Image: Courtesy of New Strait Times
Two team to watch in the Champions League that could upset the odds
Let’s get the least shocking pick out of the way first. As a previous winner of the Champions League, I’m hardly reaching too far with this pick, however, given you can get 50/1 on them to win the competition, I feel that I can put them in as an outsider.
50/1 is a ridiculous price for a team like Inter Milan. For a start, the 3-5-2 / 3-4-2-1 that Conte employs, was enough to bamboozle many a Premier League side during his time here and there’s a fair suggestion it could do the same in Europe.
A stubborn defensive unit that have conceded only 1 goal in their first 3 games, Inter has a strong defense, a hard working and balanced midfield and in Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku a strong and potent strike-force.
It’s a tough ask to get through a group with Dortmund and Barcelona, but they certainly are capable and I have a sneaky feeling they will do much better than people anticipate.
Red Bull Leipzig
In the appoint of Julian Nagelsmann, Leipzig have taken the next step in their journey to challenging the cream of the Bundesliga.
Nagelsmann is known as a tactical mastermind and has already shown in the first four fixtures of this season in Germany that not only will he be fluid in his approach to each opponent but that he has the players at his disposable to do so.
Red Bull Leipzig were already the best defensive side in Germany last season and seemingly have improved on that ability this season. While Peter Gulacsi is an underrated keeper, the reason it is so hard to score past Leipzig is how much preparation they put into stopping you being comfortable with the ball.
Nagelsmann has taken this to a new level this season using difference formations to counter how teams play out from the back even employing a 4-2-4 against my beloved Borrusia Monchengladbach and refusing to allow us to play out through the centre, and then pressing when we were forced to play the ball wide to our full backs.
Leipzig players are not just hard working and tactically disciplined though, they are also technically gifted. In Forsberg, Sabitzer and Kampl, you have technically gifted midfielders able to score and make goals.
Up front the pace and work rate of Yussuf Poulsen causes havoc and the even pacier Timo Werner has proven to be one of Europe’s most prolific young goalscorers.
Red Bull Leipzig are not a side to be overlooked this season and I believe will come out of their group and are a dangerous side for anyone to face on their day.
11 underrated Champions League players to watch out for:
Goalkeeper: Kepa – The Chelsea shot stopper has come on exponentially even in the short time he has been with the club and I believe this is the stage he has been waiting for.
Certain keepers just have this aura around them that they aren’t just there to keep teams in a game but that they can even be the biggest reason they win them and Kepa has that for me. Given the group that he is in and the manner Chelsea play, he will get plenty of chances to be the hero.
Left back: Marcel Halstenberg – The German international may well be the most underrated left back in the world. I never see him have a bad game. Defensively sound, intelligent, pacey, an excellent passer and crosser of the ball and even chips in with the odd goal.
Centre Back: Milan Skrinriar – A classy centre back that Europe’s best will be salivating over sooner rather than later. The Slovakian is eye catching due to his silky style of defending and is a perfect example of how if you are in the right position, you don’t have to fly around like a headless chicken.
The only weakness in his game is that he’s not the best in the air, but given he has Godin next to him, he can get away with that.
Centre Back: Abdou Diallo – He will need to live up to his potential if PSG are to win the trophy they covert most. Another centre back who is outstanding on the ball but again can be got at in the air, the 23 year old frenchman has been an ever present for PSG this season despite the team being able to call on Marquinhos, Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe.
Right back: Achraf Hakimi – To see this lad play is an experience. The 20 year old right back is a whirling dervish of a player. The Real Madrid loanee is just so much fun to watch. He’s everywhere on the pitch and goes past people for fun. Defensively he does his job but could stand to improve like most modern full backs who have attacking tendencies but he’s just so damn fun to watch, as a neutral, who cares?!
Central Midfielder: There are few players I enjoy watching more than Fabian Ruiz. A playmaker who is capable of playing box-to-box. His technical ability and intelligence sets him apart from other midfield players. This will be a theme with my midfield.
Central Midfielder: Saul Niguez – see above but with an engine that won’t quit. Bullied as a kid at Real Madrid, moved to Atletico and made his debut at 17 but suffered a burst kidney in a Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen. The injury was life threatening and he spent four days in hospital and 4 weeks in rehab, after which he came back and scored on his return despite wearing an internal catheter for two years and passing blood after every game.
What an absolute legend and one of the best players you could hope to watch.
Central Midfielder: Kai Havertz – My favourite player to watch in the world of football. Not strictly a central midfielder as he’s capable of playing every position on the field and is best utilised by Bayer Leverkusen as a player with a somewhat free role. There is another player I wanted in the front three though, so here we are taking liberties. What can I say about Kai Havertz without sounding like a love sick puppy?
First of all, his intelligence astound me. His movement, his ability to know when to hold the ball and when to lay it off, simple things or at least he makes them look simple but when you do the simplest of things better than everyone else, that’s what makes for a truly special player and that’s what he is. He’s strong despite being only 20, can ghost past people like they are not there, he makes goals and scores goals. Seriously, it’s guy love between two guys. I mean I’d like to think he’d reciprocate.
Forward: Hakim Ziyech – it was nice to see Ajax finally get the recognition they deserve but I still don’t think people realise just how good Hakim Ziyech is. I know because I didn’t myself. He’s capable of playing all across the midfield and forward line. Much like Kai, he has exceptional touch, vision, movement and scores and makes goals. On top of that though, he never stops moving with or without the ball and he is a quality set piece taker.
Forward: Mauro Icardi – Mauro is a bad man in every sense of the word but let’s concentrate just on football for now. He couldn’t have wished for a better landing spot than PSG who have put around him a constant supply line of some of the most talented players in the world. If all goes to plan, he is going to bang goals in for fun.
Forward: Jadon Sancho – I don’t think the world is ready for what Sancho is. That’s right is. I keep hearing what he “will be”, forget that. He’s there. He’s settled in Germany and he is a vital part of Borussia Dortmund. Borussia Dortmund are one of the most forward thinking clubs in Europe and they do not part with their cash without some serious thought, the fact they decided to pay Jadon Sancho £190,000 a week says it all.
For some reason Sancho is still talked about what he could be and yet each week he puts his boots on and sets the Bunseliga on fire. He will revel in the challenge of playing Barcelona especially and I’m not sure they have anyone who can stop him.
Honorary mentions: Handanovic, Verratti, Felix and Lewandowski who are all better known players but still underrated somehow.