The adage ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ has been rolled out more times than a red carpet at the Dolby Theatre, but the sentiment has seen some of football’s most talented bambinos burst onto the scene in Europe.
We all remember when an 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert came off the bench to win Ajax the Champions League in 1994/95, or when Erling Haaland netted at Anfield, before bagging a brace against Napoli to become only the second teenager after Karim Benzema to score in each of his first three appearances in the competition.
Managers brave enough to go against the prevailing orthodoxy and gamble on debuting starlets over selecting seniors often reap the fruits of their courage. This season is no exception, with the Champions League once again awash with wonderkids, talented tyros and a sprinkling of regens (excuse the gaming parlance).
With the round of 16 now underway, we’ve profiled a selection of teenagers that you have to keep an eye out for.
Antonio Nusa (Club Brugge, 17)
Antonio Nusa scored on his European bow against Porto on matchday two. The fleet-footed, 17-year-old winger came off the bench to net the fourth in Club Brugge’s 4-0 rout. By doing so, the Norwegian became the youngest-ever player to score on his Champions League debut (17 years and 149 days). He was an unused substitute in the club’s 2-0 loss to Benfica last week, but given his form against the Portuguese side’s bitter rivals in the groups, Scott Parker could do a lot worse than pinning his hopes on a player who is around the same age as two of his children.
Rico Lewis (Man City, 18)
By this point, Rico Lewis is rapidly becoming a household name. To oust Joao Cancelo is one thing, but to do so at such a tender age is another. Bury has a habit of birthing elite full-backs, a notion certainly reinforced by Kieran Trippier’s rise to prominence on the European and international circuit.
Trippier is colloquially dubbed ‘The Bury Beckham’, and Lewis will be hoping to generate a moniker of his own in the coming years. ‘The Bury Bixente Lizarazu’? It’s a work in progress…
Jamie Bynoe-Gittens (Dortmund, 18)
The path from England to the Ruhr Valley has been well trodden in recent years, with Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham most prominently upping sticks for pastures new in Western Germany. And it looks as though the Anglophiles have a new English sapling beginning to blossom in front of ‘The Yellow Wall’. London-born Jamie Bynoe-Gittens has been on the youth books of Reading and Manchester City and quite surprisingly not Chelsea! (Just kidding. Of course he has).
A precocious forward of superlative skillset with a healthy return rate in front of goal, the 18-year-old looks the full package.
Stefan Bajcetic (Liverpool, 18)
It was a real baptism of fire in knockout European football for Liverpool’s boy wonder, as he succumbed to the dominant force of Luka Modric at Anfield. Still, the teenager certainly didn’t look out of place in the cauldron of heavyweights, showing a strong command in the first half and a composed temperament. An expected immaturity came to the fore at times, as his overcooked touch fell into Federico Valverde’s path for Real’s equaliser. But, those mistakes should be fine-tuned out of his game as he ages and gets a bit more experience.
That considered, he looks an immense talent, and you cannot downplay the achievement of becoming the youngest player (18 years, 122 days) to start a Champions League match for Liverpool. He also became the youngest to appear in a Champions League/European Cup knockout stage game for the club. Huge plaudits.
Antonio Silva (Benfica, 19)
“Antonio Silva will be a legend. If he keeps doing what he’s been doing, he has everything to be one of the best defenders in the world in a year or two.” Those are the words of a certain Jan Vertonghen who, during his heyday, certainly wasn’t a bad centre-back.
A former team-mate of the 19-year-old at the Estadio da Luz, he obviously left a big enough impression on Vertonghen to elicit such high praise. One of Europe’s most coveted and sought-after defenders, Silva is the latest star to emerge from the conveyor belt of Benfica’s stellar talent factory.
Linked with a move to Liverpool, Silva certainly has all the hallmarks of an archetypal Jurgen Klopp defender. Positionally in tune with a perceptive sense of space, Silva has registered the second-most offside traps of any player in the Champions League this season (seven), a trademark of Virgil van Dijk’s game.
Warren Zaire-Emery (PSG, 16)
Called up to the first team at just 15 by Mauricio Pochettino, Warren Zaire-Emery plays with a maturity and an authoritative control of the midfield that belies his tender years. Still only 16, he certainly didn’t look fazed last week in a realm of heavyweights as Bayern Munich collected a 1-0 win in the French capital. It seems utterly ridiculous that a 16-year-old is manning the engine room in a Champions League match against Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka. Christophe Galtier must be a closet Football Manager fanatic.
Mathys Tel (Bayern Munich, 17)
Jamal Musiala is the teenage titan in Bayern’s first team, but spare a thought for 17-year-old Mathys Tel, who already has five goals for Bayern this campaign in 18 matches. Signed from Rennes in the summer, the French sensation has enjoyed a stratospheric rise to relevance in his still nascent career, combining an ankle snapping propensity with his repertoire of pirouettes and shimmies. An explosive appetite for goals makes him a potent attacking weapon.
Bjorn Meijer (Club Brugge, 19)
The 19-year-old had a big influence for Brugge in the groups, featuring in all six games across the defence as Blauw-Zwart achieved five clean sheets. He was the only defensive teenager to also register an assist in the groups, underlying a propensity to push forward and instigate attacking transitions.
Tom Rothe (Dortmund, 18)
Highly regarded at Dortmund, Tom Rothe made headlines last season as he became the youngest player to score on their Bundesliga debut, finding the back of the net against Wolfsburg. And he will be hoping to kick on in the latter stages of this season. Sporadically used domestically by Edin Terzic, the Dan Burn regen — with the left-back standing at the towering height of 6ft 4in — has been afforded considerable game time in Europe, appearing thrice in the groups. Graham Potter certainly knows all about lanky left-backs, having utilised Burn at Brighton, so Terzic could give the Englishman a taste of his own medicine in the return leg.
Paul Wanner (Bayern Munich, 17)
Last season, the Austrian sensation became the youngest player in Bayern Munich’s history at the age of 16 years and 15 days when he made his Bundesliga bow against Borussia Monchengladbach. The appearance also placed him second, behind only Youssoufa Moukoko, as the youngest debutant in the competition’s history. Clearly trusted by Julian Nagelsmann, the midfielder featured twice in the groups, and will be eyeing up further minutes as the tournament progresses.
The household names…
- Jude Bellingham (Dortmund)
- Harvey Elliott (Liverpool)
- Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich)
- Youssoufa Moukoko (Dortmund)
A quick mention…
A few other teenagers picked up appearances in the Champions League groups for clubs still in the competition, but just fleeting minutes. It would be remiss of us if we didn’t at least mention them.
- Valentin Carboni (Inter): A 17-year-old, Buenos Aires-born No. 10, Carboni looks like a Football Manager player’s dream. He racked up 14 minutes as a second-half substitute against Bayern Munich in the groups.
- Calvin Ramsay (Liverpool): The 19-year-old Aberdonian is highly regarded at Anfield and prompted Klopp to hand him his European debut against Napoli for three minutes.
- Lynnt Audoor (Club Brugge): A 10-minute cameo against Porto, the teenager was yet another youngster entrusted to do the business by Brugge, who are certainly not showing any inhibitions to embrace a youthful policy.
- Soumaila Coulibaly (Dortmund): Yet to make an appearance in the Bundesliga this season, the fledgling defender was handed a brief showing in the 1-1 draw with Copenhagen in the groups.
- Abakar Sylla (Club Brugge): Sylla isn’t ‘technically’ one to watch this round, as he turned 20 on Christmas Day, but he was 19 in the groups, so we thought we would give him a brief mention, starting five of Brugge’s six group games and missing only the final one due to suspension.