2021 is dead – long live 2022.

It's a new year, and while the one changing to a two literally overnight may seem arbitrary, it gives us an excuse to look ahead and what's on the horizon.

Of course, we're now into a World Cup year – 12 months from now, we'll have newly crowned world champions and, who knows, maybe a new superstar or two will have emerged.

While there's no guarantee about a player's trajectory, Stats Perform have at least put together a list of 22 under-22 players who could be worth keeping an eye out for in 2022.

GOALKEEPERS

Etienne Green, 21, English – Saint-Etienne

Honestly, he's not included just because of the perfection of a player called Etienne Green playing for Les Verts, Saint-Etienne – though that certainly warrants a mention. Colchester-born Green has played 23 times in Ligue 1 for the club, making Leeds United's Ilan Meslier the only goalkeeper born after 2000 to play more often (53) across the top five leagues. In April he became the fourth Ligue 1 keeper since Opta records began (2006-07) to save a penalty on his debut and he's since gone on to nail down a starting spot. Having recently declared for England over France, Green could be an outside bet for Gareth Southgate's squad at Qatar 2022.

Maarten Vandevoordt, 19, Belgian – Genk

In 2019, Vandevoordt became the Champions League's youngest ever goalkeeper at 17 years and 287 days old – it proved to be a bit of a nightmare as Genk lost 4-0, with youngster at fault for two goals. It would've been enough to shatter the confidence of most young players, but Vandevoordt's since gone on to become first-choice, playing 16 league games in 2020-21 and all 21 this term.

DEFENDERS

Kaiky, 17, Brazilian – Santos

If there's any area of the pitch that one might consider to be the hardest to establish yourself in as a young player, most would say centre-back. Yet, despite not turning 18 until January 12, Kaiky has racked up an impressive number of appearances there for Santos. He played more minutes in the 2021 Brasileirao (1,334 minutes) and the Libertadores (495) than any other under-19 player and has impressed with his comfort in possession, aerial ability and demonstrable appetite for defending. He has a long way to go, but he sure has made a promising start.

Becir Omeragic, 19, Swiss – FC Zurich

Omeragic is among the most highly rated young centre-backs in Europe and was in Switzerland's Euro 2020 squad – despite still being only 19, he's already played 71 Swiss Super League games for Zurich. This season he ranks highly in numerous metrics among defenders, such as tackle attempts (29, fifth-highest), interceptions (26, seventh-highest) and possession won (105, fifth-highest), while he offers good progression on the ball, his carry progress of 1,796.6m upfield being the fourth-best among all defenders – two of those are full-backs. Expect to see him in one of Europe's biggest leagues fairly soon.

Ilya Zabarnyi, 19, Ukrainian – Dynamo Kiev

Previously linked with Chelsea, among other major clubs, Zabarnyi caught the eye at Euro 2020 with some mature displays. Despite being the joint-youngest player in the squad, Zabarnyi was one of the five players to play every minute for Ukraine, and among those to feature for at least 100 minutes, he ranked in the top three for touches (72.8) and passes (60.6) on a per-90 basis. Similarly, only four played more passes into the final third than him (4.7), and three of those were midfielders. A move to a bigger league will give us a better idea of just how good Zabarnyi is, but the promise is there.

Ethan Laird, 20, English – Swansea City (on loan from Manchester United)

Manchester United have rated right-back Laird highly for a while – he actually made his senior debut for them as far back as November 2019 in the Europa League. Since then, he showed great promise at Milton Keynes Dons and then followed coach Russell Martin in making the jump to the Championship with Swansea City, where he's continued to impress. Only three defenders in the division have created more chances than him in open play (23), while his five big chances created is the second-most in the Swans squad. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka seemingly unable to kick on at United, Laird's opportunity may arrive in 2022.

