Each UEFA Champions League Team's Most Promising Youngster in the Group Stage

Tom SunderlandFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2012

Each UEFA Champions League Team's Most Promising Youngster in the Group Stage

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    While the seasoned veterans might take the majority of the limelight, the Champions League is an ideal platform for the youth to shine on a stage that may not be available that often in their career.

    Whether they start or see most of their matches on the bench, each and every participating club will have that one bright light being tipped for a glittering future.

    The following candidates were all selected on a number of factors, including playing time within the first team so far, national team experience and potential.

    Every player included has to be aged 23 or under to qualify as a “youngster” in this essence.

    Bare in mind, some sides will undoubtedly have more than one prodigy amongst their ranks but the one put forth is merely seen as the best, or most promising in this case, of the batch.

Ajax

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    Christian Eriksen


    Already well-versed in the realm of the Champions League, Christian Eriksen will once again be pivotal in any success Ajax are to have this season.

    His responsibilities are increased that much more when you consider that his club have been drawn in the 2012-13 edition of the "Group of Death," with Real Madrid, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund.

    Eriksen has already accumulated over 30 caps for the Danish national side, playing in two major international tournaments.

    Despite being just out of his teens, the 20-year-old has an incredible amount of experience under his belt already and is one of the most creatively gifted youngsters in this whole tournament, never mind for Ajax.

Anderlecht

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    Cheikhou Kouyate


    A large part of Anderlecht’s triumph in the Jupiler Pro League last season, Cheikhou Kouyate seems to be living up to the potential that saw Arsenal raise interest in his signature some years ago.

    The centre-back standing at 6’4” may be just 22 years old, but his frame and stature make him a serious presence in defence.

    A Senegalese prospect, Kouyate doesn’t appear intimidated by the best of Belgium’s attackers and it will be interesting to see how the youngster stands up to the best of Europe’s elite. 

Arsenal

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    Jack Wilshere


    Set to make his return from an injury that saw him sit for over a year on the sidelines, Arsenal fans will be ecstatic to hear of the return of their super starlet, Jack Wilshere.

    It’s still early days to say if the 20-year-old will feature much in this season’s Champions League, but his talent is undeniable nonetheless.

    Before his ankle injury last summer, Wilshere was on a meteoric rise as a budding prodigy for club and country and it will be intriguing to see if he can rediscover the same form he was displaying at the time.

    If Arsenal’s midfield talent is able to do so, the Gunners have a majorly productive playmaker back amongst their ranks.

FC BATE Borisov

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    Renan Bardini Bressan


    Although BATE’s squad may be made up mostly of players from the club’s native Belarus, it’s a Brazilian-born starlet that gets the nod as the club’s most promising youngster.

    Renan Bardini Bressan has scored eight goals and made four assists in 17 league starts this season and is one of the best chances BATE Borisov have to score goals in European competition.

    Bressan is a Belarusian international with two goals in just three games, a goal-per-game ratio that BATE will hope their forward can replicate on a club scale.

FC Barcelona

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    Thiago Alcantara


    One in a seemingly endless chain of creative midfielders to make their way through La Masia, Barcelona’s youth product, Thiago Alcantara, has already made great strides amongst the club’s first team.

    Although the likes of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are infinitely valued as the creative forces of the Spain and Barca squads, both would seem in safe hands with Alcantara gradually ascending.

    The 21-year-old already has three caps for the World and European champions and although you could pick from a raft of Catalan youths to be their most promising, Alcantara’s talent, as well as positional importance, make him a highly valued asset.

Bayern Munich

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    Thomas Muller


    Thomas Müller may be just 23 years old but the winger-cum-attacking midfielder has done well to rack up over 150 appearances for Bayern Munich, no small feat in itself.

    Having already announced himself on the world stage, Muller finished the 2010 World Cup with the Golden Boot and is one of a number of German midfield maestros set for grand futures.

    Der FCB have an incredibly talented midfield but Muller still manages to feature greatly for the current Bundesliga league leaders, and feature well at that, having scored five goals and made seven assists already this campaign.

    Bayern have reached the Champions League final twice in the last three years and Muller is sure to star greatly for the European big guns.

Benfica

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    Rodrigo


    One of a number of former Real Madrid academy members to come to the Portuguese top flight, Rodrigo has finally settled into a groove with Benfica.

    Manchester United felt first-hand just how talented the Spaniard has the potential to be and Rodrigo will be looking to impress against some giants again this year when his side face Barcelona in the group stage.

