Every year, the UEFA Champions League serves as a fascinating showcase for Europe’s top talent. Stars for clubs like Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, etc. are fun to watch in their domestic leagues, but the UCL is a different beast.
One the best things about the UCL is that it can also serve as a coming-out party for the up-and-comers and best-kept secrets in the game.
Before this year’s tournament kicks off today at 12:55 p.m. Eastern, here are five “under-the-radar” — none of these guys are toiling in anonymity — players to look out for. This list could have been much longer. These guys are just a few of the myriad possibilities from the 32 teams in the field, but that’s enough digressing for now.
*We’ll go from youngest to oldest here, starting with 16-year-old Ansu Fati
Barcelona forward Ansu Fati, 16 (Tuesday, 3 p.m. @ Borussia Dortmund)
Young players showing flashes is nothing new. However, call me a prisoner of the moment, but there hasn’t been anyone making this sort of impact at this age in quite a while.
It was cool when Fati came on late in his team’s win over Real Betis on August 25, but his appearance that day initially seemed like little more than an interesting bit of trivia. His contributions have been legit in his team’s last two games, though.
First, he scored on a header after coming on as a sub on the road at Osasuna on August 31. Then – if you haven’t heard – he had an assist and a goal by the seven-minute mark this weekend against Valencia in his first start. A player so few of us had heard of in mid-August is dominating headlines and creating highlight-reel moments in one of Europe’s top leagues, giving Manager Ernesto Valverde a dangerous sub at the very least.
In other words, this story is not going away (we dare anyone to take a drink every time his age is mentioned during his next game and let us know how that plays out)*.
With Luis Suárez appearing healthy against Valencia (the Uruguayan scored twice), and Lionel Messi expected to play, if not start, Tuesday at Borussia Dortmund, Fati’s unlikely to start again any time soon. Ousmane Dembélé also appears set to return to the pitch soon, further crowding Barcelona’s list of forward possibilities. Regardless, don’t be surprised if Fati makes an appearance Tuesday, and pay close attention to see how he handles playing in front of the Yellow Wall. Could a 16-year-old look as unflappable in that atmosphere as he has to this point?
*Please don’t do that
Red Bull Salzburg forward Erling Braut Haland, 19 (Wednesday, 3 p.m. vs Genk)
Red Bull Salzburg is dominating the Austrian Bundesliga and Haland is a big reason why.
In seven games, Salzburg has scored 34 (!!!) goals. Haland has 11 (!!!) of those plus four assists.
Now to be fair, he’s doing this against what would essentially be fringe playoff teams in MLS. Liverpool and Napoli are no FC Flyeralarm Admira. But he’s also doing this for his home country Norway as well. For the most part and almost without fail, goal scorers score goals no matter where they are.
This kid is a 6’3 goal scoring monster. He’ll get plenty of exposure being in Liverpool’s group. Expect the major clubs to all come calling this summer.
Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham, 21 (Tuesday, 3 p.m. vs. Valencia)
After this weekend, Abraham has kinda already broken out, but I’m including him anyway. Under young player enthusiast Frank Lampard, Abraham is on a tear in the EPL. Raise your hand if you expected Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero (7 goals) to be joined by Abraham (7) and Teemu Pukki (6) as the EPL’s top scorers after five games. Didn’t think so.
The crazy thing is that all seven of Abraham’s goals have come in his last three games. It’s hard to be any hotter than that, regardless of the league, and such a streak in the EPL is hard to fathom.
Chelsea is loaded with young talent. Before the international break they trotted out the youngest starting XI in EPL history. In addition to Abraham, Chelsea also has 20-year-olds Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic (whose names might ring a bell) in prominent roles. One of these three is likely to find the back of the net against Valencia. The reigning Copa del Rey champs just got shredded at Barcelona and may have lost their sporting director, Mateu Alemany – their coach left last week – by kickoff. If you have to pick one young Chelsea player to get on the board, though, Abraham is a no-brainer.
RB Leipzig attacking midfielder Timo Werner, 23 (Tuesday, 3 p.m. @ Benfica)
Werner is the first of two players on this list who play a long way from the bright lights of Camp Nou and Stamford Bridge. With five goals through his team’s first four games, the German is the offensive leader of a team that is firmly in first place in the Bundesliga.
Their last game was Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home vs. Bayern Munich. Nobody can call Werner’s team untested after that clash. With a league-best 10 points through four games and goal differential of +7, RB Leipzig appears to be the real deal.
Werner’s early individual success is a sign we should expect another big season from a proven commodity with 50 (!) goals total in his last three Bundesliga seasons – 21 in ’16-17, 13 in ’17-18 and 16 last year, when he also had seven assists.
Atalanta forward Duván Zapata, 28 (Tuesday, 3 p.m. @ Dinamo Zagreb)
Last but not least is the veteran Colombian who piled up 23 goals in Serie A last year. He’s far from the only dangerous scoring threat for a club that led Serie A with 77 goals in ’18-19, but he’s a prolific scorer who has yet to become a household name.
In a group with Tuesday’s opponent as well as Shakhtar Donetsk and (sudden defensive liability?) Manchester City, Zapata has a great chance to introduce himself to anyone who is not yet familiar with his work. A strike or two like his 95th-minute game-winner this weekend against Genoa on the UCL stage would raise his profile in a hurry.
Duván Zapata 🇨🇴 wins it for Atalanta with the last kick of the game pic.twitter.com/dM0S8KtrfV
— Bangers (@BangerVid) September 15, 2019
Where to Bet Champions League in the US
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