B/R Football Ranks: 10 Breakout Candidates in the 2019-20 Champions League

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterSeptember 16, 2019

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14: Ansu Fati of FC Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at Camp Nou on September 14, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

One of the most exciting feelings football can provide is when it dawns on you that you're watching a new, rising, bona fide star.

You got it when Cristiano Ronaldo scored from really far out at the Dragao in 2009; you got it when Kylian Mbappe stole in behind Manchester City's defence and netted in 2017; and you probably got it as Frenkie de Jong danced around Luka Modric at the Bernabeu earlier this year.

Each Champions League campaign brings a host of new potential stars, all looking to strut their stuff on the biggest stage in club football. 2019-20 will absolutely be no different.

Here, B/R Football Ranks the top 10 breakout star candidates for this season's Champions League, due to kick off this Tuesday.

Remember these names, seek out their teams and keep an eye on their development. They could easily be the next Ronaldo, Mbappe or De Jong.

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10. Nordi Mukiele, 21, Right-Back/Centre-Back

RB Leipzig

LEIPZIG, GERMANY - SEPREMBER 14: Nordi Mukiele of RB Leipzig controls the ball during the Bundesliga match between RB Leipzig and Bayern Muenchen at Red Bull Arena on September 14, 2019 in Leipzig, Germany. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

You'd be forgiven for thinking of Dayot Upamecano or Ibrahima Konate if the subject turned to promising RB Leipzig defenders, but the list doesn't stop with those two.

Flying even further under the radar is Nordi Mukiele, a dynamic right-back turned centre-back under manager Julian Nagelsmann—one who is playing on the right of a back three for the first time in his career.

The immediate comparison that springs to mind is Cesar Azpilicueta, who made the same conversion under Antonio Conte at Chelsea, but Mukiele is much more of a marauder and is quicker to step forward and intercept higher up.

He reads well, recovers well, can sprint past you in a flash and has the height (a shade over 6'0") to cope defensively in the air.


9. Tomas Soucek, 24, Defensive Midfield

Slavia Prague 

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: Tomas Soucek of Slavia Praha during the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Chelsea and Slavia Praha at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)
James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Slavia drew a very short straw when the groups were decided in Nyon. Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan? Yikes.

It makes it nearly impossible for them to progress but does give their players a chance to impress six times against some of the best teams in the world.

Naturally, their defensive-minded performers will come under the most pressure during these games. If you spot a massive, 6'4" destructor causing havoc in the middle, his name is Tomas Soucek, and he's very good.

Many are baffled as to why he remains in the Czech league. He's more than ready to perform at a higher level, and he combines the physical and technical traits so many love.

Watch out for him at set pieces, too. He's a real menace when the ball is in the air. 


8. Dani Olmo, 21, Winger/Attacking Midfielder

Dinamo Zagreb

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - AUGUST 13: (l-r) Dani Olmo of GNK Dinamo Zagreb shoots on goal next to Eldar Civic of Ferencvarosi TC during the UEFA Champions League Third Qualifying Round match between Ferencvarosi TC and GNK Dinamo Zagreb at Ferencvaros Stadium on
Laszlo Szirtesi/Getty Images

After starring for Spain at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship this summer, Dani Olmo expected to leave Dinamo Zagreb—and wasn't happy about the fact that a move failed to materialise.

He told Sportske Novosti (h/t Marca): "I have nothing to hide: I wanted to leave Dinamo, I wanted to move on and join a strong club in the five big leagues."

His mindset does seem to be in the right place, though. In the interview, he asserted he will give "absolutely everything in each game" from here.

No doubt a 2020 move will be at the forefront of his mind, and he's got six Champions League group-stage games to show suitors why they were wrong not to pull the trigger on him in the summer.

If the Under-21 Championship version of him shows up—the one who rinsed full-backs and ducked in towards goal with menace—he may not have to wait long.


7. Stefano Sensi, 24, Midfielder

Inter Milan

MILAN, ITALY - AUGUST 26:  Stefano Sensi of FC Internazionale celebrates his goal during the Serie A match between FC Internazionale and US Lecce at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on August 26, 2019 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)
Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Like Soucek, Stefano Sensi is a little older than your typical breakout candidate—but then, some breakouts come later than others.

He's been a shining light in Inter Milan's perfect start to the Serie A season and, despite heavy investment in some big names this summer, has given early indications that he might be the best piece of business the Nerazzurri did.

A diminutive, stylish central midfielder, he's a wonderful watch with the ball at his feet, possessing wonderful passing range and shifty dribbling ability.

His performances are often defined by his smart decisions under pressure and clipped passes into a forward's path—though he seems to have found a new lease of goalscoring life in Milan, already on two league goals in just three games.

It's taken a little longer than usual for Sensi to find himself in this position, but he's ready to flourish on the biggest stage.


6. Dominik Szoboszlai, 18, Midfielder

RB Salzburg

INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA - AUGUST 31: penalty of Dominik Szoboszlai of Salzburg during the tipico Bundesliga match between WSG Swarovski Tirol and FC Red Bull Salzburg at Tivoli Stadion on August 31, 2019 in Innsbruck, Austria. (Photo by David Geieregger/SEPA.M
David Geieregger/Getty Images

There are certain players out there, rare players, who have a truly spellbinding technique when they strike the ball. Dominik Szoboszlai is one of them.

