La Liga’s established stars are well known. Many of them happen to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona, but there are gems just waiting to make their mark throughout Spain’s top division. Here are some of the young stars poised to break out in a big way this season.
Jan Oblak - Atletico Madrid
O-block. Bang bang. You might have better luck getting Chief Keef to stop repping Chicago than getting past Jan Oblak. A towering goalkeeper with no glaring weaknesses, Oblak stepped in for Thibault Courtois and after an initial rough period, he’s made Atleti fans completely forget the big Belgian’s existence. An aggressive shot stopper and commanding on crosses, the 22-year-old Oblak had a stellar year for Atletico, and looks set to cement his status as one of the game’s elite in 2016/17.
Getty ImagesJean Catuffe
Aymeric Laporte - Athletic Bilbao
We’re cheating a little bit here. Laporte made our “15 must-watch players” list as well, but at just 22 years old, the Frenchman walks right into our breakout stars list as well. A commanding presence in the middle of defense, Laporte’s sensational reading of the game and passing range made him one of the most sought-after defenders in Europe this summer, despite breaking his leg in March. He’s staying at Athletic though, and this is the year he could just establish himself as amongst the world’s best.
Getty ImagesDavid Ramos
Lucas Hernandez - Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid are blessed with youth riches throughout their team. Fellow center-back Jose Gimenez made a big name for himself in the heart of the defense last year, but 20-year-old Frenchman Hernandez looks set to make the same jump as well. A versatile defender, capable of playing both on the left, through the center of defense, and even in midfield, Hernandez is comfortable with the ball at his feet, aggressive, and fantastic in the air. Hernandez played 16 times last season, even managing to make a substitute appearance in the Champions League final, and this year, he’s looking to really cement himself in the Atleti first team.
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Jose Gaya - Valencia
Gaya struggled a bit last year for Valencia after a stellar 2014/15 season. Despite the setback, Gaya’s just 21 years old, and widely viewed as the future at left back for Spain. Pacy, a decent tackler and dangerous going forward, Gaya just signed a new contract at the Mestalla last summer, tying him to the club till 2020. Valencia harbor strong European aspirations, and the “new Roberto Carlos” Gaya will be a huge part of that push this season.
Getty ImagesManuel Queimadelos Alonso
Saul - Atletico Madrid
Saul Niguez introduced himself to the world in a big way last season with his wonder-goal against Bayern Munich in Champions League. He’s been a growing prospect in Spain for some time now though, having made his official Atletico debut in 2012 at just 17 years of age. An incredibly versatile and technical midfielder in the Koke mold, Saul is able to play across midfield, turning out both in the center and on the wing in Diego Simeone’s famous 4-4-2. Just 21, this could be the year Saul really establishes himself as a bona fide Atletico star.
Getty ImagesMaurizio Lagana
Denis Suarez - Barcelona
Denis Suarez rejoined Barcelona for the second time after leaving the “B” team first for Sevilla on loan, and then joining Villarreal on a permanent basis last season. After a great season with the Yellow Submarine, Barcelona activated his buyback clause, bringing Andres Iniesta’s heir apparent back into the fold. Capable of playing through the midfield or on the wing, the 22-year-old Suarez’s versatility should see him get plenty of playing time this year, and he might just be set for a long and prosperous career at the Nou Camp.
Getty ImagesAitor Alcalde
Iñaki Williams - Athletic Bilbao
Son of a Ghanaian father and a Liberian mother, Bilbao-born Iñaki Williams scored his first goal for Athletic in 2014, becoming the first black player in history to score for the club. Now 22 years old, he’s firmly established in the Athletic first team, and regarded as one of Europe’s brightest young talents. Naturally a center-forward, Williams has been pushed out wide to accommodate the talents of Aritz Aduritz, but still thrived in his right-wing role. An intelligent off-the-ball runner, Williams’ pace and dribbling skill make him a nightmare for defenders to deal with, especially with his tendency to cut infield and go at goal. Williams netted 13 times in 37 games for Bilbao last year, and he’s poised to improve that mark this season.
AFP/Getty ImagesJEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD
Pione Sisto - Celta Vigo
Pione Sisto is a new arrival in Spain, arriving in Vigo after six years with Denmark’s FC Midtjylland. Ugandan-born to South Sudanese parents, Sisto’s family initially moved to Denmark to flee civil war when he was just two months old. Now 22 years of age, the versatile attacker boasts searing pace and electric dribbling ability, but he also has an eye for goal, netting 28 for Midtjylland in 112 appearances. Still a bit rough around the edges, Celta may be the perfect place for Sisto to settle into Spanish football and truly start to make his mark in Europe.
AFP/Getty ImagesMIGUEL RIOPA
Charly Musonda - Real Betis (on loan from Chelsea)
Son of former Zambian international Charles Musonda, Charly was snapped up by Chelsea in 2012 after 10 years in Anderlecht’s youth setup. In January of 2016 he was loaned out to Real Betis, where he impressed immediately, named Man of the Match in his first appearance against Valencia. After 14 appearances, Betis were happy to extend his loan through the 2016/17 season. Electricity personified, the 19-year-old Belgian winger looks like he could be blown right over by a strong wind, but he’s just about as quick as an air current as well. Capable of operating on both wings or behind the striker, he’s nearly impossible to take the ball off of, and lives to embarrass defenders.
Bongarts/Getty ImagesBoris Streubel
Paco Alcacer - Valencia
A true Valencia homegrown, Paco Alcacer’s been part of the youth system since 2009, and he made his full debut for the club at just the tender age of 16. Now just 22 years old, Alcacer is already Valencia’s captain. Like a certain Spanish striker who also plied his trade at the Mestalla, Alcacer has some distinctly David Villa-esque qualities. Pacy enough to get in behind, but technical enough to drop deep and link with the midfield, like Villa, he thrives in finding pockets of space between the lines to create havoc in opposition defenses. A pinpoint finisher with an eye for picking a pass as well, this might be the year Alcacer truly makes the leap to elite striker.
Getty ImagesManuel Queimadelos Alonso
Luciano Vietto - Sevilla (on loan from Atletico)
Kevin Gameiro’s sale to Atletico Madrid paved the way for Vietto to go the opposite way, and it may just be the coup of the summer for Sevilla. Vietto signed for Atleti last year after a stellar season for Villarreal, but struggled to settle into Simeone’s system. Often compared to Kun Aguero both in style of play and physical build, Vietto is a “9.5” player; not quite an out-and-out striker, but not quite a trequartista. With fantastically nimble feet, intelligent movement, and an uncanny ability to create opportunities for himself, this could be the year Vietto truly becomes a La Liga star.