March’s U23 hotlist: Denmark striker Hojlund leads the way

Football

Welcome to the ESPN FC hotlist, which each month highlights some of the most in-form talent aged 23 or under across Europe.

Generally, young but established stars like Manchester City‘s Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund‘s Jude Bellingham or Barcelona‘s Gavi aren’t included — otherwise they’d be on the list every month — but we’ll shine a light on some of those who deserve praise for their performances and who could potentially be European football’s next big name.

This month, we have both league and international football to take into consideration.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Domestic leagues

One of the most remarkable stories in European football of recent times, the Nigerian gives the expression “hit the ground running” a whole new meaning. Having spent a season in the second tier of Norwegian football (prior to that he played as an amateur in Nigeria), Orban joined Belgian side Gent for €3.3 million in January.

Since then he’s scored 12 goals in 10 official outings for his new club, of which seven came in March. If those numbers weren’t impressive enough, he has also registered 1.6 key passes per 90 minutes and the way he’s executed his goals have been varied and occasionally spectacular. He scored the quickest hat trick in the history of UEFA club competition when netting three times in four minutes against Istanbul Basaksehir.

Already one of Leverkusen’s standout performers this season, Frimpong has been in great form since the turn of the year. Not only was he MVP in the 4-1 home win against Hertha Berlin — he registered a goal and assist from his wide position — but also equipped himself well in the 2-1 win against Bayern Munich two weeks later.

In addition to his excellent dribbling (5.5 progressive carries per 90 minutes), acceleration, crossing skills and knack of getting into the box (seven league goals this season), the Dutchman is tenacious, determined and draws fouls. On the basis of his magnificent season, Frimpong could rightfully feel disappointed at missing out on a call-up to the Netherlands senior national team.

Though his teammate Salis Abdul Samed, the defensive midfielder whose relentless work has been a major factor in Lens’ climb up the Ligue 1 table, also deserves a mention, it’s hard to look beyond the Belgium international striker. Openda registered the quickest ever Ligue 1 hat trick (five minutes) away against Clermont on March 12 — so quick that the TV screens were literally struggling to keep up as they showed replays of his first goal while the others kept rolling in — and added two more against Angers a week later.

Still considered somewhat of a streak scorer, it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on his current run of five goals in three games (with a non-penalty xG of 0.76 goals per 90 minutes, he’s one of the most productive goal scorers on the continent.)

Internationals

Despite featuring in last month’s Hotlist and by no means an unknown quantity now, it’s fair to flag up the young striker’s spectacular week with his country. In his first two starting appearances for Denmark — in hindsight, perhaps he should have been part of the attack during the World Cup — he scored a hat trick against Finland (3-1) in Copenhagen and grabbed a brace in the away defeat in Kazakhstan a few days later.

His goal-scoring spree for Denmark — one header, three with his favoured left foot (including a delicate chip) and one with his right — will only increase the interest from Europe’s elite clubs. The exceptionally quick and powerful forward also pitched in with one goal in three games for Atalanta too.

The multi-purpose attacker got himself on the scoresheet in only his second and third international caps for Switzerland in wins against Belarus (5-0) and Israel (3-0). In fact, his productive week with the national side comes as no surprise to followers of Swiss football as he’s been in outstanding form for Basel in 2023.

Exceptionally gifted, Amdouni is blessed with lovely close control and technical ability. He moves elegantly and is able to twist and turn his way out of confined spaces. His shooting is impressive (even from set pieces) and he possesses a playmaker’s eye for a penetrative pass. Currently on loan from Lausanne, Basel are expected to exercise their option to sign him permanently in the coming weeks.

Nwaneri may have slipped back under the radar after becoming the Premier League‘s youngest-ever player (15 years, 5 months and 23 days) when he made his debut for Arsenal off the bench in September, but his recent performances for England under-17s proves that he’s still very much on track.

At last week’s European Championship qualification mini-tournament, the midfielder, who is a wonderful dribbler, scored two goals and set up another in a 3-1 win against Denmark before being taken off at the hour mark. If that wasn’t enough, he scored both goals in the win over Northern Ireland three days later. On current form, another Premier League cameo might be on the cards before the end of the season.

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