We're set for the opening fixtures of the 2019/20 Champions League this week. Once again, we go through the entire process to weed out the contenders and pretenders. There will be heroes and villains in this story, old guard will carry their teams, and fresh talent will grace the biggest stage for us to feast our eyes on one of football's largest stages.
It was only a couple of years ago that a young Monaco team took the Champions League by storm. Last season Ajax reached the semi-finals of the Champions League buoyed by the young talent in their team. We see some of the most attractive football, sometimes come from the most unexpected sources. However, now, we expect these teams to perform and hold them to a higher standard.
It's the same with some of the younger players who have either moved to bigger clubs and are finding their feet there, or are on the cusp of a big move and still lighting up the big stage with smaller teams. Either way, if you want to be noticed as a promising young player, often the best way to do it is to stand up and be counted on the big stage.
This year's Champions League campaign will feature plenty of young players who'll be vying for attention from the world's audiences. We take a dive into the world of young talent looking to burst onto the UCL stage.
The Unfair XI
The football world is constantly finding new heroes. Now in a technologically connected world, information is even more readily available and simplified. Audiences recognise names and faces not just from watching them on the pitch, but on TVs, in a video game, fantasy football, and so many more platforms. It only means that there is so much more talent recognised at a young age, and so may players to sort through.
Another implication of this is that players often become superstars at ripe young ages, and there's often no turning back for them. There are plenty of those superstars who've established themselves to a certain point already and it would be mildly unfair to judge some of the other talent on-show against them.
If we were to put the most recognisable, and in many ways the best U23 XI of the Champions League forward, it would be this XI.
At the age of 23, Andre Onana is Ajax's rock at the back and will likely continue to play that position at least for the near future. The back four ahead of him would include a World Cup winner Lucas Hernandez (23) at left-back, Champions League winner Trent Alexander-Arnold (20) at right-back, and league champions Andreas Christensen (23) and Matthijs De Ligt (20) as the two centre-backs. Their backups in Jonathan Tah (23), Abdou Diallo (23), Benjamin Pavard (23), and Noussair Mazraoui (21) are no slouches either.
Ahead of them, there's the midfield trio of Frenkie de Jong (22), Fabian Ruiz (23), and Donny van de Beek (22). While de Jong has already made his big-money move, Ruiz and van de Beek seem like they're only guests at Napoli and Ajax. Juventus' Rodrigo Bentancur (22) or Dortmund new boy Julian Brandt (23) could also easily fit into this squad.
The number of options in forward positions is actually a scary and exciting proposition. The starting three of Kylian Mbappe (20), Timo Werner (23), and Jadon Sancho (19) have a tremendous amount of skill and pace among them. Perhaps just about enough to keep the €126 million boy Joao Felix (19) on the bench. He would be in illustrious company alongside USA wunderkind Christian Pulisic (20), Mbappe's national teammate Ousmane Dembele (22), and Ajax's David Neres (22).
Given the calibre of this side, it seems only fair that we leave them out of contention for this U23 XI that focuses on some of the other bright young sparks that could climb up the ladder in this campaign.
Napoli's Alex Meret (22) is the standout candidate to be this team's custodian. The Italian goalkeeper made a permanent transfer to Napoli in the summer for €22 million having spent the previous season on loan in Naples, from Udinese. Initially, a backup for David Ospina, he made 14 appearances in the league for Napoli last season and kept 7 clean sheets.
He has begun this season as the first-choice goalkeeper under Carlo Ancelotti and is set for a big season with Napoli. In an environment where good goalkeepers are being valued at amounts exceeding €40 million, this may just be a steal for Napoli.
Mile Svilar (20) is perhaps best remembered for the own goal he conceded against Manchester United on his Champions League debut as an 18-year-old. Since then, he's made sporadic appearances for the Benfica first team. But, like Meret, he has begun this season as his club's first-choice goalkeeper and has a long promising career ahead of him.
Atletico Madrid have brought in Renan Lodi (21) amid their overhaul this summer. The young left-back is rather unknown but has shown immense promise in the first few games for Diego Simeone's side.
