Youngsters out to impress in 2009
In 2008 Atletico Madrid striker Sergio Aguero announced himself as a major talent on the world stage, while 21-year-old Barcelona star Lionel Messi cemented his reputation with a third FIFpro 'Young Player of the Year' award; but who will succeed them in 2009, who will use the new year as a springboard for success? Here's a selection tipped to make an even bigger impression on the game in the coming year.
Rafael da Silva - Manchester United - English Premier League
The Brazilian right-back has gradually become a regular member of the United first-team after joining the club in January 2008. While his twin brother, Fabio, has yet to make an appearance for the Red Devils, Rafael has scored one goal in his eleven starts so far for the club and is seen as the eventual successor to stalwart Gary Neville. An attacking full-back, the 18-year-old has made such an impression that Neville is no longer an automatic choice even though he is back to full fitness. Fast, strong and boasting a powerful shot, Rafael will surely be seen on the right side of the United defence for years to come.
Sergio Busquets - Barcelona - Spanish La Liga
Bursting onto the scene this season, the 20-year-old midfielder was a product of the Barcelona academy and impressed under the tutelage of Josep Guardiola before graduating to the first-team. The son of goalkeeper Carles Busquets, who played for the club in the 1990s, ''Sergi'' displaced the likes of Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita in the defensive midfield role and was rewarded with a new five-year contract tying him to the club until 2013. An imposing ball-winner, Busquets may have only had half a season of top flight football behind him, but has shown more than enough to suggest he will be a fixture at the Nou Camp in the future.
Yoann Gourcuff - Bordeaux - French Ligue 1
Another French youngster to have suffered from comparisons labelling him the 'new Zidane', Gourcuff made his name as a highly-rated attacking midfielder at Rennes before he was snapped up by AC Milan in 2006. Failing to establish himself in the side, the 23-year-old moved to Bordeaux on loan for the 2008/09 season and has shown the depth of his talent, helping the club up to second in Ligue 1 with three goals and seven assists. Milan may yet call him back, but with his future remaining unclear, he could choose to move on in the summer.
Vedad Ibisevic - TSG Hoffenheim - German Bundesliga
The Bosnian striker has exploded onto the world stage with a terrific goal return for his club, TSG Hoffenheim, in the first half of the German season. 18 goals in 17 starts, along with six assists, has put the 24-year-old on the map and he is now seen as one of Europe's best young hitmen. Having started his career with Swiss side FC Basel, he moved to the US and impressed in college soccer before eventually sealing a switch to France. Ibisevic failed to make the grade there, or at Alemania Aachen, but has been central to Hoffenheim's rise up the German league this season and will hope to continue his success with the club.
Marek Hamsik - Napoli - Italian Serie A
Napoli are slowly building themselves an impressive array of young talent with the likes of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Andrea Russotto and Fabiano Santacroce all looking like great prospects for the future; but the jewel in the club's crown is surely Marek Hamsik. The 21-year-old moved from Brescia in 2007 for a measly fee of €5.5 million and finished his first season as the club's top scorer. This season, however, the Slovakian international has really shown his talent and has bagged seven goals in 15 games; prompting Torino coach Walter Novellino to admit he would prefer to have Hamsik in his side than Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho.
Mounir El Hamdaoui - AZ Alkmaar - Dutch Eredivisie
An impressive 15 goals in 16 games for AZ this season has seen the Moroccan international striker end 2008 as the Dutch League's top scorer. Once on the books of Tottenham (although he never made a start and was loaned to Derby), El Hamdaoui has struggled with injuries in his career but appears to be back on track in Holland. A skilful player with a good turn of pace, if he can steer clear of the treatment table then the 24-year-old could earn himself a move to a bigger club.
Alan Dzagoev - CSKA Moscow - Russian Premier League
Awarded the 'Young Player of the year' award for his performances in the Russian League this year, the 18-year-old playmaker has attracted a lot of interest from Europe's elite. Quick, good in the air and with exceptional technical skills, Dzagoev enjoys playing behind the strikers and became the youngest outfield player ever to play for Russia (goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev holds the overall record), when he came on against Germany in October 2008. Most recently linked with Chelsea, the CSKA star's eight goals for the club this season have made him one of the hottest prospects on the continent.
Anthony Annan - Rosenborg BK - Norwegian Tippeligaen
One of the stars of the African Cup of Nations back in January 2008, in the absence of Ghana captain Stephen Appiah, Annan is yet to seal his big move despite a host of clubs showing an interest in him. The 22-year-old central midfielder has been compared with Argentine playmaker Pablo Aimar, but is also a great ball-winner and makes up for his lack of height with tremendous desire and impressive passing skills. Currently plying his trade in Norway, 2009 should hold a move for a player likely to impress further with his national side.
Franco Zuculini - Racing Club - Argentine Primera División
With exceptionally high energy levels, the 18-year-old midfielder has been compared to Diego Simeone due to his combative style of play. Tipped by Argentine coach Diego Maradona to make a real impact on the national side by the time the 2010 World Cup comes around, he only made his debut for his club last April but has already attracted a host of scouts' attention. His excellent passing makes him stand out, but he also has great versatility and can play across the midfield. Seen as the next big thing to come out of Argentina, it should not be long before he moves on from Racing.
Hernanes - Sao Paulo - Campeonato Brasileiro
Having led his side to a third successive Brazilian title this season, the 23-year-old midfielder won the Player of the Season award in his breakthrough campaign. Barcelona have shown interest in the playmaker, who is equally at home playing with either foot, but the Spanish side's bid was rejected and he looks set to stay in Brazil. He picked up a bronze medal in the Olympics and was called up by Dunga for the World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Bolivia; but many expect the classy midfielder to make the move to Europe in the next year.
Lee Chung-yong - FC Seoul - K-League
Tipped by Korea's top player, Park Ji-Sung, to make an impact on the world stage, Lee and fellow countryman Ki Sung-yong are attracting attention in Asia with their performances in the K-League. Lee, in particular, has attracted the interest of Premier League clubs who are waiting for him to make a few more appearances for the national team so he can meet strict UK work permit regulations. A forward who creates goals as well as scoring them, Lee's temperament is questionable, but his position as one of Korea's shining lights is not.
Joseph Gyau & Charles Renken - United States U-17 team
Part of the residency program in Bradenton, this pair have been courted by various European clubs as they continue their development with the U-17 national side. The 16-year-old Gyau has fantastic dribbling skills and a great turn of pace and has been on trial at Bayern Munich, while also attracting the eye of Manchester United. Team-mate Renken is only 14 but already directs much of the side's attacking play and has been linked with Arsenal. Both have to come out from the shadow of Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu, who have moved to Europe, but certainly have the potential to succeed.