Iwobi, Umtiti and Morata among 32 Champions League players to watch
With the 2016-17 Champions League group stage getting under way this week, Michael Yokhin picks out a player to watch from each of the 32 clubs taking part.
Presnel Kimpembe, PSG
Kimpembe is a rarity at Paris Saint-Germain -- an academy graduate who is getting a fair chance to prove himself in the lineup. The 21-year-old, who was linked to Chelsea, featured regularly in the beginning of the season, and coach Unai Emery was satisfied with his performances. With David Luiz back at Chelsea, he might set the Champions League alight.
Alex Iwobi, Arsenal
The Nigerian, 20, burst onto the scene with some spectacular performances toward the end of last season, contributing two goals and five assists and getting compliments from his uncle, the incomparable Jay-Jay Okocha. Iwobi's dribbling skills and vision make him an exciting player to watch, and he is able to fill numerous positions in Arsene Wenger's attack.
Alexander Fransson, Basel
The 22-year-old midfielder was compared to Andres Iniesta at his former club Norrkoping, where he grew up and became a star by Swedish standards, proving to be crucial in the sensational title triumph in 2015. After moving to Basel in January, Fransson won the title in Switzerland as well, broke into the national team after Euro 2016, and his passing skills could be very useful in the Champions League.
Jonathan Cafu, Ludogorets
Ludogorets invested about €2 million when signing the 25-year-old Brazilian winger from Sao Paulo, and now owner Kiril Domuschiev expects to get no less than €10m for him. Little wonder -- Cafu scored two absolutely breathtaking goals against Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League qualifiers, and his technical abilities will make him a very noticeable player at the group stage.
Andre Horta, Benfica
After selling the teenage sensation Renato Sanches to Bayern Munich, Benfica signed 19-year-old Horta from Vitoria Setubal as his direct replacement. Once discarded at the club academy, the diminutive box-to-box midfielder has proved the club wrong and is delighted to be back at Estadio da Luz. His boundless energy is badly needed, and Horta could emulate Sanches, although that is quite a task.
Elseid Hysaj, Napoli
One of the best right-backs at Euro 2016, the 22-year-old Albanian is still a bit underrated outside of Italy, but that will change very quickly. Nurtured by Maurizio Sarri at Empoli, he was taken by the coach to Napoli and was virtually ever present last season as the team finished second in Serie A. Very disciplined defensively and always willing to join the attack, Hysaj is the perfect modern defender.
Derlis Gonzalez, Dynamo Kiev
The Ukrainian champions are associated with right winger Andriy Yarmolenko, but the 22-year-old Paraguayan on the opposite flank is actually more interesting. Quick and skilful, he is difficult to be marked out of the game, and likes to cut inside using his stronger right foot. Gonzalez scored a crucial goal at Porto last season as Kiev progressed to the round of 16, and could be on song again this term.
Vincent Aboubakar, Besiktas
Mario Gomez was the undisputed star for Besiktas last season -- the German scored 26 goals as the Eagles won their first title since 2009. Now that he has decided to leave because of security concerns, Aboubakar, 24, will have to fill his huge boots. On loan from Porto, the Cameroonian striker will be massively important for his team. He is very strong physically, but possesses a deft touch, too.
Samuel Umtiti, Barcelona
Didier Deschamps mentioned Umtiti's disappointing performances in the Champions League for Lyon last season when explaining why he didn't want him in his France squad at Euro 2016. Eventually, the 22-year-old got a chance to prove himself and shone at the tournament, and Barcelona must be happy to have signed him for €25m. But can he play better at the group stage than a year ago?
Claudio Bravo, Manchester City
All eyes will be on the Chilean goalkeeper after Pep Guardiola has controversially discarded Joe Hart -- and that is especially true after his problematic debut in the Manchester derby. The 33-year-old will have to prove that he is indeed the right solution, and the move is certainly good for him as far as the Champions League is concerned, because Bravo sat on the bench at Barcelona in European fixtures.