The full-back on the other side Lukas Klostermann (23) has quietly grown in stature over the last few seasons with RB Leipzig and is now in the fold for the German national team as well. His good performances in the Euro 2020 Qualifiers could earn him an extended run with the national side as well.
Both of Klostermann's team-mates Ibrahima Konate (20) and Dayot Upamecano (20) could've made this side, but the former is perhaps a better bet as a regular starter at the moment.
The duo is making wakes as a hot centre-back pairing in Germany. they have quite a way to go in terms of development, but could be breakout stars in this campaign. Konate's partner in the centre of defence is Ajax's replacement for Matthijs de Ligt, Lisandro Martinez (21).
The Dutch club snapped up Martinez just when there were murmurs about him as a rising star and he's proving to be an excellent passer from the back and has a solid defensive presence. Though different in style from his predecessor, Martinez seems like a great replacement.
LB: Oleksandr Zinchenko, Manchester City (22)
CB: Ruben Dias, Benfica (22), Joe Gomez, Liverpool (22)
RB: Kyle Walker-Peters (22)
Although this side is set up as a 4-2-3-1, for the purpose of this discussion, we're going to discuss midfielders as the two sitting players and the other two wide ones.
The future of Portugal seems to be in great hands. Apart from all the attacking talent they seem to be creating, the defensive side of the assembly line seems to be coming together as well. Like his compatriot Joao Felix, Benfica's Florentino Luis (20) also began playing regular first-team football for Benfica last season and has been impressive as an anchor in their midfield.
His contributions in attack are limited, but he puts himself about in defence, isn't shy in a tackle and is able to intercept passes with great anticipation.
His partner in a double pivot is Tottenham Hostpur's fresh signing Tanguy Ndombele (22) who's already turning heads in the Premier League.
Although currently sidelined by injury, he should be an integral part of the Spurs machine once he returns. His passing from deep can help any team unlock defences and sitting alongside Florentino, he'll be allowed the time and space on the ball to carry it forward as well.
The two wide men for this side are Nanitamo Jonathan Ikone (21) who recently marked his French national team debut with a goal and Spain's Dani Olmo (21).
Ikone began his career in the PSG academy but has since made his way to Lille after a brief spell at Montpellier. He was slightly eclipsed by former teammate Nicholas Pepe both last season and in the summer's transfer window, but he managed three goals and 10 assists in Ligue 1 last season.
Olmo is a peculiar story, but a stellar talent. He's a Spanish national who has spent all of his developmental footballing days with Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. He's racking up the goals and assists for them in the league. He also had a decent outing with them last time around scoring twice and assisting one in the group stages.
He's begun this year with three goals and as many assists in Champions League qualifying, and his stock is currently only going up.
CM: Nicolo Barella, Inter Milan (22) Carles Alena, Barcelona (21)
RW/LW/RM/LM: Leon Bailey, Bayer Leverkusen (22), Malcom, Zenit (22)
Number 10 and Striker
If there is plenty of talent competing for one position on the pitch, it's currently the attacking midfielder role. Though described as a number 10 in this scenario, these midfielders could fit in across several positions in attack and put up an electrifying display on their day.
The starter and perhaps the most discussed of them as well is Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz (20). A technically gifted player who is able to slot into any position behind the striker and has a knack of scoring goals playing behind the striker.
He formed an almost telepathic understanding with Julian Brandt last season but is expected to take on a more prominent role this season. Lyon's Houssem Aouar (21), Chelsea's Mason Mount (20), or Genk's Ianis Hagi (20) have all shown immense promise in this role and have put up similar numbers as well. Playing in different leagues, they all seem to have bright futures ahead of them.
Chelsea started off this season unsure if any of their strikers could fire in the Premier League for them. Although Olivier Giroud seemed the most qualified to take on this role, it's Tammy Abraham (21) who has scored two braces in a row for Chelsea to put himself in the hot seat. It remains to be seen if he can do the job for Chelsea in Europe, but the stage is set for him.
19-year-old Erling Braut Haaland is not far behind in the competition. He will lead the line for RB Salzburg this season. Although he will play for minnows in the competition, he can be quite a presence up front, so expect him to troublesome defences in the group stage.