The UEFA Champions League returns this week with Matchday 4, and the usual suspects such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are expected to hog the spotlight.
However, there are a few players who, after disastrous spells elsewhere, have rebounded in a significant way in the competition this season.
Perhaps they arrived at a club with heavy expectations, did not impress and were eventually sold. Whatever the reason, these players are now among the standout performers through the halfway point of the group stage and are worth watching as the round concludes.
Here are five “forgotten” players to watch on Matchday 4 of the Champions League.
Ryan Babel – Besiktas
Liverpool fans will remember Babel, perhaps for the wrong reasons. The Dutch international was signed from Ajax in 2007 for around £15 million and was a highly touted attacker during his time in the Netherlands. Despite his potential, the winger never established himself as a starter with the Reds and was sold to Hoffenheim in 2011 for around half his initial fee.
After a second stint at Ajax, a two-year spell with Turkish side Kasimpasa, eight matches at Al-Ain in Abu Dhabi and a few months with Spain’s Deportivo La Coruna, Besiktas signed Babel in January on a free transfer. He has been a hit ever since.
The 30-year-old has quickly become one of Besiktas’ key players up front. He’s recorded two goals and one assist in three victories for the Turkish Super Lig winners in the Champions League this season. Babel’s dribbling and vision have made him virtually unstoppable on the left wing, and he is a big reason why the Black Eagles are on the brink of the knockout stage.
Aleksandar Kolarov – AS Roma
At this time last year, Kolarov was a starter at centre-back for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Fast forward twelve-months, and the 31-year-old is turning heads with Roma.
Kolarov and Edin Dzeko – another former Man City player – both played key roles in Roma’s draw at Chelsea on Matchday 3. Both sides will meet again at the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday. The Serbian’s set-piece prowess, experience and overall technique have made him a valuable asset at left-back for the Giallorossi.
Steven N’Zonzi – Sevilla
Yes, former Stoke City and Blackburn player Steven N’Zonzi is now one of Europe’s premier deep-lying midfielders.
The Sevilla man is arguably his team’s most important player. He is the so-called “engine” as he is responsible for collecting the ball from deep positions, driving forward and acting as a calming presence in possession. Those traits led to N’Zonzi being linked to Juventus over the summer.
He’s not been as impressive in La Liga this season, but N’Zonzi was stellar against Liverpool and Maribor earlier in the group stage. He was not available against Spartak Moscow, who pummelled Sevilla 5-1 on Matchday 3. Surely that will change if the 28-year-old starts this week.
Jose Callejon – Napoli
Callejon left Real Madrid in 2013 to earn regular minutes at Napoli. While he’s a vital starter up front with Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne, the Spaniard receives significantly fewer plaudits compared to his two teammates.
The 30-year-old provided a vital goal and assist in the 3-1 win over Feyenoord, plus his pace and dribbling are devastating for opposing left-backs. Fabian Delph will be tasked with restricting Callejon on Wednesday, which definitely won’t be an easy task.
Radamel Falcao – AS Monaco
Ever since Falcao left Atletico Madrid in 2013, he struggled to regain his lethal form in front of goal. Ligament damage to his knee in 2014 certainly took its toll on Falcao, who struggled at Monaco, Manchester United and Chelsea.
However, following a return from a separate injury last season, he’s been brilliant. The Colombian is one of the top scorers in Europe’s top-five leagues this year with 13 goals in nine Ligue 1 matches.
Monaco will need Falcao to deliver those types of performances on Wednesday. Monaco has to face Group G leader Besiktas in Istanbul, which is a must-win match.
Whatever the result, it’s assuring to see Falcao in among the goals again after a rough three-year stretch.