Tiago Ilori: Portuguese Expert On Liverpool's Defensive Wonderkid...
Prior to Jesualdo Ferreira's appointment as Sporting coach in January, the Lisbon club were enduring one of their worst seasons in recent memory. The club seemed lost: boardroom in-fighting, a managerial merry-go-round and under-performing players shorn of confidence painting the picture of a club bent on self-destruction.
Fortunately for Sporting, who with Porto and Benfica are considered one of the 'Big Three' clubs in Portugal, they have their world-renowned academy to fall back on when times are tough.
Where previous managers Sa Pinto and Frankie Vercautern had trusted an under-performing established order, Ferreira placed his faith in the next font of talent bubbling away in the youth ranks. Given the academy's track record of producing the likes of Luis Figo, Ricardo Quaresma, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, this was perhaps less of a gamble than it would be at most clubs.
Out of the shadows stepped the likes of England youth international Eric Dier, winger Bruma and the colt-like figure of young defender Tiago Ilori.
Previously unknown to anyone but those following Sporting's youngsters progress in the Under-19 NextGen series, the hotly-tipped trio quickly made good on their promise and helped the club string a series of impressive results together. Sporting's poor season now has a silver lining.
Interest in Ilori and his young compadres has skyrocketed - with Portuguese football agents (not associated with the players) speculating, in the soccer daily Record, that their value has quadrupled over recent months. Taking the mean of the agents' valuations, bidding should now start at €8million for Dier, a cool €11million for Bruma and €7.5million for Ilori.
So, turning our attention purely to centre-back Ilori - is he the real deal?
Born in London to a Nigerian father and Portuguese mother, Ilori joined Sporting's youth ranks in 2006 and been on their books ever since; though he did spend the 2007-08 season on loan at Estoril
Much as Sporting's season has blossomed, so has the 20-year-old with each game he has played for the Green-and-Whites this term.
Although he actually made his Sporting debut back in 2011, Ilori's first appearance this campaign came in February against struggling Gil Vicente. Ilori marked the occasion by scoring a header, but - although his potential was obvious - he looked raw and a little nervy: a basic mistake also costing his side a goal.
He has since grown in stature, however, and was particularly impressive in Sporting's vibrant display, albeit in defeat, against champions-elect Benfica last season. A tall and slender defender, whose gait has been compared with Raphael Varane at Real Madrid, it is Ilori's speed that really marks him out as a prospect.
Ilori is so quick that he has reportedly broken Sporting speed records in training, even surpassing results set by Ronaldo and Nani during their formative years at the club.
Allied to his pace, Ilori has good aerial ability and - unsurprising given that he started his career as a striker - a decent touch and range of passing. Beyond his physical attributes, Ilori appears to have a steady temperament and the versatility to play anywhere across the back four.
Sporting have been quick to recognise Ilori's development and, in March, announced that they had extended the player's contract (which includes a buy-out clause) until 2015.
Portuguese journalist and Sporting expert Tom Kundert believes Os Leaos were wise to do so and that Ilori is a genuine prospect.
"Ilori was thrown in at the deep end and looked a bit nervous. However, he has got better and better and looks like a classy centre-back, rather than a 'Rambo' type. More Ricardo Carvalho than John Terry, you could say," explains Kundert.
Beyond his obvious inexperience, which only games will remedy, perhaps the only real question mark currently against Ilori surrounds his physicality. A classy operator and reader of the game, there are doubts regarding how Ilori would handle a 'handful' of a striker in the mould of an Andy Carroll.