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Friday, June 21, 2024

January’s U23 Hot List: Bradley, De Ketelaere among stars

Welcome back to the ESPN FC Hot List, which each month highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe.

Generally, young-but-established stars like Manchester City‘s Erling Haaland, Real Madrid‘s Jude Bellingham or Barcelona Gavi aren’t included — otherwise they’d be on the list every month — but we’ll shine a light on some of those who deserve praise for their performances and who could potentially be European football’s next big name.

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What a month it was for the young Liverpool right-back. The standard mantra from any Premier League head coach upon a youngster’s debut goes along the lines of: “Go out and have fun, don’t be afraid to express yourself,” and the Northern Ireland international followed that script to the letter.

Following an outstanding year on loan at Bolton, Bradley missed the first few months of this season through injury, but when his chance came in the UEFA Europa League in November he took it with both hands. Defensively alert, quick at intercepting the ball, and with a relentless enthusiasm and stamina, his rise begs the question of whether Trent Alexander-Arnold may eventually be brought permanently into midfield.

On this form, there’s no way of keeping Bradley out of the side. He was arguably Man of the Match in the games against Fulham, Norwich and Chelsea — in which he provided two assists and a goal. It’s incredible to think that just a few months ago the unassuming 20-year-old penned a new 3½ year deal and nobody batted an eyelid. Jurgen Klopp has done it again.

Désiré Doué, 18, AM, Rennes

The latest gem from the Rennes academy has upped his level to become a real difference maker in the first team this season. Technically superb, the France U19 international has impressive one-vs.-one abilities (3.7 successful dribbles per 90 minutes) and travels well with the ball, often gliding past opponents in crowded midfield areas.

Though he is not yet an undisputed regular, Doue has also proven highly useful for tactical purposes as he can slot into a wealth of positions. This season he’s shown himself useful on both wings, as a No. 8, and has even taken on stints as a movement-based centre-forward. His recent goal against Lyon in Ligue 1 also displayed his excellent ball-striking technique.

Lucas Chevalier, 22, GK, Lille

Though goalkeepers rarely feature in this column, due to the fact that few U23s play regularly at the senior level, the Lille star certainly deserves a mention. Seen by many as the future France No. 1, Chevalier ended January with a perfect record from two Ligue 1 matches and an outing in the French Cup.

In only his second season as a regular, the France U21 international keeps growing each month, adding authority and adjusting minor technical shortcomings to his already fine positioning and lightning-quick reflexes.

Furthermore, as the goalkeeper in one of the most possession-heavy Ligue 1 sides, Chevalier is also excellent with the ball at his feet when playing out from the back — his long passes are well-executed, often delivered with pinpoint accuracy – and he displays a confident first touch and takes up good positions to give his defenders an option.

Samuel Omorodion, 19, ST, Alaves

Having been signed by Atletico Madrid from Granada for €6m last August, Omorodion — better known as “Samu” — was subsequently loaned out to Alaves for this season. After showing promise during the first few months, he capped January with a brilliant brace away at Almeria. The first came after outsprinting the defence, covering half of the pitch in the process, as Alaves won the ball high into their own half, while his second was a no-less-impressive drive from an acute angle with his weaker left foot.

Born in the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla to Nigerian parents, the 19-year-old — who is a well-established Spain U21 international — can at times appear a one-man attack as his excellent athleticism and ability to find spaces make him hard to contain. Indeed, four of his six LaLiga goals so far have come by way of smart movement.

Charles De Ketelaere, 22, AM, Atalanta

De Ketelare has previously featured in the annual ESPN U21 rankings and his talent his well known. But the Belgium international struggled to settle following his €36.5m move to AC Milan from Club Brugge in the summer of 2022 and, having contributed just one assist in 32 Serie A outings, the 6-foot-4 attacking midfielder was loaned to Atalanta.

But, just six months into his stay in Bergamo, De Ketelaere already looks back on track. Mainly featuring as a “False No. 9” striker, he has shown himself to be a lot more energetic, confident and above all: productive. With a style that is somewhat similar to Arsenal‘s Kai Havertz, his finest performance this season came in January against Udinese, when he set up both goals. There’s every chance Atalanta will exercise their €24m option to sign him permanently in the summer.

Semih Kilicsoy, 18, AM, Besiktas

Teenagers rarely get a chance in the Turkish league, but the 18-year-old winger has burst onto the scene this season. A standout performer at U19 level for Turkey, Kilicsoy was handed his starting debut for the Istanbul giants amid an injury crisis just before Christmas, but on recent form (three league goals in January), he’s in the first XI to stay.

Kilicsoy predominantly impresses with his excellent one-vs.-one abilities and loves beating his marker on the half-turn, while he also possesses a powerful shot with his right foot. His intensity and aggression is also rather unusual for an 18-year-old who has just been drafted into the senior team.

His form has led to Besiktas to slapping a €20m-€25m price tag on his transfer and, despite reported interest from several Premier League sides, he looks set to stay in Turkey … at least until the summer.

Igor Thiago, 22, ST, Club Brugge

After a slow start to the season, the €7.9m summer signing from Bulgarian side Ludogorets has started to show real promise. The powerful centre-forward is now joint top of the Belgian Pro League’s goal-scoring rankings with 16 goals (alongside Kevin Denkey from city rivals Cercle Brugge K.S.V.)

Igor Thiago has the perfect profile for a centre-forward, with a strong aerial game, fine ball retention skills and is a dominating presence up front who draws fouls from the opposition and creates space for his teammates. If his development continues at this rate, then the Brazilian looks destined for even greater challenges in the years ahead.

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