The introduction of new squad rules concerning home-grown players and the well-documented state of Liverpool’s finances means that Rafael Benitez (or whoever is manning the Anfield hot-seat next season) will probably have to utilise some of the vast wealth of youth talent currently available at Anfield next season. A once-fertile youth system has undergone something resembling a drought over the last ten years, but the current crop of youngsters emerging at Liverpool have managed to invoke the excitement that was last seen around the time of the first-team graduations of the likes of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Steven Gerrard.
Amongst this crop, I believe that the following five starlets are most likely to make a first-team breakthrough next season.
Daniel Ayala – Defender – 19 years
Strong and tall, the Sevilla-born defender Daniel Ayala was thrown into the deep end a few times for Liverpool last season and excelled on each occasion. Deployed as a substitute against both Tottenham and Chelsea, Ayala admirably managed to quell the attacking threats posed by the likes of Jermain Defoe and Didier Drogba. The young Spaniard also started during 4-0 romps against both Burnley and Stoke City, impressively marking his first competitive starts for the club with clean sheets.
The decline of Jamie Carragher and injury proneness of both Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel means that Ayala is likely to feature more prominently next season. With his contract recently extended until 2012, Ayala is assumed to be highly-rated by the Anfield management. Carragher himself has praised the 19-year-old, informing the club’s official magazine that, “He’s only played two games but we’ve had two clean sheets. It was a lot more difficult at Burnley because we were under pressure in the first half but for a young lad to come in, in what was again a makeshift defence in only his second senior start, he did very, very well. Although the result makes it look easy, it certainly wasn’t.”
Lauri Dalla Valle – Forward – 18 years
Compared to a young Fernando Torres, it is safe to say that the young Finn is one of the most exciting prospects at Liverpool. Being likened to the darling of the Kop is high praise indeed, but Dalla Valle’s pace, work-rate and finishing ability all bear testament to this sentiment.
Upon arrival from Finnish side JIPPO in 2008, Dalla Valle fired in 20 goals in 28 outings for the club’s U18 side. Having been subsequently promoted to the reserve side, the Finn took to reserve team football like a duck to water, most notably firing in a 32 minute hat-trick in the 5-1 FA Youth Cup drubbing of Leicester City at the Walkers Stadium. The dearth of striking options in the absence of Torres means that Dalla Valle may get the chance to showcase his talents for the first-team next season.
Martin Kelly – Defender – 20 years
A key member of Gary Ablett’s title-winning reserve side of 2007/08, local lad Martin Kelly certainly possesses the quality to establish himself within Rafael Benitez’s first team next season. Having made his senior debut as a substitute in a Champions League clash with PSV during 2008, Kelly made his first start against Lyon last year, deputising for the injured Glen Johnson. Kelly’s confident and assured display on the right-hand side of Liverpool’s defence saw the defender named as man of the match on the club’s official website.
Following a return from injury, Kelly made his Premier League debut, coming on as a substitute during the 4-1 demolition of relegated Portsmouth. The elegant defender is capable of playing in a range of positions across the back four, and is highly-rated by Rafael Benitez and his team. Expect to see more of the 20-year-old next season.
Dani Pacheco – Forward – 19 years
Cheekily poached from Barcelona in the summer of 2007, Dani Pacheco looks destined to forge a stellar career at Anfield. The 19-year-old made a series of cameos for the first team last season, notably coming close to scoring with his first touch upon his Liverpool against Fiorentina last year.
The creative forward, who operates just behind the main striker, is equally gifted with his goalscoring and chance-creating abilities. Whilst bereft of height, Pacheco possesses great vision and technique, as well as an eye for goal. The undisputed star of the reserve side, Pacheco has drawn admiration from Rafael Benitez, with the former Valencia manager stating that, “He is a player with talent and if he can keep working hard, he will use it more effectively. Sometimes players with talent are a little bit inconsistent, so if he works hard, like he is doing now, he can be very, very important. Everybody can see him playing really well with the reserves, scoring fantastic goals and getting a lot of assists. He is a player who can make a difference in the final third, which is what the fans like.”
Jack Robinson – Defender – 16 years
At the tender age of 16 years and 250 days, Jack Robinson is the youngest player to have ever played for Liverpool’s first-team. Having made Anfield history during the side’s 0-0 draw with Hull City, great things are expected from the Warrington-born defender.
Yet to feature for the club’s reserve side, Robinson has become a key member of Rodolfo Borrell’s U18 team. The left-back is noted for his sweet left foot and quality in the final third, as well as assuredness in defence. The departure of Fabio Aurelio means that Emiliano Insua is now the only recognised left-back within Liverpool’s first-team squad; in the instance that Aurelio isn’t replaced, it is likely that Robinson will feature more frequently for the first team next season.
Follow me on twitter at www.twitter.com/zarifrasul