UEFA Champions League: Picking the Most Important Players for All 32 Teams
Has it really been four months?
The last time that famous Champions League music rang out at the Allianz Arena, it was Chelsea defying the odds against Bayern Munich to claim Champions League glory for the first time in the club's history.
The journey to Wembley Stadium begins Tuesday, September 18th, as 32 teams enter the group stage, each with the dream of lifting the trophy with the big ears.
In looking at this season's contenders, here are the players vital to their respective sides' hopes in the competition.
"These are the champions!"
Porto: Joao Moutinho
We kick things off in Group A, with Primeira Liga champions Porto, who no doubt will be eager to better their premature exit in the group stage of last year's competition.
The most important player for the Portuguese club is deep-lying playmaker Joao Moutinho, a name on everyone's lips this past transfer window.
Tottenham's loss, though, is the Champions League's gain, as fans watch one of the best passers in the game take on the continent's finest, showcasing his exemplary vision and balance.
With Moutinho running the creative engine of Porto, a trip deep into the competition is a more than reasonable hope for Vitor Pereira's side.
Dynamo Kyiv: Andriy Yarmolenko
Ukraine and Dynamo Kyiv's great hope Andriy Yarmolenko has been dazzling for club and country since breaking through in the 2008-09 season.
A naturally left-sided winger, Yarmolenko scores more goals than most teams' strikers—in this current campaign, he's already banged in 12 in 20 appearances in the Ukranian Premier League.
Dubbed by some as the "new Sheva," forget Andriy Shevchenko. Yarmolenko's current rise deserves to stand on its own two feet.
Champions League recognition beckons.
PSG: Thiago Silva
Highly fancied on paper, PSG may struggle in reality to get its superstars to play effectively enough as a unit in time to make a deep run in this year's Champions League tournament.
All eyes will be on enigmatic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the player key to the French side's hopes is undoubtedly Brazilian defender Thiago Silva.
Some consider him the best defender in the world, and with a price tag of £41 million, I'm not going to be one to argue.
His exceptional strength and composure will lead an inexperienced team with endless talent against Europe's elite.
Dinamo Zagreb: Ivan Kelava
Sleep on Dinamo Zagreb at your peril.
The Croatian side have been been laying waste to all in their path domestically, winning 21 of 25 games and conceding only eight.
This excellent defensive record is a fine reflection on the form and abilities of goalkeeper Ivan Kelava, a renowned expert at saving penalties.
Zagreb's captain will have to be at the top of his game to prevent the horrors of his team's last Champions League campaign from recurring, though.
Arsenal: Mikel Arteta
The term "quarterback" isn't used in soccer, but if it were, Mikel Arteta would certainly fit the bill.
His ability to dictate the flow of the game with his distribution skills and vision makes him the player that makes Arsenal tick.
The group stage draw seems to have been easy on the Gunners, with progression expected for Arsene Wenger's side.
The highly-professional Arteta won't be taking any of his opponents lightly, though—he's come too far to let glory be denied him in his peak.
Schalke: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
Having reached the semis of Europe's premier club competition two years ago, Feliz Magath's Schalke are back in the big time, with Netherlands striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar leading the line for the German side.
The big man scored an unbelievable 48 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions last season, striking 14 times in the Europa League.
Also worth noting is Huntelaar's ability to set up his teammates: He racked up 13 assists in the Bundesliga as Schalke finished third behind Dortmund and Bayern.
He has rebuilt his reputation in Germany and looks set to put Europe's top clubs on notice once again with his god-given talent.
Olympiacos: Vasilis Torosidis
Olympiacos' "Captain Fantastic" Vasilis Torosidis is as tough as nails.
The Greek defender has been at the heart of club and country for the past four or five years, leading from the back with ruthless example.
Also a useful option going forward, the versatile Torosidis is more than capable of playing on the flanks or in defensive midfield.
With him, Olympiacos may just become one of the surprise packages of the group stage round.
