World Cup breakout stars: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Hirving Lozano and more
Scouting Spotlight has more of an international feel this week as we look ahead to the 2018 World Cup. Who are some of the breakout young stars who will be looking to impress in Russia?
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic -- Serbia and Lazio
Milinkovic-Savic may have been a Transfer Talk regular this season, but the 23-year-old is still a rookie on the international stage with Serbia. He made his debut in a friendly against China in November and followed up with a smart assist for Adem Ljajic against South Korea four days later.
Injury has prevented him from featuring in the current international break, however, and he faces a race against time to cement his place in Mladen Krstajic's squad. It is a different story at Lazio, where the imposing attacking midfielder has played a key role in his team's battle for a Champions League place.
A towering figure at 6-foot-4, the combative Milinkovic-Savic has claimed 11 goals and four assists in all competitions this season. He endeared himself to Lazio supporters by scoring in both legs of the Coppa Italia semifinal against Roma last year, and will continue to impress the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United if he shows the same big-game mentality at the World Cup.
Hirving Lozano -- Mexico and PSV Eindhoven
An explosive forward with lightning pace and a tendency to act impulsively, Lozano is expected to come crashing on to the World Cup stage when Mexico kick off against Germany on June 17.
The 22-year-old plays as an inverted winger on the left of PSV Eindhoven's front three, making direct runs towards goal in search of scoring opportunities. With 14 strikes and seven assists in the Eredivisie, he has settled instantly during his first season in Europe, but doubts over his discipline persist after two reds cards and four cautions.
Lozano demonstrated his talent with two goals in a 3-3 draw against Belgium in November, with Mexico boss Juan Carlos Osorio tipping him for a move to one of Europe's top five leagues in the summer. The coach has also warned the winger about his "emotional control," however, after he was spotted lashing out at Iceland defender Kari Arnason in El Tri's 3-0 friendly victory last week.
Timo Werner -- Germany and RB Leipzig
Many European football fans will already be familiar with Werner after he fired RB Leipzig into the Champions League last season with 21 goals during their debut Bundesliga campaign. The 22-year-old's performances earned him a call-up to the Germany squad for the Confederations Cup, where he claimed the golden boot as Joachim Low stepped up his preparations to win back-to-back World Cups.
The current campaign hasn't been quite as prolific for the versatile Werner, who was substituted in the first half of Leipzig's defeat to Besiktas in September after struggling to focus in the febrile atmosphere. He recovered from that setback and scored the winner in a 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich before the international break to inflict a first defeat in 19 matches on the league leaders.
The striker's speed, movement and finishing ability will be a huge asset to Germany in the summer, and a breakout tournament similar to Thomas Muller in 2010 could see links to Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United finally come to fruition.
Goncalo Guedes -- Portugal and Valencia (on loan from PSG)
Despite failing to win a place in the Portugal squad that triumphed at Euro 2016, Guedes was on his way to Paris Saint-Germain six months later in a €30 million transfer from Benfica. The 21-year-old made only eight appearances in Ligue 1 before being sent on loan to Valencia, but his performances in Spain this season have caught the eye of Europe's leading clubs, including Manchester United.
A pacy winger with quick feet and a powerful shot, Guedes has chipped in with four goals and seven assists for Marcelino's side as they aim to secure a Champions League spot. The Portugal international made headlines with two strikes in a 4-0 win over Sevilla in October -- the first a blistering drive from outside the box -- and, while his form has cooled in recent months, he has been tipped to make an impact in Russia after representing his country at every age level up to the seniors.
Hakim Ziyech -- Morocco and Ajax
With eight goals in 15 international caps, Ziyech is set to play a leading role for Morocco in Group B as they fight it out with Spain, Portugal and Iran to reach the knockout rounds. A languid attacking midfielder with the ability to play defence-splitting passes, the 25-year-old assisted Nabil Dirar's opening goal in Morocco's 2-0 victory over Ivory Coast that secured World Cup qualification.
Ziyech has an eye for goal himself, converting from the penalty spot in a 2-1 friendly triumph against Serbia last week, and often firing long-range efforts from outside the box. He has contributed eight goals and 11 assists in the Eredivisie to spearhead Ajax's title challenge, prompting speculation that he could be on his way to Liverpool as a replacement for Philippe Coutinho. A sparkling tournament in Russia would certainly pique the Reds' interest.
Matthew Stanger covers European football for ESPN and is the editor of The Set Pieces. Twitter: @MatthewStanger