Occasionally, the UEFA Champions League showcases relatively unknown players from clubs that aren’t typically considered European football powerhouses. In anticipation of the 2023-24 group stage, we’ve put together a selection of eight players, each representing one group. These players might not be on the radar of most fans, but we’ll also delve into why the clubs expected to advance to the knockout stage should be cautious of their capabilities.
Champions League Wildcards of 2023-24
1. Kerem Aktürkoğlu: Galatasaray (Group A)
In Group A, keep an eye on Kerem Aktürkoğlu from Galatasaray. The Turkish giants had a remarkable turnaround in the 2022-23 season, winning the title after a disappointing 2021-22 campaign where they finished 13th in the Turkish league, their worst performance ever. Kerem Aktürkoğlu played a pivotal role during this transformation.
In the dismal 2021-22 season, he stood out as the top scorer for Galatasaray with 10 goals. However, his role evolved in the title-winning season, becoming more versatile and contributing significantly to the team’s success. With the arrival of Mauro Icardi, he no longer had to carry the entire goalscoring burden, yet he still managed to score nine goals while providing five assists to his new teammate. Impressively, he finished the season with a league-best 11 assists, including the highest number of assists from open-play situations (nine).
Since the beginning of the 2022-23 season, Kerem has been a creative force. He leads the league in open-play chances created, with 70 chances, even surpassing Younès Belhanda of Adana Demirspor by one. Furthermore, he tops the league charts for xG assists for teammates from open-play situations, with a remarkable 8.72. His understanding of delivering dangerous balls into the box has been exceptional.
Notably, he has delivered the most open-play passes into the opponent’s penalty area (166), with an impressive 68 of those finding a fellow Galatasaray player.
Despite primarily being right-footed and playing on the left, Kerem is known for his cutting inside and creating opportunities through central areas rather than relying on open-play crosses. Since the start of last season, he has created more chances through ball carries (25) than any other player in the Süper Lig. Keep an eye on this creative maestro as he could be a significant threat in Group A.
2. Elye Wahi: Lens (Group B)
The 2022-23 season marked a significant achievement for Lens as they secured their highest finish in a top-flight league since winning the French league title in 1997-98. This accomplishment also earned them a spot in the UEFA Champions League for just the second time in their history. However, they face this challenge without two key players from the previous season: Loïs Openda, who has moved to RB Leipzig, and former captain Seko Fofana, who departed for Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr.
To bolster their squad for the 2023-24 season and potentially contend for the Ligue 1 title, Lens made an exciting signing in the form of France Under-21 talent Elye Wahi. Remarkably, Wahi won’t even turn 21 years old until January 2024.
In the previous season across the top five European leagues, he stood out as both the top scorer (with 19 goals) and the player with the most goal involvements (24) among those under 21 years old. In Ligue 1 during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, his tally of 28 non-penalty goals was exceeded only by Kylian Mbappé (50) and Wissam Ben Yedder (31).
Lens made a significant investment of €35 million to secure his services from Montpellier in August, making it the second-largest transfer between two Ligue 1 clubs, following Kylian Mbappé’s €180 million move from Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.
One of Wahi’s standout statistics is his non-penalty shot conversion rate, which stands at an impressive 29%. This rate was higher than any of the 17 players who scored over 15 non-penalty goals across the top seven European leagues in the 2022-23 season (including the top five leagues plus the Netherlands and Portugal).
However, it’s worth noting that his shot volume was relatively low at 2.2 non-penalty shots per 90, significantly less than leading players like Victor Osimhen (4.6), Mbappé (4.6), and Robert Lewandowski (4.2) during the same season.
Among these top scorers, Wahi also boasted the third-highest expected goals (xG) per non-penalty shot average of 0.18, trailing only Erling Haaland (0.2) and Gonçalo Ramos (0.21). This suggests that he has a knack for finding high-quality shooting opportunities. However, he’ll be hoping that his Lens teammates can provide him with more service than he received at Montpellier during the 2022-23 season. Keep an eye on Elye Wahi as he aims to make a significant impact in Lens’ UEFA Champions League campaign and their pursuit of Ligue 1 success.
3. Al Musrati: SC Braga (Group C)
In Group C, SC Braga faces tough competition with Napoli, Real Madrid, and the beloved underdog Union Berlin. Despite the challenging group, Braga boasts some impressive players, including Bruma, Ricardo Horta, and Abel Ruiz. However, given the group’s strength, their defensive capabilities will likely be crucial, which is why Al Musrati is considered a key player for their Champions League campaign.
Al Musrati, the defensive midfielder, played a significant role in Braga’s third-place finish in the Primeira Liga in the 2022-23 season, trailing only Benfica and Porto and finishing four points ahead of Sporting CP.
In terms of defensive midfielders in Portugal’s top flight, players like Manuel Ugarte (formerly of Sporting, now with Paris Saint-Germain) and Benfica’s Florentino Luis garnered most of the attention last season. However, Al Musrati’s 57 interceptions were as many as Ugarte’s, despite playing three fewer games (28 compared to 31). In fact, only four players in the entire league recorded more interceptions, and all of them had more appearances than Al Musrati.