It doesn't matter where he picks the ball up on the pitch. He needs just a second to look up and pick out a run, executing surgical, precise passes that curve and whip their way around defenders.

He employs a similar striking technique on set pieces, quickly carving himself out as Salzburg's go-to guy from dead-ball situations. He's also assumed the mantle for his national side, Hungary, this month, netting his first from 20 yards.

Szoboszlai can pick up some steam while carrying the ball, too, using an imposing 6'1" frame to his advantage, but he'd much rather beat you with his brain, not his brawn.


5. Lisandro Martinez, 21, Centre-Back

Ajax

Lisandro Martinez of Ajax during the Dutch Eredivisie match between Ajax Amsterdam and sc Heerenveen at the Johan Cruijff Arena on September 14, 2019 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

Lisandro Martinez featured in our list of players whose value is set to explode this season, and part of the reasoning is that he has the Champions League stage to prove and improve his value on.

He was bought as a centre-back, but Ajax have already trialled him in defensive midfield roles. Perhaps that's down to his height (5'10"), but it could also be a nod to his remarkable acceleration and snappiness, traits that allow him to disrupt so well higher up.

He's already made 10 first-team appearances for Ajax this season, asserting himself as a player Erik ten Hag is willing to hang his hat on in the post-Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong era.

Watch him spot what's going to happen and zip forward to stymie it before anyone even knows he's there.


4. Florentino Luis, 20, Central Midfielder

Benfica

LISBON, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 17: Florentino Luis of SL Benfica during the Liga Nos match between Belenenses SAD and SL Benfica at Do Jamor Stadium on August 17, 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images)
Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images

Florentino broke into the Benfica first team midway through last season, so this represents his first full campaign at the top level. Trust us, he's going to take it by storm.

He's a snappy, aggressive, athletic midfielder who covers a near-unfathomable amount of ground and dominates in duels. The numbers he's posting in the Primeira Liga—3.5 tackles and 4.3 interceptions per game—are sky-high, painting a clear picture of just how busy he gets.

Benfica's 4-4-2 formation encourages the wide men to underlap and fill the middle as the full-backs push beyond to hold the width. It means someone has to anchor the centre, anticipate, intercept and help trap opponents in. Florentino does the work of two men here.

He won't wow you with spectacular, long-range passes very often, and he troubles opposing goalkeepers rarely. But the nuts and bolts stuff in the centre, required to dominate territory and flow? There are few better.


3. Erling Haaland, 19, Striker

RB Salzburg

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - AUGUST 25: Erling Braut Haland of RB Salzburg celebrates after scoring a goal during the tipico Bundesliga match between FC Red Bull Salzburg and FC Flyeralarm Admira at Red Bull Arena on August 25, 2019 in Salzburg, Austria. (Photo by
Josef Bollwein/Getty Images

Arguably the brightest, most exciting young striking prospect in Europe right now is Erling Haaland, son of former Leeds United man Alf-Inge.

To say he cuts an imposing figure might well be underselling it. His monstrous, thick 6'4" frame has bullied defences this year, be it at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup or in the Austrian Bundesliga.

It was at the World Cup where he truly began to make waves, setting a record for most goals in one game with nine—yes, nine—against Honduras. He's carried on in that vein of form this term, netting his second hat-trick of the season at the weekend, putting him on 11 goals for the campaign...in mid-September.

He's big, brutish, direct, finishes well (obviously) and favours his left foot. How all of this translates to a much higher level will be extremely interesting, with Salzburg set to take on good defensive lines in Liverpool, Napoli and Genk.


2. Sergino Dest, 18, Right-Back

Ajax

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 28: Sergino Dest of Ajax Amsterdam controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League Play Off match between Apoel Nicosia and Ajax at Johan Cruyff Arena on August 28, 2019 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by TF-Images/Get
TF-Images/Getty Images

It’s been a whirlwind few months for Dest.

Some starring performances for the USA at the Under-20 World Cup in June led to a first-team Ajax role for this term, a Champions League bow (in the qualifiers), an international debut and a shiny new contract.

Now he's primed to take on the group stage.

Blisteringly fast, as direct as they come and capable of knitting intricate attacks together, Dest will be a terror to whoever comes into contact with him.

The draw lumped Ajax into a group with Chelsea, Lille and Valencia, none of whom have particularly strong defensive left-siders. There's fun to be had for Dest.


1. Ansu Fati, 16, Attacking Midfielder

Barcelona

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 14: Ansu Fati of FC Barcelona acknowledges the supporters during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at Camp Nou on September 14, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

There was a clear trend to Barcelona's summer transfer work: In recruiting players like Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong, they were attempting to make themselves less reliant on superstar Lionel Messi.

The first four games gave an immediate opportunity to show how successful this plan was, as the Argentinian's calf prevented him from taking part. Griezmann has undoubtedly impressed, while De Jong stuttered a little to begin with but found himself on Saturday against Valencia. However, another name has made Barca fans forget all about Messi—temporarily, anyway.

Ansu Fati, 16-year-old La Masia product, has taken the Camp Nou by storm.

He had a goal and an assist to his name by the seventh minute against Valencia and netted in the previous match with Osasuna too. A clever mover and a confident finisher, Fati already seems to be on the same wavelength as Barca's established stars.

For those wondering about his playing time once Messi returns, there's an argument Fati has jumped ahead of Ousmane Dembele in the pecking order (at least for now) and will continue to be given chances to impress.

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