World Cup Russia 2018


Young stars set for World Cup 2014

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For a young player in an England shirt, performances do not have to be spectacular to command column inches.

In a success-starved era, following the great promise, and subsequent disappointment, of the "Golden Generation", any hint of a brighter future is latched upon by fans, media, coaches and players.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin fulfilled this role at Euro 2012, and Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley is the latest to enjoy the limelight.

Against Moldova, a team that offered little, Cleverley was neat, tidy and busy, as he has been for Sir Alex Ferguson's side so far this season.

Occupying England's number 10 shirt, he operated further up the pitch, and although he lacks the vision or technique of a Silva or Hazard, he makes up for it in energy and resourcefulness.

He is, for all intends and purposes, a thoroughly English number 10.

Europe's giants boast elite playmakers - Sneijder for Holland, Ozil for Germany, Ribery for France, Silva, Iniesta and Fabregas for Spain - England don't.

But, if there's one huge positive in Cleverley's favour, it's his appetite for work, and his capacity to improve. He's been with United since he was 11, but the now 23-year-old has made just 13 league appearances in the last three years at Old Trafford.

At 22 years old, it looked like he'd missed his chance to progress into the Manchester United first team, but, after loan spells at Wigan and Leicester, he's worked his way into Sir Alex Ferguson's starting 11.

In an age of teenage superstars, of Raheem Sterling and Oxlade-Chamberlain and countless others before, Cleverley's slow rise to the Premier League has been gradual, littered by knock-backs but consistently upward in trend. And his hard work has paid off, and his work with United has led to a rapid promotion to the national side.

And the World Cup in Brazil, qualification permitting, could be the grand stage to become, as Roy Hodgson hopes, England's Cesc Fabregas.

But elsewhere across Europe, and beyond, the next generation of midfield stars are getting their first tastes of international football - their coaches fixing their beady eyes on Rio in two years time.

Germany, the most prolific nation in terms of youth development in recent years, has added Mario Gotze and Marco Reus to Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, and Thomas Muller.

Gotze and Reus both started Germany's opening qualification match - a 3-0 victory over Faroe Islands - and while Reus impressed briefly at Euro 2012, Gotze is the one German's are most excited about.

Just 20 years old, the Dortmund star already has 17 full international caps, and marked his latest appearance against the Faroe Islands with the opening goal in a comfortable home win.

Didier Deschamps' France started on the road to Rio with a new midfielder partnership. Abou Diaby and Rio Mavuba given starts while Jeremy Menez pushed forward to support Karim Benzema.

Arsenal midfielder Diaby has enjoyed a fantastic start to the new season at the Emirates Stadium. Finally injury-free, Arsene Wenger has high hopes for his countryman, and the Gunner scored the only goal of the game to help France beat Finland 1-0.

At 26 years old, Diaby is hardly a youngster, but having missed the last two years through injury, his emergence into the France team makes his presence feel like a new addition.

In the Netherlands, the Louis van Gaal reign has begun brightly, 21-year-old Luciano Narsingh following his goal against Belgium in August with another against Turkey this weekend.

The PSV winger is highly-rated, and although he travelled to Euro 2012 under Bert van Marwijk, it's only the arrival of van Gaal and the post-tournament fall-out this summer that's seen Narsingh promoted to the first 11.

Van Gaal also trialled a new central midfield partnership, one-time Manchester United transfer target Kevin Strootman joined by Jordy Clasie in the heart of the Oranje engine room.

Both players have bright futures, and following the failure, and subsequent dismantling, of the Mark van Bommell - Nigel De Jong axis, Van Gaal will hope these two young talents blossom into international calibre midfielders.

Neighbours Belgium have a hugely talented young team themselves, marshalled by Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany at the back, and spearheaded by Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mousa Dembele going forward.

Add to the mix Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel and you have one of the youngest, and strongest, starting 11's in Europe.

After 10 years of failed qualification attempts, Belgium should get the opportunity to fulfil their considerable potential in Brazil in 2014.

Europe's next generation of internationals will be blooded over the next two years in preparation for the quadrennial World Cup showpiece - the first to be held in South America since 1978.

It's inevitable that one or two teenagers will burst onto the stage six months before the competition, but, by and large, the squads that battle through 18 months of qualification will form the meat of the teams that travel to South America.

Gotze will certainly be there, as will Brazil's Neymar, and each will probably lead their teams deep into the tournament.

Roy Hodgson hopes Tom Cleverley will play a similar role, and the England coach's forward thinking was evidenced by his decision to replace Theo Walcott with Jake Livermore, Adam Lallana and the 17-year-old Sterling.

Talk of Cleverley as England's Fabregas is incredibly premature, but the United midfielder has two years. A few more performances like Friday's and he'll be well on his way to cementing a starting berth in Brazil.

His career had been a slow-burner, but in the last few months it's well and truly caught fire.

From this weekend's World Cup qualifiers in Europe, who impressed you the most? And who do you think will be the key players come Brazil 2014?

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Thomas Vermaelen
Romelu Lukaku
Premier League
Vincent Kompany
Marouane Fellaini
Manchester United
Nigel De Jong
Tom Cleverley

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