Some of these players are already quite well-known, others not so much:
Fraser Forster – Celtic
The young English goalkeeper played a big role in making Celtic’s journey through the qualifying rounds appear on paper much more comfortable than it actually was. Standing at 6ft 7, he pulled off numerous crucial saves against both HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs and the same will be required again if Celtic are to stand any chance of progressing beyond a group consisting of Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.
Toby Alderweireld – Ajax
A player who often found himself in the shadow of fellow Belgian Vertoghen when both were the central defensive pairing for Ajax. This lad also harnesses a thunderous strike from distance and he famously scored a screamer against AC Milan at the San Siro only a couple of seasons ago. In the absence of Vertonghen, Alderweireld now stands in the limelight at the heart of the Ajax back line and although very few expect Frank de Boer’s to get beyond the Group of Death, with the likes of Alderweireld ushering the defence they have a far better chance than most have given them.
Semih Kaya – Galatasaray
His career as a Galatasaray player burst into life last season under renowned Fatih Terim and since then he hasn’t looked back, even going a long way to establishing himself in the Turkish national team also. Such is the hype that surrounds Semih Kaya’s near perfect season of 2011-12 that some Galatasaray fans can see shades of club legend Bulent Korkmaz in him. His career is still very young for such comparisons to hold true just yet but he does possess the ability to become one of the leading centre-backs in Europe. With the long-term injury of Ujfalusi, Semih Kaya’s influence on this side becomes even more crucial for Galatasaray’s hopes in the group stages.
Victor Wanyama – Celtic
Wanyama is another of the young talents spotted by Celtic scout John Park. He is the brother of Inter Milan’s McDonald Mariga. Wanyama is a very versatile player, able to play as a centre-back, midfield anchor or even as a box-to-box midfielder. His physical presence and reading of the game have already drawn comparisons to a young Marcel Desailly. Away to Helsingborgs Celtic struggled badly without him – he missed the game after picking up a needless second booking in the away leg of the previous qualifying round. Wanyama is the only Celtic midfielder with the tactical discpline to adequately shield the defence in the anchor role. He is also a player who rises to the occasion and for that reason I expect Wanyama to be the standout Celtic player in their Champions League run.
Dimitri Payet – Lille
Payet can be somewhat of a wildcard but when he is in the mood he is mesmeric. He moves with that French grace and elegance we’ve all come to know. Playing alongside Hazard last season it was difficult not to notice that Hazard’s style and constant want of the ball tended to detract from Payet’s game. Payet is a player who thrives on being wanted and with the departure of Hazard, the stage is set nicely at Lille for him.
James Rodriguez – Porto
The talents of this Colombian are impossible not to notice. He possesses a maturity and awareness in his game that is so rare for someone still so young. Since Hulk’s big money move to Zenit, James will now become to beating heart of Porto front trident. An overlooked stat from last season is that James scored more goals from open play than Hulk in the Portuguese domestic league. Hulk finished ahead of him in the domestic scorers chart thanks to the fact he was Porto’s penalty taker. Vitor Pereira’s Porto are placed in what they see as a reasonably favourable group alongside PSG, Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Zagreb. Strong performances in this season’s Champions League could well make James’ name ring across the entire continent. And for him it is more a case of when rather than if.
Mirko Vucinic – Juventus
The mercurial Montenegrin is capable of both the sublime and the ridiculous – Roma fans will strongly testify to this! He is one of the leading attackers in Serie A but elsewhere in Europe he is not so famous (excluding his homeland). There are fewer things more exciting in European football than seeing Mirko Vucinic in full flight and in the mood. He is a player capable of everything – whether it be playing delicate defence splitting passes, dropping deep to link the attack to the midfield, running directly at a full-back, playing on the shoulder of the last man, outjumping an imposing centre-back in the air – you name it he can do it. Juventus sneak into this Champions League without being tagged with grand expectations and for this reason I expect them to give Chelsea a hard time of it in their opening game. Vucinic has already terrorized Chelsea in the past when he put two goals past Cech when Chelsea played away to Roma.