The Champions League is very much the territory of the established global star. It is Ronaldo v Messi, set to orchestral music, with a side order of Robert Lewandowski. Then Toni Kroos for dessert.
But it can also be a proving ground — not to mention hype machine — for emerging talent. Witness the paths walked by Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt over the last year. Those two players were surely always destined for the top but their performances in Europe with Ajax accelerated the process, attracting viewers who may have missed them in the Eredivisie.
Ansu Fati (16 years old, Barcelona)
If you had told a Barcelona fan during the summer that the brightest spark in their side in the opening weeks of the season would be a fleet-footed forward cutting in from the left and causing havoc, they would probably have assumed you were talking about Neymar. But Barca’s failure to lure the Brazilian back to Catalonia — coupled with injuries to Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele — has created space for a new kid on the block.
Fati, as you probably know by now, is only 16. His latest contract signed a month ago, includes a buyout clause of €100 million. The combination of those two numbers tells you everything you need to know about the esteem in which he is held within the corridors of La Masia. But even his youth coaches must have been taken aback by the impact he has made in the first three games of the Spanish season.
A 16-minute run-out against Real Betis yielded some sparky runs, Fati displaying his incredible acceleration from a standing start. Away to Osasuna, he dragged Barcelona back into the match with a dynamite header. And this past weekend, against Valencia, he showed off the full range of his abilities, slamming home the opening goal after some clever movement and then torturing his marker with speed and trickery. Messi himself would have been proud of his glorious assist for Barca’s second.
Already, there is a scrap developing for Fati’s international future. He was born in Guinea-Bissau but is also eligible for Spain and Portugal.
Already, the praise is flowing. Victor Valdes, now a Barcelona youth coach, called him “an assassin in the penalty area” and has described his game as “pure self-confidence and total anarchy.”
Ernesto Valverde will want to keep the teenager’s feet on the ground but he already looks starbound.
Kai Havertz (20, Bayer Leverkusen)
Havertz is the one name on everybody’s lips in the Bundesliga, and for good reason — his rise to superstar status appears imminent.
Tall yet technical, elegant yet pacy, effortless yet efficient, Havertz is already close to being the complete midfielder, “a cross between Mesut Ozil and Michael Ballack,” as he would have it himself.
Last season saw him score 20 goals in 42 games for an inconsistent Leverkusen side while playing in a variety of positions in the attacking third. Replicating similar levels of productivity will be no mean feat without the assistance of his best friend Julian Brandt (now at Borussia Dortmund) but Havertz’s once-in-a-generation levels of raw talent should ensure he makes the step up to next level and shines on the biggest stage of club football.
As Bayern Munich and a host of top foreign clubs prepare to offer more than €100 million for his services next summer, a relatively kind group stage draw will give the “future world footballer of the year” (as says Lothar Matthaus) ample opportunity to become the talk of the European game.
Joachim Low will soon come under pressure to make Havertz an integral part of the Germany side, too.
Victor Osimhen (20, Lille)
Lille’s hopes of building on an impressive 2018-19 campaign were severely dented by the summer departures of Nicolas Pepe and Rafael Leao, who were jointly responsible for 31 goals last term. But coach Christophe Galtier appears to have struck gold with one of the men brought in to help shoulder the load.
The Ligue 1 campaign is only in its infancy but already, Osimhen looks like the find of the season.
The Nigerian has scored five goals in as many games. Three of them followed a similar pattern: a pocket of space located in a crowded penalty area, a deft first touch and an unerring shot into the corner of the net.
But Osimhen is more than just a pure finisher. He has explosive pace, aided by abounding stride that takes him away from defenders and into wide-open pastures. His second goal against Nantes on the opening day of the French season, brilliantly converted after a hopeful punt forward by Jose Fonte, will have future markers sweating about playing a high line.
Osimhen has had to wait to make an impact at the top level.
He was the top scorer at the Under-17 World Cup in 2015 and made his senior international debut two years later but his time at Wolfsburg was disrupted by injury and illness, limiting him to three league starts. Now, after rediscovering his mojo during a season in Belgium with Charleroi, he looks eager to make up for lost time.
Mason Mount (20, Chelsea)
For arguably the first time since Roman Abramovich bought the club 16 years ago, there’s a genuine revolution afoot at Chelsea. The appointment of Frank Lampard, combined with the transfer ban which has prevented them from going down their usual route of splashing cash on established players, means the Blues have been forced to embrace youngsters from their highly successful youth ranks.
It is an overdue change in approach.
Tammy Abraham has been the most prolific of the new additions to the side, scoring seven times so far this season. Fikayo Tomori also put his name up in lights at the weekend by stepping forward from centre-back and driving one into the top corner against Wolves. But it’s Mount, the attacking midfielder who played under Lampard last year on loan at Derby in the Championship, who is the symbol of this new generation.
Lampard puts a heavy emphasis on pressing and Mount has pushed forward and shut down intelligently. When possession is won, he has impressed with his spatial awareness, constantly darting into the channels into gaps opened up by the movement of team-mates.
On his debut against Manchester United, his end product was badly lacking but it was easy to see the potential. Since then, his distribution has been more reliable, and his shots pack a punch.