Alex Balde, 18, Spanish – Barcelona

Barcelona have seemingly once again become great trusters of youth – not that their situation has given them much of a choice. Balde's not yet one of those to become a regular, and you'd think he will struggle to dislodge Jordi Alba at left-back, but in his four LaLiga appearances the 18-year-old has shown real promise with his ability on the ball and pace. Given his skillset and Xavi's desire to play with classic wingers, he may find himself used further up the pitch – either way, he's definitely one to watch.

George Bello, 19, American – Atlanta United

Nigeria-born Bello may not be 20 until late January, but he's already made a strong impression in MLS, so much so that he became a regular part of the USA's senior side in 2021. Added to that, his 2,433 minutes played was the most of any MLS player to end the season as a teenager. An attack-minded left-back, Bello is excellent on the ball and possesses great pace, and he may well be on the move soon given his contract expires at the end of 2022. If anyone takes a punt, they could be rewarded handsomely.

MIDFIELDERS

Yacine Adli, 21, French – Bordeaux (on loan from Milan)

Milan fans have every reason to be excited about Adli. The kind of silky playmaker that makes almost everything look effortless, he has created more chances after a carry (11) than any other midfielder in Ligue 1 this term. He may not be a great goal threat himself, but his six assists is the second-most among the same group of players (Dimitri Payet has seven) – all of Adli's were from open play, however, which is the most the league's midfielders. Whether he can keep that up at Milan is unclear, but if he can, they'll have a real asset on their hands.

Unai Vencedor, 21, Spanish – Athletic Bilbao

Athletic are one of LaLiga's stranger teams in that they don't win, lose, score or concede very often, yet that's not stopping Vencedor from thriving. A controlling presence with satisfying calmness on the ball in centre midfield, Vencedor is mature for his age and already has significant influence over Athletic's play. Just Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams have been involved in more open-play shot-ending sequences than Vencedor (47) among Athletic players, while the former (eight) is the only one with more instances of being involved in build-up and taking the shot (five) at the end, highlighting his importance to not only keeping them on the ball but also posing an attacking threat.

Nicolo Rovella, 20, Italian – Genoa (on loan from Juventus)

Granted, Rovella's hardly a hidden gem given Juve signed him in a deal potentially worth €20m last January, but he's still not quite a household name. Nevertheless, he looks a real prospect. A deep-lying midfielder, Rovella is elegant on the ball, hard-working without it and excellent at set-pieces. For struggling Genoa this season, his 4.0 possession wins every 90 minutes in the middle third is the 15th highest among Serie A midfielders (min. 500 minutes played), as is his 1.4 successful tackles – though only four players from the same group who have attempted at least 20 boast a better success rate than him (71.4). There's talk he could be recalled by Juve in January, which highlights the impression he's making.

Caden Clark, 18, American – RB Leipzig

With goals against Atlanta United and then Toronto four days later in October 2020, Clark became the youngest player MLS history to score in each of his first two games – the second was an absolute scorcher as well. The 18-year-old agreed a move from New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig in 2021 and he officially makes the switch in January, with no return loan planned. The technically gifted midfielder has his chance to make it in the big-time, and the Bundesliga has previously been a good next step for MLS stars.

Hannibal Mejbri, 18, Tunisian – Manchester United

Some United fans are disappointed Hannibal didn't get more opportunities under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and he's been restricted with Ralf Rangnick because of his involvement in the Arab Cup and the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations. But when he returns, there's every indication he may get more chances, or at least that's what Rangnick recently intimated. A silky and creative midfielder, but one who has a tendency to lose his head, Hannibal might be able to provide the extra injection of craft often missing from United's midfield.

WINGERS

Kayky, 18, Brazilian – Manchester City

There's every chance Kayky and Angelo could be challenging each other for a spot in the senior Brazil team one day. Now at Manchester City after joining from Fluminense in a deal apparently worth an initial £8.4million, Kayky's development is going to be fascinating to watch. With Flu, the talented winger became the club's youngest player and goalscorer in the Libertadores before making the switch to England in pre-season. He was on the bench for the Boxing Day win over Leicester City, and with COVID-19 cases proving an issue across the Premier League, there's every chance we may see a bit more of Kayky in the near future.

