The UEFA Champions League, Europe’s biggest and most prestigious football club tournament, kicks off again this week as 32 elite clubs from around the continent do battle to try and take Liverpool’s crown.
As always on Just Football our eye is on talented young footballers who could light up the big stage. So we have put together our list of 80 exciting young players to watch in elite European competition this season.
First up, here’s our list of 32 Champions League young players to watch. This year we’ve set a cut-off date of 22 or under – except in the case of three clubs’ whose roster of young talents didn’t quite allow us to pick an U22 player who we could expect to feature prominently. Tune in also for our Europa League list later this week.
Paris Saint-Germain // France // 9.9.1998 (21)
Adored by PSG head coach Thomas Tuchel, who even went as far as to say he ‘loves’ Colin Dagba after one game, the young right-back could well feature more regularly on the big stage for PSG this season. A rapid, aggressive and dynamic modern full-back, the France Under-21 international already has 25 appearances under his belt after emerging in 2018. Dagba survived the club’s summer cull of academy players, and will compete for that right-back spot in Tuchel’s team along with Thomas Meunier and Thilo Kehrer.
Real Madrid // Brazil // 9.1.2001 (18)
Real Madrid may well have faltered in their summer efforts to sign Neymar, but they might just have the new Neymar sitting right under their noses after all.
Like Neymar, Rodrygo Silva de Goes is a product of Santos’ academy. He calls the PSG striker his hero. A tidy finisher who excelled for Brazil’s youth teams, Rodrygo was signed by Real Madrid for €45 million in 2018, but only joins the club this summer after turning 18. He has a lot of competition for places and much to work on in his game, but is in the club’s Champions League squad and is definitely one to keep an eye on.
Club Brugge // Nigeria // 29.8.1997 (22)
With a Benjani-like gait and style (for those who remember the former Portsmouth star with the unforgettable celebration), David Okereke has started his career in Belgium like a house on fire.
Signed from Italian Serie B outfit Spezia Calcio on a four-year deal for roughly €7million, Okereke has scored four goals in his opening six games for Club Brugge. With his quick wits and athletic frame he is a threat in the penalty area, can score with his left foot, right foot or in the air and will only improve with more regular game time at a higher level. Keep an eye on him.
Galatasaray // Turkey // 24.7.1997 (22)
This may well be a crossroads in the young career of Emre Mor. Once deemed an absolute sensation after breaking through in Danish football, before he earned a lucrative move to Borussia Dortmund, the simple truth is that a questionable attitude has repeatedly held back the Turkish youngster.
Mor had his contract terminated at Lyngby BK as an Under-19 there, with the club stating they did not “see ourselves able to realise Emre’s potential without compromising the values we stand for.” He was also criticised by then-BVB boss Thomas Tuchel and those at Dortmund, with Tuchel stating he “must learn what it means to be a pro”, before he was sold to Celta Vigo after only 12 appearances.
Now on loan from Celta to Galatasaray, the Danish-born talent must show a new side to his game and rebuild his profile. His technical qualities – speed, touch, technique and ability in one v one situations – are undisputed. But he must channel it into more consistent output. He may face Tuchel again in the Champions League.
Red Star Belgrade
Bayern Munich // Canada // 2.11.2000 (18)
Reportedly the fastest player at Bayern, 18-year-old Alphonso Davies made a huge impression in MLS for Vancouver Whitecaps, which did enough to convince the German giants to bring him to Bavaria for an MLS record fee of $22 million USD.
Davies can operate as a left winger or left-back/left wing-back, though he prefers to play higher forward. To be getting first team minutes at such a young age for a club like Bayern shows great faith in the exciting young talent, who is a refugee born in Ghana after his parents fled civil war in Liberia before he was born.
Raised in Canada, he soon developed into the hottest property in Major League Soccer. Davies will look to accumulate some minutes in a Champions League group that may afford him game time.
FK Crvena Zvezda // Montenegro // 05.04.2000 (19)
Bought to replace outgoing fellow wonderkid Dejan Joveljic, Nikola Krstovic is by no means a lesser prospect. Bursting on the scene last year whilst playing on loan for Zeta in the Montenegrin League, Krstovic scored 16 goals to go along with four assists.
