UEFA Champions League: 4 players to keep an eye out for.

  • Isco (Malaga)

    Spanish sensation, Isco.

After the clouded financial difficulties encircled Malaga over the summer, a quick fire-sale began in Andalusia as Santi Cazorla & Solomon Rondon were involved in moves to Arsenal & Rubin Kazan respectively. However, after weeks of speculation surrounding the Spanish starlet on being the next one to be shifted on, the transfer window slammed shut. Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez, simply known as Isco, was still a Malaga player to the huge relief of Los Bonquerones fans.

The 20-year old protégé who signed from Valencia’s youth system for a fee around €6 million, recorded over 30 appearances in last season’s campaign and was hailed by Spanish journalists/pundits alike as the next big thing in Spain. He’s performances for Malaga last season were rewarded with a call-up to the provisional Spain squad for Euro 2012. He didn’t make the final squad due to the abundance of talent Spain currently hold, but still made his mark in the Olympics.

He’s style of play is regularly likened to that of another former Valencia youth product, David Silva, as they share the technical prowess required to play in the “CAM” role. Malaga have a fairly open Champions League group, with top seed side Milan currently down on confidence after a poor run of results. Blessed with incredibly quick feet, intelligence, and an eye to play the killer pass, Isco is tipped to come on leaps and bounds as he makes the step up to European football.

  • Julian Draxler (FC Schalke 04)

Whilst the Germans have many well-known talents of their own such as Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle, a new kid from the block made a name for himself last season. The second youngest on-field player to ever start a Bundesliga game, Julian Draxler burst onto German scenes last season for Schalke with over 40 appearances for The Royal Blues. He scored 2 goals & provided 3 assists in the league which played a part in Schalke securing a Champions League Berth. However, it was in the Europa League where was saw the wonderkid shine with his wonderful performances leaving spectators awed, notching himself a pair of goals & assists in the process.

Positioned in his complimentary left-hand side position where he is able to cut in on his stronger foot, he’s equally adapted at playing in a more interior role. Set for a bright future, he’s possessed with immense close control and finesse whilst also having the capability to beat his opponent with trickery. Cutting in from a left-wing position enables him to have the option to spot a key pass or fly one past the goalkeeper with his shooting talents. His rapid rise to prominence ensued in a surprise call up from Joachim Low to the provisional German national team for Euro 2012. Low explained his decision by saying; “(Draxler) has enormous potential to develop and we are convined that he can help us, despite his young age”. He was cut out of the final squad due to the many proven talents Germany already have, but this season he has the chance to peform in the biggest club competiton of them all, as Schalke look set to battle with Arsenal for top spot. 

  • Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain)

On the 17th July 2012, Paris Saint-Germain flexed their financial muscles in announcing the signing of world-renowed striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, presenting him to the flock of fans and journalists alike in front of the capital’s mercurial landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower. However, on the same day, a much lesser-known signing had taken place in Paris which received no way near the adulation of the former. Marco Verratti, dubbed the new Andrea Pirlo, was plucked from Serie B’s title-winning side Pescara after setting the league alight with his new-found role as a deep-lying playmaker.

A technically gifted playmaker with the ability to play the killer pass, he became the chief figure of Zdenek Zeman’s old Pescara side and the positional change from the manager proved a master class after the successful season. Marco Verratti’s vision and technique often draws the public to make comparisons with Andrea Pirlo, and despite being just 5ft 5in, for his size he has incredible strength on the ball to keep opponents at bay. Strength, passing variety, combined with the skill of skipping past foes, it’s easy to see why Carlo Ancelotti was keen to add him to the avalanche of Serie A summer signings. In the Champions League, PSG have had luck on their side as they were dropped in a group where they should seem easy favourites, and here Marco Verratti will look to justify the comparisons made with his favourite player, Andrea Pirlo.

  • Henrikh Mkhitaryan (FC Shakhtar)

    Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shakhtar’s star player.

