The biggest club tournament in the world is just under the corner with Barcelona vs. PSV Eindhoven and Inter Milan vs. Tottenham being the opening games of the Champions League. There are plenty of exciting fixtures and storylines that group stages create. The big name players and clubs all have something to prove. Real Madrid are desperate to show that can dominate the continent after showcasing that they are still one of the best teams in Spain after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi and Barcelona seek to take the European crown given that their El Clasico rivals have won three on the trot. Paris Saint-Germain broke the transfer market by acquiring Neymar Jr. and Kylian Mbappé last summer. After a disappointing end to their campaign last season, they both eye to get the trophy back to Paris for the first time in the clubs history. It has been over two decades since Juventus last lifted the Champions League. They have come ever so close by making the finals twice in 2015 and 2017 though they were beaten by Barcelona and Real Madrid. Ronaldo joined the club after being the talisman of The Meringues for nine seasons. Maybe he was the final piece that would put the Old Lady over the top. While all eyes will be the goliaths of the game, there are several young players who are looking to make their names like the generations before them. Here are some of the new bloods who look to trump the Herculean figures of the beautiful game.
Jorginho was a core part of a midfield trio for Napoli that Juventus a run for their money last season. With the Brazilian midfielder joining the outgoing Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri at Stamford Bridge, there is a hole in the middle of the park Napoli look to fill. Carlo Ancelotti returned to Italy a prosperous decade away from the peninsula and has the perfect player to be Jorginho’s successor. Amadou Diawara has been waiting on the bench for a couple of seasons just waiting for the right time to strike. The 21-year-old has sparsely featured for the Naples based club. With just over 1600 minutes on the pitch in the past two campaigns, he has something to prove as Ancelotti and Napoli look for a new defensive midfielder. He is absolutely ready to take the next step. He compares well to Yaya Toure, a player that he has idolized and modeled his game after. While he may not be as towering as the Ivorian legend, Diawara is just as great at this stage of his career in terms of breaking opposition possession and starting build-up play for his team. Whenever he has been on the pitch, he has led Napoli in interceptions and winning the ball back. His ability to retain the ball with his accurate passing could make him more invaluable to Napoli than his former teammate. Diawara also creates 1.6 chances per 90 minutes which compares favorably to Jorginho who averaged 1.7 chances created per 90 during their two seasons together. He will prove useful for Napoli when they can’t seem to keep the ball for stretches of the game and when they struggle to create chances.
Monaco have recently developed a knack for developing some of the most talented young players in Europe. Two years ago, they featured a squad that boasted Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy (both of whom are now the future of Manchester City), Tiemoué Bakayoko, and Kylian Mbappé (who has transformed into a future Ballon d’Or winner). That year they won Ligue I and made an impressive run into the Champions League semifinals. All of them have left and there is now a new set of young talent that are looking to get their big break on club football’s biggest stage. Rony Lopes is at the head of this class. The 22-year-old Portuguese player was the clubs second-leading scorer last season with his 15 goals coming in handy for Monaco to secure a European spot. He also chipped an additional 5 assists last season. His numbers have been steadily improving over the course of his short career. He averaged a career high in goals and assists per 90 minutes with 0.75. The number of chances he creates has increased as a result of more time on the pitch and the fact that Lopes has taken on the mantle of becoming a young leader on this team. Despite his diminutive stature, he is blessed with a devastating first team and ungodly acceleration. Once sloppy on the ball, Lopes has become a better dribbler and passer. His short height hides the fact that he is exceptionally strong and shrugs off defenders with ease. He has had a slow start to the season with only a sole goal for the season though he continues to be an ever-present threat in the final third. Lopes will run amok in Ligue I this season. He will be a must-see player on the European stage.
Juventus spent big on a young and relatively untested player. He was the seventh highest signing in La Vecchia’s Signora’s history and was underwhelming in his debut season. Bernardeschi was the sole bright spot for a Fiorentina side that has been stuck in the doldrums for years. His game time was limited for a player who soon seeks to enter the prime years of his career. He only featured for 847 (starting in only 7 Serie A games) minutes last season after spending well over 2200 minutes in each of this previous two seasons. He saw an increased role towards the second half of the season after and he finally played in a similar to fashion to that of his Fiorentina’s days. He excels when the reigns are loosened and has a free role to roam in the final third. Allegri enjoys sticking to a strict formation though with the additions of Bernardeschi (and Cristiano Ronaldo) he will have to adjust to a more fluid style of play to get the most out of the young Italian. His goals and assists per 90 mins were solid despite his limited minutes of 0.74 with his shots on target increasing with each season that he has played. With more starts and overall games, he can only get better from here on out. Bernardeschi may be the best player to fit alongside Cristiano Ronaldo as he can play on either flank. Juventus want to win their first European title since 1996. While he needs to step up his game for this to be a possibility, the little he has shown at Juventus and Fiorentina is proof that he capable of greater things.
Valencia returns to the Champions League after a two year run away from the tournament where they went through six managers. They finally seem as though they have the right man in charge with Marcelino Garcia Toral at the helm. Valencia now appear to have a solid defense with eyes now veering towards their attacking players. The 22-year-old Santi Mina was one of Els Taronges’ best players as he chipped in 12 goals and a couple of assists that were handy in getting Valencia back to Europe. His youth has not hindered his ability to get on the pitch. He has made over 150 appearances (74 starts) so far in his club career with Valencia and Celta Vigo. Five seasons in, he is trending in the right direction with every facet of his games improving on a season-by-season basis. He crossed the double-figure mark for the first time last season where he featured in a career-high 1560 minutes. Many of his appearances came off the bench and was highly productive; averaging 0.81 Goals and Assists per 90 with a goal coming in once every two games. Santi also has the requisite football IQ to find high-value shots inside the box with only 14% of his shots coming from outside the D. He is predicted to score at a rate of 0.52 per game. This compares favorably to Antoine Griezmann who is one of the best players in the world. He is nowhere near the creator that the Frenchmen is and will mostly feature on either wing. He will find a home in the final third and the Champions League will give him the perfect opportunity to secure a starting spot and the praise of his contemporaries.
The 23-year-old left back looked like he was in the fringes of the Manchester United squad at the start of the preseason. After a promising start to his professional career at Southampton, he made a daring move to Old Trafford. This was a gamble for a player who only had two full seasons of Premier League experience and was supposed to fill the shoes of Patrice Evra. He is finally looking to get back to his best after an up-and-down first couple of seasons where he never truly fit in. Right when he started to have a solid run of games, he had a horrific double leg three years ago that nearly ended his professional career. Since he has had to work his socks off in his attempts to impress Mourinho and this summer it looked as though Shaw was all but done at United. For the first four games of the season, he may have been the only bright spot in the squad. As he recovers from a concussion he incurred in his return to the wearing the Three Lions badge on his chest, Shaw is finally set to have a significant impact on Manchester United’s season. He is lightning quick with his overlaps on the left flank. Time and again this season he has gotten behind opposition full-backs with acres of space in the final third. He is a serious threat down the left wing though he is still overlooked for the other United players. And despite his somewhat stocky frame (honestly, why do people even give a shit. The dude may just be chubby but he’s a solid football player) he has the underrated ability to track back at an ever quicker pace. While he has struggled for time on the pitch, he finally has the confidence of Mourinho who has spent much of the past 18 months absolutely ridiculing the young man. Making him the first choice left back will pay-off tremendously and is in the best interests of the club and Shaw.