Everyone knows that Ronaldo, Messi, Fabregas, Gotze, Kross and pretty much every other German you can think of will shine during this year’s Champions League group stages. But here are three players who I think could steal some of the limelight from the big boys.
Ivan Rakitic at Barcelona
Rakitic was one of the star performers in La Liga for Sevilla last year. His stats were up there with the very best. He scored 12 goals. He laid on 10 assists. He had 27 shots on target. He created 78 chances. He made 55 tackles and 27 clearances, and with 80% pass completion rate he was one of the most accurate midfielders in Spain. He also captained Sevilla to UEFA Cup victory. So what does all that prove? For me it says he’s a complete box-to-box midfielder and leader. He can score. He can create chances. He can get stuck in, and he has the ability to balance a team overloaded with attacking talent. He’s tasked with being the man to take over from Xavi, which was never going to be easy. But he’s started well so far. He’s made two appearances and played the full 180 minutes. He’s made 211 passes (30 more than any other La Liga player), set up two decent opportunities and has a pass completion rate of 93.36% – and an unheard of 100% pass completion rate in his own half of the field. If he gets the time on the pitch over the course of the season, he could be one of the shining lights of La Liga and the Champions League. And Barca got him for only £16million – or half-a-Cesc as they now call it in Catalunya.
Philippe Coutinho at Liverpool
Coutinho played a huge part in Liverpool’s impressive season last year: he created more chances for Liverpool (65) than any player except Gerrard and Suarez. His vision, creativity and passing ability will be instrumental in filling the void left by Luis Suarez, and if he gets the opportunity to play in the hole behind Sturridge and Balotelli he should be able to supply the ammunition they need to progress past the group stages. He’s also just been recalled to Dunga’s new Brazil team. His stats last year were pretty impressive: five goals, seven assists, 23 blocked shots and 81% pass completion, and he’s started brightly this year too. The only problem is that Liverpool have signed a lot of good attacking players in the summer, and he’s no longer guaranteed a place in the starting line up. But if he does manage to establish himself in the first 11, I fancy him to make a big impression.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Arsenal
Alex had an awful year last year with injuries and only made 14 league appearances for Arsenal, which is a real shame because when he did play he played well. His strength, pace and control make him a real handful: he won around 50% of his one-on-one duels last year, he scored a couple of good league goals, he set up a couple, he had five shots on target and seven more blocked, he even won six of the eight tackles he went in for. What I like about him is that he seems to have a taste for the big games. His performance bursting from midfield away to Bayern in the Champions League last year, his goal at the Maracana and his performance against Liverpool in the FA Cup make me think this could be his year… If he can stay clear of injury. With a starting place for England up for grabs, he’ll be looking to nail down a place with some decent displays in Europe.