UEFA Champions League 2012-2013: A Player to Watch from Every Team
The final 32 teams of the UEFA Champions League have been arranged into groups today, and a lot of interesting matches lie ahead of us in the months to come. The Champions League has been the most prestigious competition in the world for quite sometime now, and its star power never seems to diminish.
This competition always provides contrasts between the super rich, teams that can barely compete on the same scale, different business models, the nouveau riche and the traditional squads. All in all, every team has players on whom its success hinges.
Here are the 32 players to watch at least until the end of the group stage.
Ajax FC: Kolbeinn Sigthorsson
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Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is part of an up-and-coming Icelandic generation that has been putting a few names in prominent teams around Europe. One of them is the skilled Sigthorsson.
An able forward at 6' 1'', he has all the makings of a reliable goal scorer and has been making some noise during this preseason.
Having lost almost the entire season last year due to an ankle fracture, Sigthorsson is definitely a player to watch while Ajax try to make a run for the last 16.
RSC Anderlecht: Dieumerci Mbokani
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Dieumerci Mbokani is a very able Congolese goal scorer looking to regain his touch after uneventful spells at Monaco and at Wolfsburg.
After making a name for himself in Standard Liege, things have seemed to crumble on the pitch, but slowly, Mbokani is regaining his touch.
He is back with friend and ex-teammate Milan Jovanovic, and both, in Standard Liege, played great together. After their separation, neither panned out like they were expected to. Now, both have a chance to restart, and Mbokani will certainly benefit from Jovanovic's passes.
Arsenal: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
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Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will give Arsenal more to talk about than Theo Walcott ever did.
In my opinion, this kid has endless potential and could turn into a better player than Walcott (too early to judge his body of work).
Chamberlain was instrumental in Arsenal's second half last year and put some young blood in this team that, despite being young, looked old and unexciting.
With all the injuries that have crept up on Arsenal in the last five years or so, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should see his fair share of ball as the other pieces try to mesh and/or get injured.
FC Barcelona: Alex Song
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For me, this is one of the best moves of the season. Song, in my opinion, is so much of an improvement over Busquets and Mascherano that the Blaugrana would be able to get enough from the Cameroon international.
Song single-handedly pieced together the Arsenal defense after its depletion because of injury. Countless times he filled in for Vermaelen, Djourou and their cohorts. In Barcelona, he won't need to do that.
His offensive prowess is much greater than Mascherano's and his defense far outweighs that of Busquets (the weak link in Barça, in my opinion). Song is the player to watch just because he'll bring so many different tools to the Camp Nou every night, making Barcelona's defensive midfield just as complete as Real Madrid's.
BATE Borisov: Alexander Hleb
Alexander Hleb is just 31 years old and already seems to be in the twilight of his career. He is back in his native Belarus, defending the biggest team in his country in another Champions League campaign.
Hleb is looking for that spark that allowed him to own the wing in Stuttgart and in London for quite a while. His career was certainly set back by the time he spent on the bench in Barcelona, and he has never quite recovered from it.
Hleb is the biggest star of Bielorussian football history, and his country's hopes for a campaign worthy of troubling Lille and Valencia are placed squarely on his shoulders.
Bayern Munich: Javi Martinez
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In my opinion, Javi Martinez isn't worth the money Bayern just spent to hire him, even though he's certainly an improvement over Luiz Gustavo.
If he meshes well with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, Bayern may as well have one of the best play-making trios in Europe—outside of Spain.
Javi Martinez can pass and strike the ball like the best in the game. He will have to adjust to the physicality of the game outside of Spain, but due to the money Bayern just placed for him, he better do it quickly.
He is the player that will provide them with the stability in the center to pass a weakened Borussia Dortmund nationally and make, once more, a run for it all in Europe.
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Rodrigo scored 16 times for Benfica last year and, at 21 years of age, seems to be the future of a team that still relies on the toughness of Paraguyan striker Oscar Cardozo and an older but still lethal Pablo Aimar.
Rodrigo still has a lot more to give for a longer period of time than both Cardozo and Aimar. While he may not be part of the elite snipers in Europe, his game can still be entertaining, as his body and his skills develop year after year.
Braga: Hugo Viana
Seen here doing what he does best, Hugo Viana is not only the star in Braga, but his play has brought him back to the Portuguese squad in the recent years after having a very disappointing time in Spain.
Viana is the glue that holds this team of unknowns together. Their general on the pitch, Viana organizes Braga's game like the best maestros out there and has superb touch. He has a knack for scoring from outside every now and again.
Viana is a very dangerous player who may give Galatasaray and Cluj a fair test in the group stage.
Celtic: Georgios Samaras
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Personally, I'm not a fan of Georgios Samaras' game, but he has been in Glasgow for the past four years. With 37 goals in this stint, Samaras is not your prototypical tall forward.
With an aptitude for the dribble, he can, sometimes, be more effective in the wing than in the box itself. Certainly not the Jan Koller-type, Samaras is not one for the physical aspect of the game.
In my opinion, his spark dies out in the middle of matches, and he's then nowhere to be found.
His surprise campaign with the Greek squad in this year's Euro, hopefully, boosted his morale such that he can finally come into his own.
Cluj: Pantelis Kapetanos
Since 2008, Pantelis Kapetanos has been scoring consistently in the Romanian league. With Cluj since 2011, Kapetanos is their biggest hope for goals this year.
Undoubtedly one of the weaker teams in the tournament, Cluj have already been in this position before and have made some very entertaining matches in the past.
The team needs Kapetanos at his best if they wish to at least keep Galatasaray and Braga honest when they play in Romania.
In this group, apart from Manchester United, the other teams don't have a lot on each other, but Cluj is definitely the underdog. They need Kapetanos to bring it every match day if they hope to put on a showing worthy of the Champions League.
Chelsea: Eden Hazard
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The Belgian international has barely set foot in England, and we can see why Roman Abramovich took out his checkbook in a hurry to bring him in from Lille.
Personally, I'm one of Hazard's biggest fans, and I think that this kid might be Frank Lampard's second coming once he learns how to defend.
Hazard can do absolutely everything offensively and has enough flair to light up a match on his own. Along with Mata, Torres and Ramires, he might be the spark they needed to make a repeat without their talisman Didier Drogba.
One thing is sure, Hazard is guarantee of a show every time he's on the pitch.
Dinamo Zagreb: Mateo Kovacic
Mateo Kovacic may be just 18 years old, but he has, for two seasons, been making waves in Zagreb. Currently, he is the youngest person to ever score in the Croatian top flight at 16 years and 198 days of age.
Kovacic already scored last year against Lyon and will look to build on his efforts. He has potential, and he might be the next Croatian to take Europe by storm. It's worth keeping an eye on him.
Borussia Dortmund: Mario Gotze
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Last year, Mario Gotze and Shinji Kagawa dominated Germany but couldn't quite get it going on the continental stage. Now, Kagawa has taken his services to Old Trafford, casting the light solely on Gotze.
His Euro was somewhat disappointing, and Gotze needs to fare better if Dortmund is to continue dominating Germany. He has Messi-like levels of quickness, smarts and creativity and needs to put them to work in the Champions League.
Gotze is also a player to watch for a different reason. He and Andre Schurrle are the first two players born in a reunified Germany to start for the national squad under Joachim Low.
Dynamo Kyiv: Andriy Yarmolenko
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Andriy Yarmolenko is one of the best products to come out of the Ukraine since Andriy Shevchenko, and it seems he's getting better and better as the seasons go by. Yarmolenko has a good dribble and a good shot. He can play in the offensive midfield or in a forward role.
Yarmolenko is the key for Dynamo's showing in the Champions League. Like all the older, more traditional teams in Eastern Europe, Dynamo is an aged team, but they're undergoing renovations. He has been brought reinforcements, like the Portuguese outcast Miguel Veloso and Croat maestro Niko Kranjcar.
This team can put on an interesting campaign, but it all hinges on Yamolenko's ability to create chances for Shevchenko. Yarmolenko, depending on his tournament, can carve himself a spot in an interesting team in a better market around Europe.
He's definitely the player to watch in Kiev.
Galatasaray: Nordin Amrabat
Nordin Amrabat is an enigmatic player from the PSV Eindhoven youth system who, despite representing the Netherlands throughout his youth career, elected to play for Morocco at the international level.
Amrabat has the quickness and the flair required to be a successful winger in a second-tier league, but he lacks the necessary consistency to break through to that level.
After he left PSV, he created trouble at Kayserispor, eventually forcing his way out to Galatasaray.
Along with Amrabat, there are players who had relative success in good leagues—like Felipe Melo, Tomas Ujfalusi, Emmanuel Eboue and the elder Milan Baros.
Amrabat is an essential cog in this team's creative sector, and if Galatasaray aims to break through to the knockout stage, they need consistent performances from him.
Juventus: Stephan Lichtsteiner
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Stephan Lichtsteiner is one of the most underrated center-backs in football today. The Swiss international shows the potential, calm and football IQ to make the defensive system of a top team in an elite league.
Lichtsteiner was a very savvy signing by a Juve team that hasn't been the same ever since it came back from their stint in the second tier of Italian football.
He has brought solidity to the defensive system and represented a definite improvement over the pieces that were in place before.
