FA Cup young stars to watch: Liverpool teens to shine?


The FA Cup third round begins on Friday with Swindon Town hosting Manchester City — (stream all games LIVE on ESPN+ in the U.S.) — and as England‘s biggest teams enter the competition, it means we’ll get a good look at the next generation of young stars set to break through. The FA Cup has been a launch pad for elite talent in the past; here are the names you want to watch out for this weekend.

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Debut: Sept. 21, 2021, vs. Norwich City, Carabao Cup

Why they’re on the list: Liverpool have used the FA Cup in the past to give youngsters a shout. In the 2019-20 campaign, they faced Everton first up and used that as an opportunity to give Curtis Jones a chance to shine. Fast forward two years and he’s a bona-fide first-team player under Jurgen Klopp. With Shrewsbury travelling to Anfield on Sunday (9 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.) and with Liverpool battling a lengthy list of absentees due to COVID-19, the Africa Cup of Nations and injury, they are likely to turn to youth once again for the visit of the League One side.

Morton, 19, has come through this season and after making his debut in the Carabao Cup in September, has since started two Champions League matches against FC Porto and AC Milan, and featured in two Premier League games. The combative central midfielder has already impressed Klopp, and is turning the head of his teammates.

“The first time Tyler came, I said ‘who is this player?’ as he was training amazingly with us and he deserved to be part of the team,” Thiago Alcantara said. “I think he will have a bright and great career here at Liverpool and in football in general.” — Tom Hamilton

Kaide Gordon | 17 | Winger | Liverpool

Debut: Sept. 21, 2021, vs. Norwich City, Carabao Cup

Why they’re on the list: Liverpool fought off rival interest from Manchester United and Tottenham to sign then-16-year-old Gordon in a £1m deal from Championship side Derby County last summer. If the teenager progresses as hoped at Anfield, Derby will eventually receive up to £3m in performance-related add-ons as part of the deal. Gordon’s pace and trickery led to Derby manager Wayne Rooney rewarding him with a debut as a substitute against Birmingham City in December 2020, prompting Rooney to accept that big-club interest was inevitable.

“Kaide is a fantastic player and he has got a lot of potential,” Rooney said. “Of course there will be interest in Kaide because he is a fantastic player.”

Since arriving at Liverpool, Gordon has largely been restricted to training with the academy and Jurgen Klopp’s senior squad, but he was given a debut in the Carabao Cup against Norwich at Carrow Road and played the full 90 minutes. Gordon is expected to be in the squad to face Shrewsbury on Sunday, and assistant manager Pep Lijnders has said the teenager is a winger who will offer a genuine goal threat.

“He is what you see a lot with these kind of wingers — they can outplay, they can combine — but he has a goal in him,” Lijnders said. “And he has this natural ability to be in the box between the goalposts to score, even when the cross comes from the opposite side, for example. Not many talents have that.” — Mark Ogden

Debut: May 11, 2021, vs. Leicester City, Premier League

Why they’re on the list: The 19-year-old has only played a handful of times for Manchester United’s first team, but he’s impressed enough people at the club to be offered two contract extensions in the past nine months. After signing a new long-term deal in March 2021, he was rewarded with an improved contract on Christmas Eve that is set to keep him at Old Trafford until at least 2026, with the option of another year.

A Sweden under-21 international, Elanga made his senior debut against Leicester at the end of last season and scored his first senior goal in a 2-1 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers — included in the squad ahead of Anthony Martial — on the final day of the campaign.

He looked set for a loan move in the summer after the arrival of Jadon Sancho, but the Swede was so impressive during preseason that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided to keep him at United. Despite the competition for places, Elanga, whose father played international football for Cameroon, has played four times so far this season and can expect to be involved against Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round on Monday (2.55 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.). — Rob Dawson

Debut: Dec. 22, 2021, vs. Brentford, Carabao Cup

Why they’re on the list: Chelsea’s FA Cup third-round home game against National League leaders Chesterfield (Saturday, 12.30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.) is sandwiched in between the following run of games: Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, then Tottenham again, Manchester City and Tottenham for a third time. The opportunity to rotate against a team in English football’s fifth tier could not be clearer. Vale is expected to be one youngster given a chance, not least because the club are in talks over extending his contract, which has 18 months left to run.

