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Prospects shine at Club World Cup
While Neymar has been hogging the headlines at the Club World Cup with his frightening talent and bleached hair, several other young prospects have quietly burnished their own reputations.
The 19-year-old Brazilian hit a wonderful strike to put his Santos side 1-0 up against Kashiwa Reysol on Wednesday, but it was a defender from the Japanese champions who drew the most attention at the post-match press conference.
Hiroki Sakai, 21, the J-League Young Player of the Year, scored his team's only goal in the 3-1 defeat -- a powerful header from a corner -- and was a constant menace going forward, while defending bravely to keep Kashiwa in it.
The attacking right full-back, who has drawn comparisons with Barcelona's rampaging defender Dani Alves, is widely reported to be interesting Santos -- and that was before his highly impressive showing against them in Toyota.
Santos coach Muricy Ramalho refused to say whether the South American champions would go in for the youngster, but he showed enough knowledge of the under-22 international to suggest he had been closely watching his progress.
"He's a young player and just a rookie," Ramalho said. "It was only his first year in the J-League. You need to be patient with him and he will develop further in the future", was all he would say on the player.
Sakai, like fellow Kashiwa prospect Akimi Barada, the 20-year-old midfielder, is a product of the J-League champions' youth system.
It was in the same Kashiwa-Santos tie that another young defender also announced his arrival on the world scene.
With the Japanese side scenting an equaliser, Danilo dinked a free-kick beyond the Kashiwa wall and into the goal, leaving keeper Takanori Sugeno dumbfounded and handing Santos a decisive 3-1 lead.
Along with Sakai, the 20-year-old Danilo, who can play in defence or midfield, was arguably the man-of-the-match as Santos set up a final showdown with Barcelona.
That the Brazilian international was even taking a direct free-kick for a side boasting Neymar, Ganso and Elano in its ranks says it all about his standing in the team and deadly quality from set-pieces.
But it was his all-round play that has impressed Ramalho in the youngster's first full season at Santos and convinced Porto to shelve out about 13 million euros ($16.9 million) for his signature.
He will link up with the Portuguese side after the Club World Cup.
Danilo was also a key member of the Brazil team that won the Under-20 World Cup in August in Colombia and was labelled by Ramalho "a lad who you can rely on".
Another young player who has impressed in Japan is the Tunisian Youssef Msakni, who was one of few Esperance players to emerge from the intercontinental tournament with their reputation enhanced.
The talented winger or attacking midfielder did not score as Esperance went down 2-1 to Al Sadd and then 3-2 to Monterrey of Mexico, but was central to everything that was good about the Tunisians.
The 21-year-old, who rose through the ranks of the international youth set-up and is now a full Tunisian international, tormented the Qatar team, especially in the first period, his runs causing all sorts of problems.
"Hes a player who has the skill to really tip the balance of a game. It was mainly due to him that they caused us problems early on," Al Sadd coach Jorge Fossati told FIFA.com.
Msakni models his game on Lionel Messi, but while he will have to go some way to reach the Argentine's sublime level, he impressed team-mates and opponents in Japan.
"Hes out of this world," gushed Esperance forward Yannick Ndjeng, the Cameroon international. "Truth be told, hes got the potential to become the kind of star Tunisia has never seen before."
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