10 Signings to Watch Outside Europe’s “Big Five” Leagues in the Champions League

1. Felipe Anderson – West Ham United to FC Porto – Loan

2019/20 will go down as a season of mixed emotions for FC Porto. Os Dragoes emerged triumphant in a competitive title race with fierce rivals SL Benfica, their 29th title of their long history. However, on the continent, it proved a disappointing campaign. After the euphoric high of reaching the Champions League Quarter Finals in 2018/19, Porto were eliminated from the Champions League in the third qualifying round by FK Krasnodar. The Northern outfit also underperformed compared to past campaigns in the Europa League, losing convincingly 5-2 on aggregate to Bayer Leverkusen in the Round of 32.

Os Dragoes will be hoping for a better campaign in Europe this time round. Having been placed into a favourable Champions League group with Manchester City, Olympique de Marseille and Olympiakos Piraeus, Porto will fancy their chances of qualifying for the Round of 16. One summer signing who could prove pivotal to Porto attempting to achieve their objective is Felipe Anderson. Despite still only being 27 years of age, Anderson has made over 300 career league appearances for Santos, SS Lazio and West Ham United, the latter of which being from where he joins Porto on a season-long loan. The East London outfit once paid Lazio a reported €38 million for Anderson’s services, an indication of just how highly-rated the Brazilian once was. Can he rediscover his past form at the Estadio do Dragao?

2. Wendel – Sporting CP to Zenit St Petersburg – €20.3 million

Another club looking for an improvement on their European campaigns from the last few seasons are Zenit St Petersburg. Sine-Belo-Golubye captured their 6th Russian Premier Liga title in 2019/20, their second-straight championship. However, despite managing to remain unbeaten against eventual Champions League semi-finalists Olympique de Lyonnais in their Champions League group, Zenit’s poor results in other group stage games meant they eventually finished bottom. No European football of any description post-Christmas was a massive disappointment for the Piter-based outfit who will be hoping for a massive improvement this campaign.

2020/21 will also represent manager Sergei Semak’s third campaign in charge of Zenit and more pressure to do well in European football comes with it. Zenit have been pitched in a group similar in terms of standard to last season’s as they face Borussia Dortmund, SS Lazio and Club Brugge. Whilst former Liverpool, Lyon and Southampton defender Dejan Lovren is the Piter outfit’s most recognisable recruit, the signing Zenit are pinning most hopes on is Wendel. The 23 year-old Brazilian arrives in St Petersburg for a fee of €20.3 million after three seasons at Portugal’s Sporting CP. Prior to this signing, it could be stressed that Zenit lacked some creativity in their midfield and after failing to land other reported targets such as Julian Draxler and Rodrigo de Paul turned their attention to Wendel. Could the young Brazilian prove a pivotal figure and help Zenit progress to the Champions League Round of 16?

3. Antony – Sao Paulo to Ajax – €15.75 million

Another club who experienced a drop of epic proportions in European competitions after a meteoric rise was AFC Ajax Amsterdam. The record-winning Dutch Eredivisie champions memorably reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2018/19 before agonisingly missing out on a place in the final due to a late defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. However, 2019/20 was a much trickier year for the capital outfit as they failed to make it out of the group stages of the competition and then were eliminated in the Round of 32 stage of the Europa League by Getafe CF of Spain. It must be stressed, however, that crucial players in the run to the Semi-Finals in 2018/19 such as Frenkie de Jong and Mattias de Ligt departed in the summer of 2019 to FC Barcelona and Juventus FC respectively.

Ajax will be hoping to recover and perform better in Europe once more in 2020/21. The group stage draw of Liverpool, Atalanta and FC Midtylland is tough, however, a round of 16 place is a possibility if they perform beyond their capabilities. One player who could look to play a vital role in any possible Ajax run in Europe this campaign is right winger Antony. The 20 year-old was signed this summer from Sao Paulo in his native Brazil for a fee of €15.75 million as a replacement for Hakim Ziyech who joined Chelsea. Already Antony has made an impact in Amsterdam, scoring 2 goals in his first 4 Eredivisie fixtures for Ajax. Can he now step up this performance further against Champions League opponents?

