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Dec 31, 2011

Young players to watch in 2012

They have given notice of their talent already in 2011, but this coming year could be a big one for some of the world's top young stars. With Euro 2012 on the horizon and some of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers having already begun, there will be plenty of Under-21 players looking to make the step up, while the prospect of a lucrative transfer may be a driving force for some of those who impress most in the New Year.

Isaac Cuenca - Forward - (Barcelona)

The famed La Masia academy at Barcelona brought through another young talent in 2011 as Cuenca was surprisingly thrust into first-team action despite playing in the Spanish Third Division only six months previous. The 20-year-old winger slotted in perfectly and impressed with the ball at his feet, especially when setting up three goals as Barcelona beat BATE Borisov 4-0 in the Champions League. "Physically speaking he might not be popular with the ladies, but on the field he does things that will amaze you. He does his work perfectly!" was the rather odd feedback from manager Pep Guardiola. In 2012, the ladies may begin to take note as much as Europe's defenders.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - Midfielder - (Arsenal)

Having signed for the Gunners in the summer for around £12 million, Oxlade-Chamberlain has been treated carefully by Arsene Wenger to date. The 17-year-old made only one appearance in the Premier League in 2011 (on as a sub in the 8-2 defeat against Man Utd), but impressed with cameos in the Champions League and the Carling Cup. Looking more developed than team-mate Theo Walcott did at the same age, the winger's pace and close control will surely give him the edge over his peers in the coming year and Wenger has already tipped him to travel with England to Euro 2012.

Paul Pogba - Midfielder - (Man Utd)

Attracting interest from a host of top clubs including Manchester City, Juventus and AC Milan, the Frenchman's contractual situation means that he could be plying his trade for another club in the summer, though Manchester United have an option to extend his deal by 12 months. The 18-year-old has said that he wants to be a United 'great' and has shown enough in the Carling Cup to suggest that he should be fighting for a first-team place in the coming year, with Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to stay out of the transfer market in the face of a midfield injury crisis pushing his claims yet further. If he can tie down his future, he can only improve as a player.

Xherdan Shaqiri - Midfielder - (FC Basel)

FC Basel's rise to become the first Swiss side to reach the last-16 of the Champions League was largely down to the performances of 20-year-old midfielder Shaqiri. With a starring role in the crucial 2-1 win against Man Utd, the youngster brightened the spotlight that had been shining on him since he made his debut for his club in 2009. Stocky and gifted on the ball, his range of passing and vision make him the ideal creative midfielder and, while he still has to address his work-rate and occasional negative attitude, he will not be plying his trade in the Swiss Super League for long.

Iker Muniain - Forward - (Athletic Bilbao)

Since bursting onto the scene as a 16-year-old, Muniain has continued to develop under the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa this season. Three years on from his debut, the Basque youngster is a regular on the flanks for Bilbao and played a starring role in helping Spain's Under-21s to lift the European Championship title in June. Targeting the step up to the all-conquering senior side, he may miss out on the Euro 2012 squad due to the sheer quality at Vicente del Bosque's disposal, but he will be pushing hard for inclusion. With Fernando Llorente currently occupying his favoured central role, Muniain's development will continue on the wing but he might become a better player for it.

Mateo Kovacic - Midfielder - (Dinamo Zagreb)

When you are described as the 'Croatian Lionel Messi' there are always going to be those who expect you to fall hard, but the 17-year-old continues to improve for Zagreb and the club's youngest captain became the second youngest goalscorer in the Champions League this season (albeit in a 7-1 defeat to Lyon). Kovacic broke into the first-team in 2010 and has not looked back as he has also made his bow for Croatia Under-21s. The Eastern Europeans are getting excited about the youngster and team-mate Sime Vrsaljko, with Under-17 manager Martin Novoselac claiming: "I haven't seen a youngster with so much talent since the days of Robert Prosinecki".

Mario Fernandes - Defender - (Gremio)

Real Madrid have denied their reported interest in the 21-year-old, but he could still be on his way out of Brazil in early 2012 for around €15 million. Tall and elegant, the Brazilian has been used as a right-back for his club Gremio but is more comfortable at centre-back and gave a glimpse into his persona when he rejected the chance to appear for his country in a friendly against Argentina in September, citing his belief that it would be better for his develoment if he played for his club. The player's agent, Jorge Machado, claimed that he has a ''very strong personality" and the youngster seems to have a good idea of where he wants his career to go.

Giorgi Chanturia - Midfielder - (Vitesse)

Georgia's 'Gio' did not take long to make an impression in Europe, as his boyhood club Saburtalo accepted a one-year loan agreement with Barcelona in 2009 when he was just 16. The winger went into the Catalans' B side and scored 11 goals, but complications with his non-EU passport meant that the Spanish giants didn't take him on a permanent deal. Training with Dutch side Vitesse, he signed a three-year deal when he turned 18 in April 2011 and has got better and better since then. Scoring four goals in his first friendly, he has netted three times in 10 starts so far this season and looks capable of playing at a higher level than the Eredivisie.

Bernd Leno - Goalkeeper - (Leverkusen)

In a matter of months, the 19-year-old stopper went from Stuttgart's reserves to Champions League stardom with Leverkusen. Germany's track record of unearthing good young goalkeepers is excellent and Leverkusen spotted Leno's talent early and made his loan agreement permanent in November 2011 for around €7 million. Described by Bayer's director of sport Rudi Voller as "one of the most outstanding goalkeeping talents in Germany for a long time", Leno signed on until 2017 and, with his future secure, has all the tools to push for a place in the national side this year.

Mateo Musacchio - Defender - (Villarreal)

Likened to Liverpool's Jamie Carragher in style and versatility, Musacchio impressed at an early age with River Plate (making his debut aged 16) and moved to Europe after only 10 games for the club. Now 21, the centre-back has been used more in a defensive midfield role by Villarreal and has excelled. The Spanish side stole a march on rivals Real Madrid when they signed him and, this season, his tough tackling and excellent positional sense have shown why he was rated so highly. Having caught the eye of the Argentina national set-up it would be no surprise to see him establish himself further in 2012.

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