Soccer  

Top U23 players for each World Cup team: Musiala, Bellingham

The World Cup in Qatar starts on Nov. 20 and all 32 sides have announced their 26-man squad lists for the tournament.

But while there are always going to be the big names of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, which younger players might get a chance to shine on the biggest stage of all?

While technology and scouting techniques have improved to the point that a young player impressing at a World Cup is almost never an unknown quantity these days, there are still those under the age of 23 who warrant some extra attention.

Here are the most exciting young players on each of the 32 teams at the World Cup — all under the age of 23, with the exception of Iran, who didn’t include any players in this age bracket in the squad.

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– World Cup 2022: News and features | Schedule | Squads
– World Cup previews: Group A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP A

Moises Caicedo, 21, CM, Ecuador / Brighton and Hove Albion

With the eyes of admiring scouts from some of Europe’s top clubs upon him, the Ecuador star has been in magnificent form for his club side and can rightly be counted among the top defensive midfielders in the Premier League. Tidy and efficient, both in and out of possession, Caicedo covers every blade of grass, is consistent with his passing and has 25 caps for his country already. — Tor-Kristian Karlsen

Jurrien Timber, 21, CB/RB, Netherlands / Ajax

Despite suffering indifferent form so far this season at club level — only 57% of his defensive challenges won, compared to 73% last season — Timber still enters his first World Cup as one of the most highly regarded young defenders around. Quick, mobile and possessing the composure to find midfielders with a first pass, the Ajax youngster carries all the hallmarks of a modern, tactically flexible defender suitable to play in a high line. — TKK

Homam Ahmed, 23, WB, Qatar / Al-Gharafa

An attacking wing-back who often takes positions high up the pitch in order deliver crosses with his fine left foot, Ahmed has the running capacity to cover the entire flank, but can also drop into the left centre-back slot in the host nation’s back three. Enthusiastic and positive in his approach, he has two goals in 27 games for his country. — TKK

Krepin Diatta, 23, FW, Senegal / AS Monaco

While still to fully exhibit his undeniable talent following his move from Club Brugge in January 2021 — party because of injuries — the 23-year-old is on the ascent for a resurgent Monaco side. With superb technical ability, creativity, quick turns, a sudden burst of pace and the ability to pick clever positions between the lines, Diatta can prove decisive in an instant and may need to fill the void left by the injured Sadio Mane in the early games. — TKK

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Rob Dawson reacts to England’s midfield options and debates whether Gareth Southgate will start Jude Bellingham.

GROUP B

Jude Bellingham, 19, CM, England / Borussia Dortmund

Bellingham plays with a maturity and intelligence well beyond his years. Though capable of occupying all roles in the centre of midfield, the England international is likely to operate as an attack-minded No. 8 in Qatar. Smooth on the ball with excellent vision, a varied range of passing and great athleticism, he is as complete as midfielders come at this age. A generational talent whose breakout at the World Cup could be pivotal to a successful campaign for England. — TKK

Abolfazl Jalali, 24, LB, Iran / Esteghlal

Recently brought into the experienced Iran national setup (at 24, he’s the youngest member of this squad), Jalali equipped himself well in the last two friendlies in the run-up to the tournament. The robust left-back has an attacking approach, delivers powerful crosses into the box and enjoys the physical side of the game. — TKK

Jesus Ferreira, 21, FW, United States / FC Dallas

With 18 goals from 33 games to his name for FC Dallas, Ferreira was crowned MLS Young Player of the Year and made a solid mark for the USMNT when he netted four times against Granada (5-0) in June. In addition to being lightning-quick and a sharp finisher — no angles seem beyond him to test the goalkeeper — he is particularly skilled at finding the right positions in the box for cutbacks and can also drop deep to provide a link with the midfield. His roaming, confident style and direct running make him hard to defend against. — TKK

Brennan Johnson, 21, FW, Wales / Nottingham Forest

With Gareth Bale likely participating in his last major tournament, Johnson is primed to become the next Wales superstar. Like Bale, Johnson prefers to operate in wide areas and possesses incredible speed and dribbling ability. He loves to drive at defenders, creating one-on-one situations before going for goal himself or offering smart cutbacks to teammates in the penalty area. — David Cartlidge

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Gab & Juls preview Group C at the 2022 World Cup, with Argentina expected to cruise into the knockout rounds.

GROUP C

Enzo Fernandez, 21, CM, Argentina

A sensation for River Plate, the midfielder earned an €18m move to Benfica this summer and has impressed to the point that the Portuguese club are already considering offering him a new contract. Blessed with energy and guile, Fernandez plays off the forward line, looking to create chances and take them himself. He is technically gifted but very hard-working, so expect plenty of long-range efforts and late arrivals into the penalty area. — DC

Kevin Alvarez, 23, RB, Mexico / Pachuca

The youngest member of the Mexico squad is in contention to start at right-back following consistent displays in Liga MX. Dynamic, brave and tenacious, Alvarez provides a constant outlet on the right with his well-timed overlaps. He manages nearly three crosses per 90 minutes and his competitive nature sees him enter 10 defensive challenges per game. — TKK

