With this season’s Champions League now underway, excitement around Europe’s premier club competition is quietly bubbling. We have witnessed how the defending winners, Real Madrid, have significantly added to their galácticos line-up; and with Barcelona strengthening too with the likes of Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitić, the Champions League boasts an unrivalled platform for the best teams and players to earn the credentials which will solidify them in footballing history.
But perhaps more importantly, the Champions League presents a unique opportunity for young talent to make their name heard on the European stage. At the tender age of 18, Cristiano Ronaldo caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson during Sporting’s clash with Manchester United, which led to his switch to Old Trafford. Ronaldo impressed hugely in the following seasons in the Champions League, and a few years later aged only 23, Ronaldo won his first UEFA Champions League as well as being the competition’s highest goal-scorer that season with 8 goals. The likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Raúl are just a handful of footballers that blossomed on the European stage, winning the stellar competition at such a young age. There is plenty more young talent to look out for in this season’s Champions League. So which under 21 players should we be keeping an eye on this time around?
Here are my top 4 young players to keep an eye on in this year’s Champions League:
4: Serge Aurier
At number four is Serge Aurier who plays for Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1. Aurier primarily plays as a right-back, but can also play at centre-half. The 21-year-old joined big-spending PSG from Toulouse FC this summer on a season-long loan with an option to buy, having caught the eye of PSG’s director of football, Leonardo Araújo. The full-back is not knew to regular first team football with already over 100 Ligue 1 appearances under his belt. Aurier has also excelled internationally, having represented the Ivory Coast national team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, setting up two goals for Wilfried Bony and Yao Gervinho which ended in a 2-1 win against Japan.
The young Ivorian will provide competition for the well-established Gregory van der Wiel at right-back, who made 35 appearances for the Parisian club last season. Aurier has been gifted with an opportunity to make a name for himself, and with a successful loan spell at the Parc des Princes this season he could well be a permanent member of Laurent Blanc’s squad this time next year. With great pace and a good attacking flare, Serge Aurier has the ability to steal the limelight during this year’s Champions League.
3: Saúl Ñíguez
At number three is Saúl Ñíguez, who plays as a central and defensive midfielder for La Liga’s Atlético Madrid. Saúl Ñíguez most notably illustrated his ability when representing Spain at under 19 level where he won the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in 2012. He has since progressed his international career by representing Spain at an under-20 and under-21 level.
More recently Saúl, after a successful loan stint at Rayo Vallecano last season, where he scored two goals in 34 appearances, has returned to parent club Atléti and has been earmarked by manager Diego Simeone. Simeone has likened the playing style and physicality of the 19-year-old to fellow Atléti midfielder Koke. Saúl has already started this season by making appearances in Atlético de Madrid’s La Liga and Copa del Rey campaigns. Furthermore, with Arda Turan out injured since damaging his right thigh in training, it seems Saúl Ñíguez has the opportunity to impress in Atléti colours as they look to improve on last season’s Champions League final defeat.
2: Pierre-Emile Højbjerg
Bayern Munich’s Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is another youngster looking to light-up the Champions League this season. Unlike some of the other players making my list, Højbjerg is comparatively very experienced, already playing for Denmark’s first team. Højbjerg has represented his national side from the under 16 level and has since been noted for his great footballing potential, firstly, by being crowned the Danish under 17 player of the year in 2011, as well as more recently winning Spillerforeningen’s Danish Talent of the Year award in 2013. The 19-year-old is a versatile midfielder, describing himself as a ‘new type of footballer’ who is comfortable in attack, scoring goals but a player who can equally carry out defensive duties.
Bayern Munich manager Sep Guardiola has also spoken highly about the young midfielder. Guardiola has claimed many times that Højbjerg will not be loaned out, seeing him ‘as one for the future’. The Bayern manager retains an ethos of creating a team around young talent which he began to implement last season as we saw Højbjerg starting for Bayern in the DFB-Pokal final against Borussia Dortmund, being substituted off in extra-time, while also making the bench in four UEFA Champions League games and playing 7 times in the Bundesliga. It is clear that Guardiola seeks to implement his ethos by establishing young creative talent at the heart of his team, which will undoubtedly provide Højbjerg with the opening to make a name for himself. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg will be expecting more game-time this season and I am sure he will impress in the Champions League and become a household name soon.
1: Raheem Sterling
My number one young player to tear-up the Champions League this season is none other than Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling. Over the last few seasons Sterling has broken into Liverpool’s first team and under the tutelage of manager Brendan Rodgers, the 19-year-old has demonstrated his ability to play in a variety of attacking positions. Sterling was a big part of Liverpool’s Premier League campaign last season, making 33 league appearances and scoring 9 goals for the Reds, earning his side a return to the Champions League. The England winger’s lightning-pace and decisive finishing makes him a potent threat and is something Rodgers’ side need if they are to successfully adjust to life following Luis Suárez transfer to Barcelona.
Raheem Sterling has started both of England’s last two games, showing great athleticism and creativity against the likes of Norway and Switzerland. England manager Roy Hodgson has aims of cementing a new, younger England side around the abilities of players such as Sterling. Along with Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling represents a talented young crop of English footballers that are ready to debut in the Champions League, with Anfield regulars anticipating that Sterling’s play will flourish with these team-mates at both club and international level.
Sterling will be a regular in Liverpool’s starting XI this season, being deployed either as a winger or a ‘number 10’. Either way, Sterling will be involved in creating goals and, in my humble opinion, will be the best the young player at this year’s Champions League – a player with a very, very bright future ahead.