Instinctive, smart, quick and composure beyond his years, the young forward is a striking prospect people must take note of. It may take Krstovic time to overhaul Milan Pavkov for the striking role but once he does he won’t look back.
Olympiacos // Serbia // 05.08.1997 (22)
Signed by Olympiacos in 2018, Lazar Ranđelović spent last season on loan at his former side Radnički Niš, scoring seven goals and seven assists from the wing. The Serbian wide man has already had a big impact on Olympiacos’s Champions League campaign, coming off the bench against Krasnodar to score two goals to put the game beyond the Russian side.
Quick, strong and skilful with boundless energy, Ranđelović is a thorn in the side of most defences at that level. Add to this his eye for goal and creativity and he could be an impact player for Olympiacos in this year’s Champions League as the Greeks look to fight for qualification in a challenging group.
Tottenham Hotspur // Republic of Ireland // 4.2.2002 (17)
At just 17, Troy Parrott is already tipped to step into the Spurs first team this season in case of any absence of Harry Kane. He has also been included in the senior Ireland squad over the summer after an impressive pre-season with Spurs’ first team setup.
Atalanta // Croatia // 09.02.1995 (24)
One of Chelsea’s famed loan army that leaves Stamford Bridge temporarily each year, Mario Pasalic seems to have finally found a home in Atalanta. This will be his second consecutive season with the Nerazzuri and he has become a valuable cog in Gian Piero Gasperini’s system.
An intelligent midfielder who can play deeper or in a more advanced role, Pasalic is adept in either role for Atalanta providing ball progression and creativity. He also chipped in with five goals and three assists last season. Is still owned by Chelsea so Frank Lampard may want to send a scout to track his progress.
Shakhtar Donetsk // Brazil // 15.02.2000 (19)
Tete is the latest in a long line of Brazilian talents bought by Shakhtar Donetsk and given a platform to perform at a major European level, similar to the likes of Willian, Fernandinho and Alex Teixeira over the years.
Signed from Gremio for £13.5 million without ever making a first team appearance, Shakhtar with their excellent Brazilian connections must have known they had a huge talent on their hands. Tete is a goalscoring left-footed winger who likes to cut in from the right and shoot. The 19-year-old is pacy, skilful and intelligent in his movement. He has already scored two goals in three games in the Ukrainian Premier League this season.
GNK Dinamo // Spain // 7.5.1998 (21)
A success story from a young man who at 16 moved away from the famous La Masia at FC Barcelona and pursued an opportunity in the Croatian top flight with GNK Dinamo. Technically sound and with a great variety of tricks, as well as being a big goal threat, Dani Olmo will have a lot of freedom to thrive playing alongside new signing Luka Ivanusec and could cause issues for teams in offensive zones. He can operate in both central areas, and on the wings, and was superb at the Under-21 European Championships for Spain this past summer.
Croatia are making efforts to persuade Olmo to play for them at international level over his native Spain.
Manchester City // England // 28.5.2000 (19)
The best player at the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, Phil Foden boasts excellent speed of thought and evasive dribbling, and has been named by Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola as “the most, most, most talented player I have ever seen in my career as a manager.” Huge praise for a player still only 19 – (and from a manager that coached Lionel Messi – Ed).
Foden’s ability to make an impact in games at the top level already shows the potential of the young man. He drifts around the pitch effortlessly and demonstrates a level of understanding many players ten years his senior can only dream of.
The question for Foden is, unlike many of his other England U17 World Cup-winning counterparts such as Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, he is yet to establishn himself as a first team regular.
Bayer Leverkusen // Germany // 11.6.1999 (20)
30 goals and 22 assists from 110 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen is an outstanding return for Kai Havertz – particularly at such a young age. The beauty of Kai Havertz is in his versatility. The midfielder is two-footed and can operate as a six, an eight or a ten, maintaining his technical profile and ability to create no matter where he is stationed on the pitch.
Already capped at senior international level, Havertz has been compared to German greats of the past and present such as Michael Ballack and Toni Kroos. Big shoes to fill, but the youngster has already shown hugely exciting potential.
