The Champions League is the grandest stage of them all and those beaming floodlights take no prisoners on a brisk midweek night. That’s why it’s all the more impressive when a young player steps up and thrives underneath them.
That anthem blaring out pre-match, the temperature dropping just enough so that breath is visible, iconic advertising boardings wrapping around the pitch. It’s not just a football match when the Champions League rolls around – it’s a grudge match.
Group stage, qualifier, knockout, the stakes couldn’t be higher and the players know it. It’s the pinnacle of club football. A standout performance under those lights sets you up for stardom, but doing it is an entirely different thing.
Johan Bakayoko wasn’t even born to see Zinedine Zidane smash home his volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final. He was barely 10 when Franck Ribery put together an all-conquering individual campaign on the left flank, zapping defenders as Bayern Munich won the treble.
We can wax lyrical about some of the all-time individual performances and campaigns that Bakayoko may or may not have seen, but watching him slalom his way around some of the competition’s very best players at the tender age of 20 is already enough to make us feel incredibly useless for one day.
The Belgian winger is writing his own story – and he’s doing it with the chalk from the touchline that he’s got all over his boots after putting on the afterburners and claiming a flank as his.
Moving to PSV in 2019 after impressing in the Belgian league, the 20-year-old has plugged away to put his name in the headlines, but the raw talent has always been there.
Blessed with exceptional footwork that allows him to retain possession to a point where it’s infuriating for defenders in front of him, Bakayoko combines that with a consistently sharp first touch and ever improving passing.
Crucially, he’s almost always making the correct passing decisions, even if they don’t quite come off. And in an era where wingers are these days bombarded with tactical instructions to carry out, the Belgian is proving incredibly adept.
While still rough around the edges, Bakayoko still managed to put in a performance worthy of plaudits all around as PSV hosted Arsenal and searched for revenge after being hammered 4-0 at the Emirates.
With the heat all the way up and eyes on the Dutch side against one of the most impressive clubs in football right now, Bakayoko stole the show on the right-hand side.
Johan Bakayoko vs Arsenal(H) reuploadpic.twitter.com/vjjv8tF0CQ
— Atomic (@AtomlcCFC) December 13, 2023
Consider us moved.
That’s what the kids say, right? We’re still down with it. It’s a good thing we are, too, because we had no chance making it in football with people like Bakyoko blossoming and strutting their stuff in the Champions League.
While still incredibly rough around the edges, it’s hard not to be seriously impressed by the winger’s performance.
From the sharp touches to the desire to beat a man and whip a ball in or try a shot himself, right down to the taped-up wrist like a prime Triple H, it had the lot.
At 20 years old, he combines fearlessness with an impressive IQ, knowing how and when to move his marker to create space for the pass. A nerdy manager’s dream.
Brentford failed with a club-record move to sign him in the summer, which tells you all you need to know about his potential.
Unfortunately for the Bees, he’s just announced himself in Europe’s main event. Borussia Dortmund have been sniffing, and are likely about to be joined by a swarm of top sides.
Stealing the show on Champions League nights is his future.
By Mitch Wilks