Juve's entire strength lies on Pirlo's football IQ and on the rest of the midfield having a solid outing. Lichtsteiner is very important in the back end, and he also nips in a header here and there.
He is fundamental for this squad, making him one of the players to watch.
Lille: Marvin Martin
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Marvin Martin was brought to Lille with part of the money they took to surrender Eden Hazard to Chelsea. It is expected that, along with Dimitri Payet and the remaining Tulio de Melo, he will take over the offense and replace the production of Hazard and Moussa Sow.
Martin is a diminutive body who can play as a winger, offensive midfield and in a forward role. He is very speedy and has good accuracy on his shots.
He is a very able player, and his production is fundamental for Lille's hopes both in the domestic and in the international stages this year.
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Eliseu is a very streaky player who sometimes shows flashes of his skill but mostly shies away from opposition, remaining a null force in Malaga's midfield. He is good in the air and is powerful on the ball, but he doesn't use these skills to his advantage.
Now that the butchering of their squad seems to be somewhat over, Malaga can focus on putting up a decent outing in the Champions League. Their real fight is to stay afloat in La Liga. Eliseu must up his production from recent levels, so they can achieve this.
It seems to me that he has all the tools to do so, but you never know which Eliseu is going to show up to play on any given day.
Manchester City: Carlos Tevez
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Carlos Tevez is one of the most controversial figures to grace the pitches around Europe and South America in the last 20 years. Wherever he goes, he brings turmoil and unrest to the locker room; he's the definition of clubhouse cancer.
Despite all of this, he is sought after because he brings a never-ending passion to the game. When Tevez is on, he is giving 110 percent.
It seems that the patience Roberto Mancini and Manchester City have been having with him has paid early dividends for them in the EPL.
Balotelli and Tevez, if they leave their egos out of the pitch, can ignite Europe with all of their flair. Evidently, Balotelli is the player to watch on this squad, but Tevez is just as interesting.
Manchester United: David De Gea
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Manchester United have not had a lot of luck with goalkeepers, but when they do find them, they tend make history with the Red Devils. Besides Peter Schmeichel and Edwin Van Der Sar, other goalies haven't done too well in Old Trafford.
De Gea is definitely young and can be seen as a developing project by Sir Alex Ferguson and his cohorts, but his last season and his Olympics weren't that different. He has the body of Edwin Van Der Sar, but he needs to develop the libero skills the Dutch superstar had.
United could've been better if De Gea had been more stable last year, even though he isn't the only one to blame for the team's shortcomings. Van Der Sar bailed out United several times, and De Gea simply wasn't there.
The goalkeeper is the last line of defense, and if De Gea isn't better, it'll be a long season in Old Trafford.
AC Milan: Alexandre Pato
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Milan found a nice surprise in their midfield with the superb performances of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Antonio Nocerino, but Milan's performance, throughout the last five to seven years, has been subject to the performances of their Brazilians.
Alexandre Pato was supposed to form a superb tandem with Kaka, which would put Milan over the top not only in Italy but in Europe as well. Pato's first seasons oozed with potential, and he seemed to be heir apparent to Inzaghi's role.
A few seasons, injuries and personal turmoils later, Pato slowly tries to come back to form. He is the best forward not only in the Milan squad, but Brazil desperately needs him in order to go further than they did in South Africa.
As for Milan, if they want to go deeper in the knockout stages with only their current weapons, they will need Pato to be at least on field and scoring every now and then.
Montpellier HSC: Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa
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Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa is the current captain of Montpellier HSC and one of the most promising center-backs in Ligue 1. He is the mainstay in their defense, and he has been extremely good in the last two seasons.
The performance of the defense hinges on his performance. Montpellier's group has a traditional offensive powerhouse in Arsenal, and it won't be easy to deal with their quickness. If Yanga-Mbiwa plays on this same level, Montpellier might be able to quell some of the threats that will hit them.
FC Nordsjaelland: Rawez Lawan
Rawez Lawan is a Swedish player of Iraqi Kurdish descent playing for the current Danish league champion. He is the fifth on their all-time scoring list and has 21 goals in the past two seasons.
Lawan has a good touch inside the box but is far from being an elite player. He is quick and is very strong on the ball. Lawan can dribble and pick defenses apart with his speed.
This is all in the Danish league, though. Will this be enough to give his club a worthy rookie campaign in the Champions League? It remains to be seen.
Olympiacos: Marko Pantelic
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Marko Pantelic, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated forwards in recent history. The Serbian striker had very prolific stints with Hertha Berlin and Ajax. Now playing for Olympiacos in the tail end of his career, Pantelic still remains a very dangerous player with a potent kick.
Olympiacos, like Panathinaikos, are suffering the consequences of the Greek financial crisis. A lot of players have left the squad, but it still remains a local powerhouse.
