The 32 teams are primed, the players are ready and the famous anthem has been pre-loaded onto tape ready to be belted out around the grounds of Europe’s elite football clubs; yes, the 2012/2013 UEFA Champions League group stages are all but ready to begin.
With a new competition brings a new batch of players, fresh and ready to prove themselves on the biggest stage. Here at Just-Football.com we present to you 10 players to keep an eye on in this season’s Champions League:
Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund)
18 league goals and 8 assists only help tell half the story when it comes to just how brilliant the former Borussia Monchengladbach player was last season, with the resulting tug-of-war between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich to secure his services going some way to portraying how keenly he was coveted.
Having returned to Dortmund, where he played for the youth teams before being released in 2006, for a £14.5million fee, it will be interesting to see how Reus, a nimble forward with great technique who excels between the lines, adapts to Champions League football. One of the brightest prospects in European football today.
We all know about the Xavis, Andres Iniestas and David Silvas of this world – diminutive, cunning Spanish players with otherworldly technique. Well Francisco Román Alarcón or Isco as he is known, could well become the next name on that illustrious list of talents we all purr over when discussing Spain.
Widely considered one of the best young talents in Spanish football today, Isco came through the youth system at Valencia before nouveau-riche Malaga saw an opportunity and triggered a €6million buyout clause in 2011. Through his creativity and immense skill the 20-year-old has since developed into arguably Malaga’s best player and is one consistently linked with moves to clubs considered higher up the European football food chain.
Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kiev)
A player I’ve grown increasingly fond of watching over the last few months, Ukraine’s tricky winger Andriy Yarmolenko is a very exciting prospect and undoubtedly one to watch in what is an open Champions League group alongside Porto, PSG and Dinamo Zagreb.
A left-footed, pacy and dynamic wing man, Yarmolenko can play on either flank, cutting inside onto his powerful left foot when deployed on the right, where he has said he enjoys playing, or in attack. Fresh from dazzling Wembley in an accomplished and at times thrilling performance for Ukraine against England, the 22-year-old is gradually starting to add consistency to his game, which bodes well for Dynamo.
Despite the galaxy of stars brought in to light up the Parisian footballing skyline over the last twelve months it is a 19-year-old kid from the Italian lower leagues that, Zlatan aside, has looked most impressive for PSG so far this season. Marco Verratti is a young player with a big reputation however, hence the £8.5million fee payed to Pescara for his services – a big price for a player without top-flight experience even if he has been dubbed ‘the new Pirlo’ in some quarters.
Verratti has looked calm and assured for Carlo Ancelotti’s team so far and such are his performances to date it appears he may already have done enough to hold down a midfield spot in what is a crowded and extremely competitive squad. His vision, touch, range of passing and ability to play the killer ball have delighted PSG fans (he was excellent in their most recent game vs Toulouse) and having made his Italy debut in August, Verratti could well be a star of the future.
Cheikhou Kouyate (Anderlecht)
With his calm on the ball, impressive anticipation and obvious athletic ability it is little wonder that Cheikhou Kouyate is increasingly being considered one of the brightest young talents in Belgian football today. A two-time league champion with les Mauves et Blancs, the 22-year-old was originally deployed in a defensive midfield role at Anderlecht – a position he played in admirably for Senegal during the 2012 London Olympics – before switching to centre back where he has also excelled.
Nominated in 2012 for the Ebony Shoe award for best African player in the Belgian Pro League, Kouyate continues to develop and is beginning to make his mark at senior international level too, featuring for Senegal at centre back in their recent Africa Cup of Nations 2013 qualifier defeat to Ivory Coast. One to keep an eye on for sure.
James Rodriguez (FC Porto)
With the departure of Hulk to Zenit, Porto will have to find new creative and goalscoring outlets to take the team forward in this Champions League campaign. Fortunately for them they have one of the most sophisticated and fruitful scouting networks around, and there are plenty of players on the production line ready to come in and fill the gap.
One such player is James Rodriguez, a left-footed midfielder known for his dribbling, skill, maturity and a left foot with the precision of a surgeon’s knife. The Colombian international hasn’t quite established himself at Porto yet but should have the opportunity to do so now, and his versatility (he can also play centrally or down the right) should see him feature fairly regularly for Vitor Pereira’s side this campaign.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (Montpellier)
A rock at the heart of Montpellier’s history-making title-winning team of 2011/12, French international Yanga-Mbiwa is the captain of the side and a fundamental component of Rene Girard’s team. A big, powerful centre back who is both aerially dominant and decent along the ground, Yanga-Mbiwa made France’s provisional squad for Euro 2012 before finally being cut, but looks like being part of new France coach Didier Deschamps plans for the future and could be heavily involved at international level from now on.
At the centre of transfer negotiations between Montpellier and AC Milan in the summer, the €6million fee proposed by Milan elicited one of the quotes of the summer from outspoken Montpellier president Louis Nicollin. “Kojak hasn’t called me once,” he said of Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, likening him to the famous TV detective of similar bald features. “It makes me laugh, they sold a player for 45million Euros and then they want ours for €6million! Go and make your movies and leave us alone, he’s staying!” Given Yanga-Mbiwa’s young age (23) and obvious ability, you can see why Nicollin was so annoyed at the fee offered.
Stephan El Shaarawy (AC Milan)
Aside from the bags of money, at least part of the reason AC Milan felt they could let their talisman and inspirational striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic leave was to pave the way for the emergence of the prodigiously talented Stephan El Shaarawy. Son of an Egyptian father and Italian mother, the 19-year-old first came to the fore by excelling for Italy’s youth teams, from Under-16 level up. A successful loan spell at Padova in 2010/11, in which he helped nearly helped steer the Serie B club to promotion, prompted Milan to sign him on a co-ownership deal with Genoa for a reported €7million Euros.
A series of promising cameos in Serie A last season for the Rossoneri, where he has shown flashes of skill, good link-up play and an eye for goal, now see El Shaarawy leading the line for Milan, where he has started every game this season so far.
Already a superstar in his homeland, where he has twice been named Armenian Player of the Year at the tender age of 23, Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a player who continues to grow in ability and influence, both at club level for Shakhtar Donetsk and for Armenia. A midfielder of poise, balance, tenacity and a good touch, Mkhitaryan is a key reason for Armenia’s recent rise to prominence at international level, with a 3rd place finish in Euro 2012 qualifying celebrated as the best performance in their history.
For Shakhtar too he is increasingly becoming a key man; his forward thrust, positional versatility and eye for goal all highly valued by his coach Mircea Lucescu, who describes him as a ‘complete player’. Mkhitaryan was an integral part of Shakhtar’s league and cup double in Ukraine last season and so far this campaign the signs of improvement are there with an incredible 12 goals in 9 games already. “At this moment, he could become our number one player, though we have other very important players,” Lucescu raves. “But our huge step forward is Mkhitaryan’s development. I think he’ll have a very beautiful career.”
Sebastian Giovinco (Juventus)
Despite an excellent season at Parma last season it still feels as though Sebastian Giovinco still has something to prove at the very highest level, which is why it will be compelling to see how he does at Juventus in the Champions League this year. The man once dubbed ‘the crown prince of Italian football’ by FIFA was no more than a fringe player in Italy’s Euro 2012 squad, restricted to the odd few minutes here and there. He has the ability to terrorise defenders with his mobility, clever movement and mazy dribbling. At 25 it is time for ‘the atomic ant’ to show what he can do on the big stage.
Which players will you be watching in this season’s Champions League? Let us know by leaving a comment below.