Angelo Gabriel, 17, Brazilian – Santos

Every year it seems there's a new Brazilian teenager causing a stir and subsequently being linked with a big move to Europe – the latest is Angelo Gabriel. The newest 'new Neymar', Angelo is actually a left-footed right winger but the similarities in style of play are at least comparable in that he's a good dribbler, skilful and likes to cut inside off the flank. Angelo's made the jump up to the first team a little earlier than Neymar, though – he only turned 17 in December but already has 51 first-team appearances to his name. In April, he became the Copa Libertadores' youngest-ever scorer (16 years, 105 days old) and was also the only under-17 player to feature in the 2021 Brasileirao.

Alan Velasco, 19, Argentinian – Independiente

Showing quality in Argentina's domestic league isn't always a guarantee of future greatness, but doing well as a tricky youngster does speak to a certain degree of bravery and resilience given the brutal reputation of the top flight. Velasco is among the league's most-promising young players, a skilful, quick and dangerous left winger. His 62 chances created this season is the fifth most in the division, while no player can better his 198 dribbles completed. Could he be a wildcard choice for Argentina at the World Cup? Don't rule it out.

Rayan Cherki, 18, French – Lyon

It feels like 2022 could be a massive year for Cherki. The versatile attacker is still nowhere near being a regular at Lyon, despite many feeling Peter Bosz's appointment might prove a boost to the teenager – after all, he played an important role in developing Kai Havertz and Florian Wirtz. Yet, the raw ability is undoubtedly there for Cherki – whether he'll be able to harness that properly at Lyon remains to be seen, with suggestions growing that he might seek a move away in the next year.

FORWARDS

Yuri Alberto, 20, Brazilian – Internacional

Yuri Alberto looks likely to be 'one who got away' for Santos. He left for Internacional in 2020 after initially showing promise at Vila Belmiro and has been a shrewd acquisition, scoring 22 times in 56 Brasileirao appearances, the most of any player currently 24 or younger. His 12 in the 2021 season was only bettered by four players and he scored more hat-tricks than anyone else (three) during the calendar year – one of those being netted in the late-finishing 2020 campaign.

Mohamed-Ali Cho, 17, French – Angers

A dynamic, exciting forward who is most comfortable out wide at the moment, Cho may only be 17 but he already has 39 Ligue 1 appearances under his belt. Where France seem to have lost out to England with Green, Les Bleus look to be winning the battle for Cho, who spent five years at Everton until 2020. Now a France Under-21 international, Cho is the youngest player to have scored in Ligue 1 this season having netted against Rennes back in August when he was aged 17 years and 222 days.

Ricardo Pepi, 18, American – FC Dallas

Yes, another American. While Clark may not make it into the United States' World Cup squad, Pepi almost certainly will. A very well-rounded striker who is tall, agile and hard-working, Pepi has also – perhaps most importantly – proven an able finisher, with his 13 MLS goals in the 2021 season being the joint-most ever managed by a teenager in the competition. Similarly, he's also the youngest player to ever score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers for the USA. He has a long-term contract at Dallas, but no one would be surprised to see him leave for Europe in 2022, with Germany a likely destination. Expect him to fetch the largest ever fee for an American leaving MLS.

Matias Arezo, 19, Uruguayan – River Plate (URU)

Uruguay has produced some truly great strikers down the years. After more of a barren spell in that regard since Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez came through, there is once again a cause for optimism with Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and, arguably chief among them, Arezo. He scored 13 times in 35 Uruguayan Primera appearances last term – he surpassed that haul with 15 from six fewer appearances in 2021. For comparison's sake, Suarez got 10 in 27 in his first full season in the division with Nacional, while Cavani recorded nine in 25 appearances for Danubio before moving to Europe. A well-built striker, he's definitely one to watch ahead of the World Cup – assuming Uruguay get there.