Pantelic is their best player, and he will need to be on top of his game if Olympiacos wishes to be something other than a footnote in this Champions League.
FC Porto: Lucho Gonzalez
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Now that Hulk was bought by Zenit St. Petersburg, Porto's creativity rides entirely on the shoulders of João Moutinho and Lucho Gonzalez.
Lucho Gonzalez is one of the best midfielders to come out of South America in the last decade. Currently in his second stint at Porto, Gonzalez is a very smart player with great vision and a touch that shows it.
Gonzalez is a player we don't hear from often. He does his work quietly, and sometimes, he disappears from games.
Porto already has the easiest group in the Champions League. If they want to retain their favorite status, they'll need Lucho Gonzalez to be at the top of his game.
Paris Saint-Germain: Kevin Gameiro
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Say what you want about Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jeremy Menez. They're all good players who have relocated to Paris in the past two seasons. The player I'm excited to see is Kevin Gameiro.
Gameiro is a very able forward who had the best part of his career so far playing for Lorient. He transferred to PSG last season. Gameiro is a national talent who has an opportunity to outshine the recent transfers.
Ibrahimovic is a clubhouse cancer and will have an effect in the locker room, but when push comes to shove, Gameiro will need to score more than the 11 goals he did last year. If he does, he might be able to secure a transfer to somewhere else.
Real Madrid: Luka Modric
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Ideally, Real Madrid's midfield would be composed of Sami Khedira, Kaka, Luka Modric and Mesut Ozil. Kaka is slowly working to regain the trust of José Mourinho. The other three are playing well together and compose one of the scariest middle sectors in all of Europe.
Luka Modric has been stellar since 2010, and he is able to provide great passing and pace that will match Ronaldo's speed. He, much like his peers, loves to score from outside the box and is a great offensive threat.
Modric is, outside of Santi Cazorla, the best signing of the summer—the best in continental Europe.
Modric should make Real Madrid a lot better than they have been. In the group of death, he needs to solidify their favored role against some dangerous teams.
Schalke 04: Ibrahim Afellay
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Schalke 04 are an enigmatic team. They seem like they'll never amount to nothing, but they almost always do. With young players like Julian Draxler, they are a gritty team that always makes it difficult for the bigs.
Ibrahim Afellay was king at PSV Eindhoeven and chose to be a benchwarmer at Barcelona. He brought some good things to Barcelona but was never effectively used. When they brought in Alexis Sanchez, it made it even tougher for him to find a spot in the starting lineup.
Afellay is now on a loan at Schalke 04. In one of the most offense-prone groups of the Champions League, his services will be dearly needed in Gelsenkirchen. They need him to, at least, make front against Arsenal, Montpellier and Olympiacos.
Shakhtar Donetsk: Henrikh Mkhitaryan
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According to his Wikipedia page, Henrikh Mkhitaryan speaks five languages and is one of the most prominent members of the Armenian national squad. At 23 years of age, the Armenian is a key member of Shakhtar's midfield.
A very able central midfielder with a good touch, Mkhitaryan has the ability to maintain composure under pressure. His good play allows for the Brazilians to take over the offensive production and make Shakhtar the offensive powerhouse that they are.
Mkhitaryan's play is very important for Mircea Lucescu's system and for the team output as a whole.
Spartak Moscow: Dmitri Kombarov
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Dmitri Kombarov is one of the best wingers in Russian football, and his production is pivotal for Spartak's success. Kombarov is one of their weapons used to relieve the middle and to share some of the offense that will lead to goals by Ari and Emmanuel Emenike.
Kombarov will be counted on to make his forward runs as effective as he can and to help defend the sides against very tough opposition. He needs to be on his top level for Spartak Moscow to enjoy success in the Champions League.
Valencia: Andres Guardado
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Andres Guardado has been one of the best players for the Mexican national squad since 2006. He has very good vision and can take free kicks like the best of them. These abilities have propelled him to Valencia, the third-best force in Spanish football.
Guardado will have to compete with some very able players for a regular spot in that area of the pitch, but his consistency should help him to prevail over his opponents.
Guardado should improve the quality at Valencia, and they'll be a force to reckon with.
Zenit St. Petersburg: Axel Witsel
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Axel Witsel shares the best hairdo with fellow Belgian Marrouane Fellaini. The power of the afro has now left Portugal and moved to Russia in one of the biggest transfers this year.
Witsel is a very good midfielder who knows how to defend but also knows how to lead his team forward. If he and Hulk mesh with Sergey Semak, Igor Denisov and Konstantin Zyryanov, Zenit may prove to be at their most dangerous state ever.
Witsel will bring some spark to a midfield that sometimes looks dead throughout matches.