As ever, the 2013/14 UEFA Europa League proved a brilliant platform for up-and-coming talent; UEFA.com's team selects ten performers we have surely not heard the last of.
Article top media content
Club: FC Salzburg
Alan arrived from Brazil in summer 2010 and has never had a more influential role than he has this season. The numbers speak for themselves: 26 goals and eight assists in the Austrian Bundesliga, plus four goals and as many assists in the UEFA Europa League. It has been a long path for Alan – full name, Alan Douglas Borges de Carvalho – since tearing a cruciate ligament in August 2011. That injury halted his early progress outside his homeland and resulted in 18 months on the sidelines.
Alan later admitted his spell out of the game was difficult to take. "There were times when I thought I would never be able to play again," he said. "However, now I am back and I appreciate football a lot more." Together with UEFA Europa League top scorer Jonatan Soriano, he is part of a potent strike force that yielded 57 league goals this term. "I am feeling at home here and now see myself as half-Austrian."
Name: Paco Alcácer
Club: Valencia CF
Paco Alcácer – or 'Paquito' to fans at Mestalla – began to demonstrate his prolific goalscoring abilities as he rose through Valencia's youth ranks. He now seems destined to become a mainstay at the club of his dreams after exploding onto the scene this term. Alcácer made his senior bow aged 17 against UD Logroñés in the 2010/11 Copa del Rey, having top-scored for Spain as they reached the 2010 UEFA European Under-17 Championship final; he later lifted U19 continental titles in 2011 and 2012.
A striker known for his clever movement in opposition territory, he spent last season loaned to Getafe CF, netting three goals in 20 top-flight outings. Since returning to his native Valencia he has taken a mighty leap forward. "That was the best moment of my career," Alcácer told UEFA.com after hitting a hat-trick in the 5-0 quarter-final second-leg win against FC Basel 1893. That treble took his 2013/14 UEFA Europa League tally to seven. A recent U21 cap to his name, Alcácer can only get better.
Name: Keita Baldé
Club: SS Lazio
Born in Spain to Senegalese parents, Baldé came through the FC Barcelona youth academy but never returned to the Catalan side following a loan stint with satellite club UE Cornellà. Instead, he joined Lazio in summer 2011 aged just 16. A key player in the Lazio youth team that won the 2012/13 Scudetto, Baldé made his Serie A debut in a 3-0 home win against AC Chievo Verona last September – but created a bigger splash in the UEFA Europa League four days later, setting up Hernanes for the only goal in a 1-0 home victory over Legia Warszawa.
Baldé supplied two more group-stage assists before notching his first European goal in the 3-3 draw at PFC Ludogorets Razgrad – his strike after 16.88 seconds was the second-fastest goal in the history of the competition, though Lazio were to lose out to the Bulgarian champions in the round of 32. Now a key player for Lazio in Serie A, the talented winger has attracted praise from coach Edoardo Reja: "He has a good eye for goal, and is very skilful and very fast, especially with his first steps. He has it all and it's a pleasure to watch him play."
Name: Roman Bezjak
Club: PFC Ludogorets Razgrad
Born in Slovenji Gradec in northern Slovenia, Bezjak grew up aiming to emulate native hero Zlatko Zahovič, as well as other famous strikers such as Raúl González and Ronaldo. He arrived at Ludogorets in August 2012 with plenty to prove but has silenced any remaining doubters this season. Indeed, he has excelled as the focal point of Ludogorets' attack since the appointment of Stoicho Stoev as coach.
It has been a case of both quality and quantity for Bezjak, who scored a particularly splendid goal at Lazio in the round of 32, as well as a superb volley in the home return. He also found the net from close to the halfway line against PSV Eindhoven in the group stage, scoring six competition goals in all.
"Roman is a great team player," said Stoev. "He always gives his best and was really great during our UEFA Europa League campaign. He scores and creates goals, making him a very useful player." The man himself added: "Yes, some of my goals have been quite spectacular. I can't say which one was the most beautiful, but the most important thing is the team."
Name: Nemanja Gudelj
Club: AZ Alkmaar
Born in Belgrade, Gudelj spent much of his youth in the Netherlands after his father, Nebojša, joined NAC Breda in 1997. Gudelj played for the BSV Boeimeer and NAC academies before making his first-team debut for the latter in 2010. His father took over as coach in 2012.
Gudelj's qualities – technical acumen, dynamism, excellent passing, control and steely determination – came to the fore during his time in Breda. Indeed, he earned added plaudits for his total dedication to football, which manifested itself in extra running of his own accord, as well as a glass of horse milk every day. The player feels he has learned a lot from his maiden experience in European competition. "We were the only team from the Netherlands to get this far, to the quarter-finals," he said. "A lot of clubs would love to have played at this stage." Gudelj made his senior Serbia debut in a friendly against the Republic of Ireland in March this year.
