Neymar, Lukaku & and the players to watch in the 2017-18 Champions League | Soccer


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The draw for the group stage of the Champions League is finally upon us and the tournament will doubtless throw up a plethora of fascinating fixtures between Europe’s top teams.

However, which players should we keep an eye on this season?

Below, Goal runs through 15 players that all have their reasons for wanting to make a big impression on the 2017-18 Champions League…

DELE ALLI (Tottenham Hotspur)

Dele Alli personifies Tottenham’s surprising struggles in Europe over the past two seasons. The attacking midfielder has picked up as many red cards as he has scored goals (one apiece!) in continental competition.

However, there is no doubting the fact that the 21-year-old is one of the most exciting talents to emerge in England over the past two decades, a player blessed with terrific skill and an uncanny knack of arriving in the area, unmarked, at precisely the right time.

Indeed, Alli has drawn comparisons with Steven Gerrard but Jamie Redknapp, says even his former Liverpool team-mate wasn’t “displaying the same kind of authority as Dele at the same age”.

The challenge for Alli now is to show that he can be just as influential and successful as Gerrard in the Champions League….

GIANLUIGI BUFFON (Juventus)

Buffon Juventus Serie A

Gianluigi Buffon insists that winning the Champions League has never been “an obssession” for him but there is no doubt that he would dearly love to end what is likely to be his final season in professional football by lifting the one major trophy to have eluded him in his illustrious career.

As he said before May’s final loss to Real Madrid, “People like a fairytale”, and neutrals the world over would rejoice if the goalkeeping icon bowed out by leading Juventus to a first European Cup triumph since 1996.

DANIELE DE ROSSI (Roma)

Daniele De Rossi Francesco Totti Roma

Daniele De Rossi, Roma’s long-time ‘capitan futuro’, has finally realised his destiny, with the iconic Francesco Totti having retired at the end of last season.

However, the midfielder, 34, knows that this is the beginning of the end for him, admitting that the two-year contract he signed in May “could be the last of my footballing career”.

As a result, he is determined to make every second count, so expect a man renowned for his ferocity to give everything he has left to help 1984 European Cup finalists Roma at the very least go beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history.

MARIO GOTZE (Borussia Dortmund)

HD Mario Gotze

Just three years after scoring the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final, Mario Gotze’s career was in jeopardy, with the Borussia Dortmund ace having been forced to take an indefinite break from the game to deal with a rare metabolic disorder.

Happily, the 25-year-old, considered by Ottmar Hitzfeld to be one of the finest talents that Germany has ever produced, is now back where he belongs, on a football pitch, having made his first appearance in seven months in BVB’s Bundesliga opener against Wolfsburg at the weekend.

A welcome return to the Champions League is now on the horizon.

LORENZO INSIGNE (Napoli)

Lorenzo Insigne Napoli

If Barcelona really decided after watching Nice’s Champions League play-off against Napoli on Tuesday that Jean Michael Seri was not good enough for play for them, the Catalans might also have concluded that Lorenzo Insigne would make a fine replacement for Neymar.

Of course, snap judgements should always be avoided but Insigne has been performing at a consistently excellent level for two seasons now.

There are doubts over his temperament but none over his talent – Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri says he’s the most gifted player in Italy – and if he can maintain his momentum, his “dream” of representing Barca could yet become a reality.

NABY KEITA (RB Leipzig)

HD Naby Keita

While discussing Naby Keita last week, RB Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick conceded: “Sometimes, players develop even faster than the club.”

That was a remarkable admission given the Red Bull-backed outfit have gone from the German fifth division to Champions League qualification in just eight years, but the midfielder’s rise to prominence has been even more meteoric.

Indeed, just a year after joining Leipzig for €15 million, Keita was the subject of a €75 million offer from Liverpool, who, like the rest of Europe, will now be watching with interest as a player whose buy-out clause is set to drop to €55m next summer tackles the Champions League group stage for the first time.

MATEO KOVACIC (Real Madrid)

Mateo Kovacic Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s signing of Mateo Kovacic always felt like something of an afterthought. The first time president Florentino Perez even met him was at the midfielder’s unveiling!

Kovacic was, essentially, an easy way to strengthen the Blancos squad by taking advantage of Inter’s need to meet Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

However, slowly but surely the Croatia international has finally started to prove his worth at the Santiago Bernabeu, so much so, in fact, that Los Blancos have rebuffed interest from the likes of Juventus.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Kovacic is now 23 and needs to be playing regular first-team football. Whether he stays at Madrid or moves elsewhere – Liverpool are also said to be interested – this is a massive season for the midfielder.

ROMELU LUKAKU (Manchester United)

Manchester United celebrate Romelu Lukaku

While playing for Everton last season, Romelu Lukaku was asked how he viewed himself in relation to world-class strikers such as Robert Lewandowski and Luis Suarez.

