We all know the names of the stars who regularly light up the Champions League. Every year, however, there are a handful of players who threaten to steal the headlines. Ahead of this week’s action, here are five to look out for.
Sergio Oliveira – Porto
XG per 90 (expected goals) UCL – 0.42
XG per 90 Primeira Liga – 0.36
Since 2015 a lack of high-profile departures combined with an absence of European success has meant that the reputation of the Dragões has certainly dipped. Enter 2020/2021 Sergio Oliveira.
It’s no surprise that their second-place finish in the group stages can be largely attributed to influence of Oliveira. The seven-time capped Portuguese midfielder is well renowned for his calm demeanour on the ball and over the penalty spot.
Combined with his wizardry on set pieces and his ability to play the ball in tights areas, Oliveira has the capacity to take over games.
The former Porto youth academy player leads the team for goals (13) and is second in assists (4) and key passes per 90 (1.4) in all competitions. Playing in the heart of the Porto midfield, he will be crucial to any hopes that Porto possess in reaching the later stages of the tournament.
Luis Muriel – Atalanta
XG per 90 UCL – 0.50
XG per 90 Serie A – 1.22
It is no surprise Atalanta are just as lethal in front of goal this season as they were last season, the only difference is the actors in this story.
Last year it was a combination of Alejandro Gomez and Josip Ilicic that fired La Dea to within touching distance of their first ever Scudetto. They also came within minutes of knocking out eventual UCL finalists Paris Saint Germain (PSG), in the UCL quarter finals.
This time around there is a new hitman leading the Bergamo-based outfit, and he’s certainly been around the block. Muriel bounced around several Italian clubs, that included a stint with Sevilla in between, before finally being able to call Atalanta his home in 2019.
It wasn’t until Gian Piero Gasperini got his hands on the Columbian, that he started to burn red hot.
In his first season in Atalanta, Muriel racked up 18 goals in all competitions, mainly as a substitute. When given the chance to lead the line this season, the ‘Columbian Ronaldo’ turned supernova.
In his 645 minutes on the pitch in Serie A this season, Muriel has amassed 12 goals – almost two goals every 90 minutes.
To put this into context, Cristiano Ronaldo in almost 800 more minutes only has four more goals and averages one less goal per 90 than the Columbian.
Even with only two goals in the UCL this season, Muriel is expected to grab a goal every two games. If his minutes were to increase dramatically in the competition, then La Dea’s chances of qualification would surely rapidly increase.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – Lazio
KP (key passes) – 1.34
Tackles per 90 – 3
Interceptions per 90 – 4
To the European football lovers, Milinkovic Savic is hardly a newcomer on this list.
The 2018-19 Serie A midfielder of the year had now PSG sporting director, Leonardo Araújo, saying “If I were the sporting director of any top European club right now, the first player I would buy is Milinkovic”.
The following year would be rough in comparison compared to his golden year. 2020-21, however, has seen the Serbian return to his creative best.
For all the impressive talent that Lazio have accumulated over the last few seasons there is no doubt alongside Ciro Immobile, Savic has become the heartbeat for this Lazio team.
Savic leads the team in assists (6) and is third for goals (4). However, it isn’t only in attack that the Serbian excels.
To display his all-round phenomenal talent the Catalan native is only second to former Liverpool midfielder, Lucas Leiva, in tackles and interceptions amongst Lazio midfielders whilst leading Lazio midfielders in clearances, blocks and dribbles per 90.
When at his cerebral best, Milinkovic-Savic can be the best midfielder in world football.
Florian Neuhaus – Borussia Mönchengladbach
Tackles per 90 Bundesliga – 1.5
Tackles per 90 UCL – 2.7
In a year where English fans have become more acquainted with the best young talent in German football through the arrivals of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz and the success of RB Leipzig in the UCL, Germany have another gem for us to fall in love with.
In a Borussia Mönchengladbach side consisting of bright young talent, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Florian Neuhaus has become an integral part of the Die Fohlen.
Known for his aggressive play in the middle of pitch, Neuhaus is second amongst Mönchengladbach midfielders for tackles per 90 whilst leading in interceptions.
It isn’t just defensively where the youngster gets the job done, he has begun to contribute in attack, demonstrating how much more of a well-rounded midfielder he is becoming.
In his best season for Gladbach, he produced 11 total goal contributions (3 goals, 8 assists). This year alone Neuhaus has risen to eight total goal contributions (4 goals, 4 assists) demonstrating how the German is only consolidating his arsenal.
For Gladbach to get past Manchester City, Neuhaus is going to have to make his presence felt in the middle of the pitch and go toe to toe with Kevin De Bruyne or England’s in form Phil Foden.
Youssef En-Nesyri – Sevilla
XG per 90- 0.63
Goals per 90 – 0.88
Sevilla have done a masterful job in identifying young or hidden talent over the last decade under the guidance of Ramón ‘Monchi’ Verdejo.
Their success has seen them dominate the Europa League and have repeated stints in the UCL. After a slow start to life in the south of Spain, En-Nesyri is now the lynch pin that holds Sevilla together.
Much of the success this season for the Los Palanganas can be attributed to the form of the Moroccan. The hitman leads Sevilla for goals (13) in La Liga and can be best described as a penalty box striker.
It’s the young gun’s form in the Champions League that has Sevilla purring. While only expected to grab a goal every two games, the Moroccan is averaging 1.4 goals a game.
To put this red hot form in context, that’s only 0.2 goals per game behind the Norwegian wonder kid, Erling Braut Haaland.
Whether this is a rare streak of form remains to be seen. If, however, En-Nesyri keeps this form going, Sevilla might just have to plan for a European adventure once again.