By: Lawal Damilare
With the likes of Juventus, Ajax, Atletico Madrid, and Sevilla getting knocked out, the Uefa champions league group stages rounded off with a lot of drama, excitement, and unnerving upsets. A total of thirty-two teams competed with 16 teams progressing to the knockouts.
As expected, the action was intense as usual. The big guns showed the sauce required to be in a competition that houses Europe’s elite. The front trio of Paris Saint Germain Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, and Neymar had a combined 32 goal contributions between them. Liverpool’s Mo Salah continued his fine European form.
Bundesliga youngsters Jude Bellingham and Jamal Musiala also had decent campaigns. The ensuing paragraphs take a look at the dark horses in the group stage deserving a shout-out ahead of round 16.
Diogo costa (FC PORTO).
At a time in football where more is demanded of goalkeepers than just shot-stopping or classic saves. Ranging from ball distribution to vision, sweeping e.t.c, Costa has all the attributes to be one of the game’s best in the coming years. He checks every box for a modern-day goalkeeper. Having now deposed Rui Patricio as the starting goalie of the Portuguese NT.
Diogo Meireles da Costa (23), is the first-choice goalie of Portuguese giants Porto. He made his senior international debut in 2021. Costa’s stock has risen massively in recent months. His Champions League performance against Bayer Leverkusen; saving a penalty as well as providing an assist earned him a renewed contract and put him on the radar of Manchester United.
Diogo Costa’s October:
October 4: Makes six saves and stops a penalty to lead Porto to a 2-0 win vs Bayer Leverkusen
October 8: Keeps a clean sheet in a 2-0 win vs. Portimonense
October 12: Makes four saves, stops a penalty, and grabs an assist in a 3-0 win vs Leverkusen.
Diogo is preparing the groundwork to be recognized as a contender for the prestigious Lev Yashine award for goalkeepers.
Enzo Fernandez (BENFICA)
Enzo Jeremías Fernández (21) is an Argentine professional footballer who plays as a central midfielder for Primeira Liga club Benfica and the Argentinian national team. Fernandez has been absolutely phenomenal in Benfica’s UCL group stage domination over Paris Saint Germain, Juventus, and Maccabi Haifa.
Enzo has reportedly attracted interest from Manchester United and Liverpool since the inception of this campaign.
In the champions league group stages, he played a total of 5 games, completing 89%, rounding it up with 2 assists. According to Uefa.com, he completed a total of 287/320 passes and attempted 90 short passes completing 81%. He all but reminds you of Thiago Alcantara with his awesome retention of the ball being 386 times in possession, 40 passes into the attacking third, and 6 passes into the penalty area.
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (SSC NAPOLI).
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia (21) aka Kvaradona is arguably the hottest prospect in Europe right now. (Kudos if you could pronounce the name by the way)
Coming from relatively nowhere, Kvaradona has taken the Seria A by storm. He announced himself to the world by terrorizing Trent Alexander-Arnold in their group stage opener vs Liverpool. Now valued at upwards of 100 million euros, he’s now attracted interest from premier league giants Liverpool and Chelsea.
Blessed with blistering pace, trickery, unpredictability, and the ability to turn his markers inside out, the young right-footed Georgian winger from Dinamo Batumi has proved to be a menace in his debut UCL season on the left of Napoli’s attack.
“I am really happy for him, he deserves everything he is getting now” teammate Victor Osimhen told DAZN of Kvaratskhelia. “He is just getting started, you guys have seen not seen anything”
Khvicha joined Napoli this season, on the 1st of July 2022, on a deal lasting until 2027 from Dinamo Batumi for a reported fee of €10–12 million. Since the start of the season, he has shown his qualities on the ball in the Serie A, and particularly the champions league. Kvara’s full professional debut for the club came on 15 August, in the first matchday of Serie A against Hellas Verona; he scored and assisted in his debut in a 5–2 victory. He scored twice in the following matchday, against Monza on 21 August, netting his first Serie A brace in a 4–0 win. Following these games, Kvaratskhelia topped the Serie A top scorers’ list, becoming the first player in Napoli’s history to score three goals in the two opening league matches. Racking up the player of the month along the way.
On 4 October, he scored his first Champions League goal in a 6–1 away win over Ajax. With another goal and an assist in the return leg a week later Kvaratskhelia was named Man of the Match and included in the Champions League team of the week. With Napoli’s firing form to life, he has sat in the heart of the blistering form and is expected to keep the fire, in the decisive knockout stage.
The Georgian international’s form for the Seria A table toppers has been a major talking point this season and has also paid dividends in the Champions League. Ajax in particular was on the receiving end of Kvara’s relentless drive for the end product (two goals and 3 assists this season in the UCL).
Kvaratskhelia’s utterances before joining Napoli stated that “my biggest dream is to win the Champions League with Real Madrid. I’ve been a Real Madrid fan since I was a child. With my brothers, we always watched their games” declaring his absolute love for the club.
Other unsung heroes of note heading into the knockouts include.
Daichi Kamada (Eintracht Frankfurt).
Ferran Jutlga (Club Brugge).
Mykhailo Mudryk (Shakhtar Donetsk).
Josko Gvardiol (RB Leipzig).
Raphael Onyedika (Club Brugge).
Giacomo Raspadori (Napoli).
Pedro Porro (Sporting CP).