Latin Wonderkids: Part Four of David N’s peak into South America’s football future
Following on from David N’s preview of South America’s rising stars last week, here’s the conclusion of his look at players lighting up the continent this season and potentially Europe in seasons to come.
LUCAS OCAMPOS of River Plate
Relentlessly compared with Cristiano Ronaldo since his debut for River Plate’s first-team, Ocampos (top) has emerged as the leading young talent in Argentina over the last six months or so. At 17, those Ronaldo comparisons make sense; Ocampos is tall, powerful and blessed with a surge of pace reminiscent of the Portuguese megastar. He also loves to dribble, likes a superfluous step-over and an ostentatious flick, and cuts inside from the wing with an eye for goal.
He came through at Quilmes and has played in several positions at youth level before River coach Matías Almeyda decided the best use of his acceleration and penetrative trickery may be out on the wing. In future, when he has matured beyond the questionable decision-making that slightly mars his current play; he will probably play across the forward line.
His gifts suggest a free marauding role might suit him. And that future is closing in – a host of the biggest European clubs are chasing him, though he has professed a desire to play a season for River when they (inevitably?) return to the Argentine top-flight.
Roma – who took Lamela from River last summer and expressed an interest in Ocampos at the time – look to be closest…
ÁNGELO HENRIQUEZ of Universidad de Chile
Ask any football hipster worth his salt, and he’ll tell you that the most exciting team in the world over the last year haven’t been playing in Barcelona or Bilbao, or even Dortmund or Santos, no, they’ve been in Santiago, Chile, where Coach Jorge Sampaoli has produced a spellbinding young Universidad de Chile team who play exhilarating attacking football. That football led them to last year’s Copa Sudamerica (South American equivalent of the Europa League) and also meant that a couple of their best young players – Eduardo Vargas and Gustavo Canales – were lured away to Italy and China respectively.
That gave 17 year old Henriquez his opportunity and he has taken it eagerly, with five goals in eight games for “La U” this season. He had first made a mark for Chile at the 2009 Under-15 South American Championship where he scored three goals and demonstrated unusual maturity and versatility. A repeat performance in last year’s Under-17 tournament forced English giants Manchester United to confirm their intention of buying him for £3M before 2014, having signed a pre-contract agreement with U de Chile in 2009.
Henriquez looks the real deal; clever and lively, his perpetual running and movement stretches defences and he is alert in the box and combines well with a strike partner. His technique is sublime: he is as capable of fleet-footed trickery and delicately placed finishes as he is of timing a run to provide himself with an easy tap-in.
He seems right at home in the turbo-charged ball playing team at La U, has a real presence on the pitch, and could thrive on his eventual arrival in the English Premier League.
FIDEL MARTINEZ of Deportivo Quito
The cult of Neymar, the brilliant young Santos and Brazil forward, is already so advanced that other lesser players get compared to him. Martinez is one such player, having already been called “the Ecuadorean Neymar”. The comparisons make sense in one regard: the Ecuadorian plays in the same position as the Brazilian star for his club, Deportivo Quito, who have made a strong impression in the current Copa Libertadores tournament.
He is an incredibly quick, direct attacker, who plays on the left – though he has played on the right in the past, suggesting a pleasing versatility – and shows vision and an enviable array of tricks when moving with the ball at speed.
He played for Caribe Junior (which previously produced Antonio Valencia) at youth level, then came to the attention of scouts with his impressive performances for a gold medal winning Ecuador at the 2007 Pan American Games. That prompted an eventual move to Brazilian giants Cruzeiro, but that didn’t work out (he never played at senior level there) and he has looked more comfortable since his 2010 return to his homeland.
His form for Depor suggests he will probably receive an inevitable call-up from Ecuador. He has already registered his first international goal for the senior side; in 2008 against Iran. There will probably be many more to follow.
ELKESON of Botafogo
This burly 22-year old has been sensational for Botafogo over the last year or so. Playing on the right wing he causes endless trouble for the opposing defence with his directness and running on the ball, and unlike many young wingers, he has a definite end product. Sometimes he cuts inside, unleashing rockets towards goal (he scored eight times for his club last season) but he is just as likely to cross or square the ball from the byline for Botafogo’s big strikers.
His dribbling ability is matched by a formidable work rate, and some versatility; he played as an attacking midfielder and off a striker for his former club Vitória.
He was rewarded for his development with a recent place in the Brazil squad, but he finds his way into the team blocked by a mind-blowing array of quality players, and it may take a move to Europe for him to get the recognition his talent demands. Both Milan clubs and (more recently and strongly) Juventus have been linked…
JUAN FERNANDO QUINTERO of Atlético Nacional
The Colombian city of Medellín has two massive clubs, eternally duelling for supremacy: Atlético Nacional and Independiente Medellín. Both have many trophies, millions of supporters, and expect to challenge for titles every season. And then there is Envigado.
This small club has recently finished higher in the league than either of its illustrious neighbours. But it plays at a relatively minuscule stadium with a tiny following and not much money.
What it is rich in is young talent, which it produces at a frightening rate. Giovanni Moreno, Dorlan Pabón, James Rodríguez and Freddy Guarín are all recent graduates of Envigado’s youth system.
The latest youngster who looks set to break out is Juan Fernando Quintero. After a few seasons in the Envigado first team he moved to Atlético Nacional in the summer and joined one of the most exhilarating, if troubled, attacking sides in South American football. He can play on either flank and that versatility adds to the fluidity of his sides attacking play, with temperamental, immensely talented playmaker Macnelly Torres and striker Doran Pabon switching positions and bewildering opposition defences.
Quintero amplifies their gifts with his own; his vision and range of passing are sumptuous, his dribbling and pace impressive, his dead-ball delivery absolutely deadly. Colombian football has the nasty habit of destroying its young talent before it can really deliver. Let’s hope that is not the case with Quintero.