Andreas Christensen, Borussia Monchengladbach
The decision to bring Luiz back from Paris Saint-Germain looks even more questionable when you take into account that Chelsea's brightest centre-back is still on loan in the Bundesliga. Compared to Franz Beckenbauer by Denmark coach Age Hareide, the 20-year-old has been absolutely imperious last season at Gladbach -- solid defensively and superb in distribution. Christensen should be even better this term on his way to superstardom.
Nir Bitton, Celtic
Celtic must be solid in central midfield to avoid getting thrashed six times in a very tough group. The 24-year-old Israeli will be crucial in that respect -- he is calm on the ball, covers a lot of ground and possesses a good long-range shot as well. Quality performances will improve Bitton's chances of moving south to the Premier League.
Xabi Alonso, Bayern Munich
This could be the Spaniard's last shot at joining Clarence Seedorf and becoming the second player in history to win the Champions League with three different clubs. Legendary at Liverpool and Real Madrid, he is still going strong at almost 35, but that is probably his last season at Allianz Arena. Can we expect a goal from the halfway line?
Nicolas Gaitan, Atletico Madrid
The Argentine midfielder spent six years at Benfica despite constant rumours every summer. Now that he has finally left for a bigger club, this is his chance to prove his worth. A true flair player and crowd pleaser, Gaitan, 28, is also a hard worker admired by Diego Simeone. He could be the game-changer.
Gaston Pereiro, PSV Eindhoven
The Uruguayan winger has Alvaro Recoba's face tattooed on his arm and was compared to Robin van Persie in the Netherlands. Left-footed and unpredictable, Pereiro, 21, loves to dribble and entertain, and dreams of playing for Real Madrid alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, yet another idol. Scoring against Atletico won't hurt his chances.
Sardar Azmoun, Rostov
The skilful striker is definitely the most intriguing player in a combative Rostov lineup. The 21-year-old, nicknamed the "Iranian Messi," scored nine goals as his team sensationally finished second in Russia last season ahead of Zenit, and then found the net against both Anderlecht and Ajax in the Champions League qualifiers. Protege of coach Kurban Berdyev, Azmoun is making progress on a monthly basis.
Mario Fernandes, CSKA Moscow
The galloping right-back has one cap for Brazil, but he is now a Russian citizen, widely expected to play for the 2018 World Cup hosts at the tournament. That makes the 25-year-old more interesting than ever, and his attacking skills will be very important for CSKA. Fernandes could be less stable at the back at times, though.
Tin Jedvaj, Bayer Leverkusen
If everything goes according to plan, the 20-year-old Croatian sensation could possibly become one of the best defenders of his generation. Versatile and able to fill any position across the back four, he is very fast, tenacious and skilful on the ball. Jedvaj's performance against Spain at Euro 2016 was a masterpiece, and he should make another step forward this season.
Victor Wanyama, Tottenham
When Wanyama played in the Champions League four years ago, he scored against Barcelona and led Celtic into the round of 16. Every team needs a midfield warrior, and the 25-year-old Kenyan is exactly that for Spurs, but he must be careful not to get sent off -- three red cards at Southampton last season are a worrying sign.
Djibril Sidibe, Monaco
Monaco have not spent a great deal on signings in the past two years, but they paid €15m for Sidibe this summer, and that was a very wise investment. The 24-year-old is a full-back, capable of playing left or right, who can easily switch to midfield -- sound defensively, but extremely useful on the wing. He started for France at Belarus in the 2018 World Cup qualifying game, and looks destined to become the first choice in the near future.
Alvaro Morata, Real Madrid
One of the most intriguing questions at the Bernabeu is the amount of time Morata will get. The 23-year-old striker was brought back from Juventus after two successful seasons, especially in the Champions League, where he scored seven goals, including two against Real in the semifinals in 2015. Morata is a born winner -- could he be the man who brings the 12th European title to the Spanish capital?