Sebastian Szymanski, AM, 23, Poland / Feyenoord

With Robert Lewandowski leading the line for Poland, it’s imperative there is someone to supply him ammunition and Szymanski could be that player. The midfielder is experiencing a breakout season at Feyenoord, where he’s on loan from Dinamo Moscow, and will arrive in Qatar in top form with seven goals and four assists from 18 games. Szymanski likes to roam through central midfield and, as well as creating chances, he has the ability to help out in deeper areas too. — DC

Firas al-Buraikan, 22, ST, Saudi Arabia / Al-Fateh

On the back of some fine performances in the Saudi Pro League over the past year — he has four goals in eight games this season — and scoring the winner against Oman in the World Cup qualification phase, the left-footed centre-forward is in contention for Saudi Arabia’s No. 9 spot. Strong in the air and with a developing positional sense, al-Buraikan could represent his country’s main goal-scoring threat. — TKK

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Gab Marcotti says he has no idea what to expect from defending champions France at the 2022 World Cup.

GROUP D

Garang Kuol, 18, FW, Australia / Central Coast Mariners

Arguably the biggest prospect to emerge from Australia in the past decade, the dynamic left-sided forward features the kind of acceleration, progressive dribbling and youthful confidence that can leave you stunned. Despite only having appeared as a substitute for his club — he has two goals and two assists from four games off the bench — and still being on a steep learning curve, Kuol is set to join Newcastle United in January. — TKK

Jesper Lindstrom, 22, CM, Denmark / Eintracht Frankfurt

A relative newcomer to the Denmark senior side, Lindstrom has stood out as one of the best attacking midfielders in the Bundesliga. With a Thomas Muller-esque appreciation of space, he loves to exploit gaps and can be lethal when running at defenders in the transitional phase after possession has just been regained. Blessed with subtle finishing skills and strong ball-carrying capabilities, his creativity will give Denmark an extra dimension. — TKK

William Saliba, 21, CB, France / Arsenal

Arguably one of the best Premier League centre-backs this season, Saliba is as assured with the ball as he is when stopping it from opponents. When in possession, he always looks for a constructive pass, while he enters defensive challenges (73% success rate) with assertiveness and confidence. He carries the ball forward purposefully and has quickly become a complete, modern centre-back. — TKK

Anis Ben Slimane, CM, 21, Tunisia / Brondby

A box-to-box midfielder equipped with an imposing physique, not only is Ben Slimane a strong runner who is hard to knock off balance, but the Denmark-born Tunisian can also successfully bring the ball out of tight spaces and set up his teammates. He could certainly attract some transfer interest from abroad with a good showing at this World Cup. — TKK

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Gab & Juls preview Group E at the 2022 World Cup, home to heavyweights Germany and Spain.

GROUP E

Jewison Bennette, 18, FW, Costa Rica / Sunderland

Within the space of a week in September, Bennette put himself firmly on the map with a debut goal for Sunderland, followed by a brace for his country (albeit two tap-ins) in a 2-2 draw against South Korea. With his lightning-quick acceleration, neat touch and playful command of his body, the entertaining Costa Rica left-winger is an ideal impact substitute and has two goals in seven games for his country. — TKK

Jamal Musiala, 19, AM, Germany / Bayern Munich

An exceptionally gifted attacking midfielder, Musiala floats around and interchanges positions with ease. He has been in such breathtaking form for Bayern this season — 12 goals, 10 assists from 22 games — that he enters the World Cup as a genuine difference-maker for Germany too, despite his age. Courtesy of his brilliant on/off-the-ball running, he links up well with his teammates and his fine ball control can see him dance his way through the opposing defence to end with a composed finish. — TKK

Takefusa Kubo, 21, FW, Japan / Real Sociedad

Long considered the next superstar to come out of Japan, the former Real Madrid prospect has enjoyed a promising start at Real Sociedad. A versatile attacking midfielder who can play anywhere behind the centre-forward, Kubo is already recognised for his fine technique, incisive passing in the final third and dribbling skills. Creative and bright (1.7 key passes per 90 minutes), he can decide a game with a single touch of class. — TKK

Ansu Fati, 20, FW, Spain / Barcelona

Sadly, Ansu’s early career has been heavily compromised by injuries, but although he hasn’t quite got going yet for Barcelona this season — he predominantly comes on in the second half — no one would put it past him taking centre stage at the World Cup. While mostly set up on the left side of the attack, the 20-year-old can slot into any attacking position. He spots openings where others see clusters of opponents and has a near-telepathic understanding with his teammates. Brimming with flair and finesse, Ansu can make a difference for Spain if he is able to stay fit. — TKK

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Gab & Juls wonder if 2022 is finally the year for Belgium’s “golden generation” to come good.