Atletico Madrid // Portugal // 10.11.1999 (19)
The second most expensive teenager in football history and the fifth most expensive signing of all-time, João Felix certainly has a lot to live up to. Atletico Madrid smashed their club record transfer fee to shell out €126 million for the 19-year-old sensation from Benfica, and already the cheeky youngster has shown glimpses of why world football is so excited to track his development with some sublime football.
A perfect example of his promise came in Felix’s La Liga debut against Getafe. There, among other skills, he made an exceptional 70 yard run to win a penalty, beating three players with ease and throwing in a nutmeg on one of them for good measure.
A mix between a number 9 and a 10, Felix operates as a second striker but is also adept in wide areas, using his magnificent technique and quick feet to glide past opponents. “He has an extraordinary understanding of the game and the rare ability to know where to be in front of goal,” said Portuguese legend Rui Costa.
Lokomotiv Moscow // Russia // 17.10.1995 (23)
Stepping out from the shadows of his twin brother Alexey, Anton Miranchuk is really becoming a diamond for Lokomotiv Moscow after looking like his career might take a different route only a couple of years ago after moving to Estonia on loan.
He ghosts into the box with perfectly timed runs from midfield and has become a big goalscoring threat, and possess an excellent ability to skip passed defenders, and look to cut inside when he has sometimes featured wide left looking to unleash bending efforts with his right foot into the far corner.
Matthijs De Ligt
Juventus // Netherlands // 12.8.1999 (20)
Arguably already one of the top defenders in Europe, Matthijs de Ligt will look to have as good an impact on this season’s Champions League as he did last year.
The youngster was a revelation for Ajax, one of the key players in a team that shocked Europe on their way to the Champions League semi-finals. This alerted Europe’s richest and most powerful clubs, and eventually Ajax were unable to resist a €75 million fee from Juventus.
De Ligt won the third highest number of aerial duels of any player in the Champions League last season, 78 in total. Add to this his calmness on the ball and ability to build play and you can see why he was so highly coveted. How he adapts to life with the Old Lady will be fascinating to see.
Erling Braut Haaland
FC Salzburg // Norway // 21.7.2000 (19)
The son of former Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alfe-Inge, Erling Braut Haaland is a dominant brute of a centre forward. The combination of electric pace and huge upper body strength make him a nightmare for any opposing players.
Not only does he possess those attributes, but he also packs a rocket of a left foot which he uses highly effectively with superb efficiency. He broke records over the summer when he scored nine goals in one game at the Under-20 World Cup to walk away with the Golden Boot. Haaland’s game is growing at a rapid rate since his move to RB Salzburg from Molde FK back in January, with Norway’s head coach Lars Lagerback raving about him. “He has amazing qualities and potential.”
KRC Genk // Colombia // 9.3.1999 (20)
A real Rolls-Royce of a defender, Carlos Cuesta seems to have been around for a long time now having made his senior debut in Colombia back in 2016, but is still only 20. Despite a lack in height, he wins the majority of his aerial duels with a powerful leap, he times tackles to perfection, and is a real leader of any defence he appears in.
Centre-back is his main position, however he has also featured at right-back on occasion. Cuesta is that rarest of breeds these days – a superb talent not immediately snatched up by a big European club early – and continued to grow before Genk picked him up this summer.
Described as “almost gentle in the way he goes about his business,” by the brilliant Tim Vickery, Cuesta will certainly enjoy his opportunity on the Champions League stage.
Liverpool // England // 1.4.2000 (19)
Deemed “a top striker and a top talent” by none other than Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, there are high hopes at Anfield for England youth international Rhian Brewster.
A speedy striker who channels a real aggression on the pitch into good moments, Brewster strikes firmly through the ball and when he is allowed an opportunity you expect the net to burst. If not he will often display his visible frustration.
With a willingness to shoot anywhere in and around the box, great off the ball movements, generally off the shoulder of the last defender, Brewster has the right mentality and attitude to go far in the game. He just needs to add a little bit of composure on occasions to his finishing. Klopp has said he has “an important role” in the team this year.
