Football Features

Who are the five most exciting Champions League players right now away from the usual suspects?

By Ben Green

Published: 15:29, 20 September 2022

The Champions League brings the best and most glamorous faces to one stage, from Ballon d’Or regulars to serial ‘Big Ear’ lifters. But, there are some names that you may be less familiar with, though no less exciting.

Matchday one was a natural melting pot of excitement, drama and script-defying brilliance, as Liverpool were cut to ribbons in Naples, Chelsea felt the full wrath of London nemesis Mislav Orsic and Juventus fell to a 2-1 defeat against fellow heavyweights Paris Saint-Germain.

Players like Erling Haaland — who netted a brace — Kylian Mbappe — who netted a brace — and Robert Lewandowski — who netted a hat-trick — naturally filled the back pages in expected fashion, but they were not the only ones who took to matchday one with relish.

Matchday two offered a similar blend of the mesmeric and madcap as the continent’s best traded leather in a midweek flurry of entertainment. There were similar thrills, David-Who-Fought-Goliath storylines and routine triumphs for those expected to be serious title contenders.

Ahead of October’s round of fixtures, we’ve looked at some of the lesser-known stars who entered the public psyche this month after top individual performances.

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Piotr Zielinski

It truly was quite shocking how exposed Jurgen Klopp’s side were in Campania as Napoli cut through them like a katana through jelly. Luciano Spalletti’s men were ruthless, cut-throat and exceedingly effective, with Piotr Zielinski the totemic player of their mauling, underlining everything good about them.

It was he whom Liverpool most notably couldn’t contain as the prolific Pole finished the match with the highest xG (1.36), the most shots (four) and shots on target (three), as well as the most big chances (three), highlighting just how much he dominated the final third when he got into opposition territory (which was often).

That form carried over to Glasgow as Napoli placated a raucous Ibrox audience, running out 3-0 victors. The current Serie A pace-setters were once again ruthless, rightfully arrogant and dazzling, steaming forward in cyclical waves of pressure that were once again typified by Zielinski’s style and substance.

Marcus Edwards

It’s always a strange feeling when an Englishman bags on the grand stage for a non-English club; as a footballing nation The Three Lions’ squad has often been a collection of elite homebodies — but that may be saying more about the strength of the Premier League than any sort of stick-in-the-mud mentality.

For Enfield-born Marcus Edwards, he sought pastures new to progress his career, taking his exploits to Portugal where, earlier this month, he opened his Champions League account as Sporting put Frankfurt to the sword 3-0. An assist for Francisco Trincao capped off a memorable first start in Europe’s premier competition.

He then went on to bite the hand that once fed him by showcasing his dazzling footwork and crisp attacking exploits against former club Tottenham as Sporting recorded a second straight win. Mauricio Pochettino once hailed him ‘mini Messi’, and he’s now starting to back up that exceedingly high comparison.

Mykhaylo Mudryk

“Arsenal is a very good team, very good manager – so from my side, I can’t say no to Arsenal,” Ukrainian superstar Mykhaylo Mudryk recently said. So, it may be a case that, in the not too distant future, Mudryk is a name recognised across the world. But, for now, he remains somewhat elusive and esoteric for casual observers.

The five-capped Ukraine international was the centrepiece in Shakhtar’s 4-1 humbling of RB Leipzig, which cost Domenico Tedesco his job, scoring once, creating the most chances (two), registering the highest xG (0.36), while he was also involved in the most duels (16) and aerial duels (five). It was a complete performance. He then followed up by scoring against Celtic to claim a solid point for his side.

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Mohammed Kudus

The longtermism and strategic planning of Ajax is such that they can sit back idly as Europe’s covetous elite annually plunder their ranks, and still continuously produce emerging talent to fill the voids created by their precocious predecessors. Mohammed Kudus could be the next in line to step off the conveyor belt.

At 22, he’s not exactly a footballing bambino, but after just 10 games this season (seven goals) he’s already bettered his previous best tally for Ajax (four in 2020/21). Against Rangers, he was scintillating, scoring, assisting, completing all 26 of his attempted passes and completing all five of his attempted take-ons. He then scored a thumping goal against Liverpool to announce himself to Europe in true fashion.

Hans Vanaken

Hans Vanaken is not your conventional free-scoring midfielder. At 6ft 5in he has the frame of Fellaini but the feet of Fabregas. That latter comparison may be a tad exaggerated, but it should serve well to emphasis the technical brilliance of Club Brugge’s paradoxical No. 10. He’s tall, but exceedingly fleet-footed.

Last season, Brugge failed to win all three of their home games in the Champions League, while they also conceded more goals at home during the group stage (11) than any other side. Well, they’ve already won twice and kept a clean sheet in the process against Bayer Leverkusen and Porto — banishing those 2021/22 ghosts — and Vanaken was at the heart of operations, completing more accurate passes than any other Brugge player (60) against Leverkusen — only Piero Hincapie registered more in the entire match (71) — while he also made more passes into the final third of any player (19). He was equally as impressive against Porto

The five most exciting names right now – and UCL betting acca tips

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For the uninitiated, accumulators allow you to pool more than one bet together for increased odds. To win, all selections must come through. To make our acca, we’ve looked at the five most exciting names right now (not just those under the radar) and their respective clubs.

  • Erling Haaland – On matchday one the Norwegian scored his 25th Champions League goal in just 20 games. That’s only six fewer than what the top four UCL scorers of all-time managed (collectively) after their first 20 games. He then followed up with a gravity-defying winner against his old club Dortmund.
  • Robert Lewandowski – The Barca frontman claimed the match ball as Viktoria Plzen fell to a 5-1 reversal, and in the process he became the first player in history to score a Champions League hat-trick for three different clubs.
  • Kylian Mbappe – The French sensation is already in the Champions League’s top 20 of all-time scorers (36 goals). Only Thierry Henry (50) and Karim Benzema (86) have netted more among Frenchmen. His early strike against Juve also meant he has scored more goals in the first five minutes of a Champions League match in the history of the competition (five) than any player other than Messi (six).
  • Lionel Messi – It is not inconceivable that the diminutive genius can surpass Cristiano Ronaldo to become the Champions League’s record goalscorer this season. A 14-goal difference appears a huge swing in Ronaldo’s favour, but this is Messi after all, a player who continues to defy belief.
  • Vinicius Junior – With Karim Benzema going off injured against Celtic, the Ballon d’Or-elect passed the mantle to his Brazilian counterpart to silence Parkhead — and he duly delivered. The Brazilian broke the deadlock and completed the most take-ons of any player on matchday one in the UCL (six). Style and substance, Vinicius Junior marries both of these two often-opposing forces.

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