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Under 21s At The World Cup: Group A and B

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With the 2010 FIFA World Cup fast approaching, all eyes are on world football's showpiece event. And although most of that attention is focused on the superstars of the game like Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Fernando Torres, the World Cup is also a place for young up-and-comers to burst onto the international scene.

Michael Owen secured his status as an international superstar with two goals for England at the 1998 World Cup at the tender age of 18 and it begs the question, which youngster could make an impact at the 2010 edition?

We'll go group by group looking at the teams that have players under the age of 21 in their squads. Some may be complete unknowns while some may already have a name in the game.

Group A
France (0) — Raymond Domenech has gone for, on paper, what looks like an experienced team with Hugo Lloris as their the youngest player at 23.

Mexico (2) — Javier Aguirre’s squad is full of youth. Carlos Vela and Dos Santos Ramirez Giovanni are two players that will be under 21 during the tournament while players like Javier Hernandez and Adrian Aldrete will only turn 22 before the tournament starts. Vela signed for Arsenal after he blitzed the 2005 Under-17 World Cup, finishing as the top scorer. He can play upfront or on the left wing and is slowly starting to establish himself as a key member of the Mexican national team with eight goals to his name at international level. A good performance in South Africa may result in greater opportunities with Arsenal where he’s been used sparingly.

While Vela is starting to make his mark, Giovanni Dos Santos already commands a place in the Mexican national team. Part of the same Under-17 World Cup-winning Mexican team as Vela, Giovanni has also struggled at club level. With limited time at Barcelona, he moved to Tottenham where he also struggled due to concerns over his physical size and he has been farmed out on loan several times. At international level he has scored 5 goals for the Mexicans and contributed numerous assists.

American fans will remember him as the MVP of the 2009 Gold Cup where Mexico beat America on American soil for the first time in 10 years. Both players have blistering pace and incredible skill on the ball and will be tasked with leading the Mexican attack. Question is, can they handle the responsibility and expectation on their young shoulders?

South Africa (0) — The host nation is putting its faith in international stars Steven Pienaar and Aaron Mokoena. With their countries expectations on them, it seems there’s no room to risk a spot on a youngster.

Uruguay (1) — Uruguay may only have one player under 21 but he’s regarded as the best player to come out of the country in 30 years.

Midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro has a wicked left foot which can be put to use on the wing or as an attacking midfielder. His exploits with Nacional in his home country saw him move to Dutch giants Ajax in January of this year. In limited performances for the senior national team he was named man of the match in the crucial World Cup playoff match against Costa Rica. Uruguay will be hoping he can bring his 2009 form with him where he scored two goals in four games at the Under -20 World Cup and 3 goals at the South American Under-20 championships. That sort of goal scoring record could be vital.

Group B
Argentina (1) — Maradona’s team is filled with international superstars like Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, and Lionel Messi to name a few. The team also features 20-year-old midfielder Javier Pastore, an attacking midfielder who plies his trade in Italy with Palermo.

A string of fine performances, sitting just behind the strikers, and a haul of three goals in his first season with the club caused Maradona to call him up for a friendly against Germany, which he didn’t play in. He did however make his debut the other day against Canada in 5-0 win and he started that game. Argentina struggled through the group stages and some believe that without a competent player sitting in behind the strikers feeding teasing through balls, like Riquelme used to do, the team doesn’t play as effectively. If Maradona gives him the opportunity, Pastore could step into that position.

Greece (2) — 18-year-old defender Kostas Manolas, who can play in the centre or as a rightback, and 20-year-old midfielder Sotiris Ninis are the players under 21 in the Greek squad. Manolas plays for AEK Athens in his home country and is the nephew of legendary AEK defender Stelios Manolas. Dubbed his successor by his uncle, the young Manolas’s career is only just starting, at both club and international level. Information on the young player is scant but apparently he is an emergency player in the Greek squad who will only travel to South Africa due to injuries. His time to shine will likely come at the next World Cup.

Ninis is a different story. He made his debut for Panathinaikos, who he now captains, at the age of 16 and is regarded as a huge talent. He brings speed and creativity to the centre of the park, something Greece could really use, but he’s found it hard to secure a place in coach Otto Rehhagel’s team sitting on the bench for the recent friendly against North Korea. He should make it to South Africa but whether he’ll see much playing time or not is another thing. If he can force his way into the team, something which looks unlikely, he could provide a spark for the team in a tough group.

Nigeria (4) — Haruna Lukman, the 19-year-old midfielder who plays for AS Monaco, is expected to get a ticket to South Africa after being named in the 30-man squad. He had a good year at AS Monaco bagging three goals in 23 appearances from the centre of the park while he started in the uninspiring friendly against Sauid Arabia.

Forward Ideye Brown and defender Dele Adeleye will both be 21 during the tournament, although they turn 22 at the end of the year, while Peter Terna Suswam, 18, rounds out the Super Eagles youth brigade. Suswam, a rightback, made his debut in the Saudi Arabia friendly which he started and it’s hard to tell whether he’ll make the final team. Like most players mentioned in this article, big things are expected of him in the future.

Ideye Brown has yet to make his senior international debut, and with quality players like Yakubu, Kanu, Obafemi Martins, Victor Anichebe, and Chinedu Obasi ahead of him in the Super Eagles squad, he’s not likely to make it to South Africa. Dele Adeleye is a tall central defender with a few caps to his name. He didn’t play in the Saudi Arabia friendly but there’s a good chance he’ll go with the team to South Africa.

Lukman is probably the most likely to make an impact at the tournament, especially if John Obi Mikel’s injuries play up. He could be tasked with being the driving force of the Super Eagle midfield.

South Korea (5) — South Korea are taking a decent youth contingent with them to South Africa so far. The team still needs to cut three players before June 1. Four midfielders — Ki Sung-Yueng, Kim Bo-Kyung, Gu Ja-Cheol and Lee Chung-Yong — and one striker, Lee Seung-Yeoul, are all in the squad at the moment. Lee Chung-Yong (Bolton Wanderers) and Ki Sung-Yueng (Celtic) will certainly travel with the team as they have recently established themselves as integral parts of the team with 20+ caps each at the age of 21.

Sung-Yueng has been dubbed the "Korean Gerrard” due to his vision and accuracy when it comes to passing and his ability to take set pieces. Meanwhile, Chung-Yong had a remarkably productive and successful first season in the Premier League winning Bolton’s Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year and best Newcomer awards. The pair will be key to their team’s success at the tournament.

Seung-Yeoul could also travel with the team as he is slowly establishing himself as a key member of the teams attack. He’s netted three times in only seven appearances and is expected to move to a big European club if he has a productive World Cup, which he is certainly capable of. That means Bo-Kyung and Ja-Cheol could miss out. They are both relatively inexperienced, at club and international experience, and that could be enough to see them cut from the final squad. One of them may get in if they drop a striker, they currently have six, and Gu Ja-Cheol may be the one to get the nod. He was almost signed by Blackburn Rovers and it’s believed he could impress at the next level.

South Korea will be relying heavily on their new breed who are quickly establishing themselves as key members of the team, especially in the midfield.

Hopefully I’ll be back with the rest of the groups soon.

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