The best in the Champions League
As the excitement mounts with kick-off to this season’s Champions League drawing ever nearer, in no particular order, here’s a preview of some of the rising stars who might have an impact.
Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund)
Blessed with lightning pace, a deft touch and the ability to finish clinically, nimble forward Marco Reus is no ordinary player, as regulars at the Borussia-Park will attest. With a combined total of 29 goals and 16 assists during the past two domestic seasons, there’s no denying that the man from Dortmund played a big hand in Mönchengladbach’s recent renaissance under Lucien Favre. Inclusion in Jogi Löw’s squad last summer and a dream return to his boyhood club, Jürgen Klopp’s all-conquering Borussia Dortmund, are just reward for a tremendous talent. Despite a daunting draw in the so-called ‘Group of Death’, expect Reus and his fellow Schwarzgelben (Mario Götze in particular) to stir the stormy Südtribüne. Question him at your peril!
Javier Pastore (Paris Saint-Germain)
At times you could be forgiven for thinking he’s not human, as he appears to drift effortlessly through the opposition, nonchalantly leaving dazed defenders in his wake. Fans at La Favorita couldn’t help but feel that this boy was destined for greatness. El Flaco is an exceptionally elegant footballer, possessing superb vision whilst orchestrating affairs from midfield- a true artist, some might say. Forget Ibra, Lavezzi and Thiago Silva; Pastore might just prove himself to be Al-Khelaïfi’s best investment yet. If PSG are to live up to their billing this season, the Argentine is sure to feature prominently. Watch this space!
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (Montpellier)
Following Montpellier’s historic triumph last season, African-born Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa has been quick to make a name for himself, earning his first cap for Blanc’s Bleus and allegedly attracting interest from the likes of Arsenal and AC Milan. The fact that he captained La Paillade to glory, hoisting the Hexagoal aloft at the tender age of twenty-three really does speak volumes. Tricky trips to the Emirates and the Veltins-Arena await Girard’s side on their travels, but with their assured and composed commandant at the back, the French may just stand a chance. Another good season may well prompt a move to pastures new…nous verrons bien!
Stephan El Shaarawy (AC Milan)
After an encouraging inaugural season, there’s a sense at the San Siro that rising star Stephan El Shaarawy, could shine on football’s centre stage this season. Having risen through the ranks at Genoa, ‘The Pharaoh’ was quick to win the affections of the Curva Sud with a series of pulsating performances following his move to Milan last summer. Although still something of a rough diamond, the nineteen year old is endowed with an abundance of talent; his surging runs and exemplary dribbling, which are perhaps reminiscent of a bygone era, may well be a highlight on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings this autumn.
David Alaba (FC Bayern München)
Although David Alaba originally operated as a central midfielder, Jupp Heynckes had other ideas, employing him as a left-back with great effect during the course of the 2012/13 season. It proved an inspired decision, with the young Austrian international winning many plaudits, including from Sir Alex Ferguson if media reports are anything to go by. Despite missing out on the Champions League final due to suspension, Alaba’s eye-catching performances in the preceding rounds, particularly against Real Madrid, more than sufficed to cement his status as a rising star. If Alaba is to raise his game this coming campaign, then he’s certainly in good company: who better to emulate than Philipp Lahm, arguably the world’s best full-back at present.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (AFC Ajax)
Frank de Boer would probably be the first to concede that his Ajax side are underdogs in Group D. Unlike some of their opponents, the Amsterdammers are renowned for nurturing young talent at De Toekomst, a fact which rings just as true today as it did in 1995. Christian Eriksen quite rightly remains the talk of the town; but, another Norseman may just spring a surprise or two this season. His name? Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. Admittedly, two successful seasons in the Eredivisie don’t make a champion, however, with an average ratio of almost a goal every other game, the signs seem promising. Sigthorsson is in many respects a ‘classic’ centre-forward, owing to his strength, stature and aerial prowess; provided he steers clear of injury (he missed roughly six months last term), the Icelandic international could be one to watch.
Mario Balotelli (Manchester City)
He’s won the Champions League, Premiership, FA Cup, Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana. Not bad for a man of twenty-two. Capable of sheer brilliance and utter stupidity, all in the same breath, no contemporary player polarises opinion in quite the same way. His antics have become the stuff of legends and his actions are arguably symptomatic of our times, in which young players are beguiled by the trappings of ‘celebrity’ whilst possibly losing sight of what really matters: football. Still, make no mistake, ‘Super Mario’ does remain an extraordinary raw talent- an explosive marksman capable of changing a match in the blink of an eye. Despite claims that he ‘came of age’ during the European Championships, others argue that the Italian international still has it all to prove. Can he perform consistently and fulfil his promise or will he fall by the wayside? Time will tell.
Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
This man needs no introduction. Eden Hazard is a class act and despite the hefty price tag, his signing will surely pay dividends. Close control, mesmerizing dribbling, electric pace and lethal finishing- the Belgian really does have it all and will undoubtedly play a key role in Chelsea’s defence of their European crown this season. Of all the ‘young guns’ listed, Hazard is quite possibly the most accomplished. With all due respect to Lille, the star-studded dressing room at Stamford Bridge is quite something else, and should provide Hazard with the perfect platform to develop further- a frightening prospect for defenders throughout the continent. The sky’s the limit!