UEFA Champions League 2013-14: A Player to Watch from Every Team
This season, the 59th of Europe's premier club competition, sees the road head to Lisbon and the Estadio da Luz, and the 32 teams who will kick off the competition proper on September 17 are packed full of quality.
With that being said, here's a look at one player to keep an eye on from each team—some familiar names and regular Champions League stars, others less well known—ahead of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League.
Manchester United: Robin van Persie
The difference-maker in last season's Premier League title race, Robin van Persie's 26 goals and 15 assists fired Manchester United to the championship in Sir Alex Ferguson's final season following his £24 million move from rivals Arsenal.
Now with David Moyes at the helm, the masterful Dutchman will once again be United's main striking threat in a group which looks particularly tricky and could have been a lot more forgiving.
Therefore, his combination of stealthy movement and devastating finishing will play a vital part, and Red Devils supporters will be hoping that he can add to his 21 Champions League goals (53 appearances).
With Danny Welbeck yet to fully convince as a regular scorer, Javier Hernandez seemingly a perennial substitute and the situations regarding Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney still somewhat uncertain—although with the transfer window now closed both will definitely be staying—the weight of expectation rests firmly on van Persie's shoulders.
Shakhtar Donetsk: Douglas Costa
The Ukrainians were hugely impressive in last year's group stage but have since lost a number of key attacking players, most notably Fernandinho, Willian and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Thus now is surely the time for Douglas Costa to truly step up.
The uber-talented Brazilian, fleet of foot and capable of ghosting past defenders like they aren't even there, has been with Shakhtar Donetsk since 2010, but has largely flattered to deceive while watching teammates enhance their reputations.
Operating as an inverted right-winger, the former Gremio man must now take control and lead Mircea Lucescu's attack with his ability to break open tight affairs and to provide chances for strikers Luiz Adriano and Facundo Ferrerya.
With Shakhtar perhaps not as strong as last year and in a particularly tough group, the Miners need Costa to show his very best if they're to stand any chance of navigating their way through the group stage.
Bayer Leverkusen: Stefan Kiessling
Perhaps it's because the 29-year-old isn't the most aesthetically pleasing footballer—somewhat ungainly, all arms and elbows—but he's proven extremely effective as a lone striker in the Werkself's 4-3-2-1 formation over the last five years.
Comfortable shooting with either foot and also a major threat in the air—eight of his 25 league goals last season were headers—Kiessling is a major threat to opposing sides in the penalty area, but he also has good awareness and movement outside the box, which allows him to link well with others: He weighed in with 10 assists last season.
The present campaign, with Bayer under the sole stewardship of Sami Hyypia, has started exactly where last year's finished, Kiessling scoring twice and making three assists in his opening four league matches.
He may have been exiled from the national XI—the last of his six caps came in 2010—but he remains a clear and present danger that Bayer's rivals must keep an eye on.
Real Sociedad: Carlos Vela
Under Philippe Montanier Real Sociedad played some of Europe's most outstanding football last season as they finished fourth in La Liga. Now, with Montanier having moved to Stade Rennais and Jagoba Arrasate his replacement, the vibrant attacking Basque outfit have continued where they left off in 2012-13, beating Champions League regulars Lyon in the qualifying round 4-0 on aggregate.
A key part of the success of La Real last year came in the shape of Mexican forward Carlos Vela, the former Arsenal man who helped himself to 14 goals and 12 assists in 35 league games. He's carried on that form this season, with two goals in his side's opening three matches.
Stationed nominally on the right wing, Vela's ability to dribble at pace, his intelligent movement and composed finishing have been harnessed tremendously over the last two years at the Anoeta, and he is now barely recognisable from the lightweight pushover who couldn't quite cut it in the Premier League in his younger days.
Opponents will have to be careful to keep an eye on the 24-year-old forward, as well as his colleague, Antoine Griezmann, the young French forward with whom Vela has enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership since his arrival at the Anoeta.
