Where are they now? Marca’s ‘best European Under-18 XI’ from 2016

Monaco's Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring during the Champions League match against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. February 2017. Credit: Alamy
Monaco's Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring during the Champions League match against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. February 2017. Credit: Alamy

In February 2016, Spanish sports newspaper Marca published an XI of what they considered the best footballers in Europe aged 18 or under at the time. Here, we take a look at how those players’ careers are progressing.

It’s often hard to judge how good a teenage player will be, whether undoubted talent will amount to a glistening career in the game.

We’ve heard countless stories in years gone by of youngsters destined for greatness who never reached the levels many thought they were capable of – Ravel Morrison being just one example in an endless catalogue of names.

But five years on – despite the threat of early promise fizzling out – most of the inclusions in Marca’s subjectively selected team have gone on to shine in various top European leagues and on the international stage. There’s one French forward in particular who hasn’t done too badly.

We’ve decided to revisit the players Marca earmarked as exceptional and see what they’re up to now.

GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma

It’s difficult to believe Donnarumma is only 23; it feels like he’s been playing for decades.

As the star of Italy’s dramatic penalty shootout victory in the Euro final last summer, most would agree that Donnarumma is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe – he was named player of the tournament.

He made his first-team debut for AC Milan in October 2015, when he was 16. The custodian’s rapid rise came as little surprise after the Rossoneri battled hard to secure his signature from youth side ASD Napoli.

“The first club interested was Inter,” Ciro Amore, his former head of football at ASD Napoli said.

“Their youth team manager came here to the office, to discuss it with his father. We even went to Milan to sign a pre-contract agreement with them.”

Inter no doubt rue the fact he slipped through their grasp and later joined city rivals. Donnarumma quickly came to be regarded as the heir to Gianluigi Buffon’s Italian throne, becoming a mainstay in Milan’s side during his teenage years.

After an acrimonious exit from San Siro, he joined PSG last summer on a free transfer – one of the raft superstars the French side have recruited in their (not particularly successful) quest for Champions League glory.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

READ: A brilliant Xl of Gigi Buffon’s team-mates who were born after his debut

RB: Cristian Manea

The Romanian right-back was reportedly Chelsea-bound for £2.3million in 2015 as a 17-year-old. You could understand why the London club would have been interested in a youngster who had already been capped by his national team.

Bizarrely, Chelsea never announced the signing of Manea. The player’s official Facebook page listed him as a Blues player, but he was never registered at Stamford Bridge. It begs the question, did Manea even know who he played for?

Seven years on from an unusual transfer saga, the defender now plays in his homeland for CFR Cluj.

CB: Reece Oxford

Oxford pocketed Mesut Ozil on his Premier League debut for West Ham in 2015 as a 16-year-old – not a bad introduction for an Englishman who was considered one of the best young talents the Hammers had ever seen.

After being rewarded with a four-year contract at 18, the start of Oxford’s Irons demise began when he failed to make the grade on loan at Reading.

“We have a lot of young players in the squad. They need to improve and it’s not my style to improve the players by letting them do their own thing,” former Reading manager Jaap Stam said.

Following further loan spells in Germany, Oxford was snapped up permanently by Augsburg in 2019 – a club where he remains.

The 23-year-old has started to reignite his career abroad. However, returning to the level he showed when he gave Ozil the run around at the Emirates still feels a long way off.

CB: Joe Gomez

Gomez was a product of Charlton Athletic’s youth academy. He made 21 appearances for the club in the 2014-15 season and his impressive performances earned a move to Liverpool.

Going on to feature for England and win silverware under Jurgen Klopp at club level, Gomez has displayed his class as a centre-back on the biggest stages. Torrid luck with injuries has seen him fall out of international contention for England, but he’s featuring more regularly for Liverpool these days.

LB: Kieran Tierney

Coming through the Celtic youth system to make his debut in April 2015, Tierney went on to become a Scotland international and key player for the Glasgow side in double-quick time.

It was a case of when and not if Tierney would be prized away from his boyhood club, and soon enough, Mikel Arteta took the full-back to Arsenal in 2019.

Tierney’s had his moments at the Emirates but issues with form and fitness have seen him struggle to sustain a solid run. He’s now back-up to Oleksandr Zinchenko, deputising in the cup competitions.

DM: Youri Tielemans

Tielemans became the third-youngest player in Champions League history when he started for Anderlecht against Olympiakos in 2013. After four years in his homeland running the show at first-team level, the Belgium international joined Monaco.

“It’s extraordinary we have been able to enjoy four seasons of such a talent. Tielemans is on all lists of most promising young players in Europe.” Anderlecht’s sporting director Herman Van Holsbeeck admitted after the youngster left for France.

Leaving Monaco in 2019, a loan spell at Leicester was turned into a permanent deal by the Foxes after Tielemans hit the ground running in the Premier League.

The Belgian is now into the full year of his deal at the King Power after a much-mooted move to Arsenal never materialised in the summer.

CM: Ruben Neves

Neves became Porto’s youngest goalscorer and the youngest player to captain a side in the Champions League when he did so against Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2015. The Portugal international was the subject of interest – and still is – from top clubs in Europe.

At 20, Wolves used their close relationship with the player’s agent Jorge Mendes to complete the shock signing of the midfielder. He helped the club reach the Premier League and remains one of their finest assets.

How long he stays at Molineux remains to be seen. We can expect a few clubs to be queuing up to take him next summer.

CM: Renato Sanches

Sanches rocketed through Benfica’s youth ranks to become a first-team starter at just 18, and he featured in Portugal’s 2016 Euro-winning team. His incredible early career saw Bayern Munich sign him for €35million.

But his time in Germany didn’t go to plan, and his loan spell at Swansea City was undoubtedly the lowest point in a so far up and down career as he failed to impress under Paul Clement.

“[Renato] thought he was going to Man United, Chelsea or PSG,” Clement said.

“When he came [to Swansea], he was far more damaged than I thought. He was a boy who had almost got the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

Thankfully, Sanches now has his career back on track and he’s now at PSG after a renaissance at Lille.

RW: Martin Odegaard

Odegaard arrived at Real Madrid as a wonderkid in 2015 – he made his debut for Norway when he was just 15. The prospect of playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale was a “dream come true,” but the midfielder didn’t make the impact many anticipated at the Bernabeu.

Despite impressing in loan spells with Real Sociedad, his career looked to be stalling at Madrid before Arteta took him to Arsenal in January 2021 – a move which was made permanent last summer.

Odegaard is one of the Spaniard’s most trusted lieutenants and is one of the key pillars of their title charge this season.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

READ: With one divine dummy, Odegaard proved he’s Arsenal’s future captain

ST: Dominic Solanke

Solanke fired in goals for fun at youth level for Chelsea. He was the star in several FA Youth Cup triumphs, but like so many before and after him he never broke into the Blues’ first team.

Jurgen Klopp recognised the striker’s potential and took Solanke to Anfield in 2017.

Yet it didn’t work out for the youngster on Merseyside. Dislodging a front three of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane wasn’t possible; a challenge any forward in world football would have found arduous at that time.

Solanke since fired Bournemouth back to the Premier League with a sensational 29 Championship goals last term, and is now proving he can be a handy player in the top flight after all.

LW: Kylian Mbappe

Not much needs to be said about this generational French international. From the moment he made his first-team bow for Monaco in 2015, it was clear Mbappe was exceptional and he’s gone on to be recognised as one of the best players on the planet.

Starring for PSG and France – a World Cup win already under his belt – the 23-year-old is still a few years away from his peak. Frightening. A Ballon d’Or is only a matter of time.

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