Montpellier: Younes Belhanda
With Olivier Giroud gone, there will be more pressure placed on the shoulders of Montpellier attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda to get his team into top gear.
The French prodigy has found a home in recent years sitting just behind the lone striker, teasing opposition defences with his mazy runs and sat nav-like vision.
Perhaps unlucky not to have earned a move to one of Europe's bigger clubs this past summer, Belhanda will be eager to prove his doubters wrong on the biggest stage this season.
Expect Arsenal boss Wenger to be keeping a close eye on him when the two sides face off.
Milan: Stephan El Shaarawy
With a squad chock full of established veterans and big-name stars, it may seem odd to pluck for 19-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy as Milan's most important player.
But with many currently believing that one of Italy's most storied clubs is in decline, it may take the emergence of the next national superstar to shake Massimiliano Allegri's side into action.
Just as Kaka etched his name into the history of the competition in 2007, this Champions League campaign is the perfect opportunity for El Shaarawy to show off his dazzling skill and trickery.
Oh, and the winger's favourite player? Kaka.
Despite paying handsomely for the privilege, it was quite a coup for Russian club Zenit to have acquired the services of Brazilian star Hulk this summer.
The £32 million man will be just the type of world-class player to lead the unheralded side out of a potentially tricky group, which also contains fellow big-spenders Malaga.
Hulk is a powerful forward with a blistering pace and a fearsome shot.
Just don't make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
Anderlecht: Cheikhou Kouyate
The tall, lanky Cheikhou Kouyate is quickly emerging as one of the continent's more highly sought-after young central defenders.
The Senegalese international is capable of playing in either a defensive midfield role or in the heart of the back line.
With some prolific strikers due to terrify Belgian side Anderlecht in Group C this season, the services of Kouyate will be vital if the minnows are to spring a surprise.
Also linked with some of Europe's finest this summer was Malaga's attacking midfielder Isco.
The jewel in the Spanish club's glittering crown, Isco will get the chance to showcase his abilities in front of a wider audience this season.
Malaga's inexperience and backstage turmoil may prevent them from making as big an impact in the Champions League this time around as they would like.
But, if Isco can rise above all of this, his remaining time in Andalusia may be brief.
Real Madrid: Cristiano Ronaldo
It is no coincidence that Real Madrid's poor start to the season has coincided with Cristiano Ronaldo's apparent sulk.
Unless the Portuguese mega-star can put a smile back on his face, his personal problems run the risk of overshadowing what was supposed to be Madrid's best opportunity to reach the Promised Land and win the cup since 2002.
Make no mistake, though, Jose Mourinho's side will still be feared by all in their path in the Champions League, with or without a happy Ronaldo.
But no team of individuals ever won the big one.
Manchester City: Vincent Kompany
With all of their attacking options, it is Manchester City's central defender Vincent Kompany who is the most important component to his team's chances.
Without the Belgian captain in the lineup, the Blues' back line looks horribly exposed and not up to the standard of Europe's elite.
He has been at the heart and soul of Roberto Mancini's revolution at the Etihad, a reliable powerhouse who must surely rival Thiago Silva as the world's best.
Who better to stop Madrid's new Galacticos from running riot?
Ajax: Christian Eriksen
When the draw for this Champions League season's group stage was made, Dutch club Ajax must have been left feeling like their luck had deserted them.
Faced with the proposition of coming up against the three champions from arguably Europe's three best leagues, Frank de Boer will rely heavily on the craft and creativity of his young playmaker Christian Eriksen, surely a star in the making.
Eriksen makes up for his diminutive stature with excellent balance and composure on the ball, as well as some dazzling skills in his armoury.
He'll need to stand up and be noticed this season though, considering the level of opposition lying in his team's path to an unlikely progression to the knockout rounds of the competition.
Borussia Dortmund: Sebastian Kehl
Borussia Dortmund's Sebastian Kehl is the ying to Mario Gotze's yang.
Whilst the latter dances gracefully around his opposition, it is Kehl who proves to be the rock standing in the way of those who threaten the German side's back line.