Real Madrid: Cristiano Ronaldo
Three successive Champions League seasons under Jose Mourinho have seen the nine-time winners Real Madrid reach the semi-final stage but fail to get any further. Now with Mourinho having been replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, twice a winner as coach of AC Milan, Los Blancos go in pursuit of a 10th European Cup once more.
And as he has been to all things Real since his arrival from Manchester United in 2009, critical to their hopes of success will once again be Cristiano Ronaldo, who notched 55 times last season.
Top scorer in last year's competition with 12 goals, the 28-year-old Portuguese forward will be Madrid's main attacking threat once more, despite the arrival of Gareth Bale from Tottenham.
Lethal whether it's from three yards or 30, tremendous in the air and fantastic in wide areas, Ronaldo is very much the complete modern forward (witness some of his 2012-13 goals here).
Ronaldo's name is already certain to go into the club's history books alongside other greats like Raul, Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, but leading Real to la decima would add that little bit of extra gravitas.
Juventus: Arturo Vidal
The Juventus midfield is one of the world's best, and at its heart lies perhaps the best box-to-box midfielder in world football today: Arturo Vidal.
Tenacious and destructive, deft and fantastic, the 26-year-old Chilean has a little bit of everything in his locker and exemplifies Antonio Conte's hard-running philosophy to a tee.
"Il Guerriero"—the Warrior—has played a vital role in the Bianconeri's twin successes in Serie A, while he also led the Juve scoring charts last season with 15 goals in 45 matches (all club competitions). A recent two goal haul against Lazio showed that he is set to continue his goalscoring ways this season.
The Italian champions have added the likes of Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez to their number this summer, while Paul Pogba continues to make tremendous strides in his fledgling career, and Andrea Pirlo continues to age like a fine wine.
However, if they're to make their mark on the tournament, then the outstanding Vidal will need to be at his most potent.
Galatasaray: Wesley Sneijder
Having been discarded by Inter Milan during January after somewhat losing his way following his heroics of 2010—where he played a crucial role in the Neazzurri's Champions League success and the Netherlands' run to the World Cup final—Wesley Sneijder made the move to Istanbul and Fatih Terim's Galatasaray.
On his day the mercurial Dutch playmaker is among the most brilliant No. 10s plying their trade in world football today, blessed with an outstanding range of passing, clever movement and wonderful vision.
However, in recent years those days have been few and far between, but in Terim he is now playing under an astute coach, who, despite the tough draw, will be instilling a belief in his side that they can advance from a difficult group.
Buruk Yilmaz and Didier Drogba, the powerful strike duo, will always give them a puncher's chance, but if Sneijder's brilliance can be unlocked on a consistent basis, then Gala will trouble even the best.
FC Copenhagen: Fanendo Adi
A new name in Danish football, Nigerian forward Fanendo Adi joined Copenhagen, back under the stewardship of Stale Solbakken, in mid-August and has wasted no time in making his presence felt.
Arriving from Slovakian side AS Trenclin, Adi is an out-and-out goalscorer, always looking to get himself into goalscoring positions in and around the penalty area.
Two goals in his opening two Danish Superliga matches have been his reward so far, and if the more fancied teams in Group B are defensively slack he will punish them.
Benfica: Lazar Markovic
Having ended as also rans on three fronts last season, Portuguese giants Benfica have brought in a number of new signings this summer, principal among them a group of talented Serbians led by the wonderful youngster Lazar Markovic.
The 19-year-old forward, adept playing both through the middle or on either flank, mixes intelligent movement, pace and an assuredness in the final third.
Already a senior Serbian international, his two debut appearances—albeit as a substitute—in Portuguese football have resulted in two goals, including the equaliser against cross-city rivals Sporting. And having arrived for €10 million from Partizan Belgrade, he's certainly one to keep an eye on.