As a goalscoring midfielder, Mount is playing under the ideal role model, and his tactical intelligence should prove valuable in European competition.
Renan Lodi (21, Atletico Madrid)
There’s a new look to the Atletico team this season. A whole battalion of reliable household names — Antoine Griezmann, Diego Godin, Juanfran, Filipe Luis — have moved away, leaving Diego Simeone with a tricky renovation job on his hands. In have come eight senior signings, and while the names of Portuguese wonderkid Joao Felix and England defender Kieran Trippier jump out as obvious points of interest, the best buy in terms of value could turn out to be left-back, Lodi.
He embodies all of the qualities you expect in a Brazilian full-back. A quick, willing dribbler always prepared to make an overlapping run, he swings dangerous crosses in and also has a handy knack for popping up in the area at the right moment — he scored three goals in a free-flowing Athletico Paranaense side last year, to go with eight assists.
Could the defensive side of his game do with a little finessing? Absolutely. But he has just the coach for that job and with age on his side, it would be a major surprise were he not to earn a starting role in the Brazil backline in the years ahead. Lodi set Atleti back €20 million; no small change, to be sure, but if he continues to progress, it could soon start to look like a bargain.
Erling Braut Haaland (19, Red Bull Salzburg)
Take a close look at that name. Then consider the fact that this Norway international was born in the decidedly un-Norwegian city of Leeds, West Yorkshire. Yes, Erling Braut Haaland is indeed the son of Alf-Inge Haaland, bane of House Keane and spirited clogger of Premier League midfields for a decade from 1993-03. But if your expectation levels just nosedived, you should really think again.
Haaland Jr is no guard dog in front of the back four but a bullish, irrepressible No 9. He is blessed with a blunderbuss of a left foot, protects the ball expertly with back to goal, and even has a nifty turn of pace that belies his muscularity.
The returns in front of the goal have been extraordinary. He scored 16 times in his first full season with Molde back home in Norway and has quickly settled into life in Austria, scoring 14 in eight outings so far this term.
Haaland also famously scored nine goals in a single game at the Under-20 World Cup earlier this year – a feat so absurd, he could barely suppress his laughter on the pitch. Greater challenges lie ahead in Group E, but Napoli and Liverpool will underestimate him at their peril.
Nordi Mukiele (21, RB Leipzig)
Leipzig have no shortage of promising young defenders but it’s the dynamic Mukiele who is the flavor of the month in Saxony. Nominally a right-back, he can also operate centrally in a back three and wherever he plays, he catches the eye with his power, both on the front foot and when defending.
Much was expected of Mukiele when he arrived from France’s Montpellier a year ago but he had a tricky first season in Germany, dogged by disciplinary issues. He seems determined to make a better go of things in 2019-20: his decision to hire his own fitness coach captures a more serious approach and he appears eager to take on greater responsibility within the squad.
He has certainly made a good start to the season, helping Leipzig to the top of the Bundesliga after four games and really catching the eye in their 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich on Saturday. Only Manuel Neuer’s fingertips stopped him capping a rock-solid defensive display with a superb goal from the edge of the box.
Stefano Sensi (24, Inter Milan)
Italian central midfielders didn’t use to be like this. They were stereotypically battlers, warriors, foot-soldiers who were positionally intelligent, broke up play and left the creative responsibilities to the No 10.
But then came Andrea Pirlo, who dropped back from trequartista to become a deep-lying regista. He changed Italian midfield play, and now we’re enjoying the talents of those who were inspired by him. One example is Marco Verratti. Another is Sensi, who plays higher up the pitch but offers some of the same qualities.
Since joining Inter on loan from Sassulolo in the summer, Sensi has shown he can spray passes into wide positions and release the forwards with penetrative balls. But he can also push forward to offer a goal threat himself. He scored on his debut, a 4-0 win over Lecce, smashing the ball home with his right foot from the edge of the box after collecting a rebound from his own left-footed shot. That kind of ambidextrousness really is useful.
In the 1-0 win over Udinese at the weekend, meanwhile, he was outstanding in the engine room and settled the game with a brave diving header after a well-timed run into the box. It wasn’t what you’d expect from the smallest player on the pitch but 5ft 5in (168cm) Sensi is constantly surpassing expectations.
Gedson Fernandes (20, Benfica)
Benfica academy prospect gets fast-tracked to first team, catches the eye and makes senior debut for Portugal before turning 20. That tale will sound familiar to those who have followed Joao Felix’s ascent over the past year but Fernandes, an all-action central midfielder, has followed the same story beats.
While he has flown under the radar in comparison with his former academy team-mate, that is no reflection of his promise.
Fernandes is the kind of player coaches love to have, as comfortable breaking up opposition attacks on the edge of his own box as he is getting his team moving with a surge forward. His passing is precise – nearly 90 percent accuracy in the Primeira Liga last term – and he is happy to spray the ball wide to release the wingers. He also has nifty footwork himself, which helps him pick a path through crowded midfields.
He could probably do with adding a few more goals to his game (his only two last season came in the Champions League) and needs to work his way back to full fitness after picking up a foot injury in July. But if Benfica are to plot a course to the knockout stages, Fernandes’ energy and ability will be crucial.