Andre Schurrle, Borussia Dortmund
His talent is indisputable, but the 25-year-old winger has been wildly inconsistent at Chelsea and Wolfsburg, and the feeling was that his career is going in the wrong direction. He only had three short substitute appearances at Euro 2016 for Germany, but Dortmund believe in him, and now Schurrle has a great chance to get back on track under the guidance of Thomas Tuchel. Will he take it?
Bas Dost, Sporting Lisbon
After scoring at will for Wolfsburg in the beginning of 2015, the 27-year-old Dutch striker was much less lethal last season, but Sporting gambled on him as a direct replacement for the Leicester-bound Islam Slimani. The move could be perfect for the rather old-fashioned Dost, who should thrive on the service Slimani used to get. Expect a lot of goals if he finds his feet soon enough.
Michal Pazdan, Legia Warsaw
Poland conceded just two goals in 510 minutes of play at Euro 2016, and the 28-year-old centre-back has been absolutely superb throughout. Rather anonymous outside of his homeland, Pazdan became a real star last season, and Legia conceded just once in five matches in the Champions League qualifiers with him on the pitch. It will be very interesting to see him against some of the best attacking lines in Europe.
Ahmed Musa, Leicester City
The 23-year-old Nigerian is an outstanding acquisition by the Foxes. Not only is Musa a versatile and hardworking attacker who is able to play anywhere across the front line, he also brings invaluable Champions League experience with 20 games in the tournament for CSKA Moscow. Lightning quick and unselfish, Musa is perfect for Claudio Ranieri's tactics, and could shine this season at the big stage.
Andre Silva, Porto
The level of expectations on Andre Silva in Portugal is extremely high, and it remains to be seen whether the 20-year-old who only broke into the lineup in 2016 is mentally strong enough not to lose any touch with reality. There are early signs, though, that Andre Silva could be the central striker the country had been waiting for. Tough tests in the Champions League might prove that.
Ludovic Butelle, Club Brugge
In 2004, the promising French keeper lost his spleen after a terrifying clash with an opponent during a routine friendly at Valencia. Butelle's life was saved in an emergency operation, but his career was seemingly destroyed. Now, 12 years later, he takes the central stage at the age of 33, after helping Club Brugge to win their first title since 2005. It is one of the best stories of the year.
Thomas Delaney, Copenhagen
The Danish champions offered to make Delaney the highest-paid player in the history of the club, but the captain refused and signed for Werder Bremen. Before he leaves in January, the 25-year-old box-to-box player will be keen to make his mark in the Champions League, and his energy, technical skills and aerial prowess will be crucial to Copenhagen's chances to earn a few points.
Dani Alves, Juventus
The legendary Brazilian was signed with one mission in mind -- to use his vast experience earned at Barcelona to help Juventus to win the Champions League. The 33-year-old right-back says so himself. Alves is one of the most exciting players ever in his position, and it will be very extremely interesting to watch him playing in a totally different tactical formation.
Franco Vazquez, Sevilla
Few midfielders are as elegant as the 27-year-old, who stayed a bit too long at Palermo, but now can finally star at the big stage in a very attack-minded Sevilla side under Jorge Sampaoli. Vazquez had telepathic understanding with Paulo Dybala in Sicily, but will try to outshine his former teammate in the two games against Juventus.
Sergi Darder, Lyon
He is still a little underrated, but the 22-year-old Spaniard is a promising versatile midfielder who combines excellent ball-winning skills with superb distribution and quality long-range shot. His debut season in the Champions League was disappointing with Lyon crashing out at the group stage, but Darder is more experienced now and ready to lead the team.
El Arabi Hilal Soudani, Dinamo Zagreb
The 28-year-old Algerian is the man responsible for Zagreb's qualification -- he expertly scored the extra-time winner at Salzburg in the playoffs. Soudani possesses great speed and good ball control, and he is a born goal scorer, even though usually positioned on the right wing. With Slimani moving to Leicester, Soudani deserves to play in a big league as well, and a good show in the Champions League could make his dream come true.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin