Champions League breakout XI: Costa, Kvaratskhelia, Mudryk

The Champions League is a competition that defines careers. A few good performances on Europe’s biggest club stage can improve a player’s reputation, land him a new contract or even attract a crowd of scouts from opposing teams.

Over the years we have been blessed to see players like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe flourish. But every new season in the Champions League brings new players who can increase their level of performance. Last year we looked at a number of stars including Lisandro Martinez, Antony, Christopher Nkunku and Darwin Nunez before they really made it big.

So here are 11 players who made the step up to shine this season. Some of them are already well established in their clubs but their contributions in Europe have taken them to another level.

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Goalkeeper: Diogo Costa, 23, FC Porto

Porto’s No. 1 has developed so rapidly over the past 18 months that he can rightly be called one of the best goalkeepers in the world, let alone in Europe’s most prestigious competition. Although he has garnered most attention for his saves from penalties – three straight Champions League campaigns – Costa is also a remarkably mature, composed and complete goalkeeper. An imposing shot stopper who has saved an impressive 76% of shots and caught 10% of crosses this season, he is also confident with his feet which has led to ties with Manchester United.

Right-Back: Pedro Porro, 23, Sporting CP

With the comfort of being defensively covered in Ruben Amorim’s 3-4-3 formation, Porro offers a consistent exit down the right touchline. The ex-Manchester City full-back was particularly convincing in the first half of the season against Eintracht Frankfurt and continued to show balanced performances as the competition progressed. Thanks to skillful positioning and reading the flow of the game, Porro – also a good crosser – is often well-positioned to make passing combinations in the final third, and his dribbling in advanced areas can create scoring chances.

Centre-back: Antonio Silva, 19, Benfica

The Portugal U19 international, who was catapulted into the first-team by Roger Schmidt at the end of August, has retained his starting spot with unbeaten Benfica with his confidence growing by the week. Alongside the more adventurous Nicolas Otamendi, the 19-year-old has appeared confident and composed; He is adept at possession (more than three progressive passes per 90 minutes), rarely gets thrown out of position, or is easy to beat in one-on-ones. Silva even featured a header in the 4-3 home win over Juventus last month and is reportedly on Real Madrid’s radar.

Central defender: Strahinja Pavlovic, 21, FC Salzburg

The Serbian defender, who was signed for €7m from AS Monaco in the summer, has long been regarded as one of the best defenders in European football and shows why he is held in such high esteem. Despite the hearty defeat of Salzburg against AC Milan in the last round of the game, the strong central defender left a solid impression overall. Pavlovic is left-footed, extremely dominant in the air and with a never-saying attitude on defense in a traditional, no-nonsense way. What he lacks in quality on the ball and mobility, he makes up for in determination and a willingness to put his body on the line.

Left-back: Piero Hincapie, 20, Bayer Leverkusen

While Leverkusen may not have had the best start to the Bundesliga season, the 20-year-old Ecuador international has been among the most reliable players in the Champions League. Whether at centre-back or left-back/full-back, Hincapie has taken his infectious style to the highest level of European football. The pressure-resistant young defender combines high-speed running with the ball, power in the air and quick footwork – packed into an all-action package – like few others.



Julien Laurens reflects on Napoli’s dominant streak of late.

Central midfield: Nicolas Seiwald, 21, FC Salzburg

Even if the Austrian isn’t one of the most aesthetically pleasing footballers on the continent, Seiwald stays true to his role – wherever he’s asked – and carries out his duties with the utmost diligence. Flanked by more creative, technical players, Seiwald’s intense pressing, winning and tackling (more than three tackles per game) make him a fundamental factor in the functioning of the team. His opening goal against Dinamo Zagreb – a fine shot straight from the penalty area – was the result of his typical off-ball run.

Central Midfield: Enzo Fernandez, 21, Benfica

Although much was expected of River Plate over the summer, the Argentina international has already exceeded expectations in his first few months in Portuguese football. In fact, his good distribution, geometric football brain and willingness to get on the ball – he made more than 75 touches per 90 minutes against Juventus and Maccabi Haifa – have made him one of the most important record champions in European football at the time. In addition to these outstanding attacking qualities, Fernandez also feels obliged to his defensive responsibilities.

Central Midfield: Raphael Onyedika, 21, Club Brugge

Club Brugge surprisingly reached the last 16 from a challenging group and the young Nigerian emerged as one of the absolute standouts, with his performances against Atletico Madrid putting him firmly on the map. Physically imposing, difficult to oust and exceptionally clear in his interpretation of his role, Onyedika exudes authority and purpose in midfield. From fending off centre-backs to spotting runs and winning 50-50 challenges, the 21-year-old is as effective as he is a pleasure to watch. However, there is more to him than just defensive play. He carries the ball well and has the vision (and quality on the ball) to pick out attacking runs with passes from deep.

Forward: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, 21, Napoli

The Georgia international’s form for the Serie A leaders has been a big talking point this season and has also paid off in the Champions League. Ajax, in particular, have been on the receiving end of Kvaratskhelia’s relentless pursuit of the end product (two goals and as many assists in the two games), while he recorded eight tries against Rangers – not to mention an impressive performance at home against Liverpool (4: 1.) Endowed with trickery, unpredictability and the ability to turn his defenses upside down, the right footed left side of Napoli attack has proved dangerous in his debut Champions League campaign.

Forward: Mykhailo Mudryk, 21, Shakhtar Donetsk

The Ukraine international, one of the competition’s formers, made a clear statement with two good performances in the two games against Real Madrid and recently stunned the Celtic Park crowd with a superb lone goal. The right-footed winger, who develops well when space opens up and also plays mostly on the left, is one of the most entertaining attackers in the competition, completing more than two dribbles per game. His low center of gravity coupled with his ability to improvise when he seems to run out of options make him both difficult to read and fun to watch.

Forward: Giacomo Raspadori, 22, Napoli

Sassuolo’s summer loan made an early impression in the Champions League in the absence of Napoli’s star striker Victor Osimhen. An active, movement-based forward, Raspadori offers a fine blend of speed, handy technique and explosive power despite being just 5ft 8 tall. The Italian forward is also more than useful when dropping deep or penetrating from wide areas, and enjoys quick, clever combinations and substitutions. He’s a fine finish too, with his opening goal in the 6-1 away win against Ajax being one of the finest goals of this year’s competition. A resourceful, mobile striker who rarely fails to make a difference in the game. Champions League breakout XI: Costa, Kvaratskhelia, Mudryk

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