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We have quite some year in store. 

Beyond a Premier League title race which no one would be wise to try to call, there is a European Championship which, for me, presents England with their best chance in modern times of lifting a trophy. 

Here are five players whose progress I will be following in the year ahead…

Jude Bellingham

Real Madrid

No player impressed me more than Bellingham in the year now closing out. His start at Real Madrid, with a goal a game, has been nothing less than sensational.

Good luck to anyone trying to get in his way. If you attempt to stop him running into the box, he’s going to trample all over you. When he does get into the box and you challenge him, he’s arriving late with momentum to push you out the way.

He has the technique, with his head and both feet, to finish and make the game look simple, where others would struggle. That’s an extremely rare combination of skills. It’s high praise indeed, but he has the potential to be another Zinedine Zidane, a giant with mercurial skills, great balance, great feet, quick, strong.

Bellingham has breezed through the challenge in Madrid, so for him to play at the Euros for a team which will be down as most people’s favourites will have no impact on him. He looks to be rock solid and some on that stage will find him unplayable. He, along with Harry Kane, are the biggest reasons why England can win it.

GRAEME SOUNESS: Alejandro Garnacho should dig out tapes of Giggs, while Jude Bellingham has the potential to be another giant with mercurial skills like Zidane… My five stars to watch in 2024

Jude Bellingham has enjoyed a startling start to life in Spain following his summer move to Real Madrid

Mail Sport columnist Graeme Souness highlights the players he's most excited to see in 2024

Mail Sport columnist Graeme Souness highlights the players he’s most excited to see in 2024

Jarrad Branthwaite

Everton

Here is a young defender, 21 years old, who has the full range of qualities — physique, pace and ability on the ball. And he looks like he can really defend in the left-sided centre half position. If he’s showing that ability at this age, it’s a good sign.

At centre back, I always wanted experienced players, because any mistake they make generally leads to an effort on your goal — be it a shot or a header. But this boy already looks to be grasping the art of defending.

As a left-footed centre half, he takes the ball on his left and opens the pitch up, which I like. Given England’s situation at the back — where they are not overwhelmed with left-sided defenders, six months out from the Euros Branthwaite could still push himself into contention.

There’s no telling, as a manager, which young players will do the job for you. You can have them training with the first team and playing in the reserves, but put them on a pitch on Saturday afternoon in front of 50,000 people and it can be too much for them. Others just relish being in the first team and are telling you: ‘This is my stage. Let me off the leash.’ Branthwaite is in the second category. His physical attributes and handling of the ball suggest he might be a star.

Jarrad Branthwaite is making a late push for EURO 2024 selection after starring for Everton

Jarrad Branthwaite is making a late push for EURO 2024 selection after starring for Everton

Alejandro Garnacho

Manchester United

When I watch Garnacho, it looks as if there might be a real player in there. He has pace, technical ability, can finish and possesses a real boldness and confidence to take chances, as his two strikes against Aston Villa and his wonder goal at Everton proved. He’s 19 and shows no fear.

What frustrates me about him are his theatrics and the infernal holding his hand up to his head when he has a shot at goal and it goes 10 yards wide, as if it’s a big drama. Did Ryan Giggs do that?

To Garnacho, I say: ‘Go and dig out some tapes of Giggs, the best winger we’ve seen in Britain in modern times and the finest since George Best was wearing a United shirt.’ It’s not all about you, son. Just get on with the game.

That theatrical stuff is not necessary and it’s not what top players do. It’s irritating to watch.

If he gets rid of that nonsense, he’ll be a player worth watching, though as a teenager, he should be dipping in and out of the team and not be a main man for United. If we see less of him in 2024, it might actually mean United are putting their recruitment failings behind them.

Alejandro Garnacho spearheaded Manchester United's second-half comeback against Aston Villa on Tuesday night

Alejandro Garnacho spearheaded Manchester United’s second-half comeback against Aston Villa on Tuesday night

Eberechi Eze

Crystal Palace

I’ve been pleased to see Eze doing so well. In the middle of Covid, we did a Zoom call with him for a broadcast interview and I remember he talked about his mum a lot of the time!

He had a tough start in life and wanted to succeed for her. I was very struck by that. He was a very impressive young man, with his feet firmly on the ground, and has footballing quality to match.

He was released from Arsenal as a kid but, like a lot of promising young players in south London, was picked up by Palace. Roy Hodgson is clearly nurturing his innate talents there.

Eberechi Eze has been hampered by injuries in recent weeks but had established himself as one of the most exciting midfielders in the division

Eberechi Eze has been hampered by injuries in recent weeks but had established himself as one of the most exciting midfielders in the division

I’ve also been impressed by his club-mate Michael Olise, the France Under 21 international who had been in the academies at Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Olise was injured for much of the first half of the season but after returning to first-team football and then being named as a sub at Manchester City this month, he was given the task of taking a 90th-minute penalty. He was obviously oozing confidence and happy to take it.

The fact his team-mates were happy to let him tells you how they view him.

Trent Alexander-Arnold

Liverpool

I’m looking forward to seeing Alexander-Arnold on the European Championship stage for Gareth Southgate, and there could be a lot more appreciation of him as a player of genuine international class.

Only the best players, with truly exceptional talent, deliver every day of the week and there’s something to enjoy in his game every time he plays.

But I fear we may not see too much of him in Germany because Gareth will want his strongest back four at all times and has such talent in midfield. Trent may be restricted to cameo performances as a sub. But he strikes a ball beautifully — better than any other player in England — and can still command that stage.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has increasingly been deployed in a midfield role for Liverpool this season

Trent Alexander-Arnold has increasingly been deployed in a midfield role for Liverpool this season

PS A big fix is needed at Manchester United if Sir Jim Ratcliffe is to start getting the club back where they should be in 2024.

We still don’t know exactly what kind of control Sir Jim is going to have there but I don’t imagine for one minute he will be investing £1.3billion and then sitting back to watch more of the same.

People like him do not take a back seat. He’s not going to be a passive shareholder.

IT’S ALL KICKING OFF! 

It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football, with a show every Monday and Thursday this season.

It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube , Apple Music and Spotify

Delegation will be key. There has been a lot of talk about Sir Dave Brailsford, who has acted as sporting expert in the other sports investments by Sir Jim’s Ineos firm, including Nice football club. If Brailsford really had the biggest say at Nice, who have struggled under Ineos ownership, I’d suggest Sir Jim would be better off looking for the best football man out there when it comes to United.

The Nice strategy of buying Aaron Ramsey, Ross Barkley and Kasper Schmeichel on a wing and a prayer did not work.

Brailsford’s background is not in football, so Sir Jim has got to find a football man he can lean on heavily — really, really heavily — and then hope he’s hired the right one. Along with Liverpool, United are one of the two most famous teams in the history of English football. But it’s not going to be a quick fix.

Finally, I would like to wish all my readers a healthy and prosperous 2024.



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