If you haven’t heard of this player, well, let me introduce you. He worked up the ranks from playing in Armenia and made the transition which was easy for him to play in Ukraine, albeit a rise in tempo and tenacity. The evolution of football has been a topic for many where in the future we would see players able to participate in almost every position on the pitch, Henrikh Mkhitaryan fits into this category. Capable of playing in behind the striker, on either wing position, a deeper central role or even as a striking option, he is seen as the saviour of Armenian football. The 23-year old Arsenal fan has scored 25 goals in 52 appearances for the Ukranian outfit thus far, and majority of these goals came from his favoured attacking midfield position. Nickanamed “The Maestro”, the Armenian footballer of 2009 and 2011 has already started in explosive fashion this season by scoring 12 goals in 9 games, as he continues to defy belief.

Playing just behind the strikers, this is where Mkhitaryan thrives as he always looks to link up with his teammates in and around the box. Tearing apart opposition defences time and time again, he makes space for the striker/wingers to exploit and create goal scoring opportunities. The fact that he’s equipped with a dangerous shot, trickery to beat defenders, and a superb vision to go for the pass make him one of the most frightening players to come up against from a lesser-known league in Europe. Former Chelsea player Pat Nevin was quoted by saying “You will soon hear of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, he has a rocket shot, pace, and skill that singles him out as a player that must be watched”. In one of the tougher Champions League groups, this is the time for Mkhitaryan to make himself known to the rest of Europe.

Do you agree with my four players that I’ve chosen? If not, comment on who you think should be there instead.

An analysis of Udinese’s future plans, summer acquisitions and targets this season.

Maicosuel distraught after ‘panenka’ miss.

A new season has gone underway for Udinese, where they’ll be hoping to break into a Champions League spot for the 3rd successive season. They started off their campaign with a 1-1 away draw at Braga in the Champions League qualifier, and took an away goal advantage heading into the 2nd leg. That was followed up by a narrow 2-1 loss in the first Serie A game of the season at the hands of Fiorentina. Key players such as Antonio Di Natale didn’t feature with manager Guidolin having one eye on the all-important 2nd leg.

The captain led the team out on Tuesday night against Braga knowing that a 0-0 draw or a win would guide them through to the Champions League group stages. Once Pablo Armero opened the scoring for the Zebrette, you would’ve thought that Udinese would grab a foothold of the game and ease to progression, but things went awry. They lost total control of the game, and in the 2nd half Braga inevitably equalized. The game went to penalties, where Maicosuel’s miserable attempt at a ‘panenka’ was the only spot kick missed; Braga went on to win 4-5 and progressed. The city of Udine was filled with anguish when they learned the fate of their club, for the 2nd straight season they’ve failed to qualify for a place in the group stages. It’s not all doom and gloom for the club, although many question will be asked of them. What lies in store for Udinese in the future? Can their new acquisitions prove themselves and replace key players? And most importantly, what are their chances of repeating domestic success for the 3rd time in a row?

This summer, the news was announced that a new stadium project will go underway next year in April. Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo presented the plan to everyone in which he’ll invest €31m out of his own pocket. The Stadio Fruili renovation project begins in April 2013, where rebuilding of the North/South stands & refurbishment work takes place for the stadium to be ready for 2013/14. Here, owner Giampoaolo Pozzo has found a method to modernise the stadium without the use of communal money which satisfies the fans and society alike.

The project will generate hundreds of jobs for the locals during the straining economical times and help bring everyone together.  A modern development keeping the society in mind, Udinese will give the opportunity to the fans to give ideas on how to redecorate the stadium etc. In this sense, Udinese possess the ideal business model in Italy, and the reason is simply because of one man: Giampaolo Pozzo.

On the pitch, the club have had to deal with more departures of big name players, which tells a similar story. Udinese sold nearly €65m worth of players last summer including Alexis Sanchez, and manager Francesco Guidolin still managed to finish one position higher than the year before to secure a Champions League spot, albeit narrowly losing to Arsenal in the qualification stage. Kwadwo Asamoah, Mauricio Isla, and Samir Handanovic are just three names of a long list that went on to seek new pastures elsewhere this summer.

It’s a strict transfer system in place at Udinese which can be frustrating for its fans, where players are replaced with an unknown quantity. However, with their renowned scouting system, it’s no surprise to see them uncover new talents every now and then, and this season could be no different with more potential stars set to grab our attentions.

