20 Hottest Young Players to Watch in the Champions League This Season
The race for football's greatest prize is now down to just 32 teams.
Having watched the playoffs and qualifying rounds take place, the UEFA Champions League group stage is now seemingly ready to begin. We know which teams will battle it out, and while we don't yet know the groups or how those matches will play out, we do know which teams and players to watch for.
And in terms of players worth watching, the list is endless.
Even when we try to just look at young players, the number of stars who could make the list is remarkable—so we've tried to cut down that list even further.
To do that, two important selection criteria were required.
Firstly, a "young player" is someone aged 21 or under. Apologies to all the 30-somethings out there whom I may have just insulted.
Secondly, only one player per team made this list. That allows us to gain a bit of a wider view on the Champions League as a whole, rather than missing out on several teams and key players as a result.
Let's take a look at the top 20 young players in the 2013-14 Champions League.
Ahmed Musa, 20, CSKA Moscow
A natural goalscoring talent. Playing in Russia in October/November won't be easy for many teams (depending on group), and Musa could well take advantage of that for CSKA Moscow. Strong and powerful with sublime dribbling skills as well.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, 20, Arsenal
Would have made this list outright, but the fact that he's injured and won't return until October at the earliest, per PhysioRoom, slides him outside of the top 20. Can be incredibly devastating on the right wing, though, and will be crucial to Gunners' attack when healthy.
Joel Campbell, 21, Olympiacos
On-loan Arsenal striker Joel Campbell is talented but simply couldn't get minutes at the Emirates. Moving to Olympiacos has helped, and now he'll play in Europe's top competition. Can be hit-and-miss at times; either has a fantastic game or goes missing. Capable of scoring a golazo or two.
Josip Radosevic, 19, Napoli
Talented defensive midfielder. Already chalking up appearances for the Croatian national team; will be key for Napoli here. Potential breakout player of tournament.
Nicolae Stanciu, 20, Steaua Bucuresti
Showed promise at the FIFA under-19 tournament in 2011 and has continued since then. Incredibly talented with the ball at his feet. Steaua are very strong at home and could cause problems throughout the group stage. If that happens, watch for Stanciu to be one of the biggest reasons why.
20. Mohamed Salah, 21, FC Basel 1893
Dubbed the "Egyptian Messi," Mohamed Salah has been making some noise throughout domestic football throughout the past few years. Capable playing on either flank, Salah has mazy dribbling skills and superb finishing skills, and stands to be one of the more underrated players in the tournament this year.
Salah ripped through Tottenham Hotspur's defense in the Europa League last year and caused Chelsea several problems throughout the competition as well.
Definitely one to watch for this year.
19. Jordan Ayew, 21, Olympique Marseille
Brother of more well-known footballer Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew is certainly capable of making a big splash with Olympique Marseille in the competition this year.
Ayew was another footballer to play very well in the Europa League last season and should carry that form over to the Champions League. Even without the starting opportunities that many feel he might deserve, Ayew has the potential to be a real point of difference coming off the bench for Marseille as he searches for a spot in Ghana's World Cup team in 2014.
18. Matija Nastasic, 20, Manchester City
With nine international caps next to his name, it's remarkable to think that Manchester City defender Matija Nastasic is still only 20 years old. And while many might not agree with him being considered one of the best defenders in world football, the reality is that Nastasic is a very, very complete defender indeed.
Winning 94 percent of his attempted tackles last season (30 percent more than a player like Raphael Varane), Nastasic will be of utmost important to the Citizens' Champions League aspirations. Manuel Pellegrini will be out to rectify the mistakes that saw City go winless in the competition last year and, with an easier group than last year, could very well make a run at the trophy.
Anyone who watched Cardiff City expose Javi Garcia at the back in their recent Premier League encounter knows how important Nastasic will be for the Citizens.
17. Dennis Praet, 19, RSC Anderlecht
With experience in the Champions League last year, Dennis Praet could very well be one of the new stars of world football after the tournament finishes this year.
Yes, the kid's that good.
Praet is a calm footballer with superb vision and passing, and doesn't ever appear to be rushed when on the ball. He is creative and has a great first touch—taking him away from defensive positions and into attacking ones in a matter of minutes—and should thrive on football's grandest stage once more.
Another Belgian youngster to keep an eye on.
16. Haris Seferovic, 21, Real Sociedad
Haris Seferovic might not have become the world football superstar he appeared to be after leading Switzerland to glory at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup, but he's still an incredibly talented footballer.
One needs only to look to his goal against Lyon in the playoff match to see that skill-wise, Seferovic is certainly capable of making waves in Europe this year.
Sociedad have a deceptively talented team after some strong summer additions, and Seferovic could well find himself with several more goalscoring opportunities throughout the tournament as a result. And if that happens, look for the 21-year-old to certainly make headlines—just like he has done so far.
