Top 10 French players under 21
France's Under-19 European Championship-winning squad is full of young stars
The "1991 generation" is led by Yann M'Vila, who nearly made the World Cup team
Chelsea winger Gael Kakuta has been compared to Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry
Last month, France won the Under-19 European Championships on home soil by beating Spain 2-1 in the final. It was the nation's first youth title since 2005, when a side that contained Yoann Gourcuff, Abou Diaby and Hugo Lloris won the same tournament in Northern Ireland.
As that trio figured in France's ill-fated World Cup campaign this summer, hopes are high that the current crop of youngsters, known as the "1991 generation," after the year of their birth, will go onto great things. Below is a list of the most promising French youngsters under 21, all of whom face important challenges in the coming season.
1. Yann M'Vila (Midfielder, Rennes, 20)
Maybe Raymond Domenech knew something we didn't, after all. The disgraced former France coach pulled his trademark surprise in picking M'Vila on his 30-man World Cup long-list, but the young midfielder did not make the final cut for South Africa. As M'Vila recently admitted, it was a blessing in disguise: he made his debut in Laurent Blanc's first game as France coach last week against Norway and was Les Bleus' best player.
M'Vila played as a sweeper at the base of a diamond midfield four in the first half, dropping back to allow Philippe Mexes to bring the ball out of defense, and switching the play quickly whenever he won possession. "He shows amazing maturity for such a young player in an important position," said World Cup winner-turned-pundit Bixente Lizarazu. Given that Lass Diarra was disappointing in his second-half appearance alongside M'Vila in a 4-2-3-1, the Rennes youngster looks certain to be part of France's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.
2. Gael Kakuta (Winger, Chelsea, 19)
Kakuta came to prominence for the wrong reasons, when FIFA found Chelsea guilty of inducing him to break his contract with French club Lens in 2007, when he was 16. Chelsea won their appeal against a transfer embargo and Kakuta's cameo appearances for the club last season suggested their efforts were worthwhile. A tricky winger with an eye for goal, Kakuta was also central to France Under-19s European Championships success last month, with two goals and an assist on the winning goal in the final against Spain. He was named Player of the Tournament.
"He is like Ronaldinho in the way he can take out three players with one dribble, and he has an eye for goal," said Under-19 coach Francis Smerecki. While at Chelsea, they are just as impressed. Coach Carlo Ancelotti, said he had never seen such a talented teenager. John Obi Mikel added: "He is the best at the club it terms of skills; he knows just what to do when he has the ball at his feet."
Kakuta will be part of Chelsea's first-team squad this season and can expect to add to his four appearances for the club. As one Lens-based reporter put it, "All the signs are he has potential to be the next Thierry Henry rather than the next Jeremie Aliadiere."
3. Gueida Fofana (Midfielder, Le Havre, 19)
Fofana captained France's successful Under-19 European champions this summer, going into the tournament on the back of a breakout season at Le Havre in Ligue 2. Reports in France claim that Chelsea, Barcelona and Liverpool are already interested in the defensive midfielder but Le Havre president Jean-Pierre Louvel has said, "We have had no concrete offers."
Fofana joined Le Havre at age 11 and has represented every level of France's youth teams. He can drop back in defense and is a natural leader on the pitch. As one of the best producers of young talent in France, a team of Le Havre graduates would take some beating (Mandanda, N'Zogbia, Diawara, Boumsong, Chimbonda, L Diarra, A Diarra, Dhorasoo, Hoarau, Niang, Sinama-Pongolle). Fofana could earn a place in that elite group soon.
4. Yannis Tafer (Striker, Lyon, 19)
Prolific young striker with Algerian heritage set to become a key player at Lyon: if it sounds familiar, that's because it is. Yannis Tafer has spent his short career being compared to Karim Benzema and insisting he is different. "I am flattered to be spoken of in the same breath as Karim, but we have different profiles. Our story is similar, but we play differently on the pitch."
Tafer, who scored in France's draw against England in its recent European Under-19s triumph, is less explosive and arguably less selfish than the Real Madrid forward, although he is an excellent finisher. His best position is just behind the main forward, like with Lyon teammate Lisandro Lopez.
It is a sign of how much Lyon's management trusted in Tafer for the coming season that they were prepared to sell Bafetimbi Gomis to Fenerbahce for €14m. "We have Lisandro, Jimmy Briand and Tafer, and all of them are fantastic players," said president Jean-Michel Aulas. Tafer scored 5 minutes into his first game of last season, making another eight appearances from the bench. He looks set to add to that tally this season and could become an impact substitute for the title-challengers this campaign.
5. Mamadou Sakho (Defender, Paris Saint-Germain, 20)
Sakho has become a rare bright spot during a difficult period in the history of Paris Saint-Germain (amid board-room turmoil, rioting fans and on-pitch struggles) ,and the promise shown in him when former coach Paul Le Guen made him the club's youngest-ever captain at 17 for a league match against Valenciennes is now bearing fruit.
Now vice-captain, his skipper Claude Makelele has predicted a great career ahead for Sakho, and Blanc sang his praises when he was called into the squad for last week's friendly. "It's rare to see a left-footed center back and there's always a better balance at the back if a left-footer plays alongside a right-footer," said the coach. Sakho did not play in the game, but he will get his chance before too long.
For the second summer running, PSG have denied reports linking him with Arsenal: Sakho has become the emblem of the capital club, and though a better season in Ligue 1 is in store, PSG might not be able to hold onto its prize asset beyond next summer.
SI Now: One-on-one with Giants safety Ryan Mundy
SI Now: Jimmy Smits on sticking with his New York teams