2016 was a year of endless football action. We witnessed Euro 2016, the Copa America Centenario, World Cup qualifiers and the Rio Olympics to go along with the usual domestic and continental club competitions.
We also saw a host of youngsters taking center stage with their respective sides due to the corresponding opportunities. With that being said, here are five youngsters poised to have a breakout year in 2017.
A quick, hardworking and technically gifted attacker, Domenico Barardi can play on the left or right as a winger, or he can play more centrally as a forward. The left-footed Italian is only 22 years old and currently plys his trade with Sassuolo in Serie A.
He captured the attention of Italian football fans in the 2014-15 season, when he scored 15 goals in 32 league games including a hat-trick against AC Milan. He followed that up with seven goals in 29 games last season, leading to a national team call up from then manager Antonio Conte. However, a muscular injury forced him to delay his international debut.
A devastating knee ligament injury at the start of the current season ruled him out for more than four months. He returned to action on January 8 and already put in a sensational performance last against Palermo, registering two assists in his side’s 4-1 victory.
The 22-year-old Italian is currently being chased by Liverpool, Inter Milan and Juventus, with Sassuolo president Giorgio Squinzi admitting in the summer that a deal between them and Juventus was already in the works. Described as the next Roberto Baggio by 1982 World Cup winner Giancarlo Antognoni, Berardi is ready to become a household name around the world in 2017.
Timo Werner is a 20-year-old German striker who currently plays for the most hated team in Germany, RB Leipzig.
Born and raised in Stuttgart, Werner joined the VfB Stuttgart academy at just six years of age. He made his official debut for the senior side in 2013 at just 17 years of age against PFC Botev Plovdiv in a Europa League qualifier.
Although he became the youngest player ever to play in an official match for Stuttgart, things didn’t go too well for Werner with his hometown club. He earned his place in the starting lineup with regularity, but Stuttgart were struggling mightily in the Bundesliga. His six goals in 33 outings for Die Roten weren’t enough to save the club from being relegated in 2016.
However, a change in fortunes came for the 20-year-old German in the summer. The recently promoted RB Leipzig beat out Tottenham Hotspur to sign Werner for just €10 million, relying on the youngster to lead their attack for their debut season in the top division.
Leipzig would be more than content with the deal, as Werner would turn into a goalscoring machine. He has already bagged an impressive ten goals in 17 games this season.
Nicknamed ‘Messizinho’, Little Messi, Bernardo Silva has shown superb technical abilities to merit the tag.
The 22-year-old Portuguese starlet was produced by the Benfica academy but only played in one game for the senior side. He was loaned out to Monaco in 2014, and after an impressive spell, the Ligue 1 club officially signed him for €15.75 million in January of 2015.
He was nothing short of extraordinary in his first season in the south of France, producing nine goals in 32 league games. He followed it up with seven goals in 32 games in his second season.
As expected, he has continued to improve at Monaco. He has already racked up seven goals and seven assists across all competitions this season as Monaco are one of the best attacking sides in Europe.
Just like Berardi, Silva’s process with Portugal’s national team has been halted by unfortunate injury issues. Although he played a part in Portugal’s qualification matches for Euro 2016, he missed out on the actual tournament due to a thigh injury.
Nonetheless, the attacking midfielder has already been the major subject of interest from several big clubs, most notably Manchester United. The latest reports say United are actually ready to bid an enormous amount of around £70 million for the Portuguese youngster. Silva, whose creativity and vision make him the perfect number 10, is definitely someone people should keep their eyes on this year.
At the age of 23, Andrea Belotti has established himself as one of the hottest strikers in world football. Nicknamed as Il Gallo, the Rooster, Belotti has one of the most inspirational stories in football.
Born in Calcinate, he tried to join the local club Atalanta as a child but was rejected after an unsuccessful trial. He was later signed by then Serie B club AlbinoLeffe. He eventually got a shot with the senior side after they were relegated to the third division, and he broke into the starting lineup in the 2012-13 season. After having an impressive debut season where he scored 14 goals, he was signed by then Serie B club Palermo.
He was a main part in Palermo’s promotion to Serie A during the 2013-14 season, scoring 10 goals in 24 games. Due to the emergence of Paulo Dybala, Belotti lost his place in the starting eleven for the 2014-15 season. Even then, he managed to take part in 33 games, starting in nine of them.
He made a lot of noise as a young talent in the league and was eventually signed by Torino for €7.5 million.
It is at Torino where he truly exploded. He scored 12 goals in 35 games for Il Toro last season, including goals against Juventus and Inter Milan. Although he was left out of Euro 2016 by Italian manager Antonio Conte, he was immediately called up by the new manager Giampiero Ventura for the national team.
He has continued to produce magic on the pitch and taken Serie A by the storm this season. He is currently the second top scorer in the league with 13 goals in 17 games and was reportedly targeted by Arsenal for a €65m transfer.
Belotti’s current buyout clause is reported to be €100m, and if he continues his current form on the pitch, that amount won’t be decreasing. As old fashion center forwards become a thing of rarity these days, the interest in the services of Belotti will only continue to rise.
Gabriel Jesus has just arrived at Manchester City following his £27m transfer, and the 19-year-old being called upon to resurrect the Citizens’ stuttering season.
Born in Sao Paulo, Jesus joined local club Palmeiras in 2013. He debuted for the senior side in 2015 season and managed four goals in 20 games.
He quickly improved and had a breakout season for the club in 2016, where he scored 12 goals in 27 games to help his club win the league title. A lot of big clubs took notice, as did the Brazilian national team. He was set to replace the injured Douglas Costa for the 2016 Copa America Centenario but missed out due to not having a visa compications.
However, his performances for club and youth national team were enough for Pep Guardiola and City to splash cash on the youngster. Although the deal was done in the beginning of August, he was unable to get the work permit since he wasn’t a full international, and he was made to wait to complete the transfer until the January window.
During the Rio Olympics, he formed a terrifying forward trio alongside Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa and helped his nation win the coveted gold medal. Since then, he has been called up to the national team for 2018 World Cup qualifiers, and he has repaid manager Tite’s faith by scoring a very impressive five goals in six appearances.
Known for his pace, work ethic and finishing, Jesus can be played as a striker or winger on either flank. He has been showered with praise by his new coach Guardiola and the legendary Brazilian footballer Ronaldo, who called him the future star of the national team and admitted to seeing many similarities between Jesus and himself.
With City desperate for more attacking options, Jesus can inject new life into Guardiola’s squad.