With the dawn of a fresh new European season comes the commencement of yet another enthralling UEFA Champions League campaign. Teams' journeys to replicate what Lionel Messi's Barcelona did in June 2015 has already begun, and fresh, younger talents will be looking to make a splash on the biggest of stages.
Here, B/R runs through five hidden gems capable of having a big say on matters during this year's Champions League campaign. We've mixed in peripheral stars from last year with sparkling newcomers, meaning even the most attuned world football aficionados may just learn about a player they didn't know.
Breel Embolo, ST, Basel
Breel Embolo became the sixth-youngest goalscorer in UEFA Champions League history last season by netting against Ludogorets in a 4-0 victory, but he remains a largely unknown commodity due to the fact that Basel used him sparingly on the European stage.
He's so young he had to take time off from school to feature for FCB at Anfield in late December 2014, per Eurosport, but he has forced his way into the first team on a full-time basis and is now considered a key attacking outlet. He's also picked up three senior caps for Switzerland, but he awaits his first strike.
This column has learned of two bids for the youngster this summer—one from Aston Villa (€14 million) and one from Juventus (€20 million)—but both have been rejected, as Basel have no need to sell. Should the player's current trajectory continue, he'll be a €40 million player in no time, so the club are wise to wait.
Capable of playing anywhere across the front three, Embolo boasts outstanding physical attributes. He combines top-end pace, quickness and strength with a tenacity and bite in his off-the-ball pressing; it's a cocktail that rarely fails to catch Swiss defences out, forcing turnovers high up the pitch.
His decision-making is still a work in progress—he's a better head-down dribbler than a creator—but his finishing is ridiculously strong considering he's just 18 years of age. He'll take on any shot with confidence, be it from an acute angle or head-on, and converts a good percentage of his one-on-ones after being put through on goal.
Capable of running the channels or dropping in to receive possession and play, opposing teams began to commit more and more resources to marking him as the 2014-15 season went on. At times when he received passes out from defence, he was triple-marked on the halfway line.
It's not often you see those measures being taken against a man who only recently finished school.
Joao Mario, CM, Sporting
The Sporting midfielder everyone has wanted to talk about for the last two years has been William Carvalho, allowing Joao Mario to fly somewhat under the radar. He had a good European Under-21 Championship and became known to a slightly wider audience as a result, but he will still enter the 2015-16 season as a relative unknown to many.
Mario isn't a flashy player, but he's very effective and works exceptionally hard out of a box-to-box midfield role. He gets up and down, supports attacks and offers a goal threat.
Perhaps the most impressive part of his game is his dedication to tracking runners going the other way; young box-to-box dynamos sometimes forgo the finer points of their defensive duties, but Mario tracks his marker all the way from one end of the pitch to the other, at times coming up with vital blocks and interceptions.
He absolutely excelled in Portugal's diamond at the Under-21s this summer, but he also formed a vital part of Sporting's 4-3-3 midfield in 2014-15. Being able to play with William at both levels eases the transition and increases familiarity, but that drive, power and athleticism sets him apart even when he's placed in a new scenario.
Mario's goal return is reasonable; his first full(ish) season in Liga NOS yielded five goals and four assists, per Transfermarkt. He picks his positions well and utilises his burst to arrive late and linger on the edge of the box, hoovering up odd chances that don't fall to the strikers.
His ability to break between the lines with the ball at his feet can be a game-changer, and the next step for him is to take games by the scruff of the neck more regularly. He needs to make a defining impact more regularly, matching up production with clear technical and athletic prowess.
Rafinha, CM/AMC, Barcelona
Rafinha's eye-popping volleyed goal against Manchester United on Saturday merely rubber-stamped a predetermined eventuality: that the Brazilian is set for a much bigger, more important role with Barcelona this season.
He dipped in and out of the XI in 2014-15 as Luis Enrique settled on a preferred middle three and front three, but the exit of Xavi and the gradual decline of Andres Iniesta will open a door or two for this young, mazy dribbler.
