5 players worth keeping an eye on in the Champions League group stage

David Neres (Ajax)

Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong have departed the Amsterdam Arena for pastures new, but Ajax have otherwise kept the bulk of last season’s squad intact. A repeat of their 2018/19 achievements – a domestic double and a run to the semi-finals of the Champions League – is highly unlikely, but Erik ten Hag will fancy his side’s chances of progressing from an open group containing Chelsea, Valencia and Lille.

Neres will be key to their chances of doing so. The Brazil international was one of Ajax’s many outstanding performers last term, scoring 12 goals in all competitions and setting up another 10 in the Eredivisie and Champions League. No right-back in the competition will relish facing the left-sided forward.

Alexis Sanchez (Inter)

There is no doubt that Alexis Sanchez was a major failure at Manchester United, but there is plenty of debate over whether or not he can recapture the form he showed previously at Arsenal and Barcelona. The Chile international will hope that Inter boss Antonio Conte can bring out some of the old magic following his season-long loan move to San Siro.

Inter have begun the Serie A season with three wins from three, but Conte has questions to answer when it comes to his European record. With Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona among their group phase opponents, Inter will look to Sanchez to help make the difference.

Ansu Fati (Barcelona)

No Lionel Messi, no problem. The Argentinian genius has yet to play for Barcelona this season due to injury, but another attacker has stepped up in his place – and it is not Antoine Griezmann or Luis Suarez. Those two players have chipped in with two goals apiece, the exact same number as a 16-year-old who few people had heard just a few weeks ago.

Fati has enjoyed a sensational start to the La Liga season, and will now expect to play a part in the Champions League. He may drop down to the bench when everyone is fit, but the teenager can still make an impact in a cameo role.

Erling Braut Haaland (Red Bull Salzburg)

The son of former Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alfe-Inge, Haaland Jr. first generated headlines outside his native Norway when he scored nine goals in his country’s 12-0 win against Honduras at the Under-20 World Cup earlier this year.

He has continued in a similar vein at club level at the start of the 2019/20 campaign, notching an astonishing 14 goals in eight appearances in all competitions. Paired with Liverpool, Napoli and Genk in the group phase, Red Bull Salzburg will need Haaland to take his prolific form to the continental stage.

Ibrahima Konate (RB Leipzig)

Attacking players tend to fill the majority of places on lists such as these, but it would be remiss of us to overlook one of the most promising young centre-backs in European football. RB Leipzig conceded the fewest goals in the Bundesliga last time out, and they will hope that Konate can anchor their three-man backline just as effectively in the Champions League this season.

The fact that the 20-year-old has yet to win a senior cap for France says more about the world champions’ phenomenal strength in depth than it does his ability. The attackers of Benfica, Lyon and Zenit Saint Petersburg will not have it easy up against Konate in Group G.

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