The 2015/16 Champions League – the 61st edition of Europe’s foremost continental club competition – gets under way next midweek, with 32 sides all dreaming of a successful campaign on the biggest stage of all.
Many believe that the Champions League now represents the pinnacle of the modern game, with the concentration of quality and talent having surpassed the more glamorous World Cup.
Here are five players worth keeping an eye on from outside the major leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France.
Hector Herrera, Porto
Porto have a habit of signing talented youngsters from the Americas before selling them on for a hefty profit, and Herrera could be the next in line. The Mexican midfielder has gone from strength to strength since moving to Portugal from Pachuca in his homeland, and is expected to be one of the key members of Julen Lopetegui’s side this term.
An all-round, box-to-box midfielder, Herrera is just as likely to put in a crunching tackle as play an incisive through-ball. His energy and drive in the engine room will be vital to Porto in the Champions League, starting with Wednesday’s trip to Dynamo Kiev.
Bernard, Shakhtar Donetsk
Even 14 months on, Brazil’s 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany on home soil in the semi-final of the World Cup remains as astonishing as it was at the time.
Bernard made his first start of the tournament in that fateful encounter, replacing the injured Neymar in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s XI. The 23-year-old winger has not represented his country since.
Nevertheless, Bernard remains a fantastic prospect who will be desperate to show what he can do for Shakhtar Donetsk in 2015/16. A right-footer who tends to play on the left and cut inside, the Brazilian is out to prove his doubters wrong.
Seydou Doumbia, CSKA Moscow
Sometimes – and the reasons are often unclear – a player only really fulfils his potential at a particular club. Doumbia could be one such example: signed by Roma for £10 million in January, he is now back at CSKA Moscow on loan, the team he represented for five years between 2010 and 2015. The Ivory Coast international recently claimed to have rejected Premier League offers in order to return to the Russian capital when Roma agreed to let him go on a temporary basis this summer.
A glance at his goal scoring record for CSKA makes it easy to see why Doumbia feels so at home there: he has hit the back of the net 87 times in 134 appearances in all competitions, including three strikes against Sporting Lisbon in the qualifying play-off for this year’s Champions League. More goals in the tournament proper would confirm that Doumbia and CSKA Moscow is a match made in heaven.
Jeffrey Bruma, PSV Eindhoven
The former Chelsea centre-back is now in his third season in Eindhoven after joining the Dutch outfit in 2013. He was virtually an ever-present as PSV won the Eredivisie last term, and will now be looking to take his domestic form onto the continental stage.
Strong in the air and comfortable with the ball at his feet, Bruma will know that a move to one of Europe’s giants could be in reach if he performs well in the Champions League over the next few months.
Nicolas Gaitan, Benfica
Gaitan was far from alone in being linked with a move to Manchester United this summer, but rumored interest from one of the biggest clubs in the world shows that the 27-year-old is a very good footballer.
Capable of playing out wide or in a central role, the former Boca Juniors forward is quick and tricky dribbler who also possesses excellent vision. Were it not for his country’s incredible depth of attacking options, Gaitan would surely have significantly more than 10 Argentina caps to his name.
About the Author – Greg Lea
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.