The UEFA Europa League is one of the most exciting competitions in the world, not only for the standard of football that is on display, but also because it has long provided clubs with an opportunity to blood the next generation of young talent.
Squad rotation and the development of youngsters has become increasingly more important in the modern European game, exposing the stars of tomorrow to a meaningful, competitive environment far beyond anything offered at domestic level.
The young players who have made their name in the 2020/21 competition is the subject of the latest UEFA Europa League Breakfast Show, presented by official tournament partner, Kia. This week's edition featured broadcaster James Allcott, who helped pick out the top five young players to break through and showcase what they can do this season.
5. Daniel Maldini
Daniel Maldini is the teenage son of AC Milan legend Paolo and made his European debut for I Rossoneri this season, playing four times in the UEFA Europa League across qualifying rounds and the group stage.
The Maldini family is connected to Milan like no other football family at any other club. Paolo, who is now technical director, made 902 appearances for the club during a glittering 25-year career.
Daniel’s grandfather and Paolo’s father, the late Cesare, is also a Milan legend of the 1950s and 1960s. He played over 400 games for the club and lifted their first ever European Cup in 1963.
Some footsteps to follow in.
4. Shola Shoretire
Shola Shoretire was just 17 years and 23 days when he played in the UEFA Europa League for the first time, setting a new Manchester United record as the club’s youngest ever player in European competition. The previous record by Norman Whiteside had stood for nearly 40 years.
The young winger came off the bench in the last 32 tie against Real Sociedad and is the latest in a long line of home-grown players at United that will continue to preserve the club’s identity.
United have a remarkable record of naming at least one home-grown player in every single matchday squad since October 1937, more than 80 years and over 4,000 games.
3. Teun Koopmeiners
Home-grown players form the core of AZ Alkmaar’s squad, with captain Teun Koopmeiners and vice-captain Owen Wijndal joining the club’s academy ranks aged 11 and 10 respectively.
Even some of the players that have been brought in from elsewhere have joined at a young age and have developed under AZ’s guidance.
Koopmeiners in particular has made headlines and captured attention this season, playing every minute of the UEFA Europa League group stage, which started so well with an away win over Napoli. He even has a younger brother, Peer, waiting to make his first-team debut.
2. Emile Smith Rowe
Emile Smith Rowe has been on the fringes of the Arsenal first-team since 2018, but has really made the step up this season, both domestically and in the UEFA Europa League.
The 20-year-old attacking midfielder came into the team in Europe halfway through the group stage and has since been a regular starter for the Gunners in the knockout rounds.
Smith Rowe is part of a group of promising Arsenal youngsters emerging together, with Bukayo Saka most famously making the breakthrough last season. Eddie Nketiah, Folarin Balogun and Reiss Nelson are other academy graduates knocking on the door.
1. Florian Wirtz
Florian Wirtz broke Kai Havertz’s record as Bayer Leverkusen’s youngest ever player when he made his debut at the age of 17 years and 15 days last year, and has since become a regular first-teamer - despite not turning 18 until next month.
Wirtz scored twice in the UEFA Europa League group stage, helping Leverkusen reach the last 32.
The teenager has made a mark on the Bundesliga and was even called into Germany’s senior national team squad for last month’s World Cup qualifiers - a clear indicator of just how good he is.