The Champions League players who you do not know yet - but will soon

·6-min read
Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch celebrates scoring his side's third goal during the Dutch Eredivisie Premier League soccer match between Ajax and Vitesse at the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. - AP
Ajax's Ryan Gravenberch celebrates scoring his side's third goal during the Dutch Eredivisie Premier League soccer match between Ajax and Vitesse at the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. - AP

The Champions League returns on Tuesday and each season a number of players emerge to stamp their authority on Europe's elite club competition.

Here are the lesser-known players to keep an eye out for this campaign.

Donyell Malen (Borussia Dortmund)

Age: 22

Position: Forward

Borussia Dortmund’s replacement for Jadon Sancho. Malen arrived from PSV Eindhoven this summer for £27m after scoring an impressive 27 goals in 45 appearances for the Dutch side last season.

Malen spent most of his youth career at Ajax before leaving for Arsenal in 2015, where he played for two years before joining PSV on a permanent basis in 2017.

The 22-year-old offers searing pace and dangerous dribbling in tight areas, and he is capable of playing across the front line. Michael Zorc, Dortmund’s sporting director, described Malen as a player who “radiates danger in front of goal”. Malen, Marco Reus and Erling Haaland represent one of the competition’s most thrilling attacking units.

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Luis Diaz (Porto)

Age: 24

Position: Winger

If all had gone to plan for Everton this summer, Diaz would be lining up in their colours at Goodison Park this season. Rafael Benitez was hopeful of signing the 24-year-old as part of a move that would have sent James Rodriguez in the opposite direction.

The collapse of the deal meant that Diaz had to stay in Portugal, but he has enjoyed a successful start to the season: after five matches, he has already scored three goals and registered one assist.

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The Colombian has scored seven times in 26 appearances for his country and made a strong impression in last season’s Champions League, when he scored a spectacular solo goal against Manchester City at the Etihad.

Ridle Baku (Wolfsburg)

Age: 23

Position: Right-back/midfielder

Baku, an energetic and tenacious German international, played a key role in Germany’s triumph at the European Under-21 Championship this summer and was the man of the match in the final against Portugal.

Baku can play as a midfielder or as a right-back, causing problems with his speed and dynamism on the ball. The 23-year-old is a product of the Mainz 05 academy and made more than 50 appearances for the first team before joining Wolfsburg, for a reported fee of around £8.5m, in October last year.

Baku’s name is a misspelled tribute to Karl-Heinz Riedle, the former Germany and Liverpool striker, and he is reported to have caught the eye of Bayern Munich.

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Darwin Nunez (Benfica)

Age: 22

Position: Forward

Brighton were keen to sign Nunez this summer, with Benfica asking for around £30m for the 22-year-old, but no agreement could be reached over a player who has enormous potential.

The Uruguayan has scored two goals in three appearances for Benfica so far this season, following a return of 14 goals in 39 games last year. He had previously impressed at Almeria in Spain, prompting Benfica to pay around £22m for his services.

Benfica have been handed a tough Champions League draw, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich both in their group, but Nunez has more than enough ability to cause problems for even the most illustrious defences. Do not be surprised if he turns up at a Premier League club in the next few years.

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Ryan Gravenberch (Ajax)

Age: 19

Position: Midfielder

Gravenberch is seen as one of the most exciting young players in Europe. He has already made eight appearances for the Netherlands, despite his age, and is widely expected to move to one of the world’s biggest clubs in the coming years.

Gravenberch has long been regarded as one of Ajax’s best academy products (which is saying something, given their history of player development) and last year he became a mainstay of the first team, making 47 appearances in all competitions.

Tall and powerful, and with excellent close control, Gravenberch is often compared to Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba. He was only 16 when he became the youngest player to ever play for Ajax in the Eredivisie, beating the record previously set by Clarence Seedorf. Ajax will have high hopes of progressing from Group C, which also contains Borussia Dortmund, Besiktas and Sporting Lisbon.

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Jonathan David (Lille)

Age: 21

Position: Forward

A return of 13 goals in his debut season in Ligue 1 was a promising start to life in a major league for David, who joined Lille from Gent in the summer of 2020 and has attracted the attention of some of Europe’s giants.

David played a key role in Lille’s unexpected title triumph last year and, with 16 goals in 19 appearances for Canada, has become an important player for his country. He was one of the most dangerous strikers in France in the second half of last season, scoring a crucial winner at Paris Saint-Germain in April, and is expected to move up another gear this season.

In a group with RB Salzburg, Sevilla and Wolfsburg, Lille will consider themselves in with a chance of making it to the knockout stages.

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Andre Silva (RB Leipzig)

Age: 25

Position: Forward

It was seen as a statement of Leipzig’s intent this summer when they forked out a reported £20m for Silva, who had scored a stunning 28 goals in 32 league appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt in the 2020/21 season.

A product of the Porto academy, Silva has also represented AC Milan and Sevilla, producing goals wherever he has gone. In 45 appearances for Portugal, he has delivered a commendable 18 goals.

In a group with Manchester City and PSG, it will be tough for Leipzig to reach the qualifying stages. But if Silva can replicate the form he showed last season, they will have a chance of upsetting even the most expensively-assembled teams in the world.

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