4. Mohammed Kudus – FC Nordsjaelland to Ajax – €9 million

Whether it is home-grown academy products, or youngsters from abroad bought cheap and then sold on for big fees, Ajax have been and will continue to be a club who remain attractive to young talent looking for regular games to develop into future stars. Another youngster alongside the aforementioned Antony who it is worth tracking this season in Ajax’s games in the Champions League is Mohammed Kudus, a €9 million signing from Denmark’s FC Nordsjaelland.

Kudus had a breakthrough campaign in the Danish top flight in 2019/20, the young Ghanaian attacking midfielder noting 11 goals and 1 assist in 25 Danish Superligaen fixtures. Ajax identified the youngster’s potential and snapped him up this summer. Not long after signing for Ajax, Kudus noted an assist in only his second Dutch Eredivisie fixture in 2020/21 in a 2-1 victory over Vitesse Arnhem. Can Kudus become another foreign superstar to emerge at Ajax and win admiring glances of larger clubs in Europe’s elite leagues?

5. Oumar Solet – Lyon to RB Salzburg – €4.5 million

One of the league’s charging up UEFA’s coefficient rankings is the Austrian Bundesliga. The league could soon have a chance of being ranked 6th in the coefficients, should its representatives in European competition continue to perform well. Should this possibility occur, it could bring a 3rd Champions League spot for Austria, a truly remarkable achievement. The major reason for Austria’s surge up the co-efficient has been the performances of perennial Austrian champions RB Salzburg in European competitions in recent seasons.

RB Salzburg have gathered a strong reputation in recent seasons of developing some terrific young talent which has been sold on to bigger clubs. Such examples in Erling Haaland, Takayuki Minamino and Hannes Wolf. One of the club’s summer signings is an example of the acquisition of a raw diamond who Salzburg hope to polish into a star player with more regular first-team football, Oumar Solet. The 20 year-old was signed from Olympique Lyonnais this summer for a fee of €4.5 million after failing to break into Les Gones’ first team. However, with Lyon’s academy being renowned for being one of Europe’s best, Solet arrives in Salzburg with a reputation and will be looking to develop with a greater chance of first team football.

6. Ravil Tagir – Altinordu FK to Istanbul Basaksehir – €2.5 million

2019/20 represented an historic campaign for football in Turkey. Prior to last season, since the establishment of a national professional division (The Turkish Super Lig) in 1959, only five teams, Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, Besiktas, Trabzonspor and Bursaspor. However, 2019/20 saw a sixth different champion emerge in the league’s history as Istanbul Basaksehir won their first title, just 30 years after foundation in 1990. 2020/21 so far has represented a huge comedown from the euphoric high of 2019/20 for the new champions. After 4 rounds so far of the 2020/21 season, Istanbul Basaksehir currently lie bottom of the 21 team Turkish top flight with just one point won from 4 matches so far. Hardly an ideal scenario when Champions League group matches against RB Leipzig, Manchester United and Paris St Germain lie on the horizon.

One signing that has turned heads by the club is 17 year-old Ravil Tagir. Already a Under 21 International for Turkey, Tagir underwent a real breakthrough season in the Turkish second tier in 2019/20 with Altinordu FK. The Izmir-based club are developing a strong reputation in Turkey at present for their youth development and Tagir is a fine example of such emphasis on youth. He appeared 32 times for Altinordu at the tender age of just 16. Playing in the Super Lig and against Europe’s elite in the Champions League will represent a huge step up for the youngster. Can Tagir step up to the challenge?

7. Giuliano – Al-Nassr to Istanbul Basaksehir – Free Transfer

Whilst the aforementioned Tagir is Istanbul Basaksehir’s young hope, they are a club who in recent seasons have made the headlines for their capture of experienced pros, many of whom recognisable for significant playing spells in the big five European leagues. Such examples in their current squad include Rafael Pereira da Silva, Martin Skrtel, Nacer Chadli and Demba Ba. Whilst one of their big name experienced summer signings has never played in a Big Five league, he arrives having once possessed a very strong reputation, Giuliano Victor da Paula. 

After impressing for Internacional in the Brazilian Serie A between 2009 and 2010, Giuliano then transferred to Ukrainian top flight outfit Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. 16 goals in 87 games from an attacking midfield role over 4 seasons won Giuliano call-ups to the Brazilian national team. Following his exit from Dnipro in 2014, Giuliano then had spells back in his native Brazil with Internacional’s rivals Gremio, Zenit St Petersburg, Fenerbache and Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr. After signing on a free transfer for Istanbul Basaksehir this summer, 13-time Brazilian international Giuliano could prove a key player in a really tough group for the Champions League debutants.