    Formerly of the Castilla, the 21-year-old is contracted at Benfica until 2019, so it’s quite clear just how much faith the club have in their player becoming a superstar.

Borussia Dortmund

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    Mario Gotze


    As is often the case with lists such as these, some youngsters will be slightly unknown to even avid fans, but Mario Gotze has no such luck.

    The Borussian has been in the eye of the public for some time now and despite being just 20 years old, has played a major role in each of Borussia Dortmund’s last two Bundesliga-winning seasons.

    Gotze is one of a number of midfielders lined up to become the new wave of German maestros, and would appear as likely to do just that given his early progress.

    The youngster has 18 caps for the German team and has already made 46 starts for the Yellow and Blacks, contributing 21 assists and 14 goals.

Braga

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    Ismaily Goncalves dos Santos


    While the Braga tenure of Ismaily Goncalves dos Santos is still in its infancy, the left-sided defender is already being looked upon as a very promising prospect in his new surroundings.

    The full-back got two assists in his debut match in a 2-2 draw against Benfica and went on to net his first goal for Braga in the last stage of Champions League qualifying with a 30-yard effort.

    There may be youngsters at the Portuguese outfit who have been around for longer but Dos Santos' early performances make it difficult to see past his potential.

Celtic

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    Victor Wanyama


    It’s hard to think of many Kenyan footballers to have made much of an impact on world football but Victor Wanyama is doing well to try and break the trend.

    Celtic find the odds stacked against them in a group with Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow, but players like Wanyama are capable of working with those underdog statuses.

    A versatile central midfielder capable of playing in defence as well, the 21-year-old is one of a number of youngsters amongst the Hoops’ ranks, and an especially promising one at that.

CFR Cluj

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    Matias Aguirregaray


    Having played only four matches for CFR Cluj, Aguirregaray may seem like an odd choice for the club’s most promising talent, and one would be right to think as such.

    However, the summer purchase from Penarol has already made a very strong impact at the Romanian outfit, scoring twice in his first four games—bearing in mind Aguirregaray is a right-back.

    The defender gets forward on every occasion possible and though he might be 23, Aguirregaray sticks out amongst the rest of Cluj’s ranks.

Chelsea

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    Eden Hazard


    Not so much a “promising youngster” but more of a long-standing talent in his own right, Eden Hazard’s name won’t be unknown to many.

    The Belgian attacker joined the Champions League title holders over the summer and has done well in moulding into his new Chelsea surroundings.

    In his first four games as a Blue, Hazard made six assists and didn’t take long to score the first goal of his Chelsea career. Already making waves at Stamford Bridge, the former Lille prospect will have a long and fruitful Chelsea career if the first few months are anything to go by.

Dinamo Zagreb

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    Mateo Kovacic


    Although he was born in Austria, Mateo Kovacic calls Croatia his home and is being tipped as the future of the nation’s midfield by some.

    Yet to make a start for the senior side, the 18-year-old has made a good impact on the nation’s under-21 team and is an important component for Dinamo Zagreb.

    While not the most offensively gifted midfielder, Kovacic has a habit of creating scoring opportunities for those around him. While Dinamo’s chances of Champions League progress aren’t too hopeful this season, Kovacic is certain to be a big part of any luck they may have.

Dynamo Kiev

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    Andriy Yarmolenko


    One of Ukraine’s brighter sparks at Euro 2012, Andriy Yarmolenko has already made a strong impact on the international stage and has 25 caps for the Yellow-Blues.

    Dynamo Kiev rely heavily on the talents of the country in which their league is based and it’s no surprise that Yarmolenko is seen by many as a future great for the national team.

    The 22-year-old is a dangerous left-sided attacker that will shoulder a great deal of the attacking burdens for Dynamo, regardless of his age.

    Yarmolenko does have small issues with maintaining his fitness, but scored 12 goals in 20 league appearances for his club last season, contributing a number of assists in the process.

Galatasaray

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    Semih Kaya


    Known by his own supporters as "The Rock," it’s no surprise that Semih Kaya is somewhat of a defensive stalwart amongst the Galatasaray fraternity.

    After having a breakout season in 2011-12, the centre-back has emerged as a first-choice defender and played a huge role in his club’s Superliga title victory last campaign.

    Although he’s only 21, the Turkish international has stood up to some staggeringly experienced attackers in his short professional career and would seem to have a bright future ahead.

Juventus

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    Kwadwo Asamoah


    Originally purchased as a midfielder, Kwadwo Asamoah has proven his versatility already this season after seeing major success as a left wing-back.

