Five most anticipated players of the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League
For many across the continent, this week is when the Champions League traditionally begins. It is, at least, when UEFA’s premier competition comes back into the consciousness for the majority of fans as some of Europe’s bigger hitters begin their campaigns in the 3rd qualifying round. This stage has long served as an entrée to the competition proper, an early taste of the sort of high-stakes midweek clashes we will be spoilt with once September rolls around.
With that in mind, we decided to look ahead to which players we are most looking forward to seeing play in new surroundings across Europe, that might be making all the difference to who we could be seeing lifting the trophy in Lisbon come May. Without further ado…
5. Edinson Cavani, PSG
No stranger to Champions League action with Napoli, Cavani bagged 5 goals during the Italians’ 2011/12 campaign. However this season the Uruguayan hitman will be playing for a PSG side whose ambitious project is beginning to take shape. Cavani’s acquisition is the most drastic change to the side who were so unlucky to miss out on a semi final place last season, only losing to Barcelona on away goals. Having claimed a first Ligue 1 title since 1994, the Parisians will now be hopeful of improvements to their continental fortunes.
By far the most intriguing element to Cavani’s arrival in Paris is whether the new man can form a functioning partnership with Swedish maestro Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Such is the reputation of the enigmatic Ibrahimovic, rumours began to spread that he would leave the Parc Des Princes as soon as it became clear that Cavani’s arrival was imminent. A system with two out-and-out strikers seems almost old fashioned, and certainly rarely utilised, in top level football in recent years, and neither of these two men will stand for being included in a squad rotation policy, especially in a run up to the World Cup next summer. However, both of the duo have expressed their hopes that the new alliance will flourish given time, with Cavani himself describing the pair as “complementary”.
If the two can stay in each other’s good graces, it will certainly be a fearsome prospect to consider for the rest of France and all of Europe.
4. Thiago Alcântara, Bayern Munich
There can be scarcely any bigger shoes to fill than for the man who has been dubbed by so many as “the new Xavi”. With Spain’s diminutive midfield maestro threatening to show signs of age, it’s a wonder then that his supposed successor has decided to make the switch away from the his former home at Barcelona at all – what with such a ready-made spot beginning to vacate for him. However, 22 is long in the tooth these days for such a glittering prospect, and so with a chance to play once again for Pep Guardiola, his former mentor, the youngster taking the chance to expedite his route to regular first team football, and for the current European Champions at that, is perhaps not all that startling after all.
Now that the midfielder has arrived in Munich, and as one of his new manager’s primary signings since arriving at the club, one would expect Thiago to be given rather more chances to express himself on the pitch than before, as Guardiola begins to mould the side in his own style (or, to put it another way, to fix what isn’t broken).
Only time will tell if the former Barcelona manager does intend to bring tiki-taka to Bavaria, but one would assume a man of his considerable reputation and success is not of a mind to act as a steward to his predecessor’s methods. It is certainly a risky strategy to change the approach to which Bayern set about the rest of Europe last season, and he will need his new number 6 to truly live up to his billing and emulate the metronomic Xavi if he is to be successful.
3. Francisco Román Alarcón Suárez – “Isco“, Real Madrid
Another who is no stranger to Champions League football, Isco starred for Malaga as they too came heartbreakingly close to last season’s semi-finals. Having led the unfancied Andalucians past the likes of Milan and Porto, Real Madrid will be hoping that their €27 million outlay will go some way to seeing them do the same.
If Isco thought the pressure of being Malaga’s main man was a test, the expectation surrounding Madrid’s excursions into Europe are ever increasing. Their 11 year divorce from the trophy that they consider “their own” is fast becoming one of Europe’s great quirks, and Isco is the latest star the Spanish giants will be hoping can prevent that quirk turning into a curse.
Like with Cavani, the real intrigue will be seeing how the 21 year old can link up in a bigger team with more talented team mates. If he can recreate the same form that he did for Malaga, the difference in quality around him may just be the difference Madrid need. Isco has already come up trumps for his new club once, scoring a late winner on the opening day of the La Liga season. A sign of things to come?
2. Mario Balotelli, AC Milan
The only man on our list who isn’t a new summer signing, “Super Mario” is nevertheless included as he was cup tied for Milan’s last European campaign following his January transfer from Manchester City. Now that Milan have progressed through the qualification round this week, they have their prodigal son to thank for their place in the group stage, as Balotelli’s capture galvanised the San Siro club to a strong second half of the season, catapulted into 3rd place by a spate of goals from their new striker.
Balotelli’s opening months for his boyhood club certainly suggest that he is ready to grasp this ‘last chance’ (as this transfer was apparently dubbed by so many) with both hands. The player certainly has enough feeling for the club that he was willing to be filmed wearing their shirt whilst still playing for bitter rivals Inter earlier in his career – as is typical, it was pure Balotelli pantomime.
Beyond the club itself, the Italy number 9 has given further evidence that he is willing to buck the trend that has earned him something of a reputation as playing only for Mario Balotelli, posting a picture paired with fellow Milan and Italy striker Stephan El Shaarawy under the caption ‘brothers’.
A terrifying prospect indeed for the rest of Europe – if Milan can bring the same focused team player that dragged them into this season’s competition to begin with, Balotelli might just have enough to drag them all the way back to the top table.
1. Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, Barcelona
It’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances that would pile more expectation on the shoulders of a 21-year-old footballer than those surrounding Neymar Jr as this season gets underway. Signed for nearly €57 million, the 9th highest transfer fee in history and by some distance a world record for a player of his age, Neymar is tasked with fulfilling the hopes not only of the Blaugrana fans around the world, but also those of his own compatriots as we head into a World Cup countdown.
First and foremost, the entire futebol-mad population of Brazil will be watching every move of their star player with baited breath as they await the descent of the entire footballing world to their country next June. Even for the most decorated nation and most storied team in football history, having lost out on home turf before, the 2014 World Cup finals represents the most important moment that Brazilian football has ever faced. Neymar – their poster boy, superstar and primary hope, can expect to be scrutinised and harassed more and more as the finals approach.
With that meagre consideration to contend with, Neymar also arrives in Europe as the standard bearer not just for the Brazilian national team, but for Brazilian football as a whole. Of all of the samba stars who have lit up Europe since the 1990’s, none of the most successful, not Rivaldo, not Ronaldo and not Ronaldinho, played as many club games in their home country before emigrating to Europe as Barca’s new boy. That is to say his footballing education has been all the more Brazilian than the previously mentioned legends of the Seleção. It has long been a debate across the planet as to how the South American leagues measure-up in quality to the finest that Europe has to offer. Should Neymar struggle on these shores, his comparative dominance of the Campeonato Brasileiro would only add fuel to the fire of those who sneer at the South American leagues as lesser relatives of the lucrative titles in England, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Which brings us to Barca themselves. Stunningly humiliated by Bayern Munich in last season’s semi-finals, it was only the cakewalk that they made of last season’s La Liga that allowed the Catalans to even keep one fingernail on the title of “best team in the world”. Should they meet their German tormentors during the competition, they will have a chance to get that moniker back in earnest, as well as prove that they can achieve European glory without the guidance of the man now sat in the opposition dugout. Such a fascinating subtext to a potential game which has the feel of a heavyweight boxing rematch – the former champion knocked out in the last encounter now desperate for another chance to prove themselves.
One thing for certain is that big changes will have to be made for Barcelona to make a full reverse of the 7-0 deficit they suffered last April. The biggest change made so far? The acquisition of their new Brazilian forward.
No pressure then.