Napoli // North Macedonia // 24.09.2000 (19)
Eljif Elmas burst on to the scene last season with Fenerbahce, scoring four goals in the Turkish Super Lig. Combining pace, skill and superb technical ability with his immense football intelligence, Elmas is an outstanding young player.
His ability to find or carve out space in the penalty area to create a chance for himself really sets him apart from other players his age. Napoli spent £14.2 million this summer to take the wonderkid to the San Paolo and Napoli fans can now feel they have a replacement for the great Marek Hamsik.
Borussia Dortmund // England // 25.3.2000 (19)
The poster boy for a generation of young, hungry, technically exquisite English talents whose horizons are no longer restricted merely to the United Kingdom, it is not exaggerating to say that Jadon Sancho’s move from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund changed the game.
For English academy players, new doors opened up following the then-17-year-old’s £8 million move. His incredible performances at Dortmund, where he was instantly handed the number 7 shirt, have fully justified the faith in him shown by the Bundesliga giants. 17 goals and 29 assists in 61 appearances is a quite remarkable record for someone who at 19 could still be plodding along in Under-23s football had he not made that bold move.
His adventurous career decision-making matches his adventurous nature on the pitch. Sancho’s brilliant close-co-ordinated dribbling, excellence in one-v-one situations and raw pace have made him a fans’ favourite at BVB.
FC Barcelona // Guinea-Bissau // 31.10.2002 (16)
Described as ‘the jewel of La Masia’ by Victor Valdes, young winger Ansu Fati was the shining light in Barcelona UEFA Youth League campaign last season, and his performances have seen him thrust into the spotlight after making his La Liga debut and grabbing a senior goal already. His pace and directness from wide areas make him a constant threat from wide left.
Most recently, Fati became the youngest player in La Liga history to score and provide an assist in the same game. His close control at speed is also ridiculous for a player so young, and his ability to step up in levels and transition so effortlessly is a joy to watch.
It could have all been so very different for Barcelona this summer after Fati came very close to a Premier League move, before Spanish passport issues blocked the deal.
Internazionale // Argentina // 22.08.1997 (22)
Signed from Racing Club for a bargain £22.7 million, Inter now find themselves with one of the brightest lights in Argentinian football. Lautaro Martinez quietly went about his work last season in compatriot Mauro Icardi’s shadow, scoring six goals in his debut Serie A season.
A product of Racing Club’s academy, this season the Argentina international is ready to break out on the big stage under Antonio Conte. Martinez has nine goals in 13 caps for Argentina, including a hat-trick recently in a friendly against Mexico. Combining pace, skill and composure, Martinez is the prototype striker.
Slavia Prague // Czech Republic // 27.02.1995 (24)
Tomas Soucek came to prominence in Slavia Prague’s magical run to the Europa League quarter finals last season where they knocked out both Sevilla and Genk before falling to eventual winner Chelsea. A goalscoring midfielder who is also his side’s creative fulcrum, Soucek is integral to how Slavia play, scoring 18 goals and getting nine assists in all competitions last season in a deeper midfield role.
Surprisingly, Soucek was not picked up by a top five league side this summer. The Champions League will be the perfect place to show off the midfielder’s well-rounded game against three very challenging opponents.
Zenit St. Petersburg
Zenit St. Petersburg // Brazil// 26.02.1997 (22)
Much has already been made about Malcom’s move from Barcelona to Zenit. The one positive is he will now finally get to play, after a wasted year behind Lionel Messi in Barcelona. Fast and creative with a superb left foot, Malcom has a lot of talent, which he showed at Bordeaux scoring 12 goals and assisting 7 in his final season there in Ligue 1 in 2018.
Malcom has the ability to be a match winner, and if he can get back to the level he showed at Bordeaux then Zenit St. Petersburg could surprise a few teams in this year’s Champions League.
Olympique Lyonnais // France // 7.2.2000 (19)
The tall, imposing centre-back has been highly touted for a while now after signing for Lyon from lower leagues side Stade Lavallois and has been great in the youth sides for Lyon. He has also performed to a very high level for France’s international youth teams.
With a good ground speed and long legs, Oumar Solet is able to make great tackles from some very different angles, and loves to step out of the defence with the ball at his feet to make his way up the pitch and join in attacks.
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