Julian Alvarez, 21, Argentinian – River Plate

A sensational last couple of months in 2021 elevated Alvarez to a new level, one which has seen him mentioned regularly in transfer gossip columns – United are apparently especially keen. The striker, now an Argentina international, scored a total of 24 club goals across 2021, while also setting up a further 12 in the league, showing both his ability to finish chances and create them. A move abroad seems highly probable – where that takes him and how he does will be intriguing to watch, particularly ahead of the World Cup.

Brazil great Pele has been discharged from hospital but his treatment for a colon tumour is set to continue.

The three-time World Cup winner required an operation to remove the tumour in September and subsequently started chemotherapy as part of the rehabilitation process.

He was re-admitted to the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo on December 8, his condition at the time described as "stable".

The following day he moved to calm fears over his health as he wrote on Instagram that he was simply back in hospital for "the last [chemotherapy] session of 2021" and that he was taking the "chance to do a new battery of exams, so I'm going to stay here for a few days".

Pele insisted fans had no need to "worry" and the Santos legend confirmed on Thursday that he has been released in time for Christmas.

Writing on Instagram, he said: "The smiling photo is not for nothing.

"As I promised you, I will spend Christmas with my family. I'm coming back home. Thanks for all the kind messages."

According to Globo Esporte, a statement from the hospital read: "Edson Arantes do Nascimento was discharged from Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein this Thursday, December 23, 2021.

"The patient is stable and will continue treatment for the colon tumour, identified in September this year."

The former New York Cosmos striker is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, helping Brazil land the trophy in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Pele, 81, is also one of just four players to score in four different World Cups, while he remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for the Selecao.

Pele has moved to calm fears over his health as the Brazil great spoke positively about the colon tumour treatment he is undergoing in Sao Paulo.

In a message to his followers on Instagram, the 81-year-old showed a clenched fist and smiled from his hospital bed.

The three-time World Cup winner required an operation to remove a colon tumour in September and has since continued having chemotherapy as part of the rehabilitation process.

Hospital Albert Einstein confirmed on Wednesday that Pele had been hospitalised again, stating he was in a stable condition and on course to go home within days.

Pele confirmed that is his intention, as he wrote: "Friends, since September 30th, when I left the hospital, you know that I have been having small chemotherapy sessions as part of my treatment.

"Today I'm at Albert Einstein doing the last session of 2021. I wanted to share this achievement with you. After all, every little victory is a reason to celebrate, don't you think?

"I'm going to take this chance to do a new battery of exams, so I'm going to stay here for a few days. Don't worry, I'm just getting ready for the holiday season!"

Responding to Pele's message, Manchester United and Portugal striker Cristiano Ronaldo wrote: "Strength, friend."

Pele had prostate surgery in 2015 after being admitted to hospital twice in six months, and he was hospitalised again for a urinary infection in 2019.

The former Santos and New York Cosmos striker is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, helping Brazil land the trophy in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

The 81-year-old is also one of just four players to score in four different World Cups, while he remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for the Selecao.

Brazil legend Pele has been admitted to hospital to undergo treatment for a colon tumour, but is in a stable condition.

The three-time World Cup winner required an operation to remove a colon tumour in September and has since continued undergoing chemotherapy as part of the rehabilitation process.

Sao Paulo's Hospital Albert Einstein confirmed on Wednesday that Pele had been hospitalised again, adding he is in stable condition and should be discharged in the next few days.

"The patient is stable, and the forecast is that he will be released in the coming days," the statement said.

The legendary striker has suffered from ill health in recent years, having prostate surgery in 2015 after being admitted to hospital twice in six months, and he was hospitalised again for a urinary infection in 2019.

Pele is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, lifting the trophy in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

The 81-year-old is also one of just four players to score in four different World Cups, while he remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer - having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for the Selecao.

Brazil legend Pele said he is getting "closer to the goal" as he continues his recovery following surgery to remove a tumour in September.

The three-time World Cup winner required an operation to remove a colon tumour and has since continued undergoing chemotherapy as part of the rehabilitation process.