Paris Saint-Germain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Paris Saint-Germain have splashed the cash once again this summer, most notably on Edinson Cavani, but the main man in the French capital very much remains Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Swedish international forward enjoyed an outstanding first season in Ligue 1 in 2012-13 scoring 30 goals in 34 matches while also adding 10 assists as he led le Parisiens to a first championship since 1994.
Technically and physically outstanding, Ibrahimovic will be vital to PSG's hopes of advancing to the later stages of the competition under Laurent Blanc, and the player's intelligence will be needed as he looks to make his partnership with Edinson Cavani work.
A major presence, the man whose autobiography is entitled "I am Zlatan" is still without a Champions League medal; turning 32 in October, it's quickly becoming a case of now or never.
Olympiacos: Javier Saviola
The diminutive Argentine hitman, with 40 caps and 11 international goals to his name, has had a decent career across some of Iberia's biggest hitters—Barcelona, Real Madrid, Benfica, Malaga—following his breakthrough as a youngster at River Plate and will this season be leading the line for Greek giants Olympiacos.
Now 31, some of the pace which made him such a threat in his younger years may have gone, but the same predatory instincts and ability to shuffle past opponents in tight areas remain.
After scoring eight league goals for Malaga last season, Saviola has already begun making his mark in the Greek capital, scoring two goals in his first three Super League matches.
Anderlecht: Massimo Bruno
Anderlecht have a rich history of producing young players, and in right-winger Massimo Bruno they potentially have another star in the making.
The 19-year-old made a first-team place his own last season, his rapid acceleration and quality delivery offering the Belgian champions a direct threat from the flank.
Additionally, Bruno has made an excellent start to the current season, scoring five goals in his opening six league games, while also weighing in with two assists.
Bayern Munich: Franck Ribery
The outstanding French winger Franck Ribery enjoyed the finest season of his career in 2012-13 as he led Bayern Munich to an unprecedented treble.
Moreover, his performances have led to individual accolades also, with Ribery deservedly named as UEFA's Best Player in Europe for 2012-13, while he is a leading contender for the FIFA Ballon d'Or also.
Forty-three games in all competitions saw the left winger at his cutting best, scoring 11 goals and making 23 assists, with his mesmeric dribbling, direct running and ability to go both inside and out causing even Europe's toughest defenders a multitude of problems.
Now, under new manager Pep Guardiola, the 30-year-old Ribery will look to replicate his form of last season, and he has certainly started in the right vein, having been excellent during Bayern's UEFA Super Cup win over Chelsea.
CSKA Moscow: Ahmed Musa
The lightning quick Nigerian forward Ahmed Musa is still only 20, but he joined CSKA Moscow in early 2012 from Dutch club VVV-Venlo.
2012-13 saw the precocious Musa really make his mark for the Army Men, notching 15 goals in 35 matches (all competitions), and he's added another five in eight so far this season.
A tricky dribbler with intelligent movement, he also played a key role in Nigeria's success at January's African Cup of Nations, as well as impressing for the Super Eagles at this summer's Confederations Cup.
Manchester City: Vincent Kompany
The Belgian international defender is the club captain and leader in the Manchester City dressing room and has all the attributes of one of world football's best central defenders.
Last season may not have seen the former Anderlecht and Hamburg man at his most dominant—injuries played their part—and while City's Champions League struggles have been well documented due to their failure to escape the group stage, in the Premier League they conceded just 34 goals in 38 matches: a league best.
Decisive, quick across the ground, aerially dominant and an intelligent reader of the game, the 27-year-old is the Premier League's most outstanding centre-back when at his best.
However, with City having flattered to deceive on the European stage in the last two years, Kompany will have to be at the top of his game if Manuel Pellegrini's side are to challenge at Europe's top table this time around.
Viktoria Plzen: Pavel Horvath
Vastly experienced with a wealth of footballing knowledge, the 38-year-old midfielder Pavel Horvath continues dictating the tempo at the heart of the Czech champions midfield.
The clever schemer, blessed with a good passing range and exemplary vision has only been with Viktoria Plzen for the last five years, during which time he has led them to their first two Czech titles.
