just a flash in the pan.
A loan move from Deportivo Tachira to Llaneros de Guanare has given some Ponce some game time and he has scored twice from eight starts, while he also impressed at the CAC Games for the Venezuela U21s, scoring four goals in as many games. A fine finisher with fantastic pace and an explosive left foot, Ponce is adept at playing across the frontline but really comes alive inside the box. Monitored by numerous clubs for some time, Sampdoria have moved first to secure his signature and the 18-year-old will join i Blucerchiati after the tournament. With Jaime Moreno, Jhon ‘Balotelli’ Murillo and playmaker Ayrton Paez in the squad too, Venezuela should have plenty of firepower.
Robert Burbano (Emelec)
In an Ecuadorian title race that went down to the wire, 19-year-old midfielder Robert Burbano was virtually an ever present for Emelec as they retained their crown and his performances in the final against Barcelona earned rave reviews. Originally a central midfielder, Burbano has principally featured as a right winger in his 31 appearances for el Bombillo this season. A bundle of energy on the right flank, the hard working youngster possesses a good range of passing and decent shooting as well as solid defensive capabilities when tracking back. Part of a footballing family, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Burbano emulate his father and go on to become a full international in the future.
Burbano is one of a number of players with a fair amount of experience under their belt that could make Ecuador dark horses in the Sudamericano. In defence, Luis Canga has already played for the senior team and Gabriel Corozo has also been included in the national team set up, while midfielders Jefferson Intriago and former Juventus loanee Jose Cevallos are regulars for LDU Quito. The ‘Mini Tri’ can also count on the attacking talent of ex-Villarreal striker Miguel Parrales, Gabriel Cortez, Kevin Mercado and Jonathan Betancourt. Another break out star could potentially be exciting 16-year-old left back Fabiano Tello. All in all, with Burbano at the helm, Ecuador could turn a few heads.