8 Young Stars Set To Shine at #ACL2020
Kuala Lumpur: With the group stage of the 2020 AFC Champions League kicking off on Monday, the-AFC.com has selected eight young stars to look out for in the coming weeks and months.
From Continental champions to scorers of great goals and title-winning starlets – all of whom are 21 or under – there’s plenty to get excited about with the talent that will be on display during Asia’s biggest club competition.
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Saudi Arabian teenager Feras Albrikan grabbed the limelight at the recent AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 when his cheeky strike against Syria was voted goal of the tournament by the fans.
The 19-year-old striker helped the Green Falcons reach the final of that tournament and, in turn, qualify for the Tokyo Olympics this summer, while he has already debuted – and scored – for the senior side.
Learning from the likes of Abderrazak Hamdallah at Al Nassr, the Riyadh club is the perfect environment for him to continue his impressive development as he gets set to embark on his second AFC Champions League campaign,
Albrikan may not be a regular starter for the Saudi champions yet, but he often comes off the bench and will be one opposition defences will need to be wary of ahead of what has begun as an excellent year.
Another star of the recent AFC U23 Championship, full-back Kim Jin-ya helped Korea Republic win six games from six to claim the title for the first time after edging past Saudi Arabia in the final.
Like Albrikan, Kim will also be hoping to be selected for his nation's Olympic Games squad, but before turning his attention to that, the Incheon-native has the small matter of a debut AFC Champions League campaign to concern himself with.
After helping home town club Incheon United survive relegation at the end of last year, the 21-year-old was snapped up by K League giants FC Seoul ahead of their return to the competition for the first time since 2017.
With an array of young and experienced talent around him, Kim's next task will be to show what he can do on the continent as the 2013 runners-up aim to return to the days when they were among the most feared teams in Asia.
Mehdi Ghayedi has been in superb form for Esteghlal this season and the diminutive forward is his club's top scorer as they aim to close the gap on Iranian Pro League leaders and city rivals Persepolis.
Having returned from representing his country at the AFC U23 Championship, Ghayedi netted twice in Doha as Esteghlal eased past Al Rayyan to qualify for the AFC Champions League once more.
Top Scorer in IR Iran? ✅— #ACL2020 (@TheAFCCL) February 5, 2020
Already on target in Asia? ✅
South American comparison? ✅
Breakout star at #ACL2020? 🤔
📢 Introducing Esteghlal's 21-year-old forward the 'Iranian Neymar' Mehdi Ghayedi... pic.twitter.com/qYJrWe6R21
Game time was limited for Ghayedi in the 2018-19 campaign but his rise to prominence in recent months has really caught the eye as the 21-year-old has formed a lethal partnership with Malian international Cheick Diabate.
At just 5'5", Ghayedi will be among the smallest players on display in the 2020 AFC Champions League, but should his form continue then he may also be among the biggest stars of the group stage.
Twenty-year-old midfielder Ekanit Panya enjoyed a breakout second half of 2019, returning from a loan spell with northern neighbours Chiangmai FC to play a key role in Chiangrai United's first-ever Thai League 1 title.
Ekanit scored in Chiangrai's final two league games as the Beetles won the title by virtue of a better head-to-head record than perennial champions Buriram United to qualify for their first AFC Champions League group stage.
The attacking midfielder also netted the winner as Thailand defeated the United Arab Emirates 2-1 at Rajamangala Stadium in the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 in October, just a month after making his debut.
Scoring goals is not the only string to his bow, though, as Ekanit finished as Chiangrai's leading creator in their 2019 campaign, and he will be hoping 2020 can be equally fruitful as he gets set to debut in the AFC Champions League.
Shabab Al Ahli
Box-to-box midfielder Azizjon Ganiev is the latest Uzbek to try his luck in the Gulf after recently joining Dubai side Shabab Al Ahli and the 21-year-old arrives in the UAE with bags of potential.
Ganiev first showed his class at the 2018 AFC U23 Championship when he struck a stunning extra-time goal in the semi-finals as the Central Asians eliminated Korea Republic en route to the title.
🐺 This Ganiev goal was among @UzbekistanFA best from a memorable China 2018...— AFC (@theafcdotcom) December 19, 2019
🇺🇿 Where does it rank among the all-time best from #AFCU23, though?
🗳 VOTE 👉 https://t.co/BhPOpsAbee pic.twitter.com/adijQE0Son
Back with club side Nasaf, he scored the winner as the Uzbeks defeated Al Sadd in Qarshi in the 2018 AFC Champions League before he got to test himself against the best in the business by lining up opposite Xavi in the return meeting in Doha.
Set to play his club football outside Uzbekistan for the first time, Ganiev is an exciting addition to the UAE Pro League and could be key on Shabab Al Ahli's return to the Continental competition.
Highly rated defender Zhu Chenjie, 19, was named the 2019 Chinese Super League Young Player of the Season and selected for the Team of the Year despite Shanghai Shenhua having a relatively poor league campaign.
Shenhua made up for that by winning their second Chinese FA Cup in three years with Zhu starting in both legs of the final against Shandong Luneng as his side secured a return to the AFC Champions League.
Zhu initially broke into the Shenhua team midway through the 2018 season and went on to make his international debut the following year under FIFA World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi.
The Shanghai native boasts strong positional awareness, is good in the air and on the ground, and if his side are to make it beyond the group stage for the first time since 2006, his form at the back is likely to be key.
Sydney native Nicholas D'Agostino left Brisbane Roar to join Perth Glory in mid-2019 and returns to the AFC Champions League for the first time since representing his former club as an 18-year-old in 2017.
The forward has enjoyed a fine start to the year, scoring three goals for Australia at the AFC U23 Championship including the wonderful solo goal against Uzbekistan in the third-place play-off to secure the Olyroos' place at the Olympics.
And his momentum shows no sign of letting up as he returned to Western Australia to score a late equaliser against Melbourne Victory last Friday in what was his first start of the 2019-20 A-League campaign.
With confidence high ahead of Perth's maiden AFC Champions League appearance, 21-year-old D'Agostino will be looking to take his form into the Asian club scene, starting away at FC Tokyo on February 18.
Defensive midfielder Yahya Nader is another player who goes into the upcoming AFC Champions League group stage in great form, having established himself as a regular starter for Al Ain in their 2019-20 campaign.
Named the UAE Pro League's Player of the Month in December, Nader went on to produce some solid displays in the centre of the park as the United Arab Emirates reached the AFC U23 Championship quarter-finals a month later.
Returning from Thailand, the 21-year-old was straight back in the starting line-up to help the Garden City club defeat Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor in the Play-offs and qualify for yet another AFC Champions League.
Inaugural winners Al Ain have a proud history in the competition and boast former players of the calibre of 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman. Nader has a lot to live up to but he is showing plenty of promise.
Who do you think will be the breakout star of #ACL2020? Vote below. Poll ends on Sunday, February 9 at 12:00 (UTC +8).
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