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The Scout's Notebook: A look at the top 21 players under 21 in 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, here is the Scout's Notebook breakdown of the top 21 players in world football aged 20 or younger as of Jan. 1, 2015.

Most of these players enjoyed a strong 2014 and will be hopeful of continuing their upward trend into the new year.

Aymeric Laporte - Centre-Back - Athletic Bilbao - 20 - France

Aymeric Laporte is one of the top young defenders around.

Tall, aerially commanding, strong in the tackle and an excellent distributor of the ball over various distances, Laporte is undoubtedly one of the best young centre-backs in world football. He was rightfully included in the LFP team of the year for the 2013-14 season after playing a key role in Athletic Bilbao's fourth-place finish. The club have struggled to replicate that form this season but Laporte has again been one of their best performers.

Aleksandar Mitrovic - Striker - Anderlecht - 20 - Serbia

The star man in the Serbia side who won the 2013 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, Mitrovic is now firmly established at Anderlecht, for whom he has scored just under a goal every two matches since joining in 2013. Big and strong, good with his back to goal, and powerful in the air, he is a classic centre forward and was the driving force behind his team's comeback to a 3-3 draw away to Arsenal in November.

Benjamin Mendy - Full-Back - Marseille - 20 - France

The arrival of Marcelo Bielsa has been a positive for the majority of the Marseille squad but few have benefited as much as Mendy, who has already started as many matches as he did in the entirety of last season. Strong and quick, neat on the ball and an excellent crosser, Mendy has performed well at both full-back and wing-back. He has already represented France in various age categories and a senior call up could soon follow.

Davie Selke - Striker - Werder Bremen - 19 - Germany

Davie Selke has been a bright spot in an otherwise poor year for Werder.

Selke was named best player at the 2014 European U-19 Championship after helping Germany to the title with six goals over the course of the finals tournament, in addition to a further five during the qualification process. Tall and mobile, he has since worked his way into the Werder Bremen first team. He has not been quite as prolific as at youth level but has chipped in with four goals, two assists and some good performances.

Domenico Berardi - Striker - Sassuolo - 20 - Italy

It has been a pretty spectacular couple of years for Berardi. The tall and agile striker was named the Serie B player of the year after guiding Sassuolo to promotion during the 2012-13 season, and then took Serie A by storm with 16 goals in his debut campaign, including hat-tricks against AC Milan, Fiorentina and Sampdoria. Juventus signed him up on a co-ownership deal in the summer of 2013 and could soon look to buy him outright.

Doria - Centre-Back - Marseille - 20 - Brazil

A first-team regular at Botafogo since the age of 17 and a two-time winner of the Toulon Youth Tournament as captain of Brazil's U-21 side, Doria made his long-anticipated move to Europe by joining Marseille in September. The transfer was not authorised by coach Bielsa, however, and Doria has yet to receive a single minute of playing time for his new employers. The strong and talented centre-back will hope for a loan move in January.

Hakan Calhanoglu - Attacking Midfielder - Bayer Leverkusen - 20 - Turkey

Hakan Calhanoglu cost almost 15 million euros and is still under 21.

It is difficult to believe that Calhanoglu is still only 20-years-old. Slick and intelligent in open play and a specialist free-kick taker, he has emerged over the last couple of seasons as one of the Bundesliga's best attacking midfielders. His 11-goal haul for Hamburg earned him a 14.5 million euro move to Bayer Leverkusen, where he has flourished as part of a pacy attack constructed by coach Roger Schmidt.

Jose Maria Gimenez - Centre-Back - Atletico Madrid - 19 - Uruguay

Gimenez has not played as much first-team football as some of the other centre-backs on this list but the ease with which he has stepped up to every challenge placed in front of him in his short career to date suggests he is not only physically and technically strong, but that he also possesses the right mentality to be an elite player. Already a semi-regular at international level, he will hope for more opportunities at Atletico Madrid in 2015.

Jetro Willems - Full-Back - PSV Eindhoven - 20 - Netherlands

It would be fair to say that Willems is not the most defensively secure full-back in the world, but he makes up for that deficiency with the pace and vibrancy of his attacking play. He was unlucky to miss out on the Dutch World Cup squad through injury and already has seven assists and one goal to his name so far this season for his club. Indeed, he has formed an excellent partnership with Memphis Depay down the left-hand side of the PSV side who currently top the Eredivisie.

Kurt Zouma - Centre-Back - Chelsea - 20 - France

Kurt Zouma will learn a lot from John Terry.

Zouma broke into the Saint-Etienne team at the age of 17 and immediately established himself as a highly promising centre-back. Quick and athletic, technically sound and a strong leader, he was also a member of the France side who won the U-20 World Cup in 2013. Minutes have been limited since his move to Chelsea but working under Jose Mourinho, one of the best defensive coaches in the world, can only improve his game.

