Naming the best players in each of Europe’s top-five divisions is simple enough. The same faces will inevitably emerge, obviously in various orders, but they are all pretty clear.
Now try and name the best players, but without selecting any from the league’s traditional elite. Not so easy.
With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at the two best players from each of the top-five leagues who do not feature for one of the powerhouse clubs. Bare in mind, players who are on loan aren’t not up for consideration.
Wilfried Zaha | Crystal Palace
If Zaha had things his way there’s no way he would be up for consideration given his desperate pleas to join Arsenal last summer. For now, he’s the best of the rest in England, adding a sense of shine to Crystal and royalty to Palace. He remains one of the most destructive wide-attackers, fiercely quick, devilishly direct and a nightmare in the penalty box. The left-winger has consistently produced the goods for Palace, whether through earning penalties or gliding into the box for goals and assists.
Ruben Neves | Wolves
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is a pretty reliable talent spotter when it comes No6s, so his claim that Neves is one of the best around carries a lot of weight. The Portuguese’s long-range sniper strikes are well documented – he netted his ninth from outside box since signing for Wolves in 2017 against Manchester United. But aside from that trademark, he’s a smooth operator. Mistakes are rare and Neves is a dynamic leader through his energy and incisive quick or short passing. Wolves might one day break the traditional elite bracket and if they do, Neves will be a big reason why.
Inaki Williams | Athletic Bilbao
Pencil Inaki Williams onto this list for the next nine years because his contract extension in the summer ties him to the Basque club into his 30s. The 25-year-old has and will continue to be linked with an entire palette of enticing European clubs but the striker’s desire to remain within the Basque community is a major coup. Few forwards are as lethal in transition because Williams injects a strong dose of raw speed into any counter-attack. With the help of veteran striker Aritz Aduriz, he is also adding a predatory penalty-box trait to his smashing ability to score outside the box and he can be expected to stretch his La Liga best tally of 13 goals from last season.
Iago Aspas | Celta Vigo
Aspas will forever be synonymous with one of the worst corners ever taken during his disappointing spell with Liverpool. A sinner on Merseyside, he is a saint in Vigo, however. In terms of individual importance, only Lionel Messi can contend with Aspas’ significance to his team. When injured last term, Celta dropped through the floor from mid-table into the basement of La Liga. They only avoided relegation when he returned half-fit to either score or make goals. A Rottweiler of a striker, Aspas is consistently among the top scorers in La Liga, reaching the 20-goal mark in his last two campaigns. He finally has recruits around him to shoulder the burden, but Aspas remains Spain’s most prolific centre-forward, despite turning 32 this season.
Federico Chiesa | Fiorentina
The Italian gene pool has been replenished as Federico Chiesa – son of Enrico – has dived into Serie A football and is swimming buoyantly. The 21-year-old is Fiorentina’s most important asset and they desperately kept hold of him over the summer despite his desire to join a sniffing Juventus. The winger is an unpredictable force, a pocket rocket of pure energy and skill. He is the blood supply to the new beating heart of Italians breaking through and at some point teams like Juventus will sign him. By no means is he the finished article because he needs to up his goal contributions, but he’s a fun player to watch that’s for sure.
Duvan Zapata | Atalanta
Loan signings don’t count, but there’s special dispensation for Zapata as his two-year loan deal from Sampdoria will be made permanent due to Atalanta’s option to buy for €26 million. A late bloomer, Zapata headlines Italy’s most exciting team after head coach Gian Piero Gasperini transformed the lanky striker. Naturally given his size, the Colombian was long considered a back-to-goal target man, but at Atalanta he’s become a direct and finessed forward. His 30-goal contribution in 2018/19 (23 goals, seven assists) powered Atalanta into a sensational Champions League spot. He has three Serie A goals in four games this season and that trend looks set to continue.
Youcef Atal | Nice
The attack-defence balance makes the role of a modern full-back arguably the toughest. However, Atal is among the new breed adept at both, earning a status alongside other young star full-backs like Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. The 23-year-old is a dizzying talent, a two-footed right-back with the dribbling skill of an elite wide-attacker, and that ability to beat a man helps him understand how to stop an attacker, which he does so pretty impressively as well thanks to his deep energy stores. He’s a key weapon for Nice, scoring six Ligue 1 goals last season and already one this term. And at international level he’s a superstar for Algeria already, enhancing his reputation during an impressive Africa Cup of Nations campaign.
Eduardo Camavinga | Rennes
When a 16-year-old absolutely dominates PSG’s midfield, it’s very easy to get carried away with comparisons and prophecies. Camavinga, though, is an absurd prospect deserving of such lauding. He’s legitimately one of the most complete centre-midfielders in France, and while all of Europe stood to attention after his performance against PSG, he’s hitting those levels consistently. He’s quick, a clean passer, super intelligent with and without the ball and his strides from defensive midfield through central areas are a joyful sight. All of Europe is drooling whenever he steps onto the pitch and with a few more years of development at Rennes, he’ll no doubt move to one of the premier clubs.
Florian Grillitsch | Hoffenheim
The Austrian was tentatively linked to Tottenham over the summer and it’s easy to see why the Champions League finalists would have taken a look. Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann is one of the top young coaches in Europe and at the heart of his emergence at Hoffenheim was Grillitsch. A dynamic defensive midfielder, the 24-year-old is a playmaker from deep, a fine passer of the ball long or short with a decent dig on him, too. There’s an air of elegance about Grillitsch with his physique marking him out for tennis rather than football, but although skinny, his height and long legs allow for graceful intercepts which are applied thanks to an outstanding sense of timing.
Maximilian Eggestein | Werder Bremen
Eggestein’s future almost certainly lies away from Bremen, but for now the German club possess one of they best midfielders outside of the Bundesliga elite. Germany is a hotbed for box-to-bed midfielders and ‘Maxi’ is another one from the conveyor belt and another to be likened with Toni Kroos. The 22-year-old has come through the ranks at Bremen and so it will be no surprise to hear he’s an incredibly hard-working player. He regularly hits the 12km mark in games and since shifting from a deeper defensive midfield role, Eggestein has become a threat in the final third, scoring and creating goals. It’s without the ball he really shines, though, an absolute beast in filling in gaps and aggressively winning possession back with hearty challenges.
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