Pele, who turns 81 on October 23, has been in poor health but provided another update on Wednesday after his discharge from the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo last month.

"I suggest you start to catch your breath to celebrate with me, because with each passing day I get closer to the goal," the former Santos, New York Cosmos and Brazil star wrote on Twitter.

Pele is the only player to hold three World Cup winner's medals, lifting the trophy in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

The 80-year-old is also one of just four players to score in four different World Cups, while he remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer - having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for the Selecao.

Brazil great Pele said he was "punching the air" after recovering sufficiently to be discharged from hospital on Thursday. 

The three-time World Cup winner underwent surgery to remove a tumour from his colon and spent time in the intensive care unit at the Albert Einstein Hospital in Sao Paulo. 

Pele, who will turn 81 in October, was delighted to be returning home to continue his rehabilitation.

"When the path is difficult, celebrate each step of the journey. Focus on your happiness," Pele wrote in an Instagram post. 

"It's true that I can't jump anymore, but these past few days, I've been punching the air more times than usual. I am so happy to be back at home. 

"I want to thank the entire Albert Einstein Hospital team, who made my stay a pleasant one, with a humane and very affectionate welcome. 

"Thanks also to all of you, who from afar, make my life complete with so many messages of love." 

Pele remains Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, having found the back of the net 77 times in 92 appearances for his country.   

Pele's daughter has revealed the Brazil legend is "recovering well" amid reports he has been readmitted to intensive care. 

The 80-year-old, Brazil's all-time leading goalscorer, has been in Sao Paulo's Albert Einstein Hospital since undergoing surgery to remove a tumour from his colon. 

Pele revealed earlier in the week that he had left intensive care, stating in an Instagram post that he was ready to "play 90 minutes, plus extra time" as he continued his recovery. 

With Brazilian media on Friday reporting he had been readmitted, Kely Nascimento, Pele's daughter, took to social media to offer an encouraging update, along with a picture of her smiling father. 

She wrote: "He's recovering well and within the frame of normal. I promise!" 

Nascimento added: "After a surgery like that, sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back. Yesterday he was tired and stepped back. Today he gave two forwards!" 

The Brazil great is one of just four players to score in four different World Cups and managed 77 goals in 92 appearances for his country before retiring from international duty in 1971. 

Pele remains in hospital but is recovering well after having surgery to remove a tumour from his large intestine.

The Brazil legend, who is one of just four players to score in four different World Cups, has been in Sao Paulo's Albert Einstein Hospital since August 31 undergoing routine tests to combat the colon tumour.

Brazil's all-time leading goal scorer released another update on Instagram about his health, following on from his post on Monday that explained he had undertaken surgery.

"My friends, with each passing day I feel a little better," Pele posted on Friday.

"I'm looking forward to playing again, but I'm still going to recover for a few more days.

"While I'm here, I take the opportunity to talk a lot with my family and to rest. Thanks again for all the loving messages. We'll be together again soon!"

Earlier in the week, Argentina captain Lionel Messi overtook Pele as South America's leading goalscorer in men's international football with a hat-trick in Thursday's World Cup qualifier against Bolivia.

Pele has revealed he last week underwent successful surgery to remove a tumour in his large intestine.

The Brazil legend, who won three World Cups, had previously taken to Instagram to deny claims he had fainted, posting he was "in very good health" after "routine exams".

However, Pele reportedly remained in hospital and on Monday explained why he had required medical attention.

"Last Saturday I underwent surgery to remove a suspicious lesion in the right colon," the 80-year-old wrote on his social media page.

"The tumour was identified during the tests I mentioned last week. Fortunately, I'm used to celebrating great victories alongside you.

"I will face this match with a smile on my face, a lot of optimism and joy for living surrounded by the love of my family and friends."

Manchester City still hope to sign Tottenham and England striker Harry Kane in the coming days.

The Premier League champions appear likely to add his international team-mate first, with Jack Grealish reportedly close to a move to the Etihad Stadium.

