Europa League: Seven players to watch in the round of 32
We highlight seven stars likely to dazzle in the competition as it restarts in 2015 in the round of 32.
1. Axel Witsel, Zenit
The Russian club paid £34 million to Benfica for the attacking midfielder in 2012, meeting his buy-out clause by gazumping Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United who had scouted him regularly but valued him at around half the fee. Benfica quintupled their money after only a season when Zenit decided his athletic qualities combined with his ability to be an advanced playmaker, the ideal modern hybrid of wing-half and inside forward, were perfect to supply their other mega-signing, Hulk. It is only his club’s lack of profile in western Europe that prevents him being as lauded as other members of Belgium’s golden generation.
2. Jorginho, Napoli
Joined Napoli from Verona in the summer, the Brazil-born naturalised Italian is a midfielder who plays for Rafael Benítez’s side in the central, so-called ‘double pivot’ of two deep-lying midfielders. In that role he belies his slight frame to use his pace, positioning, anticipation and tackling to break up opposition attacks but it is his vision and range of passing that make him stand out. Those particular qualities have even attracted comparisons with Andrea Pirlo and it is a testament to his ability that such high praise has not been ridiculed.
3. Raheem Sterling, Liverpool
Has been described as one of Europe’s most talented youngsters, but there have been mere glimpses for overseas audiences so far. Last year’s World Cup offered promise, but Liverpool’s Champions League challenge was timid. Sterling’s omission away at Real Madrid became an especially sensitive issue. The Europa League should be the platform for him to make the continent take note. Earlier in the season Sterling found himself a lone gunman in a Liverpool attack bereft of firepower. With Daniel Sturridge back, Sterling will feel the cavalry has finally arrived to offer the necessary assistance and take Liverpool deep into the competition.
4. Anwar El Ghazi, Ajax
The 6ft 2in right-winger of Moroccan descent has brought pace and penetration to Ajax’s system during his debut season. The 19-year-old’s explosive speed, aptitude with both feet and sheer physical presence have intimidated full-backs throughout Holland. When he switches with left-winger Lasse Schone and flies down that flank to cut in on his right foot it is a microcosm of the Ajax philosophy – adaptability, courage in possession, movement and a certain swagger – in action. These are early days but his talent and temperament promise a rich future.
5. Adrien Silva, Sporting Lisbon
Hard working box-to-box midfielder, known as ‘The Engine’, who sometimes slips under the gaze of those salivating at his central partner, William Carvalho, the most coveted player in his position in Europe. The 26-year-old turned down a move to Chelsea at 16 and took some time to fulfil his early potential but has matured in to the complete central midfielder with an eye for goal, excellent technique, heart for the battle and a work rate that would make Alexey Stakhanov purr.
6. Carlos Bacca, Sevilla
Third and most unsung member of Colombia’s attacking trio with James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao, Bacca is a late developer who was working as a bus driver’s assistant and ticket collector at the age of 20. Now 28, he excels as a hard-running, rugged lone centre-forward with tricks to match his strength and scored seven goals last season as Sevilla won the Europa League for the third time in a decade. Prolific throughout a peripatetic career, his 13 goals in 21 La Liga appearances this season emphasise his qualities and consistency.
7. Romelu Lukaku, Everton
Has upset Everton fans by implying he sees the Merseyside club as a stepping stone to ‘a top side’ playing in the Champions League. If he rediscovers goalscoring form it may prove mutually beneficial, satisfying his supporters by delivering match-winning performances while making possible buyers pay more attention than they will have been inclined to so far this season. Lukaku is notoriously inconsistent, but his potential is beyond dispute. His pace, strength and eye for goal should be a lethal weapon in Europe. If he starts to deliver he can realise his Champions League ambition on Merseyside.