Moreover, such has been Horvath's impact that he was voted as the club's all-time best player at their centenary gala in 2012.
Chelsea: Eden Hazard
Now under Jose Mourinho the Blues are back among the favourites to challenge for a third successive European crown, and the outstanding winger Eden Hazard will be vitally important, having seemingly become his new manager's first choice in the attacking midfield positions.
The 22-year-old, a mixture of breathtaking acceleration, tremendous dexterity and dribbling prowess made 63 appearances for Chelsea last season, scoring 13 goals and making 20 assists in all competitions, although he did miss the Europa League final through injury.
Now, his new manager is, according to the Daily Mail, challenging the prodigiously talented Hazard to make an increasing number of decisive contributions and to claim his place among the pantheon of world football's very top performers.
As the former Lille creator looks to make that transition, he'll be well worth keeping an eye on.
Schalke 04: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
Having enjoyed an outstanding 2011-12, where he helped himself to 48 goals in 48 games (all competitions), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar wasn't quite at his best in 2012-13—to be fair injuries did play their part—though he still scored a respectable 16 goals.
A pure No. 9, Huntelaar is an excellent mover in the penalty area, always looking for space from where to strike, be it with his left foot or his right; he isn't bad in the air either.
Now 30, the Dutchman, who boasts an excellent 34 goals in 60 international caps, will be looking to use the 2013-14 campaign to cement his place in Louis van Gaal's World Cup squad.
Schalke under Jens Keller may not be as strong as they have been in recent times, but while they have the creative talents of Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfan and Kevin Prince Boateng, "The Hunter" will be key to progression to the knockout stages.
FC Basel: Fabian Schaer
The 21-year-old central defender enjoyed an excellent first season with FC Basel in the last campaign, playing a key role in their Swiss Super League success and run to the semi-finals of the Europa League—where they were knocked out by Chelsea—culminating in his debut for the national team.
Strong, uncompromising and decent aerially, Schaer looks destined to go on to bigger and better things, but another season of regular first-team exposure with the RotBlau will only be for his benefit.
Also has a more than handy eye-for-goal, having scored eight times last season and four already this.
Steaua Bucharest: Federico Piovaccari
The 29-year-old Italian striker is something of a journeyman around the second tier of Italian football, with a 23-goal haul in 39 games for Cittadella in 2010-11 marking the most prolific spell of his career.
In the two years since, he has bounced around four different Serie B sides, before finding his way to Romanian football this season with Steaua Bucharest.
Subsequently Piovaccari has already featured in six qualifying games ahead of the Champions League group stage, helping himself to three goals.
Arsenal: Laurent Koscielny
Arsenal's attacking talent is plentiful, and the addition of Mesut Ozil, the brilliant German schemer, only adds to that number.
However, their achilles heel at the top level has long been a disappointing defence, and with Arsene Wenger having chosen to forego improvements in that area this summer, then Laurent Koscielny will need to continue what has been, on a personal level, an excellent 2013.
The French defender has been consistently brilliant this calendar year, showcasing decisiveness, solid tackling and a wonderful reading of the game which often allows him to sweep up danger before it presents itself.
With Arsenal having been placed in the Group of Death, the 27-year-old will need to be at his most combative if the Gunners are to emerge successful.
Marseille: Andre-Pierre Gignac
After a bitterly disappointing 2011-12 where he netted just once in 21 league games and was largely frozen out by then-manager Marseille manager Didier Deschamps, Andre-Pierre Gignac appeared to have little future at the Stade Velodrome.
Fast forward to the present day and the 27-year-old striker is very much first choice under Elie Baup, having played a key part in Marseille's second-place finish in Ligue 1 last season with 18 goals in all competitions.
Not the most mobile of strikers, nor the most glamorous, Gignac's beauty is in his simplicity: ball comes in, he keeps it, finds a teammate and looks to head to the box. Powerful and bullish, he doesn't mind combating defenders and is always looking to get a shot off towards goal.