Aston Villa have tabled a contract to keep their star man, but City are prepared to spend big to win his signature.

 

TOP STORY - CITY CLOSE ON GREALISH DEAL

Manchester City are set to complete a £100million move for Jack Grealish in the next few days, according to multiple reports

The Mail says the 25-year-old England international will earn more than £200,000 a week upon joining Pep Guardiola's side. 

Though City are expected to cut ties with some veteran players, adding Grealish will have no impact on their longstanding pursuit of Harry Kane, the Sun reports.

 

ROUND-UP

- Saul Niguez is weighing up a move to the Premier League, with the Mirror reporting Manchester United and Liverpool are possibilities for the Atletico Madrid midfielder in a £35-£40m deal. 

- Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are possibilities for Bernardo Silva if he leaves City in the coming weeks, reports the Mail. 

- Atalanta centre-back Cristian Romero wants to join Tottenham but the clubs are having difficulty reaching an agreement, reports Fabrizio Romano. 

- Brazilian striker Kaio Jorge is set for a €3m (£2.5m) permanent move to Juventus from Santos and is expected to sign through to 2026, reports Romano. 

- Arsenal and Everton have shown interest in Schalke's Matthew Hoppe after the USA international's strong Gold Cup performance, reports US journalist Grant Wahl.

- Talks between Wolves and Adama Traore have broken down and Leeds could swoop for the winger, reports Goal. 

- Brighton are interested in Benfica striker and Urugay international Darwin Nunez, reports the Mail. 

Gareth Bale's future is uncertain as his loan spell at Tottenham from Real Madrid draws to an end.

Bale has said he intends to return to Madrid for the final year of his contract.

Spurs' interest in keeping the Wales star beyond this season is not clear as they are in the market for a new head coach after Jose Mourinho's dismissal.

 

TOP STORY – NEW SPURS BOSS TO DECIDE ON BALE

The Daily Mail reports that Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy will let the club's new head coach decide whether or not to re-sign Bale.

The option remains for a second loan deal for the Welshman to re-join Spurs from Madrid next season.

Spurs have first option on a second loan but they would require Bale's agreement, although he appears out of favour in Madrid.

Triggering the clause will cost Tottenham £12million.

 

ROUND-UP

- Borussia Dortmund's asking price for Jadon Sancho is down to £87m (€100m) according to ESPN, which may interest Manchester United and Liverpool. Dortmund previously demanded more than £100m (€115m) for the England midfielder.

- Arsenal are interested in signing Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara, with a five-year deal on the table, according to Football Insider.

- The Athletic claims Brentford striker Ivan Toney is drawing interest from Leicester City and Everton as well as a "host of clubs" preparing bids for his services.

- Newcastle United are considering a move for Vitesse defender Danilho Doekhi, reports De Telegraaf.

- Bayer Leverkusen are in the mix to sign Santos' teenage forward Kaio Jorge, claims Kicker.

Breno Lopes scored a 99th-minute winner as Palmeiras clinched the Copa Libertadores final in dramatic finale with a 1-0 victory over Santos at the Maracana on Saturday.

After a touchline fracas that saw Santos boss Cuca sent off, Breno – who replaced Gabriel Menino in the 85th minute – rose highest at the back post to nod a sensational right-wing delivery from Rony back across goal and into the far corner.

It was Rony's 13th goal involvement (five scored, eight assisted) in this season's Libertadores and it settled what had been a drab game of few chances in front of a small crowd.

Palmeiras were consequently crowned Libertadores champions for the second time in their history, with Abel Ferreira becoming just the third European coach to lead a team to glory in the competition.

Despite a fiery start there was minimal tempo in the play of both sides, with the temperature in Rio de Janeiro over 30 degrees Celsius at kick-off.

Raphael Veiga dragged the best opening wide before half-time and 14 minutes after the restart Lucas Verissimo nodded a free-kick from Marinho narrowly off target.

