Every so often the UEFA Champions League puts lesser known players in the window from clubs not considered among the giants of European football.
Ahead of the 2023-24 group stage, we have compiled a list of eight players – one from each group – that might be flying under the radar of the majority of fans and provide some insight into why the clubs fancied to progress to the knockout stage should be very wary of their threat.
Kerem Aktürkoğlu: Galatasaray
Turkish giants Galatasaray ended a three-year wait for a Galatasaray title following their 2022-23 success, coming back from a dreadful 2021-22 campaign that saw them finish the season in 13th position – their lowest placing ever in the Turkish top flight. One of only three players who featured for over 2,000 minutes across both seasons and helped turn the tide was creative midfielder Kerem Aktürkoğlu.
After finishing as top scorer in the disappointing 2021-22 campaign with 10 goals, Kerem’s role in the side was redefined across their title-winning season, helping to improve both his threat to opponents and his contribution to the team overall.
With the arrival of Mauro Icardi, he no longer had to shoulder the burden of goalscoring for Galatasaray, although he did still score nine times last season. Along with five assists for his new teammate, he assisted six further goals and finished with the league’s best tally of 11 assists and the top total from open play, too (nine).
Since the start of 2022-23, Kerem has been a creative monster. He’s tallied the most open-play chances created (70, one more than Adana Demirspor’s Younès Belhanda) as well as leading the entire league for xG assisted for teammates (8.72) from open-play situations. He was a player who understood the ball needed to be fed into dangerous areas for players like Icardi to thrive off. Nobody in the Süper Lig since the start of last season has delivered more open-play passes into the opposition penalty box (166), with a league-high 68 of those successfully finding a Galatasaray player.
Naturally, being predominantly right-footed but playing wide on the left, the 24-year-old cuts inside to devastating effect. It was rare to see him create chances with open-play crosses, instead preferring to carry the ball inside and thread passes through central areas. Since the opening matchday of last season, no player has created more chances from ball carries than he has (25) in the Süper Lig.
Elye Wahi: Lens
The 2022-23 season saw Lens secure their highest finish to a top-flight league season since winning the French league title in 1997-98. This, of course, means they’ll play UEFA Champions League football for just the second time ever, but they’ll have to do so without two of their most integral players from last season: Loïs Openda, who’s moved to RB Leipzig, and former captain Seko Fofana, following his exit to Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr.
One of the stars bought in to hopefully lift Lens in 2023-24 and potentially challenge for the Ligue 1 title was France Under-21s talent Elye Wahi.
Wahi doesn’t turn 21 years old until January 2024, and last season across the top five European leagues he was both the top scorer (19 goals) and player with the most goal involvements (24) while aged under 21 years old. Across the 2021-22 and 2022-23 Ligue 1 seasons, his tally of 28 non-penalty goals was surpassed by just Kylian Mbappé (50) and Wissam Ben Yedder (31).
This led to Lens paying a reported €35 million for his services from Montpellier in August, the second-biggest transfer between two Ligue 1 clubs after Mbappé’s €180m move from Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.
His non-penalty shot conversion rate of 29% was higher than any of the 17 players to score over 15 non-penalty goals across the top seven ranked European leagues in 2022-23 (top five, plus Netherlands and Portugal), but much of this is down to his low shot volume of 2.2 non-penalty shots per 90, well below leading players like Victor Osimhen (4.6), Mbappé (4.6) and Robert Lewandowski (4.2) last season.
Among those aforementioned 17 top scorers, Wahi had the third-highest xG per non-penalty shot average of 0.18, below only Erling Haaland (0.2) and Gonçalo Ramos (0.21), so he’s adept at finding good shooting opportunities, but will hope his Lens teammates provide more service to him than he saw at Montpellier in 2022-23.
Al Musrati: SC Braga
Being drawn into Group C with Napoli, Real Madrid and everyone’s favourite underdog Union Berlin, it would be easy for SC Braga to feel somewhat overlooked.
Artur Jorge’s side have some impressive players though, including the likes of Bruma, Ricardo Horta and Abel Ruiz. However, given the strength of their group, you would assume the emphasis will largely be on their defending, which is why we consider Al Musrati as a key player for their Champions League campaign.
The defensive midfielder played a big part in Braga’s third-place finish in the Primeira Liga in 2022-23, only behind Benfica and Porto, and four points ahead of Sporting CP.
As far as defensive midfielders go, Manuel Ugarte (formerly of Sporting, now of Paris Saint-Germain) and Benfica’s Florentino Luis took most of the headlines from Portugal’s top flight last season, but Al Musrati’s 57 interceptions were as many as Ugarte in three fewer games (28 to 31), with only four players in the whole league making more, all of whom made more appearances than Al Musrati.