And on the back of last season, Gignac has continued the present campaign in a similar manner, with three goals in his first four Ligue 1 outings. With supply from the likes of Andre Ayew and new signing Florian Thauvin, Gignac will be a dangerous proposition.
Borussia Dortmund: Robert Lewandowski
Perhaps the outstanding No. 9 in European football last season, Robert Lewandowski remains at Borussia Dortmund this term, ready to spearhead Juergen Klopp's side on another European charge.
Die Borussen produced some of Europe's most magical and aesthetically pleasing football last time out as they went all the way to Wembley with the Polish star at the heart of their success.
The highlight of his season was undoubtedly his four-goal haul in BVB's semi-final win over Real Madrid at the Westfalenstadion, a match which showcased the very best of Lewandowski: his deftness of touch, intelligent movement, determination, composure and clinical finishing.
The 25-year-old finished with 36 goals in 49 games in 2012-13—10 of which came in Dortmund's run to the Champions League final—and sides will be well aware of his capabilities ahead of the upcoming campaign; stopping him, however, is a completely different matter.
Napoli: Marek Hamsik
Having seen Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani leave in successive summers, Marek Hamsik is the last tenor left in Naples, but the Slovakian makes a return to the Champions League following Napoli's absence last time round.
Walter Mazzarri and the 3-4-3 formation have gone also, with European Cup-winning coach Rafa Benitez and his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation coming in; indirectly Hamsik has been handed greater responsibility, given a central attacking role behind new striker Gonzalo Higuain.
A mixture of excellent vision, clever passing, hard work and intelligent, well-timed off-the-ball runs, Hamsik is very much the modern day all-action attacker, a powerful No. 10, which Italian football has been embracing over the last 12 months.
Under his new manager Hamsik has added greater incision to his game already, his versatility proving a great strength also. Napoli, the most dangerous of all the fourth seeds, look well set to compete in the Group of Death, and Hamsik could prove their biggest danger.
FC Porto: Juan Fernando Quintero
The magnificent young Colombian was outstanding at the Under-20 World Cup and, having signed for FC Porto as a replacement for compatriot James Rodriguez, will likely have the Estadio Dragao purring before too long.
A No. 10 brimming with magnificent vision, intelligent movement and no shortage of technical qualities, Quintero arrived in Portugal for a measly £4.4 million earlier this summer; by the time Porto decide to sell to one of Europe's big hitters, expect him to cost at least five times as much.
Blessed with a devastating left foot capable of bludgeoning the ball towards goal from distance or carving open opposing defences with a deft through pass, Quintero is a player who seeks responsibility and looks to make things happen.
New Porto boss Paulo Fonseca has looked to ease the 20-year-old into life with the Portuguese champions. But having already scored a goal and made a match-winning assist in his three substitute outings so far, it won't be long before Quintero makes a guaranteed starting place his own, whether playing inverted from the right or in his favoured central position.
Atletico Madrid: David Villa
Having left Barcelona in the summer, Spain's record goalscorer David Villa decided to head for Madrid and Diego Simeone's continually improving Atletico, as replacement for Radamel Falcao.
The 31-year-old, a bargain at just £4.4 million, offers Atleti a clinical, razor sharp edge in and around the penalty area, and while a serious leg injury sustained in 2011 may have robbed him of a yard of pace, the stealthy movement and goalscoring nous remains.
Having spent much of his time at Camp Nou occupying a wide position, Villa is back in his preferred central role alongside the hard-working Diego Costa in Simeone's compact 4-4-2 formation, keeping him closer to the opponent's penalty box from where he can do his best work.
And with two goals already to his name, including an absolute blockbluster in the Spanish Super Cup against his former club, Villa looks to be enjoying himself.
A side who give away very little, Atleti will ask questions of Europe's best this season and could be potential dark horses.
