The UEFA Champions League is traditionally where the best players in the world thrive, but as last night's third qualifying round openers demonstrated, it also provides the perfect stage for young players to make their name in European football.
Two teenagers scored eye-catching goals in Wednesday's first legs. Midfielder Markus Henriksen, who turned 18 on Sunday, hit Rosenborg BK's first-half winner at AIK while Granit Xhaka, just 17, marked his senior debut for FC Basel 1893 with the pick of their two goals at Debreceni VSC, who competed in last season's group phase. Both players will hope those strikes augur well for their long-term prospects at this level.
Henriksen is already in his second term in the Trondheim club's first team, having made three substitute appearances in the 2009 Norwegian campaign. This time around, he has come off the bench twice and been a starter 14 times, scoring his first two league goals in a 3-1 victory at Odd Grenland in April. Given he also registered against Linfield FC in the last round, his strike in Sweden last night doubled his European tally.
Having outfoxed experienced defender Daniel Tjernström before finishing neatly on 33 minutes, Henriksen said: "I saw Tjernström come towards me at great pace so I decided to delay my shot and then hit it with my left; it was a good goal. We were happy with 1-0 at half-time, but wanted to score another after the break. We knew AIK are a good team and we are delighted to have won there. Now we have a good chance in the second leg."
If Henriksen's post-match quotes were as slick as his performance, boding well for a career as a professional, Basel colt Xhaka was kept well away from the press after the final whistle in Hungary. The 17-year-old – who won the FIFA U-17 World Cup with Switzerland last November – emerged for his senior debut after 88 minutes. He made it a night to remember two minutes into added time, trying his luck and succeeding with a fine 25-metre shot to make it 2-0 to the Swiss visitors.
Despite the winger's spectacular start, Basel coach Thorsten Fink is eager to keep Xhaka's feet on the ground. "Granit is only 17 but we already know how well he can shoot," Fink said. "He must be patient because he will not suddenly get to play every game. He has a good future and we must take care of him. Xhaka and [first goalscorer] Valentin Stocker have put us in a good position – we know we can assemble a team to beat Debrecen next week."
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