ALFREDO ROJAS PAJUELO of Juan Aurich
Besting the might of the two Lima giants – Liianza and Universitario – Juan Aurich, from Chiclayo in the north of the country, are current Peruvian league champions. Their squad is typical of the chaos in domestic Peruvian football, where clubs flirt routinely with bankruptcy, are often unable to pay their players, and the gossip media stalks the stars in search of scandal.
That is to say it is mainly composed of journeymen alongside a few ageing class acts and kids at varying stages of maturity. That allows the occasional young talent to stand out, as Pajuelo did in the championship campaign.
Stocky and bullish, he is chiefly an old-fashioned destroyer with a speed to the ball which makes him formidable in central midfield, allied to a crunching tackle and a solid physical presence. And yet his technique can’t be overlooked; he makes possession seem simple because his touch, calm intelligence and reading of the game allow him to do so. He breaks up attacks and keeps the play simple. He doesn’t give the ball away, and he has the vision to spray accurate passes out to the flanks if he has to. The times I’ve watched him he has absolutely dominated midfield, tackling, running and passing with amazing energy and maturity. He has also played in defence a couple of times, and his abilities would see him suited to a roll at full-back, perhaps.
Defensive midfield is a difficult position in the modern game, and a spell in another South American country – Argentina or Chile, perhaps – might be useful before he comes to Europe, but if he continues at his present rate of development, he will be ready before too long.
MAXIMILIANO URRUTI of Newells Old Boys
Gerardo Martino may be a Newells Old Boys legend, but taking over as Coach at that club at the start of this season must still have seemed a daunting prospect. The Rosario giants, finally finding some stability off the pitch after years of problems with their barra brava and financial affairs, had finished in the bottom three in the last two campaigns and looked relegation candidates.
But Martino had won everything there was to win as a Coach in Paraguay, then led a limited Paraguayan squad to the final of last year’s Copa America. He knows how to make a little go a long way, and without changing Newells’ playing staff, he has transformed them into title contenders. The change he has made has been wildly successful.
He promoted 21 year old striker Maximiliano Urruti from the reserves and into the first team, and was repaid with six goals in the first few games of the season. What was most exciting was that they were all sorts of goals: poachers finishes, a ridiculously composed chip of an onrushing keeper, a header. Urruti is a strapping, powerful player, and he looks capable of either leading the line as a centre forward or of playing as a support striker. His movement is brilliant, allowing him to regularly find space in a crowded penalty box, and he has the skill to create time for himself; his first touch and dribbling look naturally superb. But his finishing marks him out as special. He is consistent, cool and precise in front of goal. This is still only his first season, so clubs aren’t swarming around him yet, but it will happen…
PEDRO FRANCO of Millonarios
This 21 year old grew up at Bogotá club Milonarios, starting at the age of nine and playing his way up through the youth teams. He is a rangy centre-half who can also play as a defensive midfielder, and he has a presence and aura far beyond his tender age.
He captained Colombia in the 2011 Under-20 World Cup, which the country hosted, and displayed all of his gifts there; organising his defence superbly, vocally encouraging the team, and prompting attacks from the back. His time spent in midfield gives him fine technique and a good range of passing, but he is most notable for his defensive ability.
Having already spent two years in the Millonarios first team, his natural talent has been augmented by hard experience; he reads the game well, intercepts more than he tackles – a very good sign in a defender – and competes well in the air, even against bigger forwards.
He looks every inch the future captain of the senior national team, and has already spoken of his desire to play in Europe someday.
KEVIN HARBOTTLE of Universidad Católica
Harbottle re-emerged into the limelight last year, at 21, thanks to some impressive form in the Chilean Championship in a series of loan moves, first for O’Higgins, and then for Unión Española.
He had previously attracted attention when the Buenos Aires club Argentinos Juniors bought him from Antofagasta, his childhood side in 2008, when he was just 17. But he never broke through to the first team there, and only this season has he returned to a truly top ranked South American club, when Universidad Católica, one of Chile’s big three, signed him.
His form has been a little patchy there, but his talent is undoubted. As an attacking player, he has it all: he is very quick, meaning he can run the channels and the flanks, capable of enough trickery to allow him to get past defenders, has the vision and awareness to drop deep and/or link play, and possesses an impressive ability in front of goal.
The fact that he has been playing up-front as a second striker increases the chances of him adding to his single cap for Chile. He surely has a big future ahead of him.
RODRIGO BATTAGLIA of Huracán
Still a little gangly, at 20 years of age Battaglia is already perhaps the single most dominant midfielder playing in the Primera B, Argentina’s second tier. He stood out in Huracán’s relegation season too, giving his all as a raw 19 year old, as a generally awful Huracán side slipped pitifully out of the division, within two years of missing out on the title only on the final day.
Battaglia emerged from Velez Sarsfield’s youth system, and moved to Amalgro before Huracán took him on. He has proven to be a sound investment, and his progression since his debut in 2010 has been remarkable. A classic Argentine number five or “pacman” (so named because they run round and round gobbling up balls), Battaglia is big (6ft1+), strong, athletic and screens a defence with energy and dedication. He is also calm and mature in possession, strong in the tackle and already has the bearing and presence of a natural leader; for all that he evidently has a fiery temper.
He played – very well – for Argentina Under-20 at the 2011 Sudamericano, but his route into the senior national team is blocked by a host of brilliant players (Mascherano, Gago, Banega, Cambiasso, Biglia etc) and that is unlikely to change unless he moves abroad. Roma and Cagliari have circled in the past, and unless Huracán can drag themselves through a promotion campaign – which doesn’t look like it’ll happen anytime soon – I can’t see Battaglia sticking round much longer.Premier League
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