Prior to the emergence of Mason Mount, Reece James, Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham under Frank Lampard, Thomas Tuchel’s predecessor as head coach, the issue for promising academy graduates at Stamford Bridge has been the lack of an obvious pathway to the first team. Vale is one of those at the front of the queue aiming to prove the Lampard era was not a one-off. Having been named in two previous matchday squads under Tuchel, the 18-year-old made his debut at Brentford as the left-sided No. 10 in a 3-4-2-1 system and produced several bright moments before being replaced for the final 25 minutes. (He also appeared as a late substitute in Wednesday’s Carabao Cup win over Tottenham.)

COVID-19 had affected Chelsea’s academy in the buildup to that game — forcing its closure at one point — and so the Chesterfield fixture offers a more settled chance for Vale to prove he can force his way into the first-team picture. — James Olley

Cole Palmer | 19 | Forward | Manchester City

Debut: Sept. 30, 2020, vs. Burnley, Carabao Cup

Why they’re on the list: Manchester City think so highly of Palmer that he was one of the reasons they let Ferran Torres join Barcelona in January. Both Pep Guardiola and director of football Txiki Begiristain believe the 19-year-old can fill the void left by Torres, who is considered to be one of the best young players in Europe.

Palmer has already played and scored for England’s under-21s and has recorded two goals for City’s first team in nine appearances so far this season. He was picked to start the 3-0 win over Everton in November and slotted in seamlessly alongside Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling.

Palmer is so highly rated at the Etihad Stadium there are some academy coaches who believe he could end up eclipsing the achievements of Foden, who, at 21, is already closing in on 150 appearances. He seems certain to feature against Swindon on Friday (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.) as long as he isn’t one of the players affected by a COVID-19 outbreak at City.

“Palmer is completely involved with the dynamic of how we play,” Guardiola said in October. “He extended his contract for the club, because we believe a lot in him. We know his attributes and what he can do. It’s not easy to play because of the players we have, but he has all the potential to play.” — Rob Dawson

Debut: Dec. 21, 2021, vs. Sunderland, Carabao Cup

Why they’re on the list: The clips of Patino tearing up youth-team games have been circulating on social media long enough for the hype around this 18-year-old to have reached fever pitch before he kicked a ball for the first team. Imagine the reaction, then, when he marked his maiden appearance last month by becoming the youngest Arsenal player to score on debut for 59 years in a 10-minute cameo against Sunderland. It was only a simple finish, steering home Nicolas Pepe‘s cross from close range, but an encouraging sign for a midfielder whose promising range of passing, quick feet and intelligent play has set minds racing at Arsenal over what he could achieve.

The Gunners travel to Nottingham Forest for Sunday’s FA Cup third-round tie (12.10 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.) and are likely to rotate, with Patino set to be involved in some capacity. It may still be a little early for a start, but an extended run for Arsenal in this competition would give him the chance of more exposure. Also in his favour are the absences of Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny, both away on Africa Cup of Nations duty, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles‘ imminent departure to AS Roma on loan. — James Olley

Debut: Sept. 25, 2021, vs. West Ham, Premier League

Why they’re on the list: When you are just 19 years old, count only four appearances in the Premier League in your life and yet you are being followed by both Manchester United and Liverpool, you must be a pretty special talent. First and foremost, the Leeds centre-back comes from a huge football family. His dad, Richard, had a really good career in England and it is not surprising to see how mature the young defender is.

Marcelo Bielsa started him against West Ham to cover for a raft of injured players, and Cresswell was amazing in that game. Like he has been for more than a year now with the Leeds reserves, he was in control, physically imposing (he is 6-foot-3) but also quick and assured on the ball. He really has everything, and he could start in the FA Cup on Sunday against … West Ham (2 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.). It would be a great bit of destiny if he were to make his FA Cup debut against them, too.

Leeds know they have a very special talent on their books and are fighting off the approaches of the top clubs, but they might not be able to do it for much longer. — Julien Laurens

Archie Gray | 15 | Midfielder | Leeds United

Debut: No first-team appearance

Why they’re on the list: Gray is just 15 years old and still at school, but the youngster has already made it into Marcelo Bielsa’s matchday squad in the Premier League this season, earning a place on the substitutes’ bench during the 4-1 defeat against Arsenal at Elland Road last month. In terms of football pedigree, Gray comes straight from Leeds royalty, with his father (Andy), grandfather (Frank) and uncle (Eddie) all previously playing for the club. Andy, Frank and Eddie all represented Scotland at international level, but Archie has already played at U16 level for England.

