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World Cup Breakout Stars - Part Two: Brandt, Balde Diao, Dolberg & Golovin

Sometimes the group stages of a World Cup can be a tad underwhelming, the matches ending in 1-0 wins or 1-1 draws as cagey nations do everything they can to avoid defeat. That's why one of the most rewarding things to look out for during the first two weeks of the tournament is the emerging young stars.

The World Cup is a rare opportunity for young footballers to impress on an international stage, drawing the attention of Europe's most prestigious clubs and earning a big-money move. In part two of this series, we look at four more prospects who could make a name for themselves in Russia.

Julian Brandt

22-year-old Julian Brandt has just completed his third season as a first-team regular at Bayer Leverkusen, and 201718 was his best yet. Since making his Bundesliga debut in 2013 the German, who has won 16 caps and beat Leroy Sane to a place in Joachim Low's squad, has played 132 games for his hometown club.

What to look for

Brandt is a very versatile footballer known for his vision, quickness of thought, and excellent dribbling skills. He came through the Leverkusen youth system as a winger (a position he will occupy for Germany this summer) but has since flourished as a number ten, grabbing nine goals and three assists last season. Brandt is undoubtedly one of the most talented young footballers in Europe.

When he could shine

He is unlikely to be a starter this summer, although Brandt regularly makes appearances from the bench. Germany's final group game against South Korea is likely to be a low-key affair, with the Germans already safely qualified on six points; this is the match in which Brandt should get a full 90 minutes.

Which club should buy him?

There aren't many clubs in the world who wouldn't want Brandt, but he isn't likely to move anywhere this summer after signing a contract extension in April. Long-term, Liverpool will probably make a move, while Real Madrid are known admirers.

Keita Balde Diao

AS Monaco's 23-year-old winger has attracted plenty of attention around Europe this season following some electric performances from the flanks, prompting excitement that he will form a formidable counter-attacking partnership with Sadio Mane for Senegal. However, Keita – signed for £26 million from Lazio last summer – has struggled with a series of hamstring problems in 2018. He should be back in time, just about.

What to look for

Keita is a quick, skilful winger who is most comfortable when given the space to take on his man and charge towards goal. Capable of playing on either wing or up front, he has quickly drawn comparisons with former Monaco star Kylian Mbappe. Keita's game is primarily about power; he uses his strength to storm towards goal, and tends to put his foot through the ball when shooting.

When he could shine

Hamstring injuries have forced Senegal to use Keita sparingly in the warm-up matches, and so he probably won't start against Poland. Their second game, against Japan on June 24, offers a great chance for Keita to light up the World Cup.

Which club should buy him?

Despite having only signed for Monaco one year ago it is possible that Keita could leave this summer. The club continue to be stripped of their best players, and with Thomas Lemar set to join Atletico MadridLiverpool might look at Keita. Tottenham Hotspur are also rumoured to be interested.

Kasper Dolberg

One of the most exciting young players to come through the Ajax academy in years, 20-year-old centre-forward Kasper Dolberg is knocking on the door for a starting spot in the Denmark side this summer. Having missed three months of the 2017/18 season with a foot injury Dolberg's progress has stalled of late, but make no mistake the number nine is heading to the top.

What to look for

A tall, slender striker with a graceful first touch and a knack for surging forward runs, Dolberg frequently draws comparisons with Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp, the latter being his coach and mentor at Ajax. Expect some silky touches and maybe a goal or two, despite the high-pressured environment; Dolberg scored six goals in ten starts during Ajax's run to the Europa League final in 2016/17, including a delicate chip in the semi-final against Lyon.

When he could shine

Fitness is a serious concern for the 20-year-old, who has only started once for club or country since suffering an injury in December. Consequently he will only play 20 minutes of Denmark's first game against Peru, leaving Australia on June 21 as the best chance for Dolberg to make an impression.

Which club should buy him?

Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur… pretty much everyone wants to get their hands on the Ajax prodigy. Spurs would be the best place for his development, and indeed if one of the super clubs come calling Dolberg should turn it down. He won't get much game time at that level just yet.

Aleksandr Golovin

With the hosts in chaos at the moment and coach Stansilav Cherchesov stuck with arguably the worst squad in the nation's history, Russia will piling the pressure onto 22-year-old playmaker Aleksandr Golovin. The CSKA Moscow star played 32 times in the 2017/18 season, including five appearances in the Europa League. Arsenal fans will remember the goal he scored against them in CSKA's 4-1 defeat at the Emirates.

What to look for

Golovin is a central attacking midfielder inspired by Mesut Ozil, although his role will be significantly more disciplined this summer when Russia play defensive football. An excellent first touch and passing range are underpinned by Golovin's surprising agility, making him much closer in style to Eden Hazard than the Arsenal number ten.

When he could shine

He will almost certainly start every game for Russia, although such a creative footballer won't get many chances to impress playing for one of the least skilled teams in the competition. Consequently it is the opening game –against Saudi Arabia – in which Golovin can turn on the style.

Which club should buy him?

It is definitely time for Golovin to move on and he won't be short of suitors no matter what happens this month. Chelsea, Juventus, and Arsenal have all been strongly linked with the Russian in the last few days, meaning an intense transfer battle is likely to continue long into the summer.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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