This week, The Scout’s Notebook takes a look toward the World Cup and two strikers whose form has pushed them into late contention for a call-up. As squad lists become increasingly settled in the minds of the 32 head coaches, each passing week of action is now crucial.
Besides that, we also look at three burgeoning stars of academy football in England who enjoyed significant weekends on their path to first-team football. With the FA Youth Cup final fast approaching, it is the time of year when academy players are able to elevate themselves to the level of rising stars. But, just who has been picked out?
Mattia Destro knocking on Azzurri's door
It’s been quite some season for AS Roma and now, with six games left of the campaign, a second-place finish looks almost guaranteed for Rudi Garcia and his side. The Giallorossi are currently on a six-match winning streak and have won 14 of their last 18 fixtures, maintaining pressure on Juventus at the top of the league. Having appeared to be slipping back at one point, they have recovered and the form of forward Mattia Destro has been essential to their recent run.
As the season has worn on, Destro has become important in relieving the pressure on 37-year-old Francesco Totti at the spearhead of the Roman attack. Having begun the season out of shape following a knee injury, he is now demonstrating the sort of goalscoring form that attracted Roma to him during his time at Siena.
In half a season, Mattia Destro has scored 13 goals in 11 starts. First hat trick of his professional career
— Matteo Bonetti (@TheCalcioGuy) April 6, 2014
Destro’s statistics this season are quite incredible. After his weekend hat trick, per Opta figures, he averages a goal every 85 minutes of action and also boasts the best shot conversion rate of any striker in double figures across Europe’s top five leagues.
The pressure is now beginning to mount for his inclusion in Cesare Prandelli's squad, with only three Italian strikers -- Luca Toni, Giuseppe Rossi and Ciro Immobile -- having scored more than him in Serie A this season. Destro, though, has scored his 13 goals in just 1000 minutes of action.
Far from just being a predator, though, the 23-year-old is capable across the forward line and, indeed, in contributing in attacking build-up play. Roma manager, Rudi Garcia, said of his forward this weekend:
“It’s true that when Francesco Totti isn't playing, Destro is a very useful centre-forward. Playing with the others he can only improve, but even when he plays out wide -- even with freedom of movement -- he can spread his influence in different areas. I don’t like any of my forwards to stay in a specific position.”
Destro still has room to develop in the years ahead. While his all-round game is strong, he can still work on his passing and learn from the likes of Totti alongside him. In and around the area, he has few issues and while he may lack the physicality some managers would look for in a No. 9, he has made himself comfortable in Garcia’s system surrounded by pace in attack.
His injury and fitness issues have been a concern, and the fact he will miss four games through suspension will slow his current progress, but when in peak condition, he is a major goal threat thanks to his intelligent movement and combination play.
Destro is likely competing with Immobile for one berth in Prandelli’s squad. While the Torino man currently tops the Serie A scoring charts, it is the Roma man who is steaming up on the rails and has proven himself a game-changer off the bench.
With Prandelli’s first-team more or less settled, it is such factors that could swing the decision in Destro’s favour.
Michy set for World Cup as transfer talk rises
Christian Benteke’s Achilles tendon injury was a cruel blow, not just for the player himself and Aston Villa, but also for Belgium, with the striker having been considered important to their World Cup plans. With every stroke of misfortune, though, comes an opportunity and, in this case, the man to capitalise could be Standard Liege forward Michy Batshuayi.
Batshuayi has featured in this column before and, over the course of recent days, has been linked with both Arsenal and Monaco. Earlier in the season, both Everton and Swansea were said to be keen on his services, with the latter having reportedly made unsuccessful attempts to sign the player last summer. Since then, he has found the back of the net 18 times in the Jupiler Pro League.
Jean Petit, Monaco's assistant manager, watched Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi on Friday against Zulte Waregem. (Source: HLN)
— Kristof Terreur (@HLNinEngeland) April 7, 2014
The 20-year-old’s recent form has been a touch disappointing, with his last 10 games bringing just four goals. However, his sensational scoring form of early season looks set to be enough to force him into Marc Wilmots’ squad for the World Cup, in spite of a lack of previous senior international experience. Tall, strong and explosive, he is the best equipped to help the Red Devils cope with Benteke’s absence.
It could be a major breakthrough for the youngster. While he is already being observed by European giants, nothing will be more attractive than an impressive contribution at a World Cup.
The starting berths in Wilmots’ lineup are already locked down by the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, but Batshuayi is an ideal impact player from the bench. He can cover several attacking positions and use his pace to exploit any tiredness in the opposition defence.
This year will be Batshuayi’s last in Belgium for the time being. He is ready for a step up, but faces the usual dilemma of balancing his desire and belief that he can make an impact with a top club with the need for regular playing time.
While the likes of Arsenal and Monaco hold a financial advantage in the race for his signature, the likely return of Lukaku to Chelsea this summer would see a vacancy emerge at Everton, where he could even find Champions League football awaits.
It would be an opportunity well worth considering, given Roberto Martinez’s work in developing promising young players over recent seasons.
Premier League youth strikers impress
One of the youngest players to have featured in the Premier League this season is French striker Moussa Dembele of Fulham, who recently started versus Everton after a lack of goals provided by the club’s senior forwards.
The 17-year-old joined the Cottagers from Paris Saint-Germain 18 months ago and has been a prolific scorer at youth level in West London ever since his arrival. His reward has been three appearances at first-team level.
On Monday night, Dembele scored a hat trick to help Fulham into the FA Youth Cup final with a 5-4 aggregate victory over 10-man Reading. While the Royals were excellent, considering their man disadvantage, a late goal from Dembele helped the hosts into the final, where they will meet Chelsea or Arsenal.
Attacking midfielder Patrick Roberts, another who has played at senior level this term, was also influential for Fulham. While Dembele was in position to convert, it was the mazy running of Roberts behind the Frenchman that really caught the eye.
The duo are highly regarded, and Fulham will be hard-pressed to retain them if their development continues. Dembele, with his excellent athleticism and eye for goal, has already been linked with moves away. Relegation from the Premier League could prove costly in more ways than one for the Cottagers.
Elsewhere, in the Under-21 Premier League, defending champions Manchester United eased past Aston Villa 3-0 to keep their hopes of a playoff place alive. Influential in the success was 18-year-old striker James Wilson, who followed up his call-up to the senior side this past weekend -- he was a substitute at Newcastle -- with a long-range drive into the top-corner.
James Wilson's averaging a goal or assist every 81 mins this season at U21/19/18 levels (or every 102 mins just for goals). Real prospect.
— Nick (@ManUnitedYouth) April 5, 2014
Like Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Adnan Januzaj before him, Wilson’s arrival at senior level has been long anticipated. Former player and now coach Clayton Blackmore describes the youngster as the best finisher he has seen, while the player was only 15, while Nicky Butt recently suggested that Wilson “could be as good as anyone who's played for this club in a long, long time.”
David Moyes was present at Monday's Old Trafford encounter and could not fail to have been impressed. Wilson may feature on the club’s preseason tour to USA this summer, with a view to further first-team action next season in a similar path to that followed by Januzaj this campaign.
There have been accusations that former manager Sir Alex Ferguson left the club’s first-team squad in poor shape ahead of his departure last summer, leaving Moyes with an unenviable task to try and replicate his predecessor's success.
One thing the former Everton boss cannot lament, however, is the Reds’ academy stars, with Wilson and Januzaj leading the way for the next generation of fledglings at the Old Trafford club.
For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout’s Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can be found at TheElastico.com.