With the return of the Champions League a truly glittering array of stars will be on show and beyond the usual culprits, the opportunity for a sneak peek at a future gem will present itself.
It is not just the promising starlets worthy of a closer look though, and a number of players have an extra, often unexpected, chance to shine. The Champions League is the clearest of shop windows, a fact never lost on its participants.
So just who should be watched closely in this season’s competition? Inside Futbol present our top ten most interesting players to keep an eye on.
Axel Witsel – Benfica – Midfielder – 22 years old
The highly rated Belgian midfielder moved to Portuguese giants Benfica from Standard Liege this summer – perhaps the only mystery surrounding the deal was why it had taken so long to happen. Witsel has shown strength of character, recovering from an avalanche of criticism for breaking Marcin Wasilewski’s leg when Standard Liege met Anderlecht in 2009. The tackle was so bad it even drew condemnation from then-team-mate Milan Jovanovic. With a quick turn of pace and inner steel, Witsel will relish rebuilding his reputation still further.
Didier Zokora – Trabzonspor – Midfielder – 30 years old
Zokora was considered one of the finest defensive midfielder prospects in Europe just five years ago, but an underwhelming spell at Tottenham Hotspur was followed by two seasons with La Liga outfit Sevilla. This summer the Ivory Coast international, still just 30, moved to Turkey to join Trabzonspor. Zokora should be at his peak, but despite much promise, has yet to become the enforcer that was envisaged when Spurs paid around £7M to snap him up in 2006. He will have to shine if the Black Sea Storm are to do well.
Xherdan Shaqiri – Basel – Winger – 19 years old
The surprise in Switzerland is that the country’s fans are still getting to watch Shaqiri grace the Super League. Basel’s most potent attacking weapon, the Swiss champions had mentally adjusted to the pain of losing Shaqiri this summer, but an exit never came, with the youngster turning down a raft of offers to stay at St. Jakob Park a little longer; and with that Thorsten Fink’s men’s Champions League prospects brightened. A star in the making, with a powerful shot, the 19-year-old helped Switzerland’s Under-21 side to the final of the Under-21 Championships in Denmark this summer.
Jeremy Pied – Lyon – Winger – 22 years old
Financial considerations at the Stade Gerland meant that new Lyon coach Remi Garde was not certain of keeping Pied this summer. In the end, Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanic was sacrificed to Roma, so that the winger could remain – a vital clue to just how highly the Lyon youth product is rated. While this season’s Champions League may come a little too soon for Pied to run riot, it will provide crucial experience for a player set to hog many headlines very soon.
Theo Janssen – Ajax – Midfielder – 30 years old
Janssen has an opportunity he might have been forgiven for believing would never arrive: a chance to establish himself as a top draw European midfielder. Heavily tattooed and well known for his love of the good life off the pitch – Janssen smokes five cigarettes a day and is very fond of the odd beer – the former FC Twente man is nevertheless a dangerous weapon for any side to boast. With tip top vision and armed with killer dead ball ability, Janssen can make his mark in the Champions League.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson – Ajax – Striker – 21 years old
Brought to the Amsterdam ArenA this summer from AZ, Ajax have much hope for Sigthorsson. The Iceland international blitzed his way into 2011, becoming only the second foreign player after Afonso Alves to score five goals in an Eredivisie game. Sigthorsson is determined to make good of his chance at the Dutch giants; when he was 12, his father Abker vetoed a move to London to join Arsenal’s academy. Already finding the back of the net for Ajax on a regular basis, the striker’s feet could fire Frank de Boer’s side through their group.
Kevin De Bruyne – Genk – Midfielder – 20 years old
De Bruyne was widely expected to join Chelsea this summer, but Genk refused the English side’s offers, believing the 20-year-old was worth more than the bid on the table. The plan was for the Belgian to be loaned straight back to Genk, and in that sense he will start the season exactly where he would have begun it regardless. A typical number 10, De Bruyne is often deployed on the left flank and encouraged to cut in and crack powerful shots with his right foot. The Champions League will give him ample opportunity to keep Chelsea interested.
Douglas Costa – Shakhtar Donetsk – Midfielder – 20 years old
If there is one thing Shakhtar Donetsk coach Mircea Lucescu is good at it is spotting Brazilian talent. Douglas Costa is amongst the latest of the South Americans to land at the Donbass Arena, although his talent has been rather more widely signposted than that of other arrivals. Identified by English giants Manchester United after his exploits at Brasileiro side Gremio, Costa’s decision to move to the Ukraine was a surprise. He is now showing signs of having settled and can be expected to turn in a strong display in Europe’s showpiece competition. Able to operate right across the midfield, the Brazilian is likely to be played on the flanks.
Mateja Kezman – BATE Borisov – Striker – 32 years old
The Serbian’s career has gone off the rails in recent years; the 2011/12 Champions League offers him a chance to get back on them. At 32 years old Kezman should not be a washed up former top striker, but that is every inch what he appears after poor spells at Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Fenerbahce, Paris Saint-Germain and Zenit St. Petersburg since 2004. Earlier this year Kezman had a spell at Hong Kong side South China, but a summer move to Belarus giants BATE Borisov presents him with an opportunity to remind Europe of the skills which saw over 100 goals banged in for PSV Eindhoven between 2000 and 2004.
Daniel Chavez – Otelul Galati – Forward – 23 years old
Romanians Otelul Galati are up against it in this season’s Champions League, but perhaps if Chavez can discover something close to his best then a shock or two could yet be on the cards. Chavez has always possessed superb technique and starred at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2006 with Peru, which led to a move to Club Brugge. However, the Flemmish club was where the forward struggled to make his mark and time at fellow Belgian side Westerlo was little more encouraging. The 23-year-old has the talent to create chancs in front of goal, but has been guilty of missing too many. Could this year see him turn the corner?
Phillip Buckley (with Alec Cordolcini)
Fonte: Inside Futbol