Veiga thundered a free-kick just over after the hour mark and Felipe Jonatan flashed a half-volley wide before Cuca was shown a red card in stoppage time for trying to stop Marcos Rocha taking a quick throw-in.

Santos were seemingly distracted by the incident and Palmeiras punished them, with Breno getting above Para – a champion with Santos in 2011 – to head home the decisive goal without the need for extra time.

There was huge adversity in the early stages of Yeferson Soteldo's career.

He grew up in the underprivileged neighbourhood of El Muertico in the city of Acarigua, where he claims an early grave was the likely alternative to a career in professional football, and although he gained a spot in the academy of Caracas – Venezuela's most successful club – he was thrown out aged 14 for "indiscipline".

Furthermore, there were huge question marks over his physical capability to make it as a pro – now 23, he only stands at five feet and two inches tall.

But Venezuela's most-decorated coach Noel Sanvicente gave him a second chance at Zamora and put him on the path to Saturday's Copa Libertadores final between Santos and Palmeiras at the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.  

In Messi's footsteps

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi is an obvious inspiration for a number of players, but Soteldo felt a stronger connection than most to the Barcelona superstar as he worked his way through spells with Zamora, Huachipato and Universidad de Chile before ending up at Santos in 2019.

"Everyone was talking about my height, that I was not going to be able to play football because of my size, because I was very small. Now I'm here, I got over it," Soteldo told the official Libertadores website.

"That's for the young ones who are little too. They can see Soteldo and say, 'I can too.' I did that with Messi. I saw he was small, that he made it and I can too."

Since his arrival in the Campeonato Brasileiro, it is not just his short stature and bleached blond hair that have made him stand out on the pitch.

Soteldo has established himself as one of the league's most potent wingers, his low centre of gravity, incredible pace and quick feet making him a serious threat when in possession out wide.

It is no surprise he has attempted more dribbles (308) than anyone else since the start of the 2019 Brasileiro, but it is what he does in those moments that makes him dangerous.

Soteldo averages a carry with a shot every other game (0.6) in Brazil's top flight and creates a chance following a carry at least once per 90 minutes (1.1) – a league-leading amount among players to have featured for at least 1,800 minutes over the past two seasons.

That ability has seen him directly set up five goals and score three following a carry, accounting for over one third of his 22 goal involvements (13 scored, nine assisted) in the competition.

It is tough for defenders to stop him and he is unrelenting. Per 90 minutes, he averages 5.3 carries of at least 10 metres and 3.8 carries with a take on – the latter being the most among active players in the division.

Stepping up

He has managed to translate that form to the Libertadores this season, with only Carlos Tevez (30) and Nicolas de la Cruz (31) supplying more key passes than Soteldo (28) in the competition.

However, Soteldo has played one game fewer and averages three chances created per game, so would be expected to move level with De la Cruz after the final.

Carries have again formed a key part of the Venezuelan's output, with 11 of his key passes coming after a carry – three more than any other player – though only one has resulted in an assist.

This does not mean Soteldo is consistently involved, though. In this season's Libertadores he has 22 direct chance involvements, where his only contribution in those open play sequences was to create the chance. No player in the competition has more direct chance involvements and it shows the 23-year-old is always capable of popping up with a killer ball.

The next step

Life at the Vila Belmiro has not been a walk in the park for Soteldo.

Santos accepted a transfer bid from Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal last October but Soteldo opted against the move because of his desire to play in Europe.

The Brazilian side were only keen to sell to avoid a punishment from FIFA over fees owed to Huachipato following his arrival at the club, with a financial crisis making his future look increasingly uncertain.

In South America's biggest club game, at one of the continent's most famous stadiums, Soteldo can have a huge say in what happens next for him.

His journey to this point proves he will not let anything stand in his way.   

Weverton and Gabriel Menino will be key to Palmeiras' hopes of defeating Santos in the Copa Libertadores final on Saturday, according to Zinho.

The former Brazil international, a World Cup winner in 1994, was part of the first and only Palmeiras side to lift the Libertadores in 1999.