The defensive midfielder is a hard-hitting tackler as well as a master tactition who runs the engine of the Bundesliga champions.
If you haven't already heard of him, it's because he's constantly struggled with injury problems the past five or six years.
Chelsea: Fernando Torres
Forget highly-touted world-beater Eden Hazard, Fernando Torres is the most important player to Chelsea's hopes of an unlikely back-to-back Champions League triumph this season.
Without him in the side, or even with him on a bad day, Roberto di Matteo's side look a little bereft of potent options in attack.
There will be an opportunity to dip back into the transfer market in January, but until then, Torres will have to lead the line in potentially difficult clashes with Shakhtar and Juventus.
The Blues have the tools in midfield and defence to make a charge but are possibly putting too much pressure on Torres' shoulders to deliver the goods in the final third.
Shakhtar Donetsk: Willian
Attacking midfielder Willian is a perfect representative for the mission statement of Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk.
A team filled to the brim with Brazilian talents, the tricky Willian is perhaps the most talented of them all.
His excellent crossing and shooting abilities, coupled with his fine knack of being able to beat a man one-on-one, make defenders think twice when Shakhtar's superstar comes into their crosshairs.
Chelsea will get a firsthand taste of a potential transfer target when the two clubs meet on October 23.
Juventus: Andrea Pirlo
If you didn't already know, the recent European Championships solidified for Andrea Pirlo a place as one of the very best passers in world football.
He is both the creative spark and the sturdy spine of a Juventus side on the rise, his distribution and vision as good as any in the game.
Pirlo was key to his team's improbable march to undefeated glory in the Serie A last campaign and could well help to re-establish Juve as one of Europe's best in the Champions League this season.
Is there a classier player in football?
Nordsjaelland: Jores Okore
The ultimate underdogs in this season's competition, Danish champs Nordsjaelland enter the Champions League for the first time in the club's history.
Ivorian rock Jores Okore will certainly be the side's most important player as they attempt to keep their defensive record respectable.
The 20-year-old Okore is a strong leader with excellent composure and attitude for one so young.
His quick rise has also seen him capped three times for the Danish national team.
Bayern Munich: Philipp Lahm
With all of the bubbly personalities in the Bayern dressing room, the club's quiet captain Philipp Lahm leads by example.
His strong leadership skills as well as his exemplary tackling and passing abilities make him one of, if not the, best fullbacks in the game.
A player who will never give up or sulk when the going gets tough, Lahm helps counter the bad reputation that some of his teammates give the club.
Proven winners on the biggest stage, it would take a fool to bet against Bayern reaching at least the Champions League semis yet again this season.
Valencia: Roberto Soldado
Spain's long-standing third-best team Valencia may seem to lose vital players every summer, but they are still a force to be reckoned with year-in, year-out.
The club's star is prolific striker Roberto Soldado, a clinical finisher whose strike rate for Valencia is slightly above 0.5 a game.
Soldado may just be the solution to the Spanish national team's problem of who to play in attack as well.
Valencia will be hoping the attention he's sure to receive this season doesn't lead to a big-money move away, like so many of their former stars.
Lille: Nolan Roux
Playing in front of industrious playmaker Marvin Martin, French striker Nolan Roux looks set for a breakout season for club Lille.
Having made the step-up from Brest earlier this year, Roux is a tall, powerful striker with a keen eye for the goal.
His career strike rate may not immediately catch the eye, but at the speed at which he's improving, Roux is sure to develop into one of the French league's most effective forwards.
Expect Lille to give Valencia a push for what will surely be second spot in Group F.
BATE Borisov: Renan Bressan
Having starred in the Belarussian league in recent seasons for BATE, Renan Bressan takes his talents back into the Champions League a second time this season, as the minnows hope to upset the odds.
Bressan is a creative midfielder with exceptional vision and tactical nous, who is also a deadly set-piece specialist.
Born in Brazil, the adopted Bularussian recently impressed at the 2012 Summer Olympics in England.
