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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Former Barcelona and Spain midfielder Xavi is currently managing Al Saad in Qatar after enjoying one of the most decorated careers in European football.
The World Cup winner and double European champion spoke to the PA news agency about a number of key subjects.
On Lionel Messi‘s Barcelona future
“Leo is happy, he is with his family living in Barcelona, and he is very well established and deeply rooted in Catalan culture.
“In the end, I obviously believe that he can decide his future. He has earned it and deserves it, but I see him happy in Barca, I don’t see any symptoms of him leaving Barcelona.
“I talk to him sometimes and I see him happy. In the end, he has clearly earned the right to decide his future. I agree with that.”
On a winter World Cup in 2022
“It’s positive because players will arrive in better shape. The weather will be spectacular, 20-25 degrees, it is perfect for playing football.
“Players will not have to travel because it is a very small country and the stadiums are very close.
“It will set a precedent because the World Cup is also the most important football event.”
On managerial style
“I am in love with Pep Guardiola’s football. But there are also other ways to play football like (Jurgen) Klopp, (Mauricio) Pochettino, (Unai) Emery.
“Now I have started as a coach, I see the different methodologies.
“You can win playing football in different ways, but I like the one of City and Guardiola the most.”
On the Premier League title race
“It will be very interesting to see that war. I follow the Premier League a lot and I like it.
“I especially like Guardiola’s football, I am in love with position and possession football and Guardiola is doing an incredible job.
“Also, Klopp and Pochettino and Unai Emery, many people who have gone there are doing an extraordinary job.
“It will be a very competitive Premier League because Liverpool have not won the league for many years. They are very strong, both Klopp and Guardiola.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
There’s a lot of European football to consume on a weekly basis and plenty of top performances that warrant our attention.
Whether it’s a flurry of goals from a single player or underrated contributions that had big impacts, we’re keeping an eye on them.
As such, after every round of fixtures in Europe’s top five leagues, we pick out the outstanding performers and slot them into our Team of the Week.
Here’s our latest selection:
GK: THIBAUT COURTOIS | REAL MADRID
The Belgium No1 had very little to do at a damp Santiago Bernabeu.
He, however, averted disaster in the fraught final moments against Levante. With the score set at a fraught 3-2, a threatening free-kick was curled into Ruben Vezo’s path.
The Portuguese centre-back made a solid connection, only for Courtois to spread himself wide and repel his effort.
RB: CHRISTOPHE JALLET | AMIENS
The timeless right-back was at his best versus vaunted former employers.
A fortunate seventh-minute goal saw his deep free-kick spin into the top corner once Lyon centre-back Joachim Andersson failed to stretch his leg and clear. His 91st-minute header then allowed midfielder Mathieu Bodmer – another veteran ex-Les Gones player – to secure a memorable 2-2 draw.
CB: NIKOLA MILENKOVIC | FIORENTINA
Maurizio Sarri’s first experience on the touchline for Juventus ended in frustration – and Serbia centre-back Milenkovic was a key source of this pain.
Played on the right-hand side of a three-man defence, the 21-year-old helped shackle Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain. There could even have been greater cause for personal celebration, a 77th-minute header being superbly repelled by Poland No1 Wojciech Szczesny to maintain the champions’ unbeaten start.
CB: LUCA CEPPITELLI | CAGLIARI
1 - Luca Ceppitelli is the first defender to have scored a brace in the top-5 European Leagues 2019/20. Unexpected.— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) September 15, 2019
Ceppitelli showed the Rossoblu attackers how it’s done, netting a first-half brace in their 3-1 victory against Parma.
The skipper swept home from just inside the penalty area, then powerfully headed in a 39th-minute second. In the process, he became the first defender in Europe’s top-five leagues during 2019/20 to double up in a single game.
LB: NACHO MONREAL | REAL SOCIEDAD
What a smart pick-up Monreal is proving to be.
The 33-year-old preyed upon a rare Jan Oblak fumble to tap-in and seal a seriously impressive 2-0 victory for La Real against then-unbeaten Atletico Madrd.
At the other end of the pitch, his experience within a youthful side helped repel the threats of Joao Felix and in-form Vitolo.
RW: ANSU FATI | BARCELONA
The kid can play.
New benchmarks keep being set by the 16-year-old sensation. In the 5-2 dismantling of Valencia, he became the youngest player in La Liga history to score and assist a goal in the same game.
This was the Frenkie de Jong and Fati show – both players teeing the other up for goals. It takes some talent to fill the void left by the absent Lionel Messi.
CM: KENNY MCLEAN | NORWICH
McLean symbolised everything good about the Canaries in their shock 3-2 triumph against champions Manchester City.
The Scotland centre midfielder pressed high and fast from kick-off to unsettle Pep Guardiola’s thoroughbreds. He would then adroitly take advantage of a recurring weakness at the near post from set-plays and flick in a memorable opener.
CM: MARCO REUS | BORUSSIA DORTMUND
One of the results of the weekend was BVB’s surgical 4-0 dismantling of Bayer Leverkusen.
Germany forward Reus put the scalpel into the visitors, netting a brace to send his side back top of the nascent Bundesliga. An unselfish fake shot by Paco Alcacer teed him up five minutes after the restart, before completing the rout on 90 minutes.
LW: AMINE HARIT | SCHALKE
⭐ Man of the Match performance— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) September 15, 2019
🗓️ First goal since November 2018
✌️ First ever Bundesliga brace
What an evening for Amine Harit! pic.twitter.com/WhgPYC6NTW
This is how you end a nine-month Bundesliga drought.
The Morocco midfielder was simply unplayable in the 5-1 humbling of Paderborn.
Harit deftly let the ball go across him to curl in his 71st-minute first, before finding the bottom corner at the death to end the scoring. This was also a first Bundesliga brace for the 22-year-old.
CF: TAMMY ABRAHAM | CHELSEA
Abraham’s prodigious talent continued to shine bright during a memorable 5-2 victory at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The 21-year-old became the first player in Premier League history to notch a hat-trick and own goal in the same match. His three-goal haul also moved him top of the 2019/20 Premier League scoring charts with seven.
CF: DARIO BENEDETTO | MARSEILLE
What a pick-up the Argentina centre forward is proving to be.
The €14 million summer addition from Boca Juniors was brilliant again in the south-coast clash at Monaco. Sunday’s hosts charged into a 2-0 lead, only for Benedeto to strike twice – and rock the crossbar – in an eventual 4-3 win.