    The Juventus utility is establishing himself as an important asset for the Serie A giants and is making it difficult for Antonio Conte (or Massimo Carrera) to drop him from the starting XI.

    Udinese’s former star has already accumulated over 40 caps for Ghana at the age of just 23, and has made an excellent start to life with the Old Lady.

Lille

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    Lucas Digne


    With Eden Hazard's move to Chelsea, the void became vacant for a new starlet to emerge from within the Lille ranks, a void that was promptly filled by Lucas Digne.

    The 19-year-old doesn’t play in the most attacking of positions for Lille but the French outfit must have high expectations for the teenager after rewarding him with a new four-year contract earlier this year.

    Digne is an offensively-minded full-back with a tendency to help out in attack and has done brilliantly to tie down a place in Lille’s starting XI of late.

Malaga

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    Isco


    Five goals in eight appearances for the Spanish under-21 national team is a record that points towards a rare talent, but is a record that Isco has accrued in his career so far.

    Regardless of the financial struggles that the club may have faced of late, Isco has pounced on the opportunities afforded to him as a result of Malaga’s summer departures.

    Santi Cazorla’s sale would appear to have been especially fortuitous for Isco, who has stepped into new attacking duties with responsibility beyond his 20 years. 

Manchester City

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    Mario Balotelli


    Unknown to nobody, Mario Balotelli’s most recent European escapades came at Euro 2012 when the Manchester City forward netted a fabulous brace against Germany.

    On a more domestic level, the Italian has been unfortunate not to make more of an impact at the Etihad Stadium, sometimes falling behind Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez.

    Always one to be controversial, the striker suffers in squad selection at times as a result of his own petulance, but is an undeniable talent amongst City’s ranks.

    Roberto Mancini’s side have made a habit of buying players in their prime in recent years but if there was any youngster to be picked out as especially promising, Balotelli is the man.

Manchester United

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    Shinji Kagawa


    Having arrived over the summer for a fee of just £12 million, Shinji Kagawa has taken little time to fit in at Old Trafford and Manchester United can expect to see a lot more from the Japanese international.

    However, the attacking midfielder did enough at Borussia Dortmund to show that he has what it takes against some of Europe’s giants and was a major hand in the club winning two Bundesliga titles and a DFB Pokal crown.

    Kagawa likes to play behind the striker and is renowned for supreme passing and dribbling skills, both of which he is bound to show as his days as a Red Devil evolve.

Milan

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    Alexandre Pato


    After falling out with Massimiliano Allegri last season, Alexandre Pato appears to have resolved any qualms with the management at the San Siro.

    The Brazilian international has been around for quite some time, having made a huge impression in his younger days, making it hard to believe he’s still just 23 years old.

    After selling Zlatan Ibrahimovic over the summer, there’s a good chance that Pato will get a greater crack of the whip up front for the Rossoneri in the current campaign.

    While he may not be in the most prolific vein of form at the moment—or even in the last year—there’s no doubt that Pato is a promising player.

Montpellier

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    Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa


    Captaining any side to success in a domestic league is an incredibly difficult task in any elite league. However, that feat is made all the more impressive when you consider Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa did it last season at the age of just 22 years old.

    Now 23, the Montpellier centre-back is starting to make his first forays into the French national team and although an inevitable slump in form has been seen for his club this season, Yanga-Mbiwa has been staunch nonetheless.

    Younes Belhanda would certainly be another prospect that Montpellier have in their squad, but a centre-back as talented as Yanga-Mbiwa at his age would appear all the more promising.

FC Nordsjaelland

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    Jores Okore


    Still in his teenage years, Jores Okore picked up a place as a starting centre-back for Nordsjaelland last season and has retained that spot in the 2012-13 campaign.

    Now aged 20, Okore has earned three caps for the Danish national team and is making efficient use of any experience thrown his way.

    The Ivorian-born defender made 25 appearances for Nordsjaelland last season and has already made almost half as many this time around.

    That sort of record would certainly suggest Okore is in the long-term plans of the Danish outfit, making him one of the nation’s top defensive prospects.

Olympiakos

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    Ioannis Fetfatzidis


    A player whom some referred to as the “Greek Lionel Messi” several years ago, Ioannis Fetfatzidis may not have quite lived up to those comparisons but is far from an ancient and has a good chance of achieving as some previously expected before.

    The Olympiakos attacker is only 21 years old but has made 13 appearances for the Greek national team, plying his trade on the wing or in a more centrally attacking position.

