Julian Alvarez and Gabriel Barbosa attracting transfer attention in South America

The January transfer window has opened across Europe, which leaves South American football open to the risk of losing its biggest talents. But not, perhaps, as much as in the recent past.

The market has changed and big European clubs are no longer as interested in signing the established stars of the South American game. There is a fear that these players will not be able to adapt to the quicker, more intense style of play on the other side of the Atlantic, so big clubs would rather invest in the kids. Now they look to spot youngsters with potential, sign them early and let them get used to top-class European football.

There is one jewel in South America's crown: a player who combines the potential of youth with the star quality of a decisive performer. River Plate striker Julian Alvarez has just been named as the player of the year in the Americas after winning the prestigious annual award organised by El Pais newspaper in Uruguay. He turns 22 at the end of this month, following a well-trodden path, it would be natural for him to make a move now. There are no shortage of suitors and Manchester United are the latest addition to a list which already includes a number of big hitters, especially in Italy, who have understandably been seduced by the depth of his talent.

Alvarez is quick of movement but quicker of mind. He is a 5-foot-8 second striker who is adapt at receiving the ball on the half turn, laying it off and moving into dangerous positions, either behind the defensive line or giving him the option of sliding a killer pass. The man nicknamed 'The Spider' netted 18 goals and bagged seven assists in 21 games as Marcelo Gallardo's team finally won the Argentine league title.

It seemed that that might be the end of the epic Gallardo reign, but the coach has stayed on with the idea of forming a side capable of taking on the Brazilian teams in the Copa Libertadores. Alvarez is a key part of that plan and Gallardo has developed him with special care over the course of the last few years.

- ESPN FC 100: Ranking the world's best men's players
- ESPN+ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more (U.S.)

- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)

River would like the partnership to go on for a few months and have a powerful argument in their favour. Alvarez is now in the Argentina national squad and, with the retirement of Sergio Aguero, he has moved up the pecking order. Alvarez is one of the first attacking options on the bench. He is not a like-for-like replacement for Inter Milan's Lautaro Martinez, who is much more of a traditional centre forward, but his capacity for combination play makes him an interesting fit for the current side.

The risk is that a transfer now might rob his career of momentum at the very moment when Argentina are preparing for this year's World Cup. The inevitable period of adaptation at a new team might take the edge off his game, especially if he is initially starved of first-team opportunities, so it might make sense to hold on for an extra year and make the move after Qatar 2022.

But money talks and should his reported release clause of €20m be offered, it would be impossible to turn down. It could, then, be a nervous month for Alvarez and fans of River Plate.

An intriguing case in a slightly different age bracket is that of Flamengo striker Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa.

Gabriel is 25 and has already had one attempt at playing in Europe, when he was a resounding flop with Inter Milan and Benfica. He is undoubtedly a better player now, and certainly a more established one after three magnificent years back in Brazil with Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo. But does he want, and will he be given, a second chance at European success?

There are clearly risks involved. No one, not even the player himself, really knows if he can succeed at the highest level. He was recently given an extended run in the Brazil team, without ever looking like a national team centre-forward. This may be because he is not a genuine centre-forward. Part of his problem was that in a 4-2-3-1 system he is neither a winger nor a target man; he is better suited to the variation on 4-4-2 that Flamengo have been playing, giving him the option of dropping deep and wide to pick up possession.

Gabriel is very left footed; his right foot is suspect and his heading is average. There is considerable intelligence in his movement, but his emotional intelligence at times can be questioned. When he feels in control he can overdo the provocations and when not in control he can shrink.

This, then, is a player with baggage. A risk worth taking? It would be an intriguing challenge for a coach to unlock the potential of a player with undoubted ability who may have matured more slowly than the average. There has been some speculation that some clubs, and specifically Newcastle, might be interested in taking Gabriel on loan with an option to sign him permanently but it remains to be seen whether either Flamengo or the player would be willing to proceed on these terms.