Group Stage’s Most Important Players, Including Chelsea’s Reece James

With the Champions League group stage starting on Paramount+ on Tuesday, it’s a good moment to look at the most indispensable players. We look at the 10 most significant players throughout the group stage, from defenders and goalkeepers to strikers and everything in between.

Not the greatest players, however. We’re looking for players that a team couldn’t progress from their group without, thus we won’t include Karim Benzema. Here’s a random list.

Wing-back Reece James Chelsea

James has a goal and an assist in Premier League play while playing right wing-back and right center back for the Blues. Wesley Fofana’s signing from Leicester City will enable Chelsea’s top wing-back and center-back to spend more time out wide.

James can lock up a team’s top winger (like AC Milan’s Rafael Leao) while joining up with Raheem Sterling to speed up the attack. James is the only Chelsea player whose absence may send them out of the group stage.

Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets

Busquets boost Barcelona’s floor, not their ceiling. In Group C, which includes Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, and Viktoria Plzen, there will be slim margins for advancement. Busquets’ game matures like excellent wine, and at 34 his approach has improved.

Busquets is irreplaceable because he makes defenders’ jobs easier by funneling attacks and ticking overplay for the attack. Frenkie de Jong can assist move the ball, but he’s a different style of the defensive midfielder, which will hurt Barcelona’s high-powered assaults.

Benfica’s Odysseas Vlachodimos

Vlachodimos saved 6.42 post-shot projected goals in Champions League the previous season. Last season, he and Thibaut Courtois saved 57 of 76 shots.

Vlachodimos is still with Benfica, but they’ll need a similar effort if they want to reach the knockout rounds. Without Darwin Nunez, Benfica’s assault will be weaker, therefore Vlachodimos may face more shots than the previous season.

Group Stage's Most Important Players, Including Chelsea's Reece James Post Image

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada

After winning Europa League last season, Kamada and Frankfurt face a steep job in the Champions League, but if he can replicate his European form from last season, Frankfurt’s chances of making it past the group stage will climb dramatically.

Kamada has three goals and one assist in the Bundesliga this season, and the team lost substantial depth this summer. Frankfurt lost one of their better chance makers with Filip Kostic’s transfer to Juventus, but Kamada’s improvement may not damage them too much.

Napoli’s Victor Osimhen

Napoli’s Osimhen is getting healthier after an injury-shortened 2021-22 season. Osimhen scored 18 goals last season but might easily top that. Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne’s exits have made him the team’s centerpiece.

Osimhen’s midfield and supporting cast have also improved, but Napoli must score against Liverpool, Rangers, and Ajax to progress. Osimhen may be a one-man wrecking squad in the group stage due to his dangerous dribbling.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah

Salah hasn’t met his high expectations as Liverpool has struggled. Salah “only” had two goals and two assists this season because of Darwin Nunez. Salah scored 23 goals and contributed 13 more last season, putting him in a new stratosphere.

Liverpool hasn’t had the best start to the season with nine points in six matches, but if Salah can reclaim his talismanic role, things will improve rapidly when Champions League action begins.

Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane

Mane has three goals in five games since joining Bayern Munich from Liverpool. Bayern is in a difficult group, therefore Julian Nagelsmann will need Mane as a winger or number nine.

Bayern Munich hasn’t missed Robert Lewandowski so far this season, and he’ll face the man he replaced when Bayern plays Barcelona in the group stage.

Dinamo Zagreb’s Mislav Orsic

Orsic is a club and national team star who will create problems for Chelsea’s defense. Orsic has scored nine goals domestically this season and three in the Champions League playoffs.

If he keeps it up, Dinamo might make the Europa League and trouble Chelsea and AC Milan. Dinamo might make the knockouts if the group stage becomes crazy.

RB Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku

Nkunku, one of the world’s most electrifying attackers, practically had a goal per game in the Bundesliga last season.

Timo Werner’s return to Leipzig adds attacking power, but Nkunku is a world-class player. Nkunku has five goals in all competitions and will seek to score against Celtic and Shakhtar Donetsk to advance.

Pepe, RB Porto

Pepe is still going strong at age 39 and paces Porto’s defense. Pepe’s combativeness may be excessive at times, but it will help Porto win the Champions League. Porto will need to replace Pepe someday, but not this season.

*Team/League logos may be protected by copyright and trademark of their owners. - Presentation of these logos on soccerontv.co web site and associated online platforms and mobile applications is considered to qualify as 'Fair dealing'.