Five best European-based players this season aged 21 or younger
With the large majority of the European leagues having come to a close, now is the time to take a step back and reflect on the season that was. With that in mind, here are our top five best-performing young players, currently aged 21 or younger, for the 2014-15 season.
Domenico Berardi | 20 | Sassuolo | Striker
Domenico Berardi burst onto the Serie A scene with 16 goals during the 2013-14 season. He looked an excellent all-round forward: agile, hard-working, intelligent in his movements and a good finisher. The question was whether he would be able to maintain that level in his second season in a league in which defences soon tighten around dangerous players. The answer was yes. Fifteen goals and 10 assists later, there can be no doubt Berardi is a rare talent.
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The 20-year-old Italian reached the 30-goal mark in Serie A quicker than any other player over the past 50 years. Juventus have been his co-owners alongside Sassuolo since 2013 and will have a decision to make over his future this summer. He picks up a high number of cards -- 13 yellows and one red this season -- but his overall ability far outshines that one weakness.
"Berardi is a player of the greatest talent," former Milan and Italian national team coach Arrigo Sacchi wrote last year. "A modern footballer who plays with and for the team, all over the pitch, all of the time."
Memphis Depay | 21 | PSV Eindhoven | Forward
Memphis Depay came into the season high on confidence following his two goals for Netherlands at the World Cup in Brazil. And he produced an outstanding campaign in which he notched 22 goals and five assists for Philip Cocu's title-winning PSV Eindhoven side. The 21-year-old's quick and direct dribbling and powerful shot made him a regular threat to opposition defences. His left-sided partnership with Jetro Willems was a joy to watch.
Manchester United moved quickly to wrap up a £25-million deal for the wide forward prior to the conclusion of the campaign. There, he will resume his relationship with Louis van Gaal, his former coach at international level. He is still a little selfish on occasion but has plenty of time to mature and improve his game.
"He's a special talent," former Netherlands international Marco van Basten said recently. "He's a young star who is strong and has his own ideas. He's also a guy who still wants to learn and he's in good hands with Louis van Gaal."
Jose Luis Gaya | 20 | Valencia | Full-Back
Jose Luis Gaya followed Jordi Alba and Juan Bernat off the Valencia left-back production line and was a near ever-present in the side who finished fourth in Nuno Espirito Santo's first season at the helm. With good touch and a swift turn of pace, he impressed with the boundless energy with which he continually zipped up and down the left flank. Six assists at one end were balanced out by some determined and tenacious defending at the other.
The 20-year-old Spaniard signed a new five-year contract last month following reported interest from both Real Madrid and clubs in England. Peter Lim's financial backing means that Valencia can now afford to bring in highly-priced players from elsewhere, but in Gaya they have a in-house talent capable of competing with the best.
"He is a homegrown player who is performing at a world-class level," sporting director Francisco Rufete said recently. "Jose Luis has brought a lot to the first team and is an example to motivate the players at the academy."
Andre Gomes | 21 | Valencia | Midfielder
Andre Gomes made an immediate impact in La Liga following his arrival from Benfica last summer. The midfielder had received relatively few opportunities in Lisbon, but his strong work-rate, dribbling ability and keen eye for a pass soon made him a key part of the Valencia starting XI. He regularly transitioned his side from defence to attack by driving forward through the centre of the pitch before laying the ball off or taking a shot on goal himself.
The 21-year-old Portugal international still needs to add a little composure to his game in the final third, but he has the necessary technical and physical attributes to develop from here into one of the best all-round midfielders in world football. Chelsea and Manchester United have both already been linked.
"I'm in a learning phase," he said in March. "I believe it was an important move for me to come to Valencia, because I'm getting more opportunities. I'm only 21, I'm still developing and I want to learn a lot more."
Harry Kane | 21 | Tottenham Hotspur | Striker
It has been an incredible year for Harry Kane. Rarely has a transformation been so sudden and complete as that of the Tottenham Hotspur striker, whose metamorphosis from ungainly substitute -- albeit one with a good scoring record against lower league and lesser European opposition -- to prolific top-level goalscorer, capable of match-winning performances against the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, has been nothing short of remarkable.
The numbers are highly impressive: 30 goals in all competitions, 21 in the Premier League, and one for England on his debut against Lithuania in March. A new five-and-a-half-year contract and widespread praise -- crystallised in his PFA Young Player of the Year award -- have followed. He looks capable of being the long-term fulcrum of the Spurs attack.
"There may be people who doubt him about next season," Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino said in April. "But the people that know him understand that Harry can keep the level he has shown."
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.