Highlights of yesterdays 7-1 victory against Real Union where debutant Haris Seferovic scored 4 goals in 30 minutes http://t.co/oOvUruer24— English RealSociedad (@SociedadUK) July 25, 2013
15. Wilfried Zaha, 20, Manchester United
The hype on Manchester United's winter signing—Wilfried Zaha—was high.
And so far, the hype appears to have been correct.
Throughout United's preseason, Zaha was one of the best players in David Moyes' team—utilizing his pace and trickery to create several goalscoring opportunities.
Moyes will want to ensure that United's strongest team is available for Premier League encounters and, in doing so, may throw starting berths to the likes of Zaha when the Red Devils face "lesser" opponents in the Champions League group stage. If that happens, look for Zaha to take the opportunity with both hands and potentially give Moyes a selection headache heading into the knockout rounds.
Zaha is raw, but he's talented. There's absolutely no denying that, and if the opportunities arise, he could definitely be a player to watch for in the Champions League.
14. Filip Djuricic, 21, Benfica
Signing Filip Djuricic from Heerenveen was an amazing move by Benfica.
Djuricic has the unique combination of being a natural goalscorer as well as a creative assist-maker, and his ability to do both in a talented Benfica squad has the potential to reap great rewards. He showed recently against Scotland his ability to find the back of the net, with his domestic form in the past two Eredivisie seasons (17 goals and 19 assists) also showing that to be true.
In a rich attacking team like Benfica, watch Djuricic shine.
13. Heung-Min Son, 21, Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Needing to replace Andre Schurrle (who transferred to Chelsea) earlier this summer, Bayer Leverkusen signed dynamic attacker Heung-Min Son from Hamburg.
Remember the name—Heung-Min Son—because you'll hear it a lot in the Champions League this year.
Son is an ambidextrous forward who can feature in whatever role is required. As I noted earlier in the summer, with the likes of Robbie Kruse joining the club and Stefan Kiessling staying on, Leverkusen have the attacking potency to make a serious mark in Europe this year, and Son will be key in making that happen.
His four games for Leverkusen so far have produced two goals and an assist, and it's little surprise that the "one-and-done" club from last year is currently undefeated in the Bundesliga this year with more goals than the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke.
12. Juan Fernando Quintero, 20, FC Porto
Moving from Pescara over the summer transfer window, Juan Fernando Quintero will no doubt be a huge hit at Porto throughout the course of the 2013-14 season.
The Colombia international is incredibly talented with the ball at his feet and possesses a vast complement of creative skills as well. He loves to roam between midfield and attacking lines and, if given the freedom to play in this role by the Portuguese club, could very well be one of the stars of the Champions League.
A very dangerous threat from set pieces as well.
11. Bernard, 20, Shakhtar Donetsk
After reportedly coming close to signing with Arsenal during the summer transfer window, per the Daily Mail, young starlet Bernard ended up signing with Shakhtar Donetsk. The Ukrainian champions had already sold the likes of Willian, Fernandinho and Henrikh Mkhitaryan over the past year or so and were needing some new creative as a replacement—something they definitely found in Bernard.
Blessed with plenty of pace and finishing skills, Bernard is the perfect wide forward for Shakhtar to utilize alongside the likes of Luiz Adriano and Eduardo up front.
Bernard is a tenacious dribbler and an incredibly hard player to mark. Standing at just 5'4", he's a little man indeed, but his reputation is certainly growing worldwide.
The 2013-14 Champions League will further prove that to be true.
10. Viktor Fischer, 19, AFC Ajax
Inside the top 10, and we get to Ajax sensation Viktor Fischer.
Ajax certainly aren't short on world-class talents at the moment with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind and Toby Alderweireld all at the Dutch club. But it's the prowess of 19-year-old Fischer that is most exciting and will have plenty of fans optimistic about their Champions League chances this year.
Fischer was strong in the tournament last year against some of the world's strongest squads in Manchester City, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund—and he'll be better for the experience this time around. The starlet is blessed with remarkable timing and ball control, and rarely seems flustered despite his age—a strength that will be a huge advantage on world football's biggest stage.
A natural goalscorer from the left and definitely one to watch for.
9. Julian Draxler, 19, Schalke 04
Much like Fischer, Schalke's Julian Draxler also will be much stronger this year after experience in the Champions League last year. Draxler is a natural two-footed player who possesses tremendous finishing ability and is rapidly growing in his reputation as one of the game's best No. 10s.
Schalke's attack drives through him in the middle, so expect him to register a number of goals and assists throughout the course of the Champions League.
8. Thibaut Courtois, 21, Atletico Madrid
Atletico Madrid—in my opinion—pulled off one of the best deals of the summer transfer window when they extended their loan deal for Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois.
One of the best up-and-coming goalkeepers in world football, Courtois showed just how strong he is at the back with an inspired performance in the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid and should thrive in the Champions League—just like he did in the Europa League.
