Has it really been four years since we watched Spain, basking in the glory of a majestic Xavi Hernandez, romp their way to European Championship glory?
Alas, in the intervening time Europe has lost Xavi and Spain’s stock has plummeted. The finals in France will, this year, be ruled by the next generation of stars; whether any of them go on to define the tournament as the Catalonian maestro did remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure, though: there will be superstars unearthed at this tournament. We have taken a stab at predicting the kids who might just do it on the biggest stage this summer.
Federico Bernadeschi (Italy)
Federico Bernadeschi is very quickly becoming respected as one of Italy’s premium young talents. Though national coach Antonio Conte has seemed somewhat reluctant to flood the Azzurri with too many young players at once during his waning reign, Italy are beginning to realise that they have a wealth of talent at their disposal, with Bernadeschi’s name climbing rapidly towards the top of that list.
The Fiorentina forward is a creator at heart, which could stand him in good stead when competing for a place in Italy’s starting eleven this summer. Though the Azzurri’s current talent pool is seemingly limitless and they possess a huge number of gifted strikers capable of putting the ball in the back of the net – Lorenzo Insigne, Graziano Pelle, Simone Zaza, Stephan El Sharaawy and Eder could all be competing for a starting berth in France – they do lack a creative force capable of carving out chances in the first place.
That’s where Bernadeschi could make his mark. The 21-year-old displays remarkable ball retention and a consistent and deadly eye for a killer pass every week in Serie A, meaning he could play the role of provider alongside any of Italy’s talented goal-scorers.
Though his involvement in Italy’s friendly drubbing by Germany – during which Conte experimented with a young front three – might have hurt his chances of initially starting in the tournament proper, Bernadeschi will no doubt be knocking on the next Chelsea manager’s door if the Azzurri find themselves struggling to break down defences as the competition progresses.
Victor Lindelof (Sweden)
Unlike many of the players on this list, Victor Lindelof is almost guaranteed to start in the tournament. The 21-year-old has recently burst onto the scene to cement himself as one of Sweden’s first-choice defenders, and it would be a surprise not to see him feature heavily in their campaign.
Lindelof’s rise to national side regular has been facilitated by his recent run in Benfica’s first team. The Portuguese side are one of Europe’s form teams right now, and the Swedish centre-half has been resplendent at the heart of their defence.
Accustomed to playing as a defensive midfielder as well as at the back, Lindelof’s ball-playing abilities are are the heart of what makes him so attractive as a centre-half. He’s also strong, great in the air and very quick, meaning his passing ability doesn’t overshadow his grasp of the basics of defending. He also possesses excellent technique, making him a real threat from set-pieces; so if Sweden don’t hit Zlatan’s head with the first ball, they have an able alternative to aim for.
Though Lindelof has only very recently made his debut for Sweden, if he finishes the season with Benfica as strongly as his current performances suggest, we could be seeing a lot of him in France.
Viktor Kovalenko (Ukraine)
Kovalenko rose to fame last year after claiming the Golden Boot at the U-20 World Cup; surprising for an attacking midfielder whose usual contribution comes in the creation of goals, rather than in the scoring of them.
That’s not to say the Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder is a stranger in front of goal. In the mould of Belgium’s uber-talented Kevin De Bruyne, Kovalenko’s ability to finish off moves as well as start them means he’s rocketing into Ukrainian first-team plans and is highly likely to feature at the tournament.
Kovalenko is a master of the chipped through-ball, and has the rare ability to seemingly spot runs before they’re even made; a trait made famous by Spain’s David Silva. If he’s given a chance to prove his worth in France, then potential link-ups with compatriots Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka could make Ukraine a real force going forward.
About the Author – Tom Curren
Writer & freelancer. Author & editor of scoutedfootball.com, a website dedicated to comprehensively profiling those whom the mainstream football media might miss.