European World Cup qualifiers: The exciting new players to watch

By Sports Desk March 24, 2021

The international break might bring respite from the packed club calendar, but with Qatar 2022 now just 20 months away, top players have little chance for rest.

Still, the start of the European World Cup qualifiers brings an opportunity for the new names on the international scene to impress, particularly with more established stars unlikely to be involved in every minute of matches over these two weeks.

Several of the continent's top teams have offered first-time call-ups to those enjoying fine form and, while some were anticipated, others have left even the players themselves surprised.

We have picked through a selection of the new faces to look out for, with a sprinkling of Opta data to highlight why they deserve a chance to impress for their country.

 

Belgium: Orel Mangala and Albert Sambi Lokonga

Stuttgart's Orel Mangala has been linked with Arsenal and RB Leipzig due to his performances for Stuttgart this season. Only three midfielders have regained possession more often in the Bundesliga than the 23-year-old (166).

Also hoping to make his senior Belgium debut at the heart of midfield is Albert Sambi Lokonga, who assumed the captain's armband at Anderlecht less than a month after turning 21.

Lokonga, who could get a chance in place of the injured Axel Witsel, has regained possession 35 more times than any team-mate this season (157) and is also fourth for chances created (22).

Croatia: Kristijan Lovric

With Ante Rebic and Bruno Petkovic injured, the coming matches could offer a real chance to impress for Kristijan Lovric.

The HNK Gorica star is second in the top scorer standings in Croatia's top flight, with 15 goals in 24 appearances. With four assists also to his name, Lovric is behind only Tottenham's Europa League slayer Mislav Orsic and Ramon Mierez (both on 20) for direct goal involvements this season.

It's a seriously impressive return for the 25-year-old, particularly as he plays predominantly wide on the left of the Gorica attack.

England: Ollie Watkins

West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone may get the chance to win a first senior England cap, but a man almost certain to be given a chance in attack is Ollie Watkins.

The Aston Villa forward became the 10th Premier League player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool, and the first in a decade, in October's extraordinary 7-2 win over the reigning champions.

He has 10 in the top flight this term, while only captain Jack Grealish (17) has had more direct goal involvements than Watkins (15) in all competitions for Villa this season. Not bad for a man who was playing in England's sixth tier just six years ago.

 

Germany: Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala

Rising Bayern Munich star Jamal Musiala was expected to be named in Joachim Low's squad after he pledged his international future to Germany rather than England.

The 18-year-old, who only signed his first professional contract this month, is Bayern's youngest ever Champions League goalscorer and has already played 18 times in the Bundesliga this season.

Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz has also earned the right to shine on the senior stage. He is one of just two players under the age of 20 to be directly involved in at least eight goals across the top-five European leagues this season.

Italy: Rafael Toloi and Matteo Ricci

Brazilian-born Rafael Toloi has made it to the age of 30 without a senior international appearance, but his performances for Gian Piero Gasperini's outstanding Atalanta side made him hard to overlook.

Toloi averages seven possession regains per match for Atalanta this season and is comfortable when using the ball, completing 493 passes in the opposition half, the most of any Atalanta defender barring Berat Djimsiti.

Spezia midfielder Matteo Ricci, meanwhile, boasts 19 chances created in Serie A this season as well as 151 times winning back the ball, by far the highest tally for his team.

Netherlands: Jeremiah St Juste

Jeremiah St Juste has impressed at the back for Mainz this season, despite their involvement in a tense battle to avoid the drop.

There are only five Bundesliga defenders to win more tackles and duels combined than the 24-year-old this season (he has managed 165).

Previously a full-back with Feyenoord, St Juste brings a vital commodity to modern central defending: speed. Last season, he clocked a sprint of 22.1 miles per hour, bettered only at the time by Bayern winger Kingsley Coman.

Poland: Kacper Kozlowski

A relative unknown outside Poland, even Kacper Kozlowski himself was shocked to be called up to Paulo Sousa's squad this month.

Clearly, though, he has caught the eye for some all-action displays in the top flight for Pogon Szczecin. The 17-year-old averages 8.3 duels won and 17 passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes, each the most of any teenage midfielder in the competition.

Kozlowski, who is also renowned for a fierce long-range shot, has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs since making his senior debut at just 15, with Manchester United said to be among them.

 

Portugal: Joao Palhinha and Nuno Mendes

Linked with Manchester City (among others), Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes has been described as the standout young talent in Portugal's top flight.

Only Wilson Manafa (49) has completed more dribbles among defenders this season than Mendes (29), who has played in all but four of the unbeaten leaders' league matches.

The 18-year-old is joined in the Portugal squad by team-mate Joao Palhinha, a robust midfielder who has won 208 duels in the Primeira Liga in 2020-21 – no player in his position has won more.

Spain: Bryan Gil and Pedri

Pedri has been a revelation for Barcelona in his first season at Camp Nou, establishing himself as a key part of Ronald Koeman's midfield despite only turning 18 last November.

He has played 42 times already in 2020-21, the most of anyone at the club, and became the youngest player to record 100 touches in a single LaLiga game for at least 15 years against Osasuna this month.

Bryan Gil, meanwhile, has been thriving on loan at Eibar from Sevilla and in January became the second player born this century to score twice in the same LaLiga match, following in the footsteps of Ansu Fati.

 

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