Picking a Best XI Playing Outside the Major European Leagues
We spend so much time poring over Europe's leading domestic championships that it's easy to forget—especially in a fallow period for the Champions League—some of the quality that exists outside them.
Some excellent talents, including Olympiacos' goal machine Kostas Mitroglou and Lokomotiv Moscow's Mbark Boussoufa, have just missed the cut for our select XI, but here follows some of the best players who are sure to be coveted by Europe's big guns in the current and future transfer windows—and who, in some cases, could light up the World Cup.
Yuri Lodygin (Zenit Saint Petersburg)
Having grown up in Greece, and having played for their under-21 team, this 23-year-old goalkeeper is back in the land of his birth after a cut-price move from Xanthi in the summer. A vocal organiser, Lodygin’s excellent form has kept the legendary Vyacheslav Malafeev on the sidelines and earned a call-up to Fabio Capello’s Russia squad.
Darijo Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Arriving at Shakhtar from Hajduk Split in 2003, the versatile 31-year-old has been a major catalyst in the Ukrainian giants’ arrival as a major European player.
Strong defending at right-back or joining the attack further up the pitch, free-kick specialist Srna has made over 100 appearances for Croatia, and will reprise his role as Shakhtar captain for Niko Kovac’s team at the World Cup.
Fabian Schar (Basel)
The 22-year-old only joined the champions in 2012, but it is already clear that this centre-back is a thoroughbred. Impressing with two high-class showings against Chelsea in the Champions League, Schar is composed beyond his years on the deck and an aerial threat from set pieces too, having already scored three times in five appearances for Switzerland.
Ezequiel Garay (Benfica)
At 27, Garay is developing into a rounded centre-back; technically gifted, yet strong and decisive as well. An excellent reader of the game as well as a good finisher with both feet and his head, he is sure to make the leap back to one of Europe’s big leagues soon, with Manchester United being long-term admirers.
Alex Sandro (FC Porto)
The Brazilian left-back’s arrival in Portugal was delayed by his involvement in Santos’ 2011 Copa Libertadores triumph, and he wasn’t an instant hit. Yet he has settled now to become one of the cultured attacking full-backs in Europe, making attacking runs infield as well as outside, and a valuable asset for the champions. At 22, he seems to have a big future with the Selecao too.
Enzo Perez (Benfica)
Nemanja Matic got a move to Chelsea for his part in Benfica’s eye-catching campaign in 2012/13, but he couldn’t have done it without Perez. When he was loaned back to Estudiantes in early 2012 after a serious knee injury, it seemed they’d seen the last of Perez in Lisbon. Instead, the 27-year-old returned and converted from the wing to central midfield, where his stamina, tackling and passing saw him become Benfica’s heart and soul.
Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord)
Standing at just 169 cm, Clasie has a little bit of Xavi about him as he dominates central midfield with his zip and metronomic passing. Everything that the 22-year-old does oozes composure, and he’s been one of the keys to Feyenoord’s revival under Ronald Koeman. With five Netherlands caps already under Louis van Gaal, Clasie is a cert for the World Cup.
Fernando (FC Porto)
Nicknamed "O Polvo" ("The Octopus") on account of his ability to tackle from anywhere, Fernando has been, by some distance, the Portuguese Liga’s best midfielder for a while. Starting out as a straight-up spoiler, he flourished in possession under Andre Villas-Boas to become a more complete player. Brazilian-born, he recently became eligible for Portugal.
Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kiev)
The 24-year-old is one of Europe’s most coveted wide attackers, troubling defences for Dynamo and Ukraine with his pace, excellent close control, finishing and powerful left foot. Having his teeth alongside returned club legend Andriy Shevchenko, Yarmolenko is now the senior partner and will surely fly the nest soon, with Zenit already failing with a big bid for him last summer.
Burak Yilmaz (Galatasaray)
A curious case, having played for all three Istanbul giants and succeeded as a late developer. Two excellent seasons at Trabzonspor won Burak a move to champions Galatasaray, where he was prolific in last season’s Champions League. He is still improving at 28, becoming useful outside the penalty area as well as deadly in it.
Mohamed Salah (Basel)
This quicksilver Egyptian winger already has a wealth of European experience at just 21, and his excellent technique has allowed him to impress in the Champions League too. Salah’s finishing is improving too, with winning goals in both games against Chelsea to his name, following the vital brace against Ludogorets that sealed passage to the group stage. Liverpool are very keen on him.