Marquinhos - Centre-Back - Paris Saint-Germain - 20 - Brazil

Marquinhos is the prototypical modern centre-back: strong, quick and proactive in his defensive work, and also an accurate distributor. He has settled in well in Paris following his 31.4 million pound move from Roma in 2013 and is developing well under the watchful eye of his compatriot Thiago Silva. A winner of the 2014 Toulon Tournament with Brazil's U-21 side, he has already been capped four times by the senior national team.

Giorgian De Arrascaeta - Attacking Midfielder - Defensor Sporting - 20 - Uruguay

De Arrascaeta played a key role in Uruguay's run to the final of the 2013 U-20 World Cup in Turkey and was then instrumental in Defensor Sporting's surprising run to the semifinals of the 2014 Copa Libertadores. A two-footed attacking midfielder with excellent touch and balance, plus a keen eye for goal, he has already been capped three times at full international level. A move to Brazilian side Internacional now appears to be on the cards.

Mateo Kovacic - Attacking Midfielder - Internazionale - 20 - Croatia

Mateo Kovacic's guile and goals have helped to lift Inter.

Kovacic has been attracting the attention of scouts since his early teens and now appears ready to translate his undoubted ability into consistent performances at the top level. A wonderfully gifted playmaker in the true Croatian tradition, his balance, touch and ingenuity set him apart as a player of rare talent. He played for his country at the World Cup in Brazil and has made a promising start under new Inter coach Roberto Mancini.

Memphis Depay - Forward - PSV Eindhoven - 20 - Netherlands

The year 2014 was undoubtedly a breakout one for Depay. His promise has been clear from an early age but the perennial Netherlands youth international has only made a definitive mark on the senior stage during the last 12 months. Two goals and bright performances at the World Cup in Brazil brought him worldwide attention, while his haul of 16 goals in all competitions so far this season is illustrative of a forward high on both confidence and talent.

Oliver Torres - Midfielder - FC Porto - 20 - Spain

Torres is one of a number of highly promising youngsters to have recently come through the Atletico Madrid academy. Small, technically accomplished and a fine reader of the game, he is the kind of midfielder who brings clarity to his team's play. He was the tempo setter for the Spain side who won the European U-19 Championship in 2012 and has impressed on loan at Porto this season under the same coach, Julen Lopetegui.

Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg - Midfielder - Bayern Munich - 19 - Denmark

An injury to Phillip Lahm has opened the Bayern door for Hojbjerg.

In his first days at Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola earmarked Hojbjerg as a player capable of doing everything he requires of a central midfielder. The youngster was composed in possession and displayed an excellent reading of the game. That analysis still stands but chances have been limited for a player who is already a full Danish international. A loan move in January (Sevilla have been heavily linked) would give him an opportunity to impress.

Saul Niguez - Midfielder - Atletico Madrid - 20 - Spain

Niguez was a near ever-present on loan at Rayo Vallecano last season and impressed with a series of strong and composed displays at both centre-back and as a defensive midfielder. A UEFA European U-19 Championship winner with Spain in 2012, he has been compared to Sergio Busquets due to his acute reading of the game and simple yet effective distribution. Now back at Atletico Madrid, he has the full confidence of coach Diego Simeone, who has earmarked the youngster for a Koke-esque role.

Sergi Samper - Midfielder - Barcelona - 19 - Spain

A regular for the Barcelona B team over the last couple of seasons, Samper has long been considered one of La Masia's most promising young talents. A skilful and intelligent defensive midfielder with a passing range that has seen him likened to Andrea Pirlo, he has appeared for Spain at various age categories. His Barcelona debut came at home to APOEL Nicosia in September and there is interest from home and abroad in a January loan move.

Youri Tielemans - Midfielder - Anderlecht - 17 - Belgium

Youri Tielemans has great experience.

There are precious few players who make their first-team debut at 16, still fewer who play in the Champions League at the same age and even less who convert such an early debut into more than 50 senior starts prior to their 18th birthday. But then Youri Tielemans is no average player. Mobile, strong into the tackle and a swift and effective distributor, he is already a highly competent all-round midfielder and is only likely to get better with age.

Simone Scuffet - Goalkeeper - Udinese - 18 - Italy

Scuffet was thrust into the limelight as a late replacement for the injured Zeljko Brkic in Udinese's match away to Bologna in February. Just 17 at the time, the goalkeeper responded superbly with a confident performance and a clean sheet. He was so impressive that he kept his place for the remainder of the season, and although he has played second fiddle to Orestis Karnezis during the current campaign, he still has a very bright future ahead of him.

Raheem Sterling - Attacking Midfielder - Liverpool - 20 - England

Recently named the FIFA Golden Boy of 2014, Sterling started to make good on his promise last season as the third cog in the Liverpool attack that so nearly propelled the club to the Premier League title. England caps followed, as did a place in the World Cup squad. His willingness to take on defenders creates excitement whenever he receives the ball and although his end product has been questionable at times during the current campaign, recent good performances show that the underlying talent remains.

Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.

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