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UEFA Champions League: 11 Young Players to Watch

Tony MabertContributor INovember 29, 2016

UEFA Champions League: 11 Young Players to Watch

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    It feels as though the season has only just begun, but already the Champions League is upon us.

    Well, technically the competition started with the first qualifying round back in early July, but now the group stage proper is here things really get serious.

    For young players not yet widely known outside of their own league, this is the opportunity to make a big name for themselves with just a couple of good performances in the right matches.

    Here are 11 players who could forge a career changing reputation for themselves over the next few weeks.

Younes Belhanda

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    Montpellier's surprise triumph in Ligue 1 last season brought forth the expectation of a mass exodus from the Stade de la Mosson. However, striker Olivier Giroud's transfer to Arsenal was the only big move out of the club this summer.

    Young Moroccan playmaker Belhanda with another one of those linked to several big clubs, but he has pledged this season to Montpellier's European adventure before he aims to move on.

Marco Verratti

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    Paris Saint-Germain certainly flexed their financial muscle this summer as they signed three of the most talented players in Serie A—Ezequiel Lavezzi from Napoli and AC Milan duo Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

    However, on the same day as the latter player met the media via an absurd tour that involved photo opportunities around several of the French capital's major landmarks, a more low-key unveiling had earlier taken place.

    Teenager Verratti was dubbed the new Andrea Pirlo during his time at Pescara, where he helped them to promotion to Serie A. However, without playing a single game in Italy's top flight one of the nation's most promising young talents has been poached by French football.

Stephan El Shaawary

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    The AC Milan forward does not even turn 20 for another month, but he already has almost four years of first-team football under his belt.

    Following spells at boyhood club Genoa—where he made his Serie A debut just 55 days after his 16th birthday—and Padova, El Shaawary has made 25 appearances since joining the Rossoneri last summer.

    The Egyptian-Italian forward signed a new five-year contract at the San Siro in the summer and can expect to see even more game time this season.

Lorenzo Melgarejo

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    Melgarejo was bought by Benfica from Paraguayan club Independiente last summer and was immediately loaned out to Pacos de Ferreira where he greatly impressed by scoring 10 goals in 29 league games last term.

    That is a decent enough haul as it is, but it is even more impressive when considering that he mainly plies his trade as an attacking left-back who can also be played as an orthodox winger.

    The 22-year-old has started all three of Benfica's league games so far this season—although he scored an own goal and was responsible for another opposition strike in the 2-2 draw against Braga—and looks certain to feature at Celtic on Wednesday.

Julian Draxler

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    This looks set to be a big season for Draxler. The left winger signed a new long-term deal with Schalke in the summer and he has established himself as first choice in his position.

    On Tuesday—two days before his 19th birthday—he is set to start away to Olimpiakos in a group in which the Bundesliga side are expected to be battling with Arsenal for top spot.

    Draxler has long been identified as a young talent worth watching even by German standards and it is an exciting prospect to see him develop on the big stage this term.

Isco

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    Malaga's financial difficulties led to them losing several top players—most notably midfielder Santi Cazorla and striker Jose Salomon Rondon—just as their fans were hoping to see more big-money signings arrive.

    However, one factor that should offset the loss of Cazorla to Arsenal is the emergence last season of Isco, who scored five goals and set up another four in La Liga as Malaga finished fourth to reach the playoffs.

    The 20-year-old attacking midfielder will be one of their key players in a tough group that includes AC Milan and Zenit St Petersburg.

Daley Blind

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    Having a famous footballing father can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help for a young player, especially when they play for the same club where their dad became a legend.

    But Daley Blind does not appear to be cowing under the weight of his forebear Danny's reputation at Ajax, where he has established himself as a first-choice defender.

    He may not be able to match the Champions League-winning feats of his father at the Amsterdam club this season, but he is certainly a player who is representing his famous family name well. 

Marco Reus

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    The reigning Bundesliga champions may have retained their title last season, but their Champions League campaign ending with them bottom of their group was a major disappointment, nonetheless.

    To that end, Dortmund responded by bringing in one of the most young but immensely talented attacking players in the form of Marco Reus.

    Reus has played all three of Dortmund's league games thus far, and scored just 11 minutes into his debut in the season-opening 2-1 win over Werder Bremen.

Raphael Varane

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    Real Madrid beat off competition from a whole host of Europe's top clubs to sign the French defender.

    The presence of Zinedine Zidane at the club thought to be a significant factor in his decision to move to Spain.

    Varane only made nine appearances in La Liga last season and is yet to play this term, but he already has four Champions League games under his belt and will be worth keeping an eye on should he add to that tally this year.

James Rodriguez

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    The Colombian winger first came to wider attention when he scored a hat-trick in Porto's 6-2 crushing of Guimaraes in the 2011 Portuguese Cup final.

    He followed that up last season with 13 goals in the league as Porto retained the title.

    No wonder Manchester United were reportedly so interested in the 21-year-old, who is contracted to Porto until 2016.

Xherdan Shaqiri

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    Bayern Munich were in no mood to mess about once they saw Shaqiri play in the competition last season with Basel, the Swiss club who helped dump Manchester United out at the group stage.

    The 21-year-old midfielder signed a pre-contract in January with the Bavarian club after many other top European clubs were interested in him.

    The diminutive schemer can expect to get some decent game time for last season's beaten finalists in this year's competition.

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