February’s U23 Hot List: Cubarsi, Pavlovic, Beier among stars

Welcome back to the ESPN FC Hot List, which each month highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe.

Generally, young but established stars such as Manchester City‘s Erling Haaland, Real Madrid‘s Jude Bellingham or Barcelona‘s Gavi aren’t included — otherwise they’d be on the list every month — but we’ll shine a light on some of those who deserve praise for their performances and could potentially be European football’s next big names.

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Pau Cubarsí, 17, CB, Barcelona

It was not a huge surprise to see Cubarsi make his first-team debut for Barcelona in January as the Spain under-17 captain has long been considered one of the top up-and-coming centre-backs in European football. However, his importance to the side while still only 17 years old has been something of a shock and was noticeable as he was among Barcelona’s top performers in the 4-0 home win against Getafe last weekend.

While his skills on the ball are well known — he’s so confident at finding the right angles for line-breaking passes — he also excels at defending in the box. Against Getafe, on at least two occasions he averted danger with a well-timed sliding tackle, and although the sample size is still small, he has come out victorious from an impressive 74% of his defensive duels.

Rated by many scouts as Spain‘s next world-class centre-back, Cubarsi has enjoyed a wonderful start to his senior career.

Aleksandar Pavlovic, 19, DM, Bayern Munich

Bayern may have missed out on signing a defensive midfielder during the past two windows, yet the struggling Bundesliga champions may have found a future star in their own ranks based on recent evidence.

Since making his first-team debut just before Christmas, Pavlovic has seen plenty of playing time and has been singled out for praise by head coach Thomas Tuchel for his attitude and application.

Similar in style to ex-Bayern star Javi Martinez, Pavlovic is a dependable presence from his deep-midfield role. He is disciplined, tidy on the ball and tactically astute. On top of his avid pressing, varied passing (92% accuracy) and intelligent positioning skills, he has also made a mark with his ability from set pieces. And, in the attacking phase, his smart movement also led to a fine goal against Borussia Möchengladbach in early February.

Victor Kristiansen, 21, LB, Bologna

Kristiansen may have struggled to make an impression on the Premier League with Leicester last season, but things are going well on loan at high-flying Serie A outfit Bologna. As a result of his impressive performances, Bologna are reportedly considering taking up the €15 million option to sign him permanently in the summer.

Energetic and powerfully built, Kristiansen stands out for his consistency, while he’s diligent in his defensive work and hardly ever puts in a below-par performance. Going forward, the 21-year-old may not be the most eye-catching dribbler, nor one who overwhelms the opposing full-back with persistent take-ons, but he’s exceptionally progressive in his passing (19 forward passes per 90 minutes) and his crossing is of a high order, too (four assists in Serie A this season).

Luka Romero, 19, FW, Almeria

A standout player at youth level for Argentina, Romero finally announced his arrival at senior level last weekend as he scored both goals — each with his left foot — in Almeria’s much-needed 2-2 draw against Atlético Madrid.

Currently on loan at LaLiga’s bottom side from AC Milan, Romero has already had quite a journey in European football — coming through the youth system at Mallorca and making his LaLiga debut at the age of 15 before moving to Lazio in 2021, then being released two years later and eventually landing at Milan.

An inverted winger who stands at 5-foot-5, he tends to burst into action when cutting in from the left in the final third, using quick dribbles or one-twos with teammates to move forward. Creative, explosive and technically gifted, the teenager can be prone to going it alone too often, but on the evidence of his performance against Atlético, an added dimension of maturity is emerging in his game.

Mohamed Bamba, 22, CF, Lorient

Bamba is arguably among the most successful January signings ever as he was snapped up by Lorient from Austrian side Wolfsberger for €5m, and has found the net five times in as many games for the Ligue 1 club so far (which makes for a goal every 68 minutes.)

A strong and fast runner who can stretch defences, Bamba is also outstanding at sniffing out chances. Positioning himself cleverly, he can finish quickly with either foot and has already scored two headers for Lorient.

While there are still some deficiencies in his game when it comes to his technical ability, an occasionally erratic first touch and his decision-making, the Ivorian centre-forward is a late bloomer as he only started his professional career in 2020 in Israel. But his productivity has given Lorient a real boost in their fight against relegation this season.

Maximilian Beier, 21, CF, Hoffenheim

Following his brace against Borussia Dortmund last weekend, Beier is the youngest player to score 10 goals in the Bundesliga this season, and he also has four assists to his name.

Having been loaned out to Hannover in the 2. Bundesliga for the past two campaigns, where he showed promise, Beier is now a regular top-level marksman. The 21-year-old can resemble Timo Werner in the way he roams around on the left with determination and hassles defenders when out of possession. Indeed, though not excessively muscular, the intent and persistence in his movement on the last line of defence regularly sees him get the better of his opponents.

Always alert, Beier also thrives in the transitional phase as he can dart away to make defence-splitting runs. And he’s a high-volume finisher too (2.7 shots on goal per 90 minutes, of which half are on target.)

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