Lucho knows him inside-out as a player, having utilised him superbly at Celta Vigo in 2013-14, and although he spent a chunk of his time out on the wing, his future lies in that Iniesta-esque CM role, where he can maraud forward and duck between the lines.
Rafinha is a bold, technically superb player, willing to take his marker on, drive into space and instigate neat passages of play. The International Champions Cup has proved that the system fits him like a glove, and he appears to link well with Luis Suarez when he gets into supporting positions.
He's light, agile and of prototypical Barcelona height at 5'9"; his slinking runs and good speed make him a dangerous threat surging between the lines, nipping the ball around markers or even playing off the edge.
This will be the season in which he receives enhanced playing time, and he should make great strides as a player. As Iniesta battles against Father Time, Lucho has been busy grooming his replacement and will be prepared for the worst when it happens.
Moses Simon, Wing, Gent
Gent enjoyed a brilliant season in 2014-15, capitalising on Anderlecht's collapse to win the Jupiler League and guarantee themselves UEFA Champions League group-stage football. Key to their title charge was an astute January addition in the form of Moses Simon, A Nigerian winger signed from the obscure depths of Slovakian football.
Simon was too good to play for AS Trencin, and he knew it; the swagger he adopted with each flick of the football oozed class and talent. Gent knew they were purchasing a precocious talent, but he's surpassed everyone's expectations with regard to how quickly he's become a consistent match-winner.
Put simply, he's a walking highlight reel. Given he's only been playing for Gent since January, it's remarkable just how many YouTube-worthy stunts he's pulled in such a short space of time.
Simon has been a destructive force from the left wing under Hein Vanhaezebrouck, receiving longer passes and switch balls on the touchline before burrowing infield and creating havoc among opposing defences. His agility and close control are absolutely astounding; he's capable of manipulating the ball with the deftness of a snooker player despite travelling at high speeds.
His finishing skills are so polished, he's already out-foxing goalkeepers at their near post. Cutting in on his right foot to shoot, he's shown the ability to mix up his shots and feint to fool the opposition.
The trick here is to suss out whether Simon is a confidence player or a consistent player. Part-namesake and compatriot Victor Moses is capable of destroying defences if he's in the mood, but his mood dips so violently, he's rarely able to showcase his talents. Simon has shades of Moses in his play, and it's a question of mentality when it comes to projecting him at the highest level.
Correntin Tolisso, CM, Olympique Lyonnais
Lyon return to the UEFA Champions League this season after a brilliant 2014-15 campaign. They weren't able to pip Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title, but they have retained their two star forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir, ready for another attempt in 2015-16.
One player who perhaps did not get the recognition deserved during last term's triumphs was Correntin Tolisso: a remarkably well-rounded central midfielder also capable of filling in at both full-back positions. The club's fans love him, Ligue 1 aficionados appreciate him, but to the wider world, Lyon are simply Fekir and Lacazette, nothing more.
Tolisso bagged seven goals and two assists in Ligue 1 last season, per WhoScored.com, showing a penchant for the opportunistic strike and an impressive knack of forcing stray balls/corner kicks home. He boasts a reasonably crisp shot and often pops up where the ball drops.
But goalscoring is only part of his game; his physicality, direct running, defensive contribution and positional intelligence mean he's essentially the whole package. He brings a mental edge to Lyon's already clever midfield, balancing out the space left by others and picking the right moments to chance his hand further forward.
Maxime Gonalons has struggled in patches over the last 12 months, particularly when it comes to starting moves from the back (he seems to give the ball away in dangerous areas far too often), but Tolisso has emerged as the more reliable, smarter passer on whom Lyon can rely to get them going.
Tolisso's ability to fill in at full-back simply finishes off the painting of a complete player; he doesn't just get by there due to athleticism, as many midfielders do, but he uses his nous to adapt quick and efficiently to the task at hand.
If there's a Lyon midfielder that Europe's elite clubs should be eyeing, it's no longer Gonalons. It's Tolisso.