The UEFA Champions League is the biggest stage in club football and each season we see new faces make a breakthrough in Europe’s elite competition.
The group stages might only be at the halfway point, but already this season we’ve seen several starlets emerge in the Champions League. Jude Bellingham and Rasmus Hojlund are the big-name prospects to have impressed, but what about those beginning to make their name?
We’ve profiled five youngsters who are catching the eye in the Champions League this season.
Five youngsters catching the eye in the UCL group stages:
Napoli placed their trust in Natan last summer as the club sought a replacement for the departing Kim Min-jae. The South Korean centre-back was named as Serie A’s best defender as Napoli ended a 33-year wait for league title success, before joining Bayern Munich in a deal worth €50m.
Napoli agreed a deal to sign Natan from Brazilian side RB Bragantino as Min-jae’s replacement, with the 22-year-old heading to Italy in a €10m deal. After starting the season on the bench, the centre-back has broken into the Napoli side in recent weeks and impressed as Rudi Garcia’s side earned a big win at Union Berlin on Matchday Three.
🇧🇷 Natan vs Union Berlin
🎯69/75 passes completed
💯 92 % Pass completion
🧱2/3 tackles won
💣1 last man tackle
⚔️7/10 Duels won
Big performance from him tonight pic.twitter.com/t63D7cvAxc
— Napoli Zone (@TheNapoliZone) October 24, 2023
The defender made seven clearances, won 6/9 duels, made one last-man challenge, and recorded a pass accuracy of 92% as the Italian champions earned a hard-fought 1-0 win in Germany.
Arthur Vermeeren (Royal Antwerp)
Royal Antwerp are bottom of Group H after back-to-back defeats, in what is the Belgian side’s first campaign at Champions League level. However, Arthur Vermeeren has shown the quality which has made the teenager one of the most coveted young midfielders in Europe.
The 18-year-old is understood to be on the radar of several Premier League clubs after breaking into the Antwerp team last season, with the midfielder having made 34 appearances to win the league’s Young Player of the Year award as the club won a Belgian league and cup double.
Vermeeren – who was handed his senior Belgium debut this year – produced two excellent assists during Antwerp’s 3-2 defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk, showcasing his tenacity to win the ball back in a dangerous area for the first, before a defence-splitting pass to set up the second. He is the first Belgian player to assist two goals in a Champions League game since Kevin De Bruyne.
Johan Bakayoko (PSV Eindhoven)
Next off a production line that has produced Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo as exciting wide talents, is Johan Bakayoko.
The 20-year-old signed for PSV Eindhoven from Anderlecht as a teenager and has wasted little time in becoming a household name in the Eredivise. Bakayoko has formed part of a PSV team that has opened the season with nine consecutive wins and opened his goal account in the Champions League with a wonderful strike against Lens.
The winger has earned four caps for Belgium since his debut earlier this year and is another on the wish-list of Premier League recruiters, with Brentford and Burnley among those who made enquiries during the summer. Should Bakayoko – who has averaged a goal involvement every 117 minutes in the Netherlands this season – continue on his current trajectory, there will be significantly more interest in his services this winter.
Johan Bakayoko, 20 years and 187 days old, became our youngest goal scorer in the Champions League since a 19-year-old Jefferson Farfán on 20 October 2004 (2-1 away win at Rosenborg BK) 🌟 pic.twitter.com/PQAmvfaKel
— PSV (@PSV) October 25, 2023
Takefusa Kubo (Real Sociedad)
Takefusa Kubo is perhaps the most familiar name on this list, having signed for Real Madrid as a teenager. The Japan international never earned his opportunity at the Bernabeu, a scenario which might just lead to some regret given his performances since leaving on a permanent basis.
Kubo signed for Real Sociedad in a deal worth £5.5m in 2022 and helped the club to Champions League qualification last season, scoring nine La Liga goals. This season the 22-year-old has been in electric form, with eight G/As for Sociedad in 12 appearances in all competitions.
Kubo was in menacing form as Sociedad earned an impressive 1-0 win at Benfica on Matchday Three, as the winger completed the most dribbles on the pitch (7), had six shots, struck the woodwork, and won 9/13 duels.
Kubo’s got off to a 𝙛𝙡𝙮𝙞𝙣𝙜 start in #LALIGAEASPORTS 🌟🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/FVcTTaDXsV
— LALIGA English (@LaLigaEN) October 22, 2023
He’s been key to Sociedad’s success in Europe this season, with the Spaniards top of Group D and unbeaten after three group games.
Lens look to have found the perfect replacement for Lois Openda, having seen last season’s 21-goal leading scorer leave for RB Leipzig in €46m deal during the summer.
Elye Wahi arrived to replace the goalscoring void, having hit 19 league goals for Montpellier last season. The 20-year-old has hit the ground running for Lens and has scored twice and provided an assist in three Champions League group games.
Elye Wahi, version @ChampionsLeague 💫 pic.twitter.com/SiCU5cvl3g
— Ligue 1 Uber Eats (@Ligue1UberEats) October 25, 2023
Wahi was the match-winner after scoring one and creating another in the upset win against Arsenal, before earning Lens a point against PSV Eindhoven last time out.
Lens have not competed in the Champions League since 2002/03, but have put themselves in a strong position to reach the knockout rounds.
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