Zenit St Petersburg: Axel Witsel
The all-action Belgian midfielder made a staggering £35 million move to Russian club Zenit St Petersburg a year ago and, having initially struggled to acclimatise or to find his best form, is now looking far more at home.
Having spent 2012-13 changing position a lot as Luciano Spalletti looked to get the most from his side, the former Benfica man has made a central-midfield berth alongside mainstay Roman Shirokov his own this season, and it has coincided with Witsel beginning to show something like his best.
A good passer, strong tackler and capable carrier, the 24-year-old is very much the prototype for the modern midfielder, though he does need to add a greater goal threat to his game—he's without a goal in 12 games with Zenit so far this season.
Nonetheless, a player of great quality, opponents can't afford to give Witsel time or space when he comes to town.
Austria Vienna: Heinz Lindner
The 23-year-old could be in for a busy time in Group G, with Austria Vienna looking outmatched in the face of three vastly experienced European campaigners.
With over 100 league appearances to his name already and five international caps also—Lindner finds himself pushing Robert Almer for the No. 1 spot for Das Team—the Austria Vienna stopper will look to further enhance his growing reputation.
Austria Vienna came through a tricky qualifying tie against Dinamo Zagreb to qualify for the group stages and in the third qualifying round Lindner put in an excellent display in the 2-0 win over Dinamo in Zagreb.
Barcelona: Lionel Messi
In the case of Barcelona's Lionel Messi, the world ran out of superlatives a long time ago.
His qualities have been widely publicised, while his goalscoring record speaks for itself. Subsequently, records continue to fall at the feet of the 26-year-old, who may just be the greatest footballer ever.
Nevertheless, questions continue to follow the player, who has made the extraordinary appear mundane, whenever he doesn't achieve perfection. Thus, following last year's semi-final hammering by Bayern, all eyes are on Messi and his teammates to see if the 2009 and 2011 Champions League winners have a response to being comprehensively decimated.
Now, the brilliant Argentine must come up with a response and look to improve upon a 60-goal season where he merely won a sixth La Liga title.
Five goals in his opening two league matches is quite the start, but it's the Champions League that remains the acid test, and Messi's riposte to the last campaign will be well worth looking out for.
AC Milan: Mario Balotelli
In the eight months since arriving at AC Milan from Manchester City, Mario Balotelli has visibly grown from an oft-frustrating, mercurial talent laced with potential to a No. 9 who is consistently making decisive contributions for his side.
Leading the line for Masimiliano Allegri's side as the first-choice central striker, Balotelli has begun to show a maturity far exceeding anything that he has shown at either Inter Milan or Manchester City and which has subsequently led to 14 goals in 17 appearances for the Rossoneri.
Physically strong, excellent at using his body to protect the ball, ferocious shooting power and an underrated ability to link play, the Italian international is growing into the player who Roberto Mancini and Cesare Prandelli always believed he would be.
The enigmatic forward always makes for interesting viewing, but as he matures it is becoming increasingly for his footballing qualities than anything else, and that only bodes well both for Milan and the Azzurri.
Ajax: Siem De Jong
As is the norm with modern football, more big names have departed Ajax and the Amsterdam Arena this summer—in this case Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen and Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld—but the excellent attacking midfielder and club captain Siem de Jong remains.
The 24-year-old, a mixture of technical quality and positional intelligence, has played his part in Ajax's three successive Eredivisie triumphs, with a career average of one goal every three games.
De Jong suffered a collapsed lung in early August, but the four-time European champions will be counting on him as soon as he returns to fitness.
Celtic: Nir Biton
The 21-year-old defensive midfielder is the current Israel under-21 international skipper and arrived at Celtic from FC Ashdod towards the end of the transfer window.
Tall and imposing, Biton is something of a replacement for Victor Wanyama, the midfield destroyer who left for Southampton earlier in the summer.
Strong in the tackle and positionally disciplined, Biton will need to be at his best if the Scottish club are to frustrate their more technical opponents and are to stand any chance of escaping the group.
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