Name: Kevin Kampl
Club: FC Salzburg
Kampl was plying his trade in the German third tier just two years ago. The pacy winger has enjoyed an extraordinary rise since then, catching the eye with his fleet-footed dribbling and deadly passing in both the Austrian Bundesliga and UEFA Europa League. The German-born player, a graduate of the Bayer 04 Leverkusen academy, struck two goals and contributed a competition-leading five assists during Salzburg's run to the round of 16.
Kampl also provided the most assists in the Austrian top flight this term, which Salzburg won in record time. But it was in the UEFA Europa League, and a 3-0 first-leg win at AFC Ajax in the round of 32, that he provided his most dazzling display, in front of 75 friends and family members from his home town of Solingen. The Slovenian international is equally notable for his distinctive blond hairstyle. "Others enjoy playing golf or something in their spare time; I like going to the hairdresser instead – it is a way for me to relax," said Kampl.
Name: Anthony Lopes
Club: Olympique Lyonnais
The experienced Rémy Vercoutre might have seemed the natural choice to replace Hugo Lloris at Lyon following the latter's move to Tottenham Hotspur FC. However, while the long-term Lyon back-up goalkeeper recovered from a cruciate injury, Lopes made huge strides. So much so that, in January 2014, OL coach Rémi Garde was eager to reassure the 23-year-old of his place in the pecking order after he had recovered from damaging vertebrae in his lower back during a 2-0 Ligue 1 win against EA Guingamp in early November. "This choice is based on gut instinct, match performances and training," explained Garde.
The French-born Portuguese U21 international has put in some decent performances in France and positively sparkled in the UEFA Europa League, with a string of late saves in the round of 16 second leg paving Lyon's route to victory against FC Viktoria Plzeň. Additionally, their 1-0 home defeat by Juventus in the last eight would have been more substantial had it not been for the young goalkeeper's interventions. Now a regular on the bench for Portugal's senior team, his form will be keeping more experienced rivals Beto and Eduardo on their toes.
Name: Ryder Matos
Club: ACF Fiorentina
A versatile forward who can also play as a right winger thanks to his pace and technique, Matos first left Brazil for Fiorentina in 2007. After playing with various Viola youth teams, the teenager returned to Brazil in 2012 for a loan spell at EC Bahia, but was recalled by Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Montella ahead of the 2013/14 season. He made his Serie A debut in September 2013 and scored three UEFA Europa League group stage goals, the first coming in a 3-0 home win against FC Paços de Ferreira just 26 seconds after he had come on as a substitute.
Further efforts in home and away victories against CS Pandurii Târgu Jiu allowed Matos to finish his first European campaign with three goals from eight games, though his most memorable appearance was a fixture in which he did not get on the scoresheet. "The game which really changed my season was the one at Dnipro," he explained. "It was my first start and I played well in a very difficult game which we won 2-1. I earned a penalty, and kind words from my coach."
Name: Alberto Moreno
Club: Sevilla FC
In just two seasons, Moreno has progressed from the youth ranks at Sevilla to Spain's senior international side. Among the full-back's biggest admirers is his club coach, who had no hesitation in counting on one of Spanish football's most promising players last season. "I owe all my gratitude to Sevilla for trusting in me, and to coach Unai Emery, who took a gamble on a kid who was just 19," the left-sided defender said recently. A 2013 UEFA European U21 Championship winner with Julen Lopetegui's Spain, making four appearances at the final tournament in Israel, Moreno further enhanced his reputation with two vital assists in Sevilla's UEFA Europa League round of 16 win against city rivals Real Betis Balompié.
Senior national team boss Vicente del Bosque had taken note by then, offering the youngster his senior debut in a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Georgia on 15 October. "2013 was my year," Moreno noted. "In just nine months, I went from playing in the Spanish third tier to being a starter at Sevilla and being called up to represent my country. It's still hard to take it all in."
Club: SL Benfica
Brazilian-born Rodrigo came through Real Madrid CF's youth academy and has been a key player for Spain's U21s in recent years. Benfica signed him in 2010/11, though he was loaned to Bolton Wanderers FC that season, making a fine impression in 17 league appearances before returning to Lisbon. Under Jorge Jesus, the forward has developed his tactical and technical skills, scoring his first European goal in November 2011 during a UEFA Champions League home game against Basel.
Progress has been solid since then, Rodrigo playing a key role in Benfica's title-winning 2013/14 Liga campaign and making quite an impression in the UEFA Europa League; a goal at Tottenham and two at home against AZ announcing his arrival in the knockout stage. "I was at Real Madrid when Ángel Di María was transferred from Benfica in a deal that allowed me to go to Lisbon," Rodrigo explained. "Things were not easy to start with as I was loaned to Bolton, but I never gave up and finally I earned my place at Benfica, where I am more than happy. I would be delighted to stay here and keep scoring goals."