Champions League stars

Nick Bid­well on those who im­pressed in the early rounds

World Soccer - - Contents -

1 Arthur Barcelona

Out­stand­ing in the 4-2 tri­umph away to Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur and the 2-0 home win over In­ter­nazionale, the 31mil­lion sum­mer sign­ing from Gremio is seen by many as the spir­i­tual heir to Barca’s for­mer play­mak­ing mae­stro Xavi.

The 22-year-old diminu­tive Brazil mid­fielder is a metro­nomic passer of the ball and has dou­ble­help­ings of aware­ness and imag­i­na­tion. Not too proud to put in the de­fen­sive hard yards ei­ther, he sim­ply loves the re­spon­si­bil­ity of driv­ing the team for­ward.

Club and coun­try col­league Philippe Coutinho calls him “the mo­tor of the side” which is high praise in­deed for one still ex­plor­ing the lay of the land in Europe.

It is in­cred­i­ble to re­call that less than two years ago he was not even sure of a first-team spot in Brazil­ian club foot­ball.

Mi­lan 2 PAvkov red Star Bel­grade

The rangy Red Star striker is never go­ing to for­get the Novem­ber night when his stun­ning seven-minute brace – a bul­let header and a right-footed, long-range piledriver – put Liver­pool to the sword.

Pre­mium rep­u­ta­tions are forged by such ex­ploits and sud­denly the 24-year-old is hot prop­erty, surely des­tined to im­mi­nently cash in with a big-money move to the Euro­pean main­stream, with his agent hav­ing sug­gest­ing Mi­lan are in­ter­ested.

How­ever, he has not al­ways been a Red Star hero. His first six months at the Marakana fol­low­ing a 300,000 switch from Rad­nicki Nis in Jan­uary 2017 were a dis­as­ter. He suf­fered in­jury prob­lems and was un­able to make first-team head­way, play­ing just six min­utes as a sub­sti­tute. It was an em­bar­rass­ing saga for Red Star who, much to the de­light of ri­vals, had to pay Rad­nicki a 50,000 bonus for his one fleet­ing elite run-out.

Red Star’s re­sponse was to loan him back to Rad­nicki, where 23 top-flight goals pro­vided the fuel for a third-place fin­ish last sea­son.

3 Hec­tor Her­rera Porto

Af­ter un­der­go­ing cos­metic surgery on his nose and ears a few months ago, the Mex­i­can in­ter­na­tional mid­fielder and Porto skip­per is barely recog­nis­able these days. But lit­tle has changed with re­gard to his play, char­ac­ter or lead­er­ship abil­ity.

The 28-year-old re­mains the beat­ing heart of a side that ran out win­ners of their group. How­ever, this is likely to be his last sea­son with the club as con­tract re­newal talks have re­peat­edly floun­dered and the smart money is on him leav­ing for free in July. And there will be no short­age of tak­ers, with the list of ad­mir­ers ru­moured to in­clude Roma, In­ter­nazionale, Ju­ven­tus, Arse­nal and Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur.

A vet­eran of half a dozen Champions League cam­paigns with Porto, he has only once made it to the quar­ter-fi­nals, los­ing to Bayern Mu­nich in 2015.

4 Nous­sair Mazraoui AjAx

In his first sea­son as an es­tab­lished starter for the Am­s­ter­dammers, the 21-year-old home­grown right-back has risen to the oc­ca­sion in Europe, scor­ing the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Bayern Mu­nich and a late, late winner at home to Ben­fica.

A typ­i­cal Ajax academy grad­u­ate, he is self-as­sured, over-en­dowed tech­ni­cally and a quick-wit­ted reader of the game. Com­ing through the ranks he mainly oc­cu­pied a mid­field role and im­pressed for the first-team last term as a left-sided wing-back and cen­tral de­fender.

The Dutch-born son of Mo­roc­can par­ents, he was in talks with Oranje coach Ronald Koe­man ear­lier this sea­son be­fore opt­ing for the North Africans and mak­ing his com­pet­i­tive de­but, against Malawi, in Septem­ber.

5 Maxwel Cor­Net lyoN

Any­one who saw the Ivo­rian winger’s con­tri­bu­tion as his side claimed four points out of six in their group-phase en­coun­ters with Manch­ester City – scor­ing three goals and em­bar­rass­ing the Sky Blue back-line with his blis­ter­ing speed – will find it ex­tremely hard to be­lieve that the 22-year-old is only a spare-part at­tacker at the Groupama Sta­dium.

Signed from Metz four years ago, he has hardly fea­tured in Ligue 1 this term and his per­for­mances against Pep Guardi­ola’s side even seemed to come as a sur­prise to the club’s lo­qua­cious pres­i­dent Jean-Michel Au­las, who said: “Bravo to Maxwel... he has come back from I don’t know where.”

He al­most quit Lyon in the sum­mer, with Au­las re­ported to be de­mand­ing at least 20mil­lion, plus a 30 per cent re­sale wind­fall.

Any sale price is likely to be even higher now.

6 aLLaN NAPoli

“A gi­ant from first minute to last” said Ital­ian sports daily Cor­riere dello Sport of his part in the 1-0 win at home to Liver­pool in Oc­to­ber and an in-joke at the San Paolo sta­dium makes ref­er­ence to his hy­per­ac­tiv­ity, with fans claim­ing: “Seventy per cent of Earth is cov­ered by wa­ter, the rest by Allan.”

With Udi­nese for three sea­sons prior to join­ing Napoli in the sum­mer of 2015, he used to be one of those play­ers who con­stantly flew un­der the media radar. But it’s a de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent story these days.

He re­cently won his first cap for Brazil in a friendly vic­tory over Uruguay in Lon­don, af­ter which his coun­try’s as­sis­tant-coach Sylv­inho said: “He has wheels on his feet.”

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