The Champions League group stage gets under way next week, with 32 teams vying for a place in the knockout rounds. In this slideshow we’ve picked out 15 players we can’t wait to watch in Europe’s premier competition…
Edson Alvarez (Ajax)
Are Ajax capable of another run to the latter stages of the Champions League this term? Last year’s semi-finalists have lost major stars in Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, but Dusan Tadic, Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech are all still in Amsterdam, and an extremely interesting prospect has joined from Mexico.
Signed from America for €15m, the 21-year-old Alvarez is a vastly experienced player already, having started for the national team at the World Cup in Russia. Smart and versatile, the centre-back can play at right-back or even as a defensive midfielder.
Erling Braut Haaland (Salzburg)
The son of former Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge, Haaland Jr. is showing signs that he could be about to surpass his father. The striker scored a ridiculous nine goals in Norway Under-20s’ 12-0 triumph over Honduras earlier this year, and he’s followed that feat up with 11 in his first seven games for Salzburg this term.
Norwegians are extremely excited about the Leeds-born 19-year-old, while Salzburg fans will be hoping he can deliver in the Champions League after they finally reached the group stage after seven consecutive seasons of losing in the qualifying rounds.
Hirving Lozano (Napoli)
Napoli broke their transfer record in signing Lozano for €42 this summer, a fee which also makes him the most expensive Mexican player of all time. That’s unlikely to faze the forward, though, with Lozano ready to take his talents to a bigger stage after scoring 21 goals in all competitions for PSV in 2018/19.
The right-footed winger does his best work when stationed on the left flank and instructed to cut infield onto his stronger side. With Jose Callejon, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens providing further firepower, Napoli won’t be short of goals.
Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
It’s hard to think of a more exciting player in Europe right now than Sancho, who’s developing into a major superstar at a frightening pace. The winger's first two Bundesliga seasons at Borussia Dortmund have been absolutely magnificent, but he’s yet to make a significant mark on the Champions League.
The Englishman has a fine chance to further enhance his status against Barcelona and Inter in this season’s ‘group of death’. Sancho must relish the opportunity, and BVB’s opener against the La Liga champions should be a cracker.
Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid)
The 19-year-old rose to prominence in the second half of last season for Benfica, making such an impression that Atletico Madrid paid €120m for his services. His standout performances for the Portuguese side came domestically rather than in Europe, though, so this is his first realistic chance to take the Champions League by storm.
Light-footed, tricky and a great dribbler and shooter, the versatile Portuguese starlet is a joy to watch, and his partnership with the robust Diego Costa is bound to be exciting.
Josip Ilicic (Atalanta)
You might not have heard much about the Slovenian playmaker if you’re not an avid Serie A follower – and that’s a huge shame. At 6ft 3in, one might expect Ilicic to be about power more than finesse, but the Atalanta man is actually one of the silkiest playmakers around.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s side did brilliantly to qualify for the Champions League, but they’re not here to simply make up the numbers in the group stage. With Ilicic pulling the strings, don’t bet against Atalanta reaching the last 16.
Kai Havertz (Bayer Leverkusen)
Havertz famously missed Bayer Leverkusen’s last-16 meeting with Atletico Madrid in 2016/17 because he had to attend an exam at school. The midfielder was a highly-rated prospect back then, but his phenomenal rate of progress in the last two years has caught many by surprise.
A complete footballer who scored 20 goals in all competitions last season while also dictating the tempo and leading by example, Havertz has been likened to Michael Ballack in the past.
Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich)
The Frenchman may already be 23, but this could be his breakthrough season. Having spent years in the shadows of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery at Bayern Munich, Coman is expected to assume centre stage this time around.
Quick and blessed with immaculate technical skills, the ex-Juventus man is a decent scorer too – and he loves the big occasion, as his wonderful display against his former club in 2015/16 demonstrated. With Robben and Ribery having departed, Coman looks poised to step up.
Manor Solomon (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Shakhtar Donetsk squad is its usual mix of Ukrainians and Brazilians, with just two exceptions – and one of them is Solomon, a 20-year-old Israeli starlet whose purchase from Maccabi Petach Tikva last January was an extremely unusual transfer for the Ukrainian champions.
That might be down to the fact that Solomon's style is quite reminiscent of a Brazilian, and he’s considered Israel’s brightest prospect since Yossi Benayoun. Two-footed, speedy and able to play on both wings or centrally, Solomon is one to watch.
Mason Mount (Chelsea)
Mount has made a brilliant start to life as a Chelsea first-teamer, scoring twice in four appearances at the start of the season. The midfielder was rewarded for his fine domestic form with his maiden England appearance against Bulgaria last week, and he’ll now be targeting the Champions League as another arena to conquer.
Chelsea have not been drawn in the toughest of groups, although Ajax, Valencia and Lille will share the same view. Mount could be a key man if Frank Lampard’s men are to advance.
Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus)
De Ligt endured a nightmare home debut for Juventus last time out, with the Dutchman responsible for all three Napoli goals. Thankfully for the centre-back, opposite number Kalidou Koulibaly spared his blushes by turning the ball into his own net in injury time, gifting Juve a 4-3 victory.
There’s no doubting De Ligt’s overall quality, though, and the man who did more than most to lead Ajax to the semi-finals of last year’s competition could repeat the feat in Turin. First, though, he’ll have to keep the attackers of Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow quiet in the group stage.
Mauro Icardi (PSG)
What PSG really needed this summer was another star attacker with a big ego and a history of clashes with team-mates and club officials. The French club raised eyebrows when they brought in Icardi on transfer deadline day, and one way or another it will be intriguing to watch him in action for Thomas Tuchel’s side.
There can be no questioning Icardi’s ability to introduce ball to net, something he did at a fantastic rate throughout his Inter career. Whether he can share the limelight with Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and, when he returns from injury, Edinson Cavani is another question entirely – but it certainly won’t be dull.
Mbwana Samatta (Genk)
The 26-year-old striker has already won the Champions League in Africa with TP Mazembe, but his chances of replicating the feat in Europe with Genk are unlikely. However, it will certainly be worth watching Samatta in the group phase, as he gets set to become the first Tanzanian to grace Europe’s leading competition.
The penalty-box predator was one of the continent’s most prolific scorers last term, netting 32 times in all competitions – including nine goals in 12 Europa League fixtures. It will be interesting to see if he can be as successful against Liverpool, Napoli and Salzburg.
Nuno Tavares (Benfica)
Benfica are famous for blooding prodigious talents from their academy, and many are tipping Tavares to be the next big thing to emerge from the Estadio da Luz ranks. The defender only made his league debut last month, but much is expected of the 19-year-old.
And what a debut it was, with a goal and two assists in the 5-0 demolition of Pacos Ferreira – not bad for a defender who was playing on the right flank despite actually being a left-back.
Stefano Sensi (Inter)
Antonio Conte's Inter face a tough task in a group with Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, and much could depend on the extent too which Sensi can shine on the continental stage.
The midfielder has made a superb impression since moving to San Siro from Sassuolo, with many Italian fans earmarking him as the leader of their next generation thanks to his tremendous vision and magnificent ball control. Expect gushing praise from Xavi Hernandez if Sensi turns in a good performance against Barcelona.
Greg Lea is a freelance football journalist who's filled in wherever FourFourTwo needs him since 2014. He became a Crystal Palace fan after watching a 1-0 loss to Port Vale in 1998, and once got on the scoresheet in a primary school game against Wilfried Zaha's Whitehorse Manor (an own goal in an 8-0 defeat).
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