That followed a good 2021-22 season, in which only Gil Vicente’s Pedrinho (237) won possession more often than Al Musrati (234), and the Braga man played three fewer games (30 to 33). His 2023-24 campaign has gotten off to a good start too, with him recently scoring a 96th-minute winner in a 3-2 victory at Moreirense.
The 27-year-old could be one for Fulham fans in particular to look out for. Al Musrati has previously been linked with a move to Craven Cottage, interest that could potentially resurface if João Palhinha eventually seals a move away, having seen his deadline day transfer to Bayern Munich collapse just a couple of weeks ago.
Karim Konaté: Salzburg
Say what you like about the Red Bull system, but they can certainly spot a player.
From Erling Haaland to Konrad Laimer to Dominik Szoboszlai, there are several stars of the modern game who have seen their early career path pass through Salzburg, with some heading on to RB Leipzig, and others to one of Europe’s elite for big money straight from Austria. Karim Konaté could be one of the next to do so.
The 19-year-old striker only joined Salzburg from Ivorian side ASEC Mimosas last year, splitting his playing time between the Austrian Bundesliga and their second-tier reserve team FC Liefering. He scored 15 goals in 18 games for the latter, and three in nine for Salzburg. Konaté’s already impressive 23.8% shot conversion rate at Liefering went up to 30% in the top flight, albeit from a small sample size (three goals from 10 shots). He also scored six goals in seven games in the UEFA Youth League for Salzburg last season.
Konaté has hit another six goals in eight games already this season for the senior team in all competitions with a conversion rate of 26.1% (six goals from 23 shots), but he also seems to have added something else to his game. The Ivory Coast international has created five big chances (a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score) in the Austrian Bundesliga. Only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (six) has created more in Europe’s top 10 leagues.
With Salzburg up against Internazionale, Benfica and Real Sociedad, Group D won’t be easy. They have only progressed past the group stages once (2021-22), but if Konaté can take to the Champions League as seamlessly as he has the rest of senior competition, Salzburg could be ready to upset the apple cart once again.
Santiago Giménez: Feyenoord
It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for Feyenoord’s Mexican striker Santiago Giménez. Just over a year ago, he was playing in his native country for Cruz Azul, but the summer of 2022 saw him leave his homeland for the Rotterdam-based side. One season, 23 goals and a Player of the Season award later, and it feels like only a matter of time before he’s on the move once again.
Giménez made the step up look effortless, scoring 15 goals in 32 league games as Feyenoord won their first domestic title since 2016-17. With those 15 strikes, only two players scored more non-penalty goals than him in the Eredivisie last season.
He also flashed his pedigree on the European stage, scoring a brace on his debut in the Europa League against Lazio – coincidentally also in the same Champions League group as Feyenoord this year. Those were two of five goals he scored in Europe, making him the third-highest scorer in the competition last term behind Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Union Saint-Gilloise’s Victor Boniface (six goals each).
This season, Giménez is at it again. Through five games, he’s the Eredivisie’s joint-top scorer on six goals, and although Feyenoord are currently fourth in the table (one point off the top), they’ve scored a league-high 19 goals in those five matches.
Feyenoord’s attacking numbers are off the charts. They’re one of only two sides in Europe’s top 10 leagues to average over 3.0 expected goals per game so far in 2023-24 (also PSV), and Giménez is a huge part of that, averaging 1.15 xG per 90 on his own.
His shot map below shows a striker who’s focused on taking shots from good locations. Seventeen of his 21 shots so far (81%) have come from inside the box, and his xG/shot of 0.23 is the sixth-highest of all players to have attempted five shots in the league so far.
The Champions League will be the highest standard of football Giménez has played to date, but on his journey to potential stardom, he’s shown no signs of being overawed.
Warren Zaïre-Emery: Paris Saint-Germain
Paris Saint-Germain might have a reputation for going big in the transfer window, but perhaps one of the most exciting players in their squad has come through their academy. French prodigy Warren Zaïre-Emery, who is still just 17 years old, enjoyed a breakout season for the Parisians last term, forcing his way into then-manager Christophe Galtier’s first-team plans.
Although the midfielder made most of his appearances in 2022-23 from the bench (20/29), that didn’t stop him from breaking a host of club records. He’s now PSG’s youngest ever player, youngest goalscorer, and the youngest player to start a Champions League knockout game in history.
His performances last season clearly impressed new boss Luis Enrique, who now sees Zaïre-Emery as a staple in his first team. The Frenchman has started every game for PSG so far this season, and just two teenagers – one of which is goalkeeper Guillaume Restes – have played more minutes than the PSG youngster this season across Europe’s top five leagues.