This impressive performance followed a strong 2021-22 season where Al Musrati excelled in winning possession, with only Gil Vicente’s Pedrinho (237) having more possessions won than him (234), despite Al Musrati playing three fewer games (30 compared to 33). His 2023-24 campaign has also started on a positive note, with a recent 96th-minute winner in a 3-2 victory against Moreirense.
For Fulham fans, Al Musrati could be a player of particular interest. He has previously been linked with a move to Craven Cottage, and this interest might resurface, especially if João Palhinha eventually secures a transfer elsewhere.
Palhinha’s deadline day move to Bayern Munich recently collapsed, potentially opening the door for Al Musrati’s transfer speculation once again. Keep an eye on Al Musrati’s performances as he could play a crucial role in Braga’s Champions League journey and potentially attract attention from clubs like Fulham.
4. Karim Konaté: Salzburg (Group D)
The Red Bull system has certainly demonstrated an impressive knack for identifying talent. From Erling Haaland to Konrad Laimer to Dominik Szoboszlai, we’ve witnessed several stars of the modern game whose early career paths passed through Salzburg, with some continuing on to RB Leipzig and others making significant moves to Europe’s top clubs directly from Austria. Karim Konaté appears to be one of the latest prospects in this remarkable pipeline.
At just 19 years old, Konaté joined Salzburg from Ivorian side ASEC Mimosas last year. His playing time has been split between the Austrian Bundesliga and Salzburg’s second-tier reserve team, FC Liefering. He made a strong impact, scoring 15 goals in 18 games for FC Liefering and three goals in nine appearances for Salzburg.
Impressively, his shot conversion rate improved from an already impressive 23.8% at Liefering to 30% in the top flight, albeit from a smaller sample size (three goals from 10 shots). Additionally, he shined in the UEFA Youth League for Salzburg last season, scoring six goals in seven games.
In the current season, Konaté has continued his impressive form, netting six goals in eight games for the senior team in all competitions, with a conversion rate of 26.1% (six goals from 23 shots). What’s even more remarkable is his evolution as a player. The Ivory Coast international has created five big chances, situations where a player is expected to reasonably score, in the Austrian Bundesliga. In this regard, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (with six) has created more big chances in Europe’s top 10 leagues.
Despite facing a challenging group consisting of Internazionale, Benfica, and Real Sociedad in Group D of the Champions League, Salzburg has a history of upsetting the established order. They have progressed beyond the group stages once before, in the 2021-22 season. If Karim Konaté can adapt to the Champions League as seamlessly as he has to senior competition, Salzburg could be poised to cause another upset on the European stage.
5. Santiago Giménez: Feyenoord (Group E)
Santiago Giménez’s journey from Cruz Azul to Feyenoord has indeed been a whirlwind, and his impact since arriving in Rotterdam has been remarkable. In just one season, he managed to score 23 goals and earn the Player of the Season award, making it clear that he’s destined for even greater things in the near future.
Giménez’s transition to the Eredivisie seemed effortless, as he netted 15 goals in 32 league games, contributing significantly to Feyenoord’s first domestic title win since 2016-17. In fact, only two players scored more non-penalty goals than him in the Eredivisie last season.
His prowess extended to the European stage, where he made an impressive debut in the Europa League by scoring a brace against Lazio. Interestingly, Lazio is also in the same Champions League group as Feyenoord this year. Giménez finished as the third-highest scorer in the Europa League last season, trailing only Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Union Saint-Gilloise’s Victor Boniface, both of whom had six goals.
In the current season, Giménez continues to shine, sharing the top spot as the Eredivisie’s leading scorer with six goals in just five games. Although Feyenoord is currently fourth in the league standings, they’ve scored a remarkable 19 goals in these five matches, showcasing their attacking prowess.
Feyenoord’s offensive statistics are truly impressive, with only two teams in Europe’s top 10 leagues averaging over 3.0 expected goals per game in the 2023-24 season (the other being PSV). Giménez plays a significant role in this, with an average of 1.15 expected goals per 90 minutes.
His shot map underscores his ability to take shots from advantageous positions. An astounding 81% of his 21 shots so far have originated from inside the penalty box, and his expected goals per shot (xG/shot) of 0.23 is the sixth-highest among all players with at least five shot attempts in the league.
As Giménez enters the Champions League, which represents the highest level of football he has encountered so far, his track record suggests that he is unafraid and ready to take on the challenge. His journey to potential stardom is a captivating one to watch.
6. Warren Zaïre-Emery: Paris Saint-Germain (Group F)
Warren Zaïre-Emery, the 17-year-old French prodigy emerging from Paris Saint-Germain’s academy, has been one of the most exciting talents to watch in their squad, proving that PSG’s talent pipeline can produce gems alongside their high-profile transfers.
Last season, he enjoyed a breakout year, making 20 appearances from the bench out of 29, which didn’t stop him from setting numerous club records. He is now PSG’s youngest-ever player, youngest goalscorer, and the youngest player to start a Champions League knockout game in history.
Zaïre-Emery has clearly caught the eye of the new PSG manager, Luis Enrique, who views him as a key component of the first team. This season, he has started every game for the club, and only two teenagers, including goalkeeper Guillaume Restes, have played more minutes than him across Europe’s top five leagues.