Marcos made a crucial save in a penalty shoot-out as the Sao Paulo giants overcame Deportivo Cali on that occasion and Zinho believes their goalkeeper may prove key this year too.

"Their strength, for me, is the whole. But if you ask me to choose one, I would choose the goalkeeper, who for me is the best goalkeeper playing in Brazil, which is Weverton," Zinho told Stats Perform News.

In the Libertadores and Campeonato Brasileiro this season, Weverton has conceded 24 times from an expected goals on target (xGOT) value of 33.9, meaning he has prevented 9.9 goals.

Only Luan Polli (6.8) of Sport Recife and Athletico Paranaense's Santos (7.2) outperform his 5.3 goals prevented in the Brasileirao, while Sergio Rochet of Nacional (5.2) is the solitary keeper with a better figure than Weverton's 4.6 in the Libertadores.

The young star

Palmeiras are also blessed with young talent and Menino is undoubtedly part of their most promising players.

Having been converted from a midfielder to a right-back, it has been suggested Menino could be the long-term successor to Dani Alves for the Brazil national team.

The 20-year-old has already been called up twice by Tite but was robbed of a potential debut in November after contracting coronavirus.

"Gabriel Menino [can be important] because of his versatility. He plays on both sides, he plays in the middle. During the match, he also can play as a striker. He is very versatile and he is very important for the team," said Zinho.

Regardless of where he plays, Menino makes his impact felt for Palmeiras.

In the league this season he leads the team in assists (five), and his 34 chances created are only surpassed by Lucas Lima (40).

It doesn't stop there; Menino has the most successful passes in the opposition half (440), has won the joint-most fouls (48), completed the second-most dribbles (30) and won the second-most duels (139).

 

A potent attack

Menino has also scored three goals and supplied one assist in the Libertadores this season, but the competition has very much been Rony's domain.

"I will say these two guys [Weverton and Menino] are key players and they must be in the game. But, of course, Rony is one of the top scorers, one of the leaders in assists in this competition," said Zinho.

"Luiz Adriano is a great, experienced, very good player. So in the offensive part, that looks for the goal, there are Rony and Luiz Adriano with more evidence. So I stay with those players."

Rony has more goal involvements than any other player in the Libertadores this season (12 – seven assists, five goals) and two of his assists have been for former Milan striker Luiz Adriano, who has found the back of the net five times in his six appearances in this edition of the Libertadores.

A place in the Club World Cup is on the line and a potential meeting with Hansi Flick's all-conquering Bayern Munich in Qatar awaits.

"If Bayern go with their maximum strength and face the game seriously, man… in football anything can happen," said Zinho.

"In football you cannot say 'it's guaranteed', but the difference between them is so big, it's huge. Bayern is infinitely better. If Bayern go focused and with desire, looking for the title, probably all the favouritism is for Bayern. But this is football, and it's why it's so lovely."

Bayern Munich will face either Al-Duhail or Al Ahly in their Club World Cup semi-final on February 8.

The competition's draw took place on Tuesday in Zurich and confirmed European champions Bayern will tackle hosts Al-Duhail or CAF Champions League holders Al Ahly.

Al-Duhail secured their qualification as hosts by winning the Qatar Stars League in 2019-20, with no Qatari side managing to win the AFC Champions League.

Egyptian giants Al Ahly won African club football's biggest prize in November and qualified for the Club World Cup for the sixth time, having last appeared in 2013, which was also Bayern's only previous appearance.

Al-Duhail received a walkover into the second round after Auckland City, who had been nominated as Oceania's representative, pulled out due to coronavirus quarantine measures implemented by authorities in their native New Zealand.

The other second-round clash drawn on Tuesday will see AFC Champions League winners Ulsan Hyundai face CONCACAF champions Tigres of Mexico, who are making their first appearance.

Tigres or Ulsan will go forward from that tie to play the Copa Libertadores champions – Santos and Palmeiras are due to face off in an all-Brazilian final of that competition on January 30.

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