    “Fetfa” possesses great pace and is very capable of making life miserable for opposition full-backs from either flank.

Paris Saint-Germain

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    Marco Verratti


    Even with all the millions PSG have spent in recent seasons, Marco Verratti has done well to prove that he is good enough to warrant a starting spot at the Parc des Princes.

    A central midfielder built in the mould of Andrea Pirlo, the Italian youngster made the move to Paris from Pescara over the summer.

    Since then, Verratti has made five Ligue 1 starts for Qatari-owned PSG, creating two assists in the process.

    The 19-year-old will need to fight feverishly if he is to maintain his starting place under Carlo Ancelotti but is proving in his short-lived PSG career that he has the ability to do just that.

Porto

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    James Rodriguez


    Tipped as one of the best players to come out of Colombia in generations, Porto winger James Rodriguez stands to profit massively from the summer departure of Hulk.

    The 21-year-old has made three assists and scored two goals of his own in just two league starts so far this season, and is easily one of South America’s most exciting prospects.

    Rodriguez stands out as a top talent in Porto’s roster of potential and will be a big part of any success they have this season.

Real Madrid

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    Mesut Ozil

     

    Since moving from Werder Bremen in 2010, Mesut Ozil has taken little time to adjust to life at Real Madrid and ranked highest in terms of assists in major European and domestic competitions last season with 25.

    Given his huge amount of involvement at the top level in recent years, it’s easy to forget that Ozil is still just 23 years old.

    The attacking midfielder has already made 41 competitive appearances for the German national side, scoring 12 goals and pitching in with numerous assists since debuting in 2009.

    Although Real Madrid haven’t got off to the best start to the season, Ozil remains a key cog in the Los Merengues machine and should be at the centre of their engine room for some time to come.

Schalke 04

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    Julian Draxler


    Already making a huge mark on the Schalke 04 first team, Julian Draxler is showing no signs of immaturity at just 19 years of age.

    The Gladbeck-born midfielder is a very versatile playmaker who is capable of playing on either wing or in a more central position behind the striker.

    Draxler has made five starts for Die Knappen this campaign so far, scoring three goals and making two assists.

    The teenager is also a part of that German next generation having featured for Die Mannschaft on two occasions already this season.

Shakhtar Donetsk

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    Douglas Costa


    Once linked with a move to Manchester United, it was Shakhtar Donetsk that won the race to sign Douglas Costa in 2010.

    Since then, the Brazilian has affirmed his position as a staple for the Ukrainian champions, featuring strongly as one of a number of South American starlets in their ranks.

    Costa recently penned a five-year contract extension with Shakhtar, showing that the Eastern Europeans must have some major plans for their 22-year-old, who promises to only improve with age.

Spartak Moscow

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    Romulo


    Another Brazilian to make this list, Romulo was a part of the side that won silver in the football event at London 2012 this summer.

    Tragically, the defensive midfielder is set to undergo knee surgery despite playing only a handful of games for Spartak Moscow, whom he moved to in the summer transfer window.

    The former Vasco da Gama starlet may miss a period of time out with injury now but that isn’t to detract from the anchorman’s potential, and if he were to come back in some months' time as strong as he has been in the last two months, a bright future lies ahead.

Valencia

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    Sergio Canales


    One of a few players on this list to fall out of favour in the youth ranks at Real Madrid, Sergio Canales is actually yet to play a minute for Valencia this season.

    That being said, there’s no other youngster that holds quite as much potential with Los Che than Canales himself and if he returns as expected in November, he could still be the key to a successful campaign.

    The 21-year-old spent last season on loan with Valencia and impressed enough to seal a permanent move.

    As mentioned earlier, it may be questionable as to whether or not the attacking midfielder returns as the same player after such a damaging knee injury that he’s suffered in the past.

    However, if he were to match his potential, Canales may yet feature in the Spanish national team, as he’s done brilliantly for the under-21 squad.

Zenit St. Petersburg

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    Axel Witsel


    After completing a £32 million move from Benfica to Zenit St. Petersburg over the summer, it’s fair to say that there’s a heap of pressure on the shoulders of Axel Witsel to live up to such a hefty price tag.

    Witsel is part of the emerging Belgian national team and made a name for himself at Benfica as being a very versatile central player capable of performing in defensive midfield or more advanced positions.

    Zenit obviously feel the 23-year-old warranted such a massive price tag and it’s hard for a man who cost so much to not be considered his side’s most promising youngster.

     

     

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