Positioned in the right-sided central midfield role in Luis Enrique’s 4-3-3 formation, Zaïre-Emery plays a pivotal role in PSG’s midfield, often alongside the defensive ball-winner Manuel Ugarte. He exhibits remarkable precision in possession, completing 65.8 successful passes per game in Ligue 1, with a success rate of 93.1%, the fifth-best among midfielders in the league.
Interestingly, this accuracy increases to 93.6% when focusing on his passes into the attacking third, highlighting his proficiency in moving the ball effectively across the pitch.
While he maintains a high pass success rate, his passing can sometimes lean towards the conservative side. Only 15.9% of his attempted passes have been forward, which ranks fifth-lowest among midfielders in Ligue 1. There is potential for him to be more progressive and inventive with his passing, as he completes just 3.5 progressive passes per 90, a rate lower than five other PSG midfielders. His expected goals assisted (xG assisted) also stands at 0.24, ranking 37th among all midfielders in the league.
Despite these statistics, Zaïre-Emery plays a crucial role in PSG’s build-up play, contributing to 26 attacking sequence involvements, a noteworthy feat in a team filled with established stars.
It’s important to remember that Zaïre-Emery is still very young. His substantial playing time at one of the world’s top clubs is a testament to his talent. As the saying goes, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” and Zaïre-Emery exemplifies this adage as he continues to make his mark on the football world.
7. Xavi Simons: RB Leipzig (Group G)
RB Leipzig’s ability to reinvent themselves each summer has been a consistent source of surprise and admiration in the football world. This season, despite losing key players like Dominik Szoboszlai, Josko Gvardiol, and Christopher Nkunku to other top clubs, RB Leipzig hasn’t missed a beat in the 2023-24 campaign.
Xavi Simons, who was signed on loan from Paris Saint-Germain this summer, has been instrumental in their strong start to the season. Deployed as a right-sided number 10 in Marco Rose’s 4-2-2-2 formation, Simons has a multifaceted role.
He is tasked with stretching the play by receiving the ball out wide, shifting into central positions to operate between the lines, and making runs through the center to pose a goal threat when the center-forwards draw defenders out of position. His touch map vividly illustrates how he covers various areas of the pitch, including wide positions and dangerous zones around the edge of the penalty area.
This role demands intelligence, tactical awareness, technical skill, close control in tight spaces, and the ability to contribute to transitions with pace. It’s a testament to Simons’ ability and adaptability that he has taken to this role so swiftly, considering he only has one full season of senior football experience, having excelled in the Eredivisie with PSV last season.
In the Bundesliga, Simons has displayed remarkable form, recording three goals and four assists in just four matches. He also played a crucial role in Leipzig’s impressive win against Bayern Munich in the Super Cup. These performances showcase Leipzig’s readiness to compete at a high level in European football, despite some areas for improvement highlighted by their recent 3-2 loss to Bayer Leverkusen.
As he gets ready for his debut in the Champions League, Xavi Simons is unquestionably a player to watch during the 2023-24 season in European football’s premier competition.
8. Galeno: Porto (Group H)
Galeno’s journey through European football has been a lengthy one, but he seems poised to catch the eye of bigger clubs on the European stage this season. As one of the many South American imports at Porto, his path to potentially joining one of Europe’s top five leagues has been a gradual one.
Initially signed by Porto in 2016, Galeno spent two years with Porto’s B-team before embarking on a series of loan spells. Eventually, he joined Braga permanently in 2019, where he enjoyed three successful seasons. In 2022, Porto re-signed him, and his performances over the past year indicate that he’s much closer to fulfilling the potential they saw in him when they first signed him.
Galeno is a right-footed player who primarily operates as a left-sided midfielder. He likes to cut inside and threaten the goal, whether by dribbling in from the flank with the ball or making diagonal off-the-ball runs towards goal to receive passes behind the defense. He’s a constant attacking threat, as evidenced by his averages of 3.2 shots and 0.42 expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes in Primeira Liga games last season, both of which ranked among the top 20 in the league.
Remarkably, he achieved these numbers while playing in a wide midfield role within a 4-4-2 formation. In the 2022-23 season, he was Porto’s second-highest goalscorer, trailing only Mehdi Taremi, as they narrowly missed out on the league title to rivals Benfica by just two points.
Galeno possesses exceptional confidence on the ball and utilizes his dribbling skills to advance his team up the pitch at a brisk pace. Excluding defenders, no other player in the Primeira Liga in the 2022-23 season could surpass his 9.6 progressive carries per 90 minutes, which denotes taking the ball at least five meters upfield toward the opposition’s goal. He was particularly effective in the final third, with his total of 42 carries ending in either a shot or a chance created ranking as the third-highest in the entire league.
Having experienced his first season of Champions League football last year, Galeno is expected to be even more prepared this time around. Porto topped a group containing tough opponents like Atlético Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen. This season, facing Barcelona, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Royal Antwerp, they have a genuine opportunity to progress to the knockout rounds once again, and Galeno could play a crucial role in their Champions League campaign.