8. Ruben Vinagre – Wolves to Olympiacos FC – Loan

One club from outside of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues to enjoy an impressive 2019/20 European campaign was Olympiakos SF Piraeus. After finishing third in their UEFA Champions League group, post-Christmas, the Greek outfit stunned Arsenal in the Round of 32 in the Europa League before narrowly falling to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Round of 16. One player to vastly enhance his reputation during Olympiakos’ European adventures last term was 24 year-old Portuguese winger Daniel Podence, who eventually moved to Wolves in the 2019/20 winter transfer window.

Having been drawn in what looks a very progress able group with Manchester City, FC Porto and Olympique de Marseille, Olympiakos have moved to strengthen their squad for Europe by signing left full-back Ruben Vinagre from you guessed it, Wolves! 21 year-old Vinagre made 70 appearances for Nuno Espirito Santo’s outfit over the last 4 seasons, however, never quite was able to nail down a regular first team place at Molyneux. However, Olympiakos have moved to sign Vinagre on a season-long loan where he should play much more regularly. Given this is only a loan, it could give Vinagre the chance to develop further as a player, which given his age is a strong possibility. In addition, Wolves can monitor his progress and possibly re-integrate him into first team affairs at Molyneux should he make the necessary progress.

9. Ze Luis – FC Porto to Lokomotiv Moscow – €7 million

Despite recording a third consecutive qualification for the UEFA Champions League group stage for 2020/21 with a second placed finish in the 2019/20 Russian Premier League, Lokomotiv Moscow enter into 2020/21 in a period of transition. Towards the end of the Covid-19 affected 2019/20 campaign, veteran Railroaders manager Yuri Semin, in his fourth spell as Lokomotiv manager was released from his contract at its expiry. In his place came 41 year-old Serb Marko Nikolic. Nikolic is a promising young manager having won titles in his native Serbia and Hungary with Partizan Belgrade and Fehervar respectively. However, following in the footsteps of a legendary figure like Semin is no easy feat for any manager. Then to make the transition even harder, part of the way into the 2020/21 campaign, Lokomotiv’s star man, Aleksey Miranchuk departed the club to sign for Serie A’s Atalanta.

Lokomotiv have had a busy window, bringing in many a player to replace the departed Miranchuk such as Guinean winger Francois Kamano from Bordeaux and young Belarusian star Vitaly Lisakovich. In addition, Fyodor Smolov has returned from his loan spell at Celta Vigo and has started the campaign strongly. However, one of the intriguing signings is Cape Verdean striker Ze Luis, purchased using €7 million of the Miranchuk transfer fee. 29 year-old Ze Luis previously spent four seasons in Russian football with Lokomotiv’s Muscovite rivals Spartak between 2015 and 2019. At Spartak, Ze Luis had a reputation of being a talented, yet inconsistent player, a reputation that followed him in his next move to FC Porto in 2019/20. Now at his peak aged 29, can Ze Luis develop a promising partnership up front with the aforementioned Smolov and help Lokomotiv try and be competitive in a tough Champions League group with Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and RB Salzburg.

10. Malang Sarr – Chelsea FC to FC Porto – Loan

Our final transfer to watch from outside of the “Big Five” leagues takes us back to where this piece began, FC Porto. However, this time it is to look at a defensive signing as opposed to an offensive one like Felipe Anderson. The signing in question this time is Malang Sarr. The 21 year-old is an academy graduate of hometown club OGC Nice and after debuting for the Southern French outfit in 2016 went on to make 119 appearance across all competitions for Nice. Sarr’s contract expired at Nice in the summer of 2020, however, the young defender opting against a renewal and choosing to sign for Chelsea on a five year contract.

However, Chelsea, already well stacked when it comes to central defenders opted to loan out Sarr to FC Porto for 2020/21 on a season long loan. Despite Chelsea’s defence under manager Frank Lampard looking unconvincing at times with some of the personnel not impressing despite plentiful chances, Sarr has curiously been sent out on loan. However, this move is to Porto’s gain, adding a defender with over 100 appearances over 4 seasons in a “Big Five” league. Sarr could prove a pivotal figure should Os Dragoes manage to progress from what looks to be a tight fight for second place in Champions League Group C.

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