5 Players Outside of Europe's Top 5 Leagues to Look out for in 2018

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2017

Hirving Lozano has hit the ground running in Europe.
Hirving Lozano has hit the ground running in Europe.Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Hirving Lozano (PSV Eindhoven)

After previously being home to Romario and Ronaldo, the Philips Stadion is used to Latin American forwards hitting the ground running as they arrive in European football, and Hirving Lozano is a fine continuation of that tradition.

The 22-year-old, widely known by his nickname "Chucky," has made an immediate impact after arriving from Mexican club Pachuca, scoring nine goals in his first eight Eredivisie matches.

In terms of playing style, Lozano has a bit more of one the club's homegrown products about him, with his penetrative darts in from the left to shoot recalling Memphis Depay in his prolific final season at PSV Eindhoven before joining Manchester United.

If anything, the Mexico international has greater awareness of his team-mates. He's able to get his head up and is a fine crosser of the ball.

It already seems unlikely PSV will be able to hold on to him for a second season, as they did Ronaldo (let alone the five campaigns they were able to count on Romario), with plenty of interest in him meaning they may even cash in before Mexico open their high-profile World Cup group against Germany on June 17.

With El Tri not being able to count on their greatest vintage, Lozano's contribution could be key in Russia in the summer. 

                

Manuel Akanji (FC Basel)

FC Basel's domination of Swiss football has been one of European football's givens in recent years, alongside Olympiakos' grip on the Greek Super League and Rosenborg BK bossing Norway.

This season has been different, though, with inexperienced coach Raphael Wicky presiding over a younger squad and facing a genuine title battle with BSC Young Boys.

Manuel Akanji grew into a leader for FC Basel during their Champions League campaign.
Manuel Akanji grew into a leader for FC Basel during their Champions League campaign.Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

Centre-back Manuel Akanji is one of the starlets suggesting a bright future in this new era.

Having arrived from FC Winterthur in 2015 and playing supporting roles in two championships since, the 22-year-old has begun to lead from the front this term.

Robust, quick and switched-on, Akanji made his debut for the Switzerland senior team last summer and is expected to be in the XI for the World Cup.

By then, he’ll probably have faced Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League, with Basel determined to stave off ardent interest in their young defender from Borussia Dortmund, per The Independent.

A postponed departure could be in everyone's interest; he gets to play every week, while the champions get to keep him for some big challenges ahead in the second half of the season and perhaps sell him to the highest Premier League bidder either side of the World Cup.

Whether he sticks or twists in January, we will be hearing a lot more of him.

             

Badou Ndiaye (Galatasaray)

When Galatasaray undertook a sweeping makeover of their squad last summer, established names such as Fernando, Bafetimbi Gomis and Sofiane Feghouli hogged the headlines.

Inside the club there was considerable excitement at another, less heralded signing, who had crept under the radar among the mini-blizzard of glamour.

Badou Ndiaye's combative style caught the eye at Osmanlispor.
Badou Ndiaye's combative style caught the eye at Osmanlispor.ARIS MESSINIS/Getty Images

At 27, Papa Alioune "Badou" Ndiaye might have had the shape of a journeyman for some, having cut his professional teeth in Norway before making his way to the Super Lig.

His two excellent seasons at Osmanlispor, in which he scored 17 league goals from midfield and accrued good experience in European competition, convinced CimBom to take the plunge and pay a reported €7.5 million for him, according to Football365 (h/t ESPN FC).

Galatasaray are more than happy with their gamble so far, with Badou emerging as one of their most influential players.

The goals may not have flowed so readily yet—he scored his first for the club in the loss at Malatyaspor on December 17—but his all-round game has allowed the team's gaudier trinkets to shine brightly.

He is energetic, wins his tackles and rarely gives the ball away. Badou will hope to set himself up for Senegal's World Cup in 2018 by winning the Super Lig back for his club under manager Fatih Terim.

                 

Daniel Podence (Sporting CP)

That Sporting CP have produced a young talent of substance in Daniel Podence is not a shock. That he trained as a winger, following in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Nani, Simao and latterly Gelson Martins is equally unsurprising.

Podence's emergence as a player of importance for Sporting and as a player of influence in central areas of the pitch, however, is an interesting twist in his story.

Daniel Podence is finally becoming an important figure at Sporting CP.
Daniel Podence is finally becoming an important figure at Sporting CP.PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/Getty Images

The 22-year-old's move to prominence with the Primeira Liga chasers took time. He first arrived in the ranks of the academy at Alcochete as a nine-year-old, and he has spent much of the time since scrapping his way to the top. Podence looks like a typical winger; fleet of foot and a fine dribbler, and he is hardly a physically imposing figure.

His resolve is impressive, though. Plenty of young talent at Benfica struggled to find first-team minutes under Jorge Jesus, including Bernardo Silva and Andre Gomes, but the coach was swayed by Podence's excellent performances on loan at Moreirense FC in 2016-17 and swiftly recalled him.

With the youngster's uncommon eye for a pass (which has already yielded three assists this season), Jesus has deployed him behind Bas Dost to great effect.

Maybe Podence, like Ronaldo and Nani, has a future beyond the boundaries of his original remit.

                

Aleksandr Kokorin (Zenit)

Aleksandr Kokorin is hardly a new name on the lips of those in touch with the European game's rising talents, having made a goalscoring debut for Dinamo Moscow as a 17-year-old in 2008.

The early goals in his professional career were just the tip of the iceberg, with his poise and intuitive close control marking him out as a big talent, with Anzhi Makhachkala paying €19 million for him in 2013 before a financial crisis forced them to sell him straight back to his first club.

Aleksandr Kokorin has hit the goal trail again this season.
Aleksandr Kokorin has hit the goal trail again this season.Epsilon/Getty Images

He struggled to adapt after his next big move to Zenit in 2015, and his attitude has often been questioned.

Under Roberto Mancini this season, however, he has begun to look the part. The 26-year-old has 10 in 20 Russian Premier League starts so far this season (make that 15 in 25 if we factor in the UEFA Europa League), which is almost as much as his last two terms combined.

With Russia hardly posting high expectations ahead of their home World Cup, it could be down to Kokorin to light the blue touchpaper, especially with the national team's key goalscorer, Artem Dzyuba, having a tough season at Zenit—largely due to Kokorin's good form.

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