An attacking midfielder, Archie played for Leeds U21 in the EFL Trophy against Tranmere Rovers in September and travelled with the senior squad to Tottenham in November before getting the call for the substitute role against Arsenal. Victor Orta, the Leeds sporting director, said recently that he regards Gray as a rare talent.

“It has actually happened only a few times,” Orta told La Media Inglesa. “In the South America under-20s tournament, Kun [Aguero] scored 10 or 12 goals or something like that, you could see he was different. I saw Angel Correa in under-15s in San Lorenzo and it impacted me. I saw Douglas Costa when he was 15 in a Copinha Sao Paolo and I said ‘Who’s this guy?’ It’s happened only a few times, but yeah, Archie gives me the same feeling. Archie the other day against Tranmere Rovers gave me that feeling.” — Mark Ogden

Debut: May 19, 2021, vs. Tottenham, Premier League

Why they’re on the list: At 18, Chukwuemeka is one of the most promising talents of his age group in England. The midfielder is still the youngest player to have featured in the Premier League so far this season, demonstrating all his talent just three weeks ago when he came on late against Norwich and set up Villa’s second goal of the game that day.

Tall, strong, physical, excellent on the ball, he has the profile of the perfect all-around midfielder, and hopes at Villa and England (he captained the U19s against Italy in September) are high. While former boss Dean Smith gave him his first-team debut in the last two matches of last season’s Premier League campaign, Steven Gerrard has been impressed with the Austria-born midfielder since taking over, using him in four of his eight games in charge.

It is likely that Chukwuemeka will be involved again against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Monday (2.55 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.) in this FA Cup third-round tie, and with a contract expiring in June 2023, a lot of top clubs will be looking at his development in the next few weeks. — Julien Laurens

Brennan Johnson | 20 | Forward | Nottingham Forest

Debut: Aug. 3, 2019, vs. West Brom, Championship

Why they’re on the list: The versatile forward is on the shopping list for several Premier League clubs. He’s been linked with Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham United, Everton and Newcastle United to name a few, but it’s Brentford who are leading the charge for the 20-year-old. He can play off both the right and left wing, and through the middle, and has flourished under coach Steve Cooper’s guidance at Nottingham Forest. With his contract up in June 2023, Forest could look to cash in on their prize asset this January, but he’s integral to the team.

The Wales international has five goals and four assists this season and will look to cause Arsenal all sorts of difficulty when he lines up against them on Sunday. The match will give the Gunners a chance to see the young forward first hand, but there will be other Premier League teams keeping a close eye on him with the January transfer window open. Cooper said at the turn of the year that Johnson was “starting to manage games” and “really coming of age,” but despite the interest being shown in the forward, his father — ex-Forest striker David Johnson — is adamant Brennan will be going nowhere in January. — Tom Hamilton

Zak Lovelace | 15 | Striker | Millwall

Debut: Dec. 29, 2021, vs. Coventry City, Championship

Why they’re on the list: Lovelace doesn’t celebrate his 16th birthday until Jan. 23, but the Millwall striker is already regarded as one of the most exciting talents outside the Premier League, with Chelsea paying close attention to the youngster who still attends Kingsdale Foundation School in South London. When he was selected to travel with the first team for the Championship game at Coventry last month, Millwall had to seek permission from Lovelace’s parents and school to enable him to make the trip.

He’s expected to be in the squad against Crystal Palace on Saturday (7.45 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+ in the U.S.), having enjoyed a prolific season in the Millwall youth team, scoring 21 goals in 19 games at U16, U18 and U23 level. First-team manager Gary Rowett believes Lovelace has a huge future in the game.

“At 15, he is probably as big a talent as I’ve seen,” Rowett said. “He’s been stepping up to the U18s and scored a hat trick in one game. He couldn’t be handled by players who are three years older than him. He trained with us the other day and ran past one of our senior players like they weren’t there. You saw a young player who was really fearless, enjoying his football with none of the baggage that a senior player can sometimes have. Even some of the other players have said: ‘Blimey, this kid’s got something about him.'” — Mark Ogden

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