It’s club football’s most celebrated knockout tournament, so naturally, the Champions League is home to the sport’s greatest players.
Scour the landscape of this season’s knockout rounds and you’ll find World Cup winners, Ballon d’Or collectors, international centurions and club legends. It’s a Who’s Who of superstars and household names, including the globally-recognised Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe.
However, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find several lesser-known gems blipping on the radar and attempting to crystallise their names in public consciousness. This is the Champions League, after all, Europe’s blue-riband competition and a magnet for the mesmeric. Expect elite talent every which way.
So, away from the usual suspects, we’ve picked out a collection of lesser-known stars — and by lesser-known, we mean in comparison to the usual heavyweights, Messi et al — who have already taken the tournament by storm, and will be hoping to star in the last 16.
Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Eintracht Frankfurt made history last season as Oliver Glasner masterminded a Europa League triumph at the expense of Rangers in Andalusia. It was the club’s first European win since 1980 and gained them a backdoor entrance to this season’s Champions League — and they haven’t just been here to make up the numbers.
Inspired by Daichi Kamada, The Eagles have continued to soar on the European circuit. The 26-year-old has already bagged three goals, which, incidentally, is the joint-most by a Japanese player in a single edition of the competition, matching Shinji Kagawa’s tally for Borussia Dortmund in 2016/17.
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Mohamed Simakan (RB Leipzig)
‘The Red Bull’ model is so often talked about in admiring tones, so consistent is their track record of unearthing hidden talent and blooding in young stars. Another to recently emerge in Saxony who is really beginning to rise to prominence is Mohamed Simakan, a 2021 purchase from Strasbourg in France.
A positionally flexible defender, the 6ft 2in factotum — who is a centre-back by trade — starred for RB Leipzig at right-back in the Champions League pre-World Cup. The auxiliary No. 2 registered the most assists of any defender in the groups (three), while also ranking in the top 10 for tackles (16) and interceptions (11).
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (Napoli)
One of the rarest traits in a player is the ability to harmonise both style and substance. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia combines the two to devastating effect. A snake-hipped wizard on the flank, Kvara oozes skill and creative class but also knows where the back of the net is — and how to set up his team-mates.
It’s a marriage of two attributes that has seen him rack up 17 direct goalscoring contributions in Serie A this season, a figure bettered only by teammate Victor Osimhen (who’s arguably the most exciting Champions League player right now, full stop) on 19. Kvaratskhelia’s record of eight goals and nine assists highlights his attacking flexibility and the full palette of skillset.
In Europe, ‘Kvaradona’ has been equally as devastating. Napoli were the only club to create more than 20 ‘Big Chances’ (21) in the Champions League groups, and Kvaratskhelia was responsible for five of those. He was also the only Napoli player to register double digits for completed take-ons (14), one of which saw him nutmeg Trent Alexander-Arnold to earn personal praise from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who picked out the “cheeky” winger as a particularly difficult opponent.
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Mehdi Taremi (Porto)
Mehdi Taremi has been shining in Europe for a fair few seasons now, but he has really grabbed the Champions League by the scruff of the neck this campaign. In fact, only Mbappe (10), Messi and Mohamed Salah (eight apiece) have been directly involved in more goals than Taremi (seven) in the Champions League so far.
The 30-year-old Iranian has also created the most ‘Big Chances’ (six), while only Zlatko Zahovic in 1998/99 (seven) has scored more for Porto in a single group stage campaign in the competition. Fans will always remember that bicycle kick against Chelsea, but he is really pulling up trees this campaign.
Rico Lewis (Man City)
Only two English players have scored a Champions League goal before their 18th birthday:
◎ 17-year-old Jude Bellingham
◉ 17-year-old Rico Lewis
One against Man City and now one for Man City. ? pic.twitter.com/yzeXJHF2tv
— Squawka (@Squawka) November 2, 2022
It was always going to take something — or someone — special to break up the Joao Cancelo-Pep Guardiola relationship. With the ink barely dry on the divorce papers between Man City and their once-cherished No. 7, Rico Lewis has been making the Etihad forget all about Bayern Munich’s new inverted full-back.
Already looking like a star at 18, Lewis is the youngest player in Champions League history to score on his first start in the competition, breaking Benzema’s previous record — which he first achieved in 2005 for Lyon against Rosenborg. For full context on just how long ago that was, John Carew set Benzema up.
The teenage tyro is also the fifth Englishman to start a Champions League match before turning 18 after Jack Wilshere, Josh McEachran, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham. With all the money City have splurged over the years, fans will be hoping those spending habits can be offset by the emergence of homegrown talent like Lewis.
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Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt)
If Frankfurt were to make a serious impression in their maiden Champions League campaign, then The Eagles would have needed to recruit shrewdly to the eyrie — and that is exactly what they did in the summer. One of their acquisitions, Randal Kolo Muani, has played like a man possessed in Hesse after joining from Nantes, which culminated in him earning his first France cap in September, and making Didier Deschamps’ Qatar squad after Christopher Nkunku withdrew with an injury. This season, Kolo Muani has netted twice in Europe and currently has the most assists in the Bundesliga, setting up his teammates on 10 occasions.
Arnaut Danjuma (Tottenham)
The former Bournemouth winger was directly involved in seven goals for Villarreal in the Champions League last season. Under Unai Emery’s watch, the wily forward ripped through clubs as The Yellow Submarine fired their way to the semi-finals against Liverpool. It was another Cinderella story for an underdog located in a city with a population of around 50,000 people, which is roughly half the size of their stadium capacity.
Danjuma was no flat-track bully either, bagging against the likes of Atalanta, Juventus and Bayern Munich. He also had the most fast breaks of any player (six), making him seem tailor-made for Antonio Conte’s set-up. You can see why the Italian made an eleventh hour bid for the Dutchman last month.
Simon Mignolet (Club Brugge)
Certainly not an unknown entity, Simon Mignolet was a polarising figure at Anfield during his later years at Liverpool. But, having left Merseyside in 2019, the veteran shot-stopper has restored his reputation as one of the continent’s finest between the sticks.
Don’t believe us? Well, get this. The 34-year-old had the highest save percentage (88.24%) of any goalkeeper in the groups (with a minimum of four games played). He achieved that despite also making the most saves (30), as well as keeping five clean sheets (also the most).
Yes, he was that good. Last month, he also became the first goalkeeper to win Belgium’s Golden Boot award (which in Belgium goes to the best player of the calendar year) since 1989.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) January 26, 2023
One more factoid to reward readers who are still with us this far into the article: Mignolet now plays for Scott Parker, who was appointed Club Brugge boss on New Year’s Eve.
Alexander Bah (Benfica)
Among the usual contenders — Filip Kostic (12), Trent Alexander-Arnold (11) and Juan Cuadrado (10) — Alexander Bah (10) was one of only six defenders in the groups to register double digits for chances created, which is certainly no mean feat for a player enjoying his Champions League bow. The 25-year-old hasn’t had the most conventional of career paths to Europe’s elite competition, having played in his native Denmark as recently as three years ago, but he is now showcasing his supreme talents in Roger Schmidt’s backline. If he continues to set a high bar, it won’t be long before the Premier League comes sniffing around in Lisbon once again.
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