Barcelona: Lionel Messi
If you're reading this article, you've most likely heard of Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
So, without toying with your intelligence, I'll just list a bunch of facts that really speak for themselves:
Fifty goals in 37 league appearances, plus 16 assists. Seventy-three goals in all competitions.
Two hundred sixty-one career goals for Barcelona, two Ballon d'Ors, six appearances in the European Team of the Year, and four in the UEFA Team of the Year.
Is he Barcelona's most important player? Sorry, Xavi, the answer is yes.
After a blistering start to life in Portugal, Benfica's Rodrigo's form rather tailed off a bit as last season wore on.
But, make no mistake, the Brazilian-Spanish forward will be key to his side's hopes of qualifying from a potentially tricky Group G.
He's already charged out of the gates this season as well, having scored three in three in the Portuguese Primeira Liga so far.
His quickness and agile frame make him a nightmare for defenders to mark. If he can improve his consistency, recognition on a wider scale is sure to follow.
Spartak Moscow: Emmanuel Emenike
Champions League regulars Spartak Moscow re-enter this season's competition with great hopes of avenging relatively disappointing campaigns in past seasons.
The stocky Nigerian striker Emmanuel Emenike will be relied upon to contribute the goals, especially since he's scored 15 league goals since arriving in Moscow last summer.
An explosive beast, Emenike reminds one of fellow countryman Obafemi Martins, a player who has also plied his trade in Russia in the past, though with less success.
Expect Spartak to contend with Benfica for second spot in the group.
Celtic: Victor Wanyama
Scottish club Celtic have been poor in European competitions since their attention-grabbing run to the Europa League final in 2003.
Boss Neil Lennon did well, though, to lead his side past Helsinki and Helsingborg in the Champions League qualifying rounds last month and is hopeful they can maintain that momentum into a difficult Group G.
Defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama is a quickly improving player with great strength and tactical awareness.
If Celtic have any chance of springing a few surprises, he'll need to get a grip on his team's midfield.
Manchester United: Shinji Kagawa
Forget Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, Manchester United's new recruit Shinji Kagawa will be his side's most important player in avenging last season's disappointing results against Basel and Benfica.
Kagawa provides the type of tactical flexibility that United were missing in European competition last year.
He has lightning-quick acceleration, excellent short passing and link-up play, and a dreamy first touch that allows him to control the ball and distribute to waiting teammates with ease.
Expect Sir Alex Ferguson to make the most of the versatility that a player like Kagawa provides this time around.
Braga: Ruben Micael
Portuguese journeyman Ruben Micael has landed in Braga in his quest to play for a different club every season.
Purchased by Atletico Madrid last summer, Micael has yet to play for Los Colchoneros, having been sent out on loan both this season and last.
The attacking midfielder is an excellent dribbler and capable of delivering a defence-splitting pass to those in front of him.
Capped eight times for Portugal, Micael may be wondering what he has to do to earn a permanent place at one of Europe's best.
Galatasaray: Umut Bulut
Turkish striker Umut Bulut was fantastic during his time at Trabzonspor before earning a move to French side Toulouse last year.
Having disappointed in Ligue 1, though, Bulut is now back in Turkey killing it for giants Galatasaray, having already scored seven goals in only five appearances for Fatih Terim's team.
He and fellow veteran Hamit Altintop will be key to making the Turk Telekom Arena the "hell" that Galatasaray's old Ali Sami Yen Stadium was to play at for visiting teams.
CFR Cluj: Jorge Martinez
We end our epic journey exploring all 32 Champions League group stage teams with Romanian champions CFR Cluj, a team not expected to make much of a splash in this season's competition.
Their star player is without a doubt former Catania and Juventus player Jorge Martinez, an Uruguayan attacking midfielder with the pace and trickery to give the likes of United and Braga reason for concern this season.
If Cluj are to emulate Cyprian team APOEL's unlikely run to the Champions League quarterfinals, Martinez will be just the type of X-factor required.
But, that's a big "if."
Who do you think is your favourite team's most important player?
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