The Champions League begins tonight with some huge games to kick it off. Who are the top five players to watch out for in Europe’s elite competition?
Julian Draxler (Schalke 04)
In Schalke’s strange 2010/11 season when they limped to a 14th-place finish in the Bundesliga but still reached the Champions League semi-finals, they unearthed a real gem in attacking midfielder Julian Draxler. The then 17-year-old struck a late winner on his debut, remarking afterwards about how he would have to come back down to earth for school the next morning, and even got a taste of European action later in the campaign. The following season Draxler became a first-team regular at the Veltins Arena and his career has been on an upward trajectory since.
He was even considered to have an outside chance of making Germany’s Euro 2012 squad and while he might have missed out on that competition, he was included in Joachim Low’s 23 for this year’s World Cup, returning home in mid-July with a winner’s medal. Draxler’s pace, shooting prowess and ability to play anywhere in midfield makes him a phenomenal young player, one who has grown steadily since breaking into the first team ranks at Schalke. He is what Arsenal and English fans would like Jack Wilshere to be.
Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)
The French attacking midfielder was Real Sociedad’s outstanding player as they stunned Spanish football to claim fourth in La Liga two seasons ago. He also impressed for the San Sebastian club as they ousted Lyon in the Champions League play-offs to reach the group stage, where they failed to get going. Griezmann continued to draw glances of admiration from some of Europe’s top teams, though, and with Sociedad sliding back to mid-table, it seemed only a matter of time that he would be enticed elsewhere.
After featuring in the World Cup for France, Griezmann was lured to last season’s Champions League runners-up Atlético Madrid, who sought to replace several key figures from the team that lost out to city rivals Real Madrid in Lisbon. A reliable source of goals and a bundle of energy on the flanks, this should be the season when the 23-year-old emphatically announces himself as one of Europe’s best young midfielders.
Jackson Martinez (FC Porto)
Colombia’s excellent World Cup, when they were one of the most exhilarating teams to watch, naturally put several of their players in the shop window, most prominently James Rodriguez, although another striker who had been expected to undergo a big-money transfer stayed put for the time being. Martinez is the chief marksman at FC Porto, the former club of fellow countrymen Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao. There is something about Colombian strikers and the Estadio do Dragao.
Martinez’s game is chiefly about one thing – goals. Lots of them. More than 50 in two and a bit seasons with Porto. His scoring rate in the early weeks of this campaign is more than one per game. These are statistics which make it all the more surprising that he hasn’t been the subject of a substantial transfer fee to one of Europe’s big hitters. Anyone wishing to place a goalscorer bet on a Porto match is bound to have the name Jackson Martinez on their docket, even though the odds are sure to be short.
Radja Nainggolan (AS Roma)
It might seem strange that a 26-year-old defensive midfielder on loan from Cagliari is touted as ‘one to watch’ in the Champions League, but in Nainggolan’s case it is a justified decision. The Belgian has had to take his share of the rough with the smooth, having lost his mother at just 22 and slogging in Serie B with Piacenza for a number of years. He is nothing if not strong-willed, though, and seems to relish having obstacles being put in his path so that he can enjoy the satisfaction of overcoming them.
Nainggolan joined Roma on loan in January and instantly made a name for himself at the Stadio Olimpico. In a team with no shortage of flair players, he was happy to do the dirty work that often goes unappreciated. His commitment quickly endeared himself to the ‘giallorossi’ faithful and he also chipped in with the occasional goal, such as the one he plundered neatly in their season opener against Fiorentina a couple of weeks ago. Man City will soon find out all about this uncompromising yet cultured midfielder.
Son Heung-Min (Bayer Leverkusen)
South Korea haven’t had a genuine goal-poaching threat since the retirement of Ahn Jung-Hwan, but that gap may well be plugged by this young striker. Son went to Germany as a teenager, pitching his tent at Hamburg and emerging into the first team upon entering his adult years. A prolific season with the northern club in 2012/13 persuaded Bayer Leverkusen to part with €10million for his services. He slotted nicely into an attack-minded line-up and netted often enough to make South Korea’s World Cup squad.
The Asians had a hugely disappointing summer in Brazil and returned home to a hail of toffees from their irate supporters, but Son was one of very few Korean players to enhance his reputation at the tournament. While he has stiff competition up front in Stefan Kiessling and new arrival Josip Drmic, new Leverkusen boss Roger Schmidt might find room for all three of them. Even if he chops and changes, Son has probably done enough to justify being his primary go-to option up front.
Which of these five players do you think will have the greatest impact on proceedings in the Champions League this season? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .