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.