Gabriel Jesus, Christian Pulisic and more: 10 who could dominate WC 2018
With qualification for the 2018 World Cup in full swing, Nick Ames casts ahead to look at some of the rising stars who could end up dominating the tournament in Russia in two years' time.
Christian Pulisic, MF, Borussia Dortmund (Germany) and United States
There are no secrets anymore regarding the ability of Pulisic, who turns only 18 later this month. The Pennsylvania-born youngster is on course to be the U.S.'s first genuine global football star and underlined the point with two goals off the bench in a routine 6-0 World Cup qualifying win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday.
Victory over Trinidad and Tobago, who have already qualified for the fifth stage of a labyrinthine CONCACAF competition, is required to guarantee progression for Jurgen Klinsmann's side and the signs are that Pulisic will soon be far too important to name among the substitutes. As the games get bigger and the opponents become tougher, he has the ability to be decisive.
Gabriel Jesus, FW, Manchester City (England) and Brazil
If anyone still believed Man City's £27 million purchase of Jesus (who will join from Palmeiras in January) was a standard punt on a youngster, that view was blown out of the water during Brazil's eye-catching 3-0 WCQ win in Ecuador. The striker had scored three times during the Olympics and then, on his debut for the senior national team, helped them through one of South America's toughest assignments almost by himself.
Two goals (one a blistering shot after a sharp turn) and an assist were an outstanding contribution; more important, the 19-year-old appeared to raise the level of all around him. On this evidence, Brazil have just the player to lift them from the doldrums and the prospect of pairing Jesus, who will be 21 when the World Cup comes around, and Neymar in Russia will have fans of the Selecao salivating.
Omar Abdulrahman, MF, Al-Ain (UAE) and United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates' only World Cup appearance to date was in 1990, when they were soundly beaten in all three of their group games. A repeat appearance has rarely looked likely since, but Thursday's 2-1 win in Japan has already blown Group B of the Asian qualifiers wide open -- if they can defeat Australia at home on Tuesday, then both of the sextet's giants will have been accounted for early on.
The side's fulcrum is Omar Abdulrahman, commonly known as "Amoory." The 24-year-old playmaker is unmistakable for his Marouane Fellaini-esque haircut and, more pertinently, his lavish ability on the pitch. Born in Saudi Arabia but representing the UAE since joining local club Al-Ain 10 years ago, he is a captivating creative force and has been linked with top clubs in Europe. If he helps his country to a remarkable qualification for Russia 2018 then such a move may become reality.
Sardar Azmoun, FW, FC Rostov (Russia) and Iran
Azmoun will play Champions League football with Russian surprise package Rostov this season and he will probably be operating nearby in the summer of 2018. The 21-year-old forward was superb in their second-place finish last season and he has been in even more dazzling form for his country, with 15 goals in just 19 caps and a series of exhilarating displays. He can score the tap-ins but produces moments of magic too, with pace and vision that will almost certainly attract significant bids from Europe's big clubs in the foreseeable future.
The "Iranian Messi" tag he has been dealt may appear a burden, but Azmoun is well on course to be widely known on his own merits by the time the World Cup comes around.
Bersant Celina, MF, Manchester City (England) and Kosovo
Nobody quite knows how good Kosovo will be -- not least because, with their first-ever qualifier against Finland a mere two days away, the issue regarding nationality switches for many of their squad has not been settled -- but they have a star on their hands in Man City attacking midfielder Celina.
The diminutive 19-year-old, who will spend this season on loan with Dutch side FC Twente, will play an important role for Albert Bunjaki's side, probably coming in off one of the flanks. Technically gifted and outstanding at creating in tight spaces, he is highly rated at City and regardless of how Kosovo fare in the European qualifiers, the stage should help him develop into a force to be reckoned with.
Emre Mor, MF, Borussia Dortmund (Germany) and Turkey
Is any club harvesting more outstanding young talent than Borussia Dortmund? As well as Pulisic and Ousmane Dembele, the French forward who could also have made this list, they can also call upon the Turkey winger Mor, who should have a significant role to play when his national team open their qualifying campaign against Croatia.
Mor, who turned 19 in July, has a rapid turn of pace and livened Turkey up from the bench during their Euro 2016 defeat against Croatia. He will probably be in from the start this time, continuing the sharp rise of a player who was playing his trade in Denmark with FC Nordsjaelland last season. Mor stands at just 5-foot-6 but his stature in European football is getting considerably greater.
Taher Mohamed, FW, Le Havre (France) and Egypt
Bob Bradley is a safe pair of hands for young Egyptian footballers and the Le Havre manager, who coached the Pharoahs for two years, has a gem on his hands in Mohamed. The 18-year-old forward, who has joined the Ligue 2 side on a season-long loan from Arab Contractors, is one of Africa's most sought-after young talents and should break into Egypt's senior squad when Africa's next phase of World Cup qualifying -- which sees them placed in a tough group including Ghana -- commences next month.
Mohamed has already played 80 top-flight games in his homeland and should develop in leaps and bounds under Bradley's auspices.
Patrick Twumasi, FW, FC Astana (Kazakhstan) and Ghana
Twumasi received his first call-up to the Ghana senior squad in June and should be a regular fixture by the time the World Cup comes around. The 22-year-old currently plays his football for FC Astana in Kazakhstan, and scored in both of his Champions League appearances last season as they achieved creditable draws with Benfica and Galatasaray.
A versatile forward who can play centrally or out wide and poses a considerable threat from dead balls, Twumasi is likely to be playing in a bigger league by the time the World Cup comes around. In the meantime, he should be a useful ace in the pack for Avram Grant's national team.
Oleksandr Zinchenko, MF, Manchester City (England) and Ukraine
Another Man City youngster, albeit one who has immediately been loaned out to PSV Eindhoven, Zinchenko impressed for Ukraine at Euro 2016 and should be his side's creative hub if they make it to Russia. The 19-year-old, who was playing for Russian Premier League club Ufa last term before attracting Pep Guardiola's attention, plays with his head up, has a superb fine touch and eye for a killer pass -- and also times his runs into the box to good effect.
Ukraine must outdo the likes of Croatia, Turkey, Iceland and Kosovo in Group I if they are to coast aside the shadows of a desperately poor summer campaign in France. Zinchenko offers hope that there are brighter days ahead.
Marko Pjaca, FW, Juventus (Italy) and Croatia
The nagging sense after Euro 2016 was that Croatia could have done so much more. Instead, they fell to Portugal in a desperately dull second-round affair and there was a feeling that they were somewhat one-paced at times. That will change when the dynamic Pjaca, a tall and powerful 21-year-old winger who joined Juventus from Dinamo Zagreb in July, nails down a regular starting place.
Pitch time may initially be easier to come by in the national team than for the serial Serie A champions although he did make his debut as a late substitute in last weekend's win at Lazio. Pjaca mixes speed and trickery with the kind of direct goal threat Croatia have sometimes missed and he will be key to their chances of reaching Russia 2018.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.