The Belgian conceded just 29 goals in 37 La Liga matches last season.
A future Ballon d'Or winner in the making? Not out of the question.
7. Marco Verratti, 20, Paris Saint-Germain
Paris Saint-Germain could have had a number of entries on this list, with the likes of Lucas Moura, Marquinhos and Adrien Rabiot all potential inclusions.
However, the main man to watch is Marco Verratti.
A deep-lying playmaker, Verratti is the anchor in PSG's high-profile attack with an incredible ability to turn defense into attack in a matter of seconds. The Italian international is a smart footballer with excellent vision and timing—dropping perfectly into the space in the middle of the field.
You're potentially looking at the next Andrea Pirlo.
6. Stephan El Shaarawy, 20, AC Milan
Alongside enigmatic Italian Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy forms one of the most dynamic striker duos we're likely to see in the Champions League this year.
"Il Faraone" was superb against PSV Eindhoven in Milan's playoff matches and, with experience from the tournament last year, could very well be one of the stars again this year. El Shaarawy is in rich goalscoring form following his 2013 International Champions Cup and will thrive as he continues to understand the role of playing as a support striker rather than the main striker.
With the likes of M'Baye Niang also present, watch for Milan to be a real dark horse again this year like they were throughout the 2012-13 Champions League.
If that's going to happen, it'll be on the back of El Shaarawy's performances.
5. Paul Pogba, 20, Juventus
The fact that Paul Pogba is starting in Juventus' midfield given the depth the Old Lady currently has there shows just how good of a player the 20-year-old is.
Superb with the ball at his feet, Pogba is a tenacious tackler who thrives in winning the ball back for Juve. His passing skills and overall intelligence are improving with every passing week, and alongside the talent that Juventus have, he can become a legitimate game-winner throughout the Champions League this year.
Especially if he starts lining them up from 25 yards out.
4. Isco, 21, Real Madrid
Despite sanctions against their team forcing the sale of a number of world-class players, Malaga still made it through the group stages of the Champions League last year. In fact, were it not for an incredible comeback by Borussia Dortmund, they'd have likely gone even further in the competition.
And much of that can be put down to one man—Isco.
Now at Real Madrid, the 21-year-old playmaker will no doubt be an even greater presence in the tournament this year alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Whether Carlo Ancelotti will utilize him in the No. 10 role behind the striker or opt for a more "free-running" role as a wide forward still remains to be seen, but there's little doubting Isco's talent. He can strike them from distance, dribble past defenders or play a sublime through ball to another attacker—he's got all the skills required to be one of the best young playmakers in world football.
And surely that will only improve being at the Bernabeu.
3. Oscar, 21, Chelsea
Last season was somewhat of a growing year for Oscar.
The Brazilian international was somewhat quiet for the first half of the year but slowly started to break his way into the Blues' starting side by the end of the season thanks to a number of strong performances (including many in the Champions League).
Under new manager Jose Mourinho, the 20-year-old has found himself seemingly higher up the pecking order than he was last year. Juan Mata continues to be linked, via The Guardian, with a move away from West London, and while that may or may not happen, there's little doubting that Oscar will play a much more central role to Chelsea's attack this season than he did last year.
Despite not being able to qualify from the group stages, Oscar was superb for Chelsea—scoring long-range goals and providing the much-needed spark in their attack.
The youngster is blessed with a sublime first touch and dribbling ability, and with stronger additions around him this season, should be set for a strong tournament indeed.
2. Neymar, 21, FC Barcelona
Neymar has more hype surrounding him than any other player in world football, yet so far, the young Brazilian has lived up to his reputation at Camp Nou.
Playing alongside the likes of Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, Neymar has the potential to become one of the best players in the world (if he's not that already), with his speed and trickery likely to cause defenders plenty of stress throughout the Champions League this season.
Neymar has world-class finishing skills, and with the attacking creativity that La Blaugrana possess, he'll get plenty of chances to show them this year.
The world is seemingly Neymar's stage to do with as he pleases.
1. Mario Gotze, 21, Bayern Munich
However, it's Mario Gotze who takes the No. 1 spot here.
After thriving in the No. 10 role for Borussia Dortmund last year and leading them all the way to the Champions League final (which he missed due to a heartbreaking injury), Gotze will be lining up for a different champion German team in the new year—that of Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich.
Bayern—with their slew of creative attackers and world-class finishers—will be much better for having Gotze in their lineup, and vice versa as well. Gotze will thrive being alongside stars like Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller, and if he can continue to get regular playing time in the No. 10 role that he loves so much, the results could be simply spectacular for both Bayern and the 21-year-old.
Gotze has the ability to single-handedly turn a game on its head and was heralded by German legend Franz Beckenbauer, via FIFA.com, as having "the same assets as Lionel Messi in terms of his technique and understanding of the game."
Lofty praise indeed, but certainly deserved.
The 2013-14 UEFA Champions League will prove that to be the case.
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