Champions League: The young talents to keep an eye on as group stage begins

·4-min read

Istanbul awaits next June, and this week the journey starts as the group stage of the Champions League begins.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to reach the final and lift the trophy. Most will fail in that quest, but that's not to say those who don't win the competition are failures.

Every year we enjoy breakout seasons from individuals in the Champions League as they announce themselves on the biggest stage.

Whether those performances earn big-money moves or simply greater acclaim, you can expect there to be a few players you might not be very familiar with who go on to impress.

Ahead of the first round of games, Stats Perform has identified a few to keep an eye out for.

Tanguy Nianzou, centre-back, 20 – Sevilla

After coming through Paris Saint-Germain's academy and then spending a season at Bayern Munich, France youth international Nianzou joined Sevilla as the replacement for Jules Kounde in pre-season.

It's been a rocky start for the youngster. He's part of a defence that's looked extremely unconvincing, with their expected goals against (excluding penalties) of 7.5 the second-worst in LaLiga after four games, three of which Sevilla have lost.

On matchday one, Nianzou will come up against Erling Haaland and Manchester City. The defender is very highly rated, but this will be a massive test of his readiness for regular football at such a level.

Sevilla
Sevilla

Goncalo Ramos, forward, 21 – Benfica

If you believe transfer gossip, there were plenty of clubs ready to prise Ramos from Benfica in the transfer window, but ultimately he stayed put and will be considered Darwin Nunez's replacement this season.

A well-rounded striker, Ramos works hard, is up for a physical battle and is technically proficient. Last season, he scored seven Primeira Liga goals as back-up to Nunez, although his early form in that regard this term suggests work is needed.

His two strikes from 3.9 xG show he's getting into good situations but isn't yet proving clinical – albeit he did net four in Champions League qualifying.

Benfica are in a group with Juventus and PSG, so they'll hope Ramos finds a reliable streak to aid their outside chance of progression.

Ramos
Ramos

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, winger, 21 – Napoli

The first winner of Serie A's Player of the Month award of the new season – and in his very first month in the league – it's been some introduction from Kvaratskhelia.

He was playing back home in Georgia in the second half of last season after being able to suspend his contract at Rubin Kazan amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. His deal was then terminated by Rubin after it emerged he was subject to death threats after leaving.

Kvaratskhelia had been linked with numerous big clubs but eventually landed at Napoli as Lorenzo Insigne's replacement. They may not be anything alike as players, but that's not stopped Kvaratskhelia having a major early impact with four goals in five Serie A games.

A tall winger who possesses great dribbling skills, he's a player primed to make a statement this season.

Kvaratskhelia
Kvaratskhelia

Lorenzo Lucca, striker, 21 – Ajax

He may only be 21, but Lucca's fledgling career has already been somewhat nomadic, finding himself registered as a senior player at six clubs – the latest being Ajax, whom he joined on loan with an option to buy from Serie B side Pisa.

Remarkably, the last of his six league goals for Pisa last season came in October, so it's clear the jury is still out and he has a lot to prove, but he has the attributes to be a threat for any team.

Standing at just over two metres tall, Lucca is a giant, yet he also possesses a surprising turn of pace and is technically very good. The Italy Under-21 international has only played 21 minutes with the first team this season, but he has three goals in two games for the second string.

It's unlikely he'll be a key figure for Ajax, but given his skillset he will be a viable option at times – let's just see if he can take his chances.

Matt O'Riley, midfielder, 21 – Celtic

Last season, O'Riley was playing in League One for MK Dons; on Tuesday, he'll likely line-up against Real Madrid. It's been quite a quick ascension for the gifted midfielder.

A product of Fulham's academy, O'Riley left the Cottagers stunned when he rejected a new contract in 2020. He spent six months training with Dons and then signed for them in January 2021 – that saw him exposed to first-team football and a year later he was at Celtic.

The London-born Denmark Under-21 international has enjoyed a wonderful start to the season, with his vision and ball-playing abilities marking him out as a real creative threat and earning links to Manchester United.

How he fares in the Champions League with the step up in quality could prove crucial with respect to his short-term future.

O'Riley
O'Riley