The UEFA Champions League returns this week as the world’s best players take centre stage in soccer’s premier club competition.
However, there are always a handful of young players who burst onto the scene on a big platform such as the Champions League. Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele impressed for Monaco and Borussia Dortmund last season, and are now two of the world’s most-expensive players.
This year, there are dozens of youngsters who are ready to turn heads in this season’s competition. With that in mind, here are 10 under-the-radar under-23 players who are worth watching.
Manuel Akanaji, Basel
One of the more unknown players on this list is Manuel Akanji, a Swiss of Nigerian descent. The Basel centre-back is a regular starter and he made his debut for Switzerland against the Faroe Islands in June. He also started beside former Basel man Fabian Schar in Switzerland’s World Cup qualifier versus Andorra on Aug. 31. So far, he has shown tactical flexibility in a four or five-man defence, incredible pace and alertness at the back.
He is still 22, but Akanji has already recorded 74 professional appearances since 2013, although he was not a regular starter for Basel. However, the Swiss giants handed their young defender a contract extension earlier this year and are clearly ready for him to progress even further with the World Cup on the horizon.
Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig
RB Leipzig finished second last season in the Bundesliga thanks to young players such as Naby Keita leading the way. Keita joined the runners-up from Red Bull Salzburg last year, and another youngster from the Austrian club could be the next breakthrough star for Ralph Hassenhuttl’s side.
Upamecano signed with Leipzig in January and racked up 12 appearances towards the end of last season, but has mostly dominated in his first full campaign in Germany.
The 18-year-old is exceptionally strong, possesses top anticipation and is a capable ball-playing defender, like most modern centre-backs. If Leipzig hopes to qualify for the knockout stage and repeat their domestic performance from last year, Upamecano will be crucial to that success.
Kieran Tierney, Celtic
Celtic preaches youth, and manager Brendan Rodgers has bought into that philosophy. Many of the squad’s top performers are 24 and younger, and that includes left-back Kieran Tierney.
At just 20 years of age, Tierney has amassed six caps for Scotland and a whopping 87 appearances for Celtic. The academy product scored against Manchester City in the thrilling 3-3 draw at Celtic Park last season in the group stage, and is a stunningly composed two-way full-back.
Kieran Tierney (20) vs Astana
7 duels won
2/2 successful dribbles
— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) August 17, 2017
Prior to Liverpool signing another Scottish left-back in Andy Robertson, the Merseyside club was actually linked to Tierney. However, Celtic ensured that it tied down their prodigy to a long-term contract to 2021. However, the more the Bhoys participate in the Champions League, the more difficult it will be to hold onto Tierney.
Jorge, AS Monaco
Monaco is essentially a conveyer belt of yoiung talent. When one player leaves, a younger (and sometimes superior) replacement is already lined up.
Case in point: When Benjamin Mendy left Monaco for Manchester City in a £52 million deal this summer, the Ligue 1 champions already had Mendy’s successor in the squad. Jorge, a Brazilian full-back from Flamengo, signed for around £7.7 million in January and began the new season as Monaco’s starting left-back.
The 21-year-old has immediately settled into life in the principality. Jorge is full of pace, plus his crossing and dribbling abilities make him a lethal threat on the left flank behind Thomas Lemar.
Leander Dendoncker, Anderlecht
Anderlecht sold one of its most promising midfielders in Youri Tielemans to Monaco in the summer. Tielemans’ ex-teammate Leander Dendoncker was also linked to the principality and Manchester United, but eventually stayed in Belgium. The question is, for how much longer?
Dendoncker is a holding midfielder who started next to Tielemans, a box-to-box player, last season. The 22-year-old sits in front of the defence and breaks up oncoming attacks, then moves the ball to a midfielder who can drive forward. That is why United was reportedly interested before opting for Nemanja Matic instead.
— Kristof Terreur (@HLNinEngeland) May 6, 2017
Now that Tielemans is at Monaco, Dendoncker will be the main focus in midfield for Anderlecht. The Belgian club is in a group with Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, so there will be more big teams sniffing around this year.
Amadou Diawara, Napoli
Diawara is another deep-lying midfielder who gained notable attention in Napoli’s round-of-16 tie against Real Madrid last season. The 20-year-old (who was 19 at the time) started the first leg against the defending European champions at the Santiago Bernabeu. Talk about pressure.
Even though most youngsters would be taken aback by the grand occasion, it was evident that Diawara was anything but overzealous. The Guinean-born midfielder is significantly better on the ball compared to Dendoncker, but Diawara is also a defensive shield with his anticipation and reading of the game.
There are many options in Napoli’s midfield, but Diawara should earn a decent number of minutes in the Champions League this season. When he does, that will be a player worth watching, especially against Manchester City.
Andrija Zivkovic, Benfica
Zivkovic arrived to the Portuguese champions last summer from Partizan Belgrade shortly before his 20th birthday. He was left out of last season’s Champions League squad and struggled with consistency in his first year in Lisbon. Aguias coach Rui Vitoria preferred Eduardo Salvio, which meant the 21-year-old understudy seldom played. However, it appears that the Serbian international is ready to shine in 2017-18.
The right winger was impressive at the U-21 European Championships for Serbia. His dribbling and vision are two of his best qualities, which were on full display during the tournament. Zivkovic’s pace and composure on the ball also make the former Partizan captain a real threat on the wing.
Gelson Martins, Sporting CP
Martins shined in the Champions League last year for Sporting in a group with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Now he will be up against Barcelona and Juventus, which should be a treat.
One of the major criticisms in Martins’ game is his finishing. However, he already has three goals in five Primeira Liga matches. The 22-year-old had six all of last season.
The Sporting academy graduate possesses jaw-dropping dribbling and quickness from the right flank. If he can demonstrate clinical finishing as well, then Os Leoes will have to fend off a ton of competition for his signature.
Viktor Kovalenko, Shakhtar Donetsk
Kovalenko is a typical attacking midfielder. He can score, play the role of provider and dictate the tempo of games.
The 21-year-old academy product was one of Shakhtar Donetsk’s standouts in their last two Europa League campaigns with four goals in 13 games, and appeared in all three group-stage matches for Ukraine at Euro 2016. With all of this in mind, Kovalenko will be one to watch as the Ukrainians take on the likes of Manchester City and Napoli.
Kovalenko is difficult to identify, because he is a tremendous all-around player. He can defend, carve open defences with his passing and finish like a typical striker. That is why he has already accumulated 11 caps for Ukraine and 112 appearances for Shakhtar. He is that complete.
Angel Correa, Atletico Madrid
Correa often found himself behind Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann last season. But he’s started Atletico Madrid’s last two games in La Liga, scored in the first of those matches against Las Palmas, and looked lively this past weekend versus Valencia.
The 22-year-old needs to play in order to progress this season. With Torres in decline and Griezmann suspended, Diego Simeone challenged his countryman to prove his worth as a starter. Correa has proven his worth to Simeone so far, but with Griezmann returning, the Argentine has potentially won himself a spot next to the French talisman for big Champions League matches.