1 Christian Eriksen, Denmark (20)
The playmaker made 20 assists in helping Ajax win the Dutch league this season and impressed during the Europa League run too. Now 20, Eriksen made a brief appearance as the 2010 World Cup’s youngest player and, though he has been compared to Mario Gotze and Juan Mata for his slim frame, actually plays more like Denmark’s most famous son, Michael Laudrup. “He’s a player I really like,” said Johan Cruyff. “He is a typical product of the Danish school. You can compare him to the Laudrup brothers, but only time will tell if Eriksen can reach the same level.”
2 Toni Kroos, Germany (20)
Kroos first caught the eye at the Under-17 World Cup in 2007 and since then, the 20-year-old has developed into one of Germany’s top attacking midfielders. This has been his break-out season at Bayern Munich, whose coach Jupp Heynckes had him on loan for 18 months at Bayer Leverkusen. As comfortable playing as a deep-lying playmaker or a traditional No 10, Kroos’s Bayern partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger could be reprised for Germany with devastating effect.
3 Yann M’Vila, France (21)
The defensive midfielder (right) was the only player to start new France boss Laurent Blanc’s first 10 games, after previous boss Raymond Domenech said he was number 24 on his 23-man list for the last World Cup (a narrow escape). Brilliant at breaking up play and keeping possession, M’Vila says his role models are Claude Makelele and his former Rennes team-mate Stephane M’Bia. He is expected to move to Arsenal for e22m after the Euros, and is now confident of his place for Les Bleus. “I’m no longer scared and not thinking, ‘Be careful, if you mess up, you’ll lose your spot’.”
4 Yevhen Konoplyanka, Ukraine (22)
The Dnipro winger made his Ukraine debut less than two years ago but has already become a key part of the team’s attacking play. The 22-year-old, who was part of the Under-21 squad at last summer’s European Championships, ran from inside his own half to score in the 3-3 draw against Germany, and he is as comfortable playing on the wing as in a central playmaking role. “My team-mates say that I am quick, which is very important on the wing,” he said. “But I feel comfortable in both positions.” His Dnipro boss, Juande Ramos, has valued him at e50m.
5 Fabio Borini, Italy (21)
A former Chelsea youth product, whose year on loan with Swansea ended in promotion to the Premier League, Borini (inset, right) has forced himself into the plans of Italy boss Cesare Prandelli thanks to an impressive debut season at Roma.
Borini is one of the few Italy forwards in form and, having just won his first cap in February, represents the future of the Azzurri strike-force.
“Players like Borini have quality and a future, so it’s a logical continuity to go with them,” said Prandelli. From Swansea City to Euro 2012 in a year, it’s pretty good going for the ex-Under-21 forward.
6 Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Greece (20)
The centre-back was a Champions League semi-finalist with Schalke in 2011 and first came to prominence in UEFA’s Team of the Tournament after the U19 Euros in 2007. A defensive midfielder for Olympiakos before moving to Germany, and as captain of Greece U21s, he was one of the first players to make his debut under new boss Fernando Santos. He scored twice in qualifying and is a certain starter.
7 Jordi Alba, Spain (23)
A recent call-up, Valencia’s Alba quickly proved his comfort at international level with two assists on his debut last October against Scotland. There is a vacancy at left-back; recently Alvaro Arbeloa has replaced World Cup winner Joan Capdevila there, but with Sergio Ramos likely to move from right-back to the centre, to replace Carles Puyol, Alba could get his chance. He is expected to sign for Barcelona over the summer.
8 Nelson Oliveira, Portugal (20)
The Benfica striker (below) is mobile, strong and skilful, and happy to make runs towards the flanks, where he began his career as a winger. His career highlight was at last year’s U20 World Cup, where his four goals helped Portugal reach the final. Perhaps the greatest marker for his future is that his agent is Jorge Mendes, who also represents Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho. Benfica have inserted a e30m buy-out clause in his contract.