Marco Faraoni who played for Inter Milan last season has the talent required to prove himself as a useful option on either wing-back position in tandem with the club’s formation. The 20-year old is highly rated as he showed his assurance and flexibility at Inter in the 14 games he played. Thomas Heurtaux was recruited from former Ligue 1 club Caen, where he was an established centre-back. With over 60 first-team games under his belt, the defender has the necessary experience to ascertain himself into a dependable player at the heart of Udinese’s defence. After Samir Handanovic’s move to Inter Milan, Udinese have acquired more than one in this position to battle for the jersey. Zeljko Brkic started well in his new club excluding the mistake for Braga’s equaliser in the 2nd leg. The Serbian international who was on loan to Siena last season, recorded 5 clean sheets in 18 games and is set to have the nod over his new teammates.

Udinese’s scouting scheme is well-known for unearthing gems from South America, and this summer sees four new players from the continent attempt to make a name for themselves in Udine. Allan, a versatile player who could slot in the right of Udinese’s formation made an appearance in Brazil’s U20 World Cup winning campaign. Allan, who loves to bomb forward with every presented opportunity, is still young and needs to work on his defensive game if he’s to fulfil his potential. He will take time to adjust in Guidolin’s system, and it won’t surprise me if we see him loaned out before the transfer window shuts.

Maicosuel, 26, dubbed “O’ Mago” (The Wizard) back in his homeland has plied his trade in Europe before with a brief stint at Bundesliga club Hoffenheim. He’s had a bit of a topsy-turvy career with Udinese being his 6th club in the last 7 years, but he is undoubtedly blessed with great footwork and athleticism. He enjoys cutting in from the left hand side of the pitch which could see Pablo Armero thrive in behind him. The Udinese board are unlikely to take his ‘panenka’ miss lightly and the decision to try such an audacious skill in what Guidolin stated as “the most important match of my life” may face repercussions. A loan move to a Pozzo-owned club may be on the agenda, who knows! I hope Maicosuel still has a role to play at the club though, and we will soon know more on his ability to bounce back after he looked distraught at the final whistle.

Wednesday’s Champions League qualification match away to Braga gave us one indication on what to expect from the club’s new signing Willians, whereas the return leg left you scratching your head wondering, is that the same player? He gave a polished performance in the defensive midfield role with a robust display and helped Udinese pick up on that night a vital away draw at Braga. At the Stadio Friuli though, it was a different story. He failed to show any sense of composure and many of his misplaced passes resulted in Udinese being pinned back for the majority of the 1st half. It was no wonder why he was hauled off at the 45min mark by Franceso Guidolin. Overall, if Willians brushes up on his passing skills, I believe he has the making to become an essential member in Guidolin’s plans with his capability to guard the defence.

Luis Muriel, the latest coup of the clubs South American network, is seen as the brightest addition to Udinese and is tipped to have a bright future ahead of him. The Colombian striker starred on loan at a struggling Lecce side last season, where he notched 7 goals and put on some dazzling displays at the Stadio Via del Mare. He’s seen as the heir to Alexis Sanchez, and a member of the Pozzo family was quoted saying: “He’s worth one and a half more than Alexis Sanchez.” This gives us an indication of how high the Udinese hierarchy class him amongst their ranks. Renowned for his pace, agility, and an imposing dribbling ability, he often draws similiraties to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo whilst sharing a similar physique. Luis Muriel is set for battle with Italy international Diego Fabbrini to partner alongside Di Natale this season. If he settles in well and starts game alongside the captain, it has the making of a lethal strike force.

As they did in previous seasons, many will downplay Udinese’s chances of breaking into the top 3. Some will say that the repeated summer departures will prove too costly, which is a reasonable case to argue. AS Roma, Inter Milan, and Fiorentina have all strengthened their squad over the summer and crave the aspiration of Champions League football. Through all the changes made, Udinese still hold on to two of their most prized assets; Francesco Guidolin and Antonio Di Natale. As long as these two remain, anything is possible for the Zebrette and it shouldn’t come as a surprise if they manage to trump others into a Champions League spot once again.