Ten academy prospects to watch
The 2014-15 Premier League season kicks off next weekend and, for now, attention is firmly focused on the transfer market as activity reaches fever pitch ahead of the opening weekend.
For many fans, though, it is also a time to reflect on recent friendly fixtures and make predictions for the year ahead, despite the notoriously fickle nature of preseason results.
One area where preseason does provide at least some indication is regarding the promotion of youth talent from clubs' academy systems. Those who have made a mark in friendly action will often be given the chance to repeat their success in competitive games and it is from such brief opportunities that careers are spawned.
While it is far from easy, particularly given the strength in depth at most Premier League sides, there are always a handful of players who do make the step up -- with Cauley Woodrow, Declan John, Calum Chambers and John Stones examples of players to have done so in the past 12 months.
With that in mind, the Scout's Notebook turns its attention to the year ahead and attempts to pick 10 players with a shot at a first-team breakthrough this season.
Lewis Baker (Chelsea)
While all outside attention was falling upon fellow midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek a couple of years ago, it was perhaps Baker who was benefiting the most from his relative anonymity. That cover has now well and truly been blown, with the all-action and completely two-footed midfielder scoring and creating goals aplenty in Chelsea's FA Youth Cup and Under-21 Premier League triumphs.
Despite that, Baker has just three minutes of competitive senior action to his name but has stood out this preseason and earned great praise from manager Jose Mourinho. Of all Chelsea's excellent youth prospects at present, it is Baker who currently appears closest to making the significant breakthrough that has so long eluded the Blues' best young talents.
Rolando Aarons (Newcastle United)
As featured in the Scout's Notebook earlier this week, Aarons has been the standout young player of Newcastle's preseason campaign, including a starring role in success over Schalke. The fleet-footed left-winger has impressed manager Alan Pardew with the condition he arrived back in for preseason and potentially offers the Magpies a wing option lacking in their senior squad.
Born in Jamaica, Aarons arrived on Tyneside two years ago from Bristol City. However, it was in the club's FA Youth Cup run of earlier this year that the 18-year-old really began to stand out. The suggestion is that he will begin the season as part of Pardew's first-team plans and, if he can show the trickery and quality of delivery that he has in preseason, he could be a long-term fixture.
Matt Targett (Southampton)
Southampton's fire sale this summer has provoked many questions as to just how they plan to replace so many key players over the course of one transfer window. Yet, in the case of left-back Luke Shaw, Saints insiders are confident that they have a ready-made alternative internally in the form of 18-year-old Matt Targett. His task for the season ahead, then, will be to put pressure on Ryan Bertrand for a first-team place.
Not entirely unfamiliar to the senior squad, Targett was handed a spot on the bench on a couple of occasions last campaign and has played a major role throughout preseason. New manager Ronald Koeman has been quick to praise the attack-minded full-back and a new contract is already believed to be on the cards. Following the emergence of both Shaw and Gareth Bale, Southampton believe they may well have another quality left-back on the cusp of a major breakthrough.
Jack Grealish (Aston Villa)
Still just 18, Grealish is a name who has been on the radar for some time, having been a fixture in the Aston Villa side that secured success in the 2012-13 NextGen Series tournament. The young left-winger has since spent time on loan in League One with Notts County, scoring five goals and providing seven assists, and will now attempt to push for a place in Villa's starting lineup.
It has been a tough summer for fans of the Midlands club with transfer business uninspiring as owner Randy Lerner seeks to find a buyer for his asset. Grealish, though, has been one of the few rays of light in preseason and could even push for a first-team place given the side's lack of quality in wide areas. Stronger than his build would suggest and an excellent dribbler of the ball, he could well be a useful outlet for Paul Lambert's side in the weeks and months ahead.
James Wilson (Manchester United)
Having missed Manchester United's preseason tour due to injury, young striker Wilson could have done little more to attract manager Louis van Gaal's attention than the four goals he scored to help United's Under-21 side to Manchester Senior Cup success earlier this week. An instinctive finisher who opened his senior account with two goals on debut against Hull last campaign, he is pushing hard for first-team inclusion.
Wilson's immediate route to the senior side may depend heavily upon the future of Mexican Javier Hernandez, but he will be content in the knowledge that manager Louis van Gaal will hand opportunities to young players if they are good enough. United have a group of youngsters who performed well on tour that will hope they have done enough to catch their manager's eye, but it is Wilson who could well leapfrog them all in the months ahead.
Tyias Browning (Everton)
A centre-back who can also play on the right of defence, Browning has kicked on substantially over the past two seasons to push himself to the fringes of Everton's first-team setup. The 20-year-old has had a few opportunities to prove himself over the course of preseason and, given Tony Hibbert's travails against Celta Vigo, could be in line for a berth on the right of defence should Seamus Coleman miss the beginning of the season.
The England youth international has great athleticism and generally excels in individual confrontations with opponents, although he still has some work to do positionally. Alongside left-back Luke Garbutt, he is one of a couple of defensive prospects that Everton fans are getting excited about, with Stones now already established at senior level.
Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
While it had initially looked as though Bellerin may be a candidate for a loan move this season, his performance against Benfica at the Emirates Cup may just have won him a shot at an Arsenal place. When combined with Arsene Wenger's comments regarding new signing Calum Chambers potentially being used in midfield this season, there is reason for the Spaniard to be hopeful.
A product of Barcelona's academy system, Bellerin is as comfortable on the ball and in attacking areas as you would hope. Indeed, if Arsenal can get on the front foot he can be a real weapon down the flank, overlapping beyond his winger. However, there is still much work to do in terms of the defensive aspects of his game and Bellerin's examination could well begin in the Community Shield.
Jordon Ibe (Liverpool)
Signed from Wycombe as a 16-year-old, Ibe has made a couple of brief appearances for Liverpool over the past two seasons but now looks ready for a step up and regular involvement. Over the course of preseason, he was frequently used by Brendan Rodgers as an option on the flanks and would appear to have done enough to warrant inclusion this year.
With pace to burn and excellent close control, Ibe is completely at home on either flank and has shown glimpses of electrifying dribbling ability in preseason. However, there are still aspects of his decision-making in the final third that are in need of major improvement. The impact of Raheem Sterling over the past two seasons will serve as excellent guidance as to how he can progress, but he must show similar work ethic if he is to make full use of his talent.
Karim Rekik (Manchester City)
Having spent last season on loan at PSV Eindhoven and forced his way into Louis van Gaal's preliminary Netherlands squad for the World Cup, 19-year-old defender Rekik is ahead of most on this list in development terms. Yet, with just three Manchester City appearances to his name, he remains off the radar of many supporters in England.
With PSV hoping to take him back on loan for a further year, Rekik has options for the season ahead but will hope to impress enough in Sunday's Community Shield to secure his City future. With Eliaquim Mangala set to arrive shortly, it may well be that it is the outcome of Matija Nastasic's summer that determines where Rekik's future lies. A big opportunity awaits against Arsenal following a decent run in preseason.
Jay Fulton (Swansea)
Having arrived at Swansea from Falkirk in January, the Scotland youth international midfielder made his debut for the club in April and was involved in preseason prior to picking up a knee injury. Manager Garry Monk, though, would appear to be a fan of the technically gifted youngster and he can look forward to making the step up from Under-21 football more regularly this campaign.
Despite his tender years, the 20-year-old has a wealth of first-team experience to his name from his time in Scotland and will be better prepared for the challenges ahead as a result. Well suited to Swansea's progressive style of play, Fulton could be set to make a significant impact once his fitness allows.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN, BeIN Sports, Bleacher Report and The Mirror. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.