“It’s difficult to compare at the moment,” he mused. “They have the Champions League platform on which to show what they can do.”

A £75 million summer switch to Manchester United later and the big Belgian striker, who has made a fine start to his Old Trafford career, now finally has the chance to prove that he belongs among Europe’s elite.

SADIO MANE (Liverpool)

Sadio Mane Liverpool

Liverpool spent have spent a significant chunk of their summer trying to fend off Barcelona’s interest in Philippe Coutinho.

They could be subjected another torturous transfer saga next year because Sadio Mane looks poised to light up this season’s Champions League.

Many pundits and supporters questioned the decision to pay Southampton £34m for the winger last summer but the Senegal international is probably already worth three times this figure.

As Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher recently pointed out, Mane is probably now more important to Jurgen Klopp’s side.

ALVARO MORATA (Chelsea)

Alvaro Morata

It did not take Alvaro Morata long to realise that the pressure of playing in the Premier League as Chelsea’s record signing would be more intense than it had been as Real Madrid’s super-sub.

“I’ve only had two pre-season games, 15 minutes officially and a missed penalty, and [the press] are already killing me, so I know what’s ahead,” the Spain international said after his squandered spot-kick in the Community Shield loss to Arsenal.

With Diego Costa still in exile, it is Morata who will spearhead Chelsea’s attack upon their return to the Champions League – and he will be expected to further enhance the already stellar reputation he gained with Real and Juventus as a man for the big occasion.

LUIS MURIEL (Sevilla)

Luis Muriel Sevilla

In 2013, Udinese legend Antonio Di Natale opined: “In a few years, Luis will become a great champion.” We’re still waiting for that particularly prophesy to come true.

However, a powerful, pacey striker that has long been compared with Ronaldo – he has even had his own weight problems – now has the perfect stage on which to prove his former team-mate correct.

After netting 11 times in Serie A for Sampdoria last season, Muriel earned himself a €20m move to Sevilla, where we will discover whether the 26-year-old is a flop – or a phenomenon.

NEYMAR (Paris Saint-Germain)

Neymar Marco Verratti PSG Toulouse Ligue 1 20082017

The weight of expectancy has never been an issue for Neymar. He has made light of it for Santos, Barcelona and Brazil, so it is hardly surprising, then, that he has made such a sensational start to his Paris Saint-Germain career, following his world-record €222 million transfer from Camp Nou.

“People think that leaving Barca is to die, but no, it’s the opposite: I’m more alive than ever,” he declared.

However, while his move was about many things, including his personal interests, the primary reason that PSG were willing to pay his release clause is that they wanted a player capable of winning them the Champions League.

So, over to you, Neymar…

PAULINHO (Barcelona)

Paulinho Barcelona Unveiling

Barcelona began the summer wanting to sign Xavi’s natural heir, Marco Verratti. They ended it by acquiring Tottenham flop Paulinho.

Rarely has such an expensive arrival – €40m, after all – been greeted with such derision but it is certainly not the Brazilian’s fault that the Blaugrana have failed so miserably to land their top targets this summer.

The midfielder claims during his time in China with Guangzhou Evergande, he rediscovered the confidence that was once so evident during his stellar showing at the 2013 Confederations Cup and he recently declared: “I know Barca have their own style and DNA but I think I can play here.”

The Champions League will undoubtedly be the litmus test of the 29-year-old’s abilities.

NIKLAS SULE (Bayern Munich)

Niklas Sule Bayern Munich

When Mats Hummels heard that Hoffenheim starlet Niklas Sule could be joining him at Bayern Munich, the veteran defender was ecstatic:

“I would say Niklas is more than just a talent,” he gushed. “He has enormous potential but is already an accomplished centre-back.”

Indeed, Chelsea also bid for Sule at the same time as Bayern only for the 21-year-old to choose the Bavarians, explaining “they’re among the top three clubs in the world, so I didn’t have to think about it for long”.

Some doubted whether Sule would see much game time at the Allianz Arena but he looks set to play a major part in their 2017-18 campaign, having netted on his Bundesliga debut for Bayer at the weekend.

YOURI TIELEMANS (Anderlecht)

Youri Tielemans

The in-demand Youri Tielemans admitted that he chose Monaco over a host of other suitors because of the club’s fantastic reputation for developing young talent.

However, as has already been underlined, the Belgian midfielder is not a guaranteed starter for Leonardo Jardim’s side just because he has arrived at the Stade Louis II with a €25m price tag and a reputation as one of Europe’s most promising players.

Indeed, while he has featured in all three of Monaco’s Ligue 1 games to date, Tielemans was afforded just 32 minutes of game time in total and the 20-year-old will have to prove himself worthy of a place in the first 11.



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