GROUP F

Ikoma Openda, 22, ST, Belgium / Lens

In a Belgium squad lacking sharpness in the central attacking area, the Lens striker — who has seven goals in 15 games this season — offers much-needed freshness. Though he does not get too involved in the build-up, Openda is outstanding at sniffing out the right areas in the box and his opportunism can prove vital as an impact substitute. With Romelu Lukaku struggling with injury, he may get a bigger chance than that. — TKK

Jonathan David, 22, ST, Canada / LOSC Lille

Arguably one of the most coveted young strikers in the top European leagues, the New York-born forward has displayed a high level of consistency since moving to France from KAA Gent and has 37 goals from 90 Ligue 1 outings. In addition to his goal scoring (0.7 xG this season), David is also a team player — he wins challenges (on the ground and in the air) and has developed into a complete frontman. — TKK

Josko Gvardiol, CB/LB, 20, Croatia / RB Leipzig

One of the most promising young centre-backs in the world, Gvardiol’s performances at the World Cup could secure him a big move away from RB Leipzig. The versatile defender stands out for his immense ability on the ball, where he can carry it out of defence and offer a wide range of passing into midfield and attack. Defensively he has looked good too, and while there have been a few missteps, there is clear potential for him to improve considerably in that area. — DC

Bilal El Khannouss, 18, AM, Morocco / Genk

Morocco may well have struck gold by convincing the Genk starlet to switch allegiances from Belgium ahead of the World Cup. With his superb vision and distribution — fluidly spraying well-calibrated balls and penetrative passes from his advanced midfield position — you could be forgiven for thinking that El Khannouss is the latest La Masia graduate from Barcelona. Potentially a future top-class playmaker. — TKK

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Gab & Juls explain what we can expect to see from Neymar and Brazil at the 2022 World Cup.

GROUP G

Rodrygo, 21, FW, Brazil / Real Madrid

While his talent has never been in dispute, Rodrygo has finally found the consistency to step out of the shadow of his teammate Vinicius Junior. Technically superb, full of imagination and with a thunderous shot, the 21-year-old — who has seven goals and five assists from 19 games for Real Madrid this season — has the X factor to help Brazil to their sixth World Cup trophy, though he is unlikely to be a starter. — TKK

Christopher Wooh, 21, CB, Cameroon / Rennes

A €9 million summer signing from Lens, the former France under-17 international plays with a composure beyond his years. However, he has made just one appearance for Cameroon prior to the World Cup, so he may need time to adjust to international football. Wooh is comfortable in possession, but is also a firm tackler. He enjoyed a stellar performance for Lens away at PSG last season, while playing in a back three. — TKK

Strahinja Pavlovic, 21, CB, Serbia / FC Salzburg

Stylistic comparisons between Pavlovic and Serbia/Man United legend Nemanja Vidic should come as no surprise. The FC Salzburg youngster is tall, strong and commanding, while he is also aggressive in his defensive actions. Pavlovic is built in the Sergio Ramos mould — in that he is assertive and direct with his defending, always looking to snuff out trouble before it has a chance to develop. While he needs to improve his positioning, there is clearly a huge amount of potential to work with. — DC

Noah Okafor, 22, FW/ST, Switzerland / FC Salzburg

Undoubtedly one of the fastest attackers at the tournament, especially over longer distances, Okafor is a real menace on the break. When space opens up, few opponents can keep up. Along with a varied arsenal of dribbles and feints (plus decent finishing abilities), Okafor provides a constant worry for the opposition. Though mostly deployed as a winger, the Salzburg forward has 10 goals in 22 games and can play through the middle, too. — TKK

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Gab & Juls preview Group H at the 2022 World Cup, with Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana and South Korea fighting to qualify.

GROUP H

Mohammed Kudus, 22, AM, Ghana / Ajax

Injuries have hindered his progress, but over the past months, Kudus has shown flashes of his immense talent for club and country. Equipped with all the basics of a top-level forward — the way he picks up pace, the directness in which he travels with the ball and outsmarts defenders one-on-one, exquisite finishing and clever link-up play — Kudus may soon become a household name. With 10 goals from 22 games for Ajax, playing as a false No. 9, Kudus will be more at home as an attacking midfielder with Ghana. — TKK

Rafael Leao, 23, FW, Portugal / AC Milan

His incredible form helped Milan win the Serie A title last season and the winger has seven goals and six assists from 20 games this season to head to Qatar in good shape. Usually deployed in an inverted position on the left, Leao can be a nightmare for opposing defenders to track as he dribbles with purpose into space. Negotiations over a new contract in Milan are ongoing, but the likes of Chelsea and Real Madrid are reportedly watching him with interest. — TKK

Lee Kang-in, 21, AM, South Korea / Mallorca

Whether deployed on either wing, or as a central attacking midfielder, the Mallorca prodigy with nearly 100 LaLiga appearances to his name thrives when the game speeds up. With his quick turns, unorthodox dribbling style and fine close control, Lee is hard to dispossess or mark. He is capable of hitting first-rate set pieces and precise through balls, too. — TKK

Manuel Ugarte, 21, CM, Uruguay / Sporting CP

The endless production line of tough, hard-working midfielders from Uruguay continues, and Ugarte arguably has a higher ceiling than most of his peers. With Sporting CP, he has shown himself to be an aggressive, ball-winning giant. He shields the defence to cut out passes, regain possession and cleanly distribute to more attack-minded players. But he has also shown the ability to move the ball himself too, with a penchant for driving into advanced areas. — DC