As another year dawns, Goal.com Asia takes a look at ten players who may already be well-known in their respective nations but could become a whole lot more famous in 2009. Sunil Chettri of India and East Bengal makes the list.
The Myanmar marksman had a good year in 2008, helping his nation to the Royal Challenge Cup. Despite his relatively small size, his jumping ability and sheer hard work make him a nuisance for defenders - he runs and fights for 90 minutes. Not exactly young but the 26-year-old still has much to offer. He is also a creator of opportunities for others but still manages to average more than a goal every other game for Myanmar.
9. Vitaliy Denisov (FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Uzbekistan)
Already playing on the eastern edges of Europe, the 21-year-old left-sided player comes from good stock as his father was an international. He probably wasn’t as good as his son, who can play at the back or higher up the pitch. Strong in the tackle and swift of foot, Denisov was one of the most impressive performers at the 2007 Asian Cup. The red-haired Ukraine-based star shone, along with the rest of the team, during World Cup qualification and has already spoken of his desire to move west.
8. Khalfan Ibrahim (Al Sadd and Qatar)
Was prematurely named the Asian Player of the Year in 2006 but the pacy 20-year-old is reminding Qatari fans that you don’t need to be born in South America to earn a place in the national team. After missing much of 2007 through injury, Khalfan has started the new season in style. Equally adept with both feet, his dribbling skills and ability to make the ball stick to his feet make him a tough customer. If he continues in the same vein then a settled place in the national team will give him the chance to show the rest of Asia what he can do.
7. Sunil Chettri (East Bengal and India)
The 2007 Indian player of the year is mature beyond his 24 years. Slowly taking the mantle of Indian football’s biggest star from Baichung Bhutia, Sunil is a leader on the pitch and dangerous in front of goal – he is also keen to move to Europe and is regarded as the South Asian player most likely to do so. His strike rate for the national team is two goals every three games, and he is one of those strikers who scores when his team really needs him.
6. Shannon Cole (Sydney FC & Australia)
The midfielder had been knocking around the lesser lights of Australian football for some time before being picked up by Sydney FC just last August. Cole quickly made a name for himself in New South Wales and even earned a call-up to the national team. As versatile as they come and dangerous from set-pieces, 2009 could be a big year.
5. Le Cong Vinh (Hanoi & Vietnam)
Well-established in the Vietnamese national team, this Golden Star ended the year heading home a goal that sent 80 million compatriots absolutely crazy. Still only 23, the striker is one of the best in South East Asia. He is fast, good in the air and direct. He may still be a little raw but a move to a bigger league could help polish this rough diamond.
4. Yuto Nagatomo (FC Tokyo & Japan)
It was a good season for the versatile defender, who could be seen charging up and down the flanks as the Gasmen secured a top six finish. What was also impressive was his form after returning from injury in the second half of the season. Solid at the back and good going forward, the 22-year-old broke into the national team and should be staying there for quite a while.
3. Ahmad Khalil (Al Ahli & UAE)
Not for nothing did this 17-year-old win the Asian Young Player of the Year. This is a player who helped put a smile back on the face of UAE football after what had been a poor year for the senior team. His performances at Asia’s Under-19 tournament were stellar and he is already in the national team; but still, watch out for him at the Under-20 World Cup and you will see why he is the pride of a nation. Khalil, who broke into the Al Ahli team at the age of 15, is a pleasure to watch with great ball control, an ability to beat defenders and score - more than once, he has been compared to a certain Cameroon star playing for Barcelona.
2. Lee Chung-yong (FC Seoul & South Korea)
Perhaps the most exciting player in the K-League, Lee is a twinkle-toed winger of just 20 years. He has already made the right side of the national team his own and is capable of scoring as well as creating. His silky skills have caught European eyes and while his temperament is a little suspect, his ability is not.
1. Eshan Hajysafi (Sepahan & Iran)
If there is a teenager talented enough to make it into the Iranian national team then you can be sure he is good, and all fans of Team Melli and Sepahan have been raving about Hajysafi for months. What he lacks in stature and power he makes up for with his ability to look like he has more time on the ball than any player on the pitch. His technique and passing ability have already marked him out and he is not afraid to try his luck from distance. Rumours of German interest have already started...