Zaïre-Emery has looked at home in the heart of PSG’s midfield, often playing as the right-sided central midfielder in Luis Enrique’s 4-3-3.
With Manuel Ugarte the defensive ball-winner beside him, Zaïre-Emery sees a lot of the ball in this PSG side. One of his biggest strengths is his cleanliness in possession. Only six other midfielders in Ligue 1 have completed more than his 65.8 successful passes per game, and he completes those at a 93.1% success rate, the fifth-best rate among that group. That accuracy actually increases (93.6%) when we look at his passes into the attacking third, so there’s great security with the way Zaïre-Emery moves the ball across the pitch.
That tidiness can mean he’s quite safe with his passing. Just 15.9% of his attempted passes have been forward, which is the fifth-lowest rate in the league among midfielders. There’s also scope for him to be more progressive and dangerous with his passing. He’s completed just 3.5 progressive passes per 90, a lower rate than fifth other PSG midfielders, and his overall xG assisted is just 0.24 – enough for 37th among all midfielders in the league.
Despite that, he’s clearly an important part of PSG’s build-up play, and with 26 attacking sequence involvements, he’s more than holding his own in a side littered with established stars.
Zaïre-Emery is still a kid. The fact he’s getting serious minutes at one of the world’s best clubs should tell us all we need to know. As the saying goes, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and Zaïre-Emery is certainly embodying that maxim.
Xavi Simons: RB Leipzig
Every summer, RB Leipzig reinvent themselves, and every summer, people are surprised at how they keep doing it so well. This year, having lost Dominik Szoboszlai to Liverpool, Josko Gvardiol to Manchester City and Christopher Nkunku to Chelsea, it would have been understandable if they might not have been able to repeat the trick. Or, at the very least, if they had made a slow start to 2023-24.
Although it hasn’t quite been perfect, their start to the season certainly hasn’t been slow. Xavi Simons, signed on loan from Paris Saint-German this summer, has made a flying start.
Playing as a right-sided number 10 in Marco Rose’s 4-2-2-2, Simons has an interesting role, tasked with stretching the play by receiving out wide, but also moving into central positions to receive between the lines as well as making runs through the centre of the pitch to be a goal threat if the centre-forwards have dragged the defenders out of position. His touch map shows how much of the pitch he is covering, and in particular how often he receives very wide as well as how many touches he is having in dangerous positions around the edge of the penalty area.
It’s a role that requires intelligence and tactical nous as well as technical ability, good close control to receive in tight spaces and pace to have an impact on transition. It’s a credit to Simons – as well as a good indication as to his ability – that he has taken to it so quickly given he only has one full season of senior football under his belt, having spent last season tearing it up in the Eredivisie with PSV.
At Leipzig, he has three goals and four assists in four Bundesliga games so far, and also played a key role in the Super Cup annihilation of Bayern Munich. That display in particular showed that this incarnation of Leipzig are ready to mix it with the best in Europe, although there are still lessons to be learned from the recent 3-2 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen.
Now set for his first taste of Champions League football, Simons will be one to watch on Europe’s biggest stage in 2023-24.
One in a lengthy line of South American imports at Porto, if Galeno is ever to make the final step to one of Europe’s top five leagues, he will have taken the long route there. It could turn out that this is the season he catches the eye of a bigger club on the European stage.
First signed in 2016, he spent two years with Porto’s B-team before being sent out on loan and eventually joining Braga permanently in 2019. But after three successful seasons there, Porto re-signed him in 2022 and his performances over the last 12 months indicate he is far closer to the player they hoped they were signing all those years ago.
A right-footed, left-sided midfielder, Galeno likes to come inside and threaten goal, either by cutting in off the flank with the ball or with diagonal off-the-ball sprints towards goal to receive in behind. He is a constant threat, and his average of 3.2 shots and 0.42 xG per 90 in Primeira Liga games last season were both among the top 20 in the league, despite him playing in a wide midfield role in a 4-4-2 formation. He was Porto’s second-highest goalscorer in 2022-23 behind Mehdi Taremi as they were beaten to the title by rivals Benfica by just two points.
He is extremely confident on the ball, and uses his ball-carrying ability to take his team up the pitch at pace. Excluding defenders, no other player could better his 9.6 progressive carries (taking the ball at least five metres upfield towards the opposition’s goal) per 90 in the Primeira Liga in 2022-23, and he was particularly effective in the final third. His total of 42 carries ending in a shot or a chance created was the third highest in the whole league.
Galeno also played his first season of Champions League football last season and will be better for it this time around. Last time out, Porto topped a group containing Atlético Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen, and with Barcelona, Shakhtar Donetsk and Royal Antwerp as this season’s opponents, they have a genuine chance of making the knockout rounds once again. Galeno could be key.