11 players we can't wait to watch in the Champions League last 16
Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma)
Many Roma fans were angered by the club’s decision to sell Radja Nainggolan to Inter last summer, but the deal is looking more and more disastrous for the Nerazzurri with each passing week. Not only has Nainggolan only played 10 Serie A games and looked a shadow of his former self in most of those, but Zaniolo – a makeweight in the deal taking the Belgian to San Siro – has been a revelation in the Italian capital.
Strong, quick and technically gifted, the 19-year-old’s driving runs through midfield have been a sight to behold this season. Likened to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard by former Inter coach Stefano Vecchi, Zaniolo will be out to show a European audience what he’s capable of against Porto.
Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon)
Lyon may not be the most consistent team on the continent, but they can produce some thrilling football on their day – as Manchester City and PSG have found to their cost already this season. Attackers Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore may get most of the headlines by virtue of their positions, but the midfield pairing of Houssem Aouar and Ndombele is arguably the strongest area of Bruno Genesio’s team.
A box-to-box midfielder who excels at both breaking up play and leading attacking transitions, Ndombele’s power and ball-carrying ability could cause real problems for a Barcelona side who have looked vulnerable to the counter-attack at times this season.
Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid)
Madrid opted against signing a high-profile replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo last summer, a decision which looks like an error of judgment in hindsight. There are signs that Santi Solari’s side are beginning to find their feet, though – and that could spell bad news for last-16 opponents Ajax and the rest of this season’s knockout stage qualifiers.
Vinicius has only started 13 games for Madrid since his move from Flamengo, but the early signs are promising. The exhilarating Brazilian forward has been in fine form of late and will now be desperate to impress on the European stage having only featured twice in the group phase.
Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Sancho has been the breakout star of the European season so far, scoring seven goals and providing 10 assists in his first campaign as a regular starter at senior level. BVB are in a tremendous position in the Bundesliga and will make winning their first title since 2012 the priority, but a healthy five-point lead back home should allow them enough wriggle room to give the Champions League a good go too.
Quick, skilful and impressively mature for a player so young, Sancho will fancy his chances up against either Ben Davies or Danny Rose at Wembley on Wednesday.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
It might not be the most left-field pick, but Messi is in the midst of another terrific individual season and it will be intriguing to witness his efforts to win a first Champions League crown since 2015. Barcelona’s meek exit at the hands of Roma last season was the third year in a row in which they failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals, but with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich having underperformed so far this term, the Catalans must fancy their chances of going all the way.
Needless to say, Messi will be integral to their challenge. The Argentinian has shown no signs of slowing down in recent months, but given that he’ll be 32 by the time the 2019/20 campaign begins, we should all relish the chance to watch him in action while he’s still at the peak of his powers.
Matthijs de Ligt (Ajax)
Frenkie de Jong has agreed a deal to join Barcelona in July, but the future of De Ligt – who is, according to some observers, an even more exciting prospect than his Ajax team-mate – remains up in the air. Barcelona, Manchester City, Juventus and PSG have all been linked with the teenage centre-back, who insists he’s focusing solely on the remainder of Ajax’s season for now.
The Eredivisie outfit haven’t been at this stage of the competition since 2006, and they’ll have plenty of neutrals on their side when they lock horns with Real Madrid in an old-school European tie. If De Ligt can successfully shackle Karim Benzema, Ajax may even be able to produce a mighty shock.
Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)
Arguably the only man who can challenge David de Gea for the title of world’s best goalkeeper, Oblak is enjoying another fine season at Atletico Madrid. Unlike De Gea the Slovenian is afforded excellent protection by the defence in front of him, but he’s also played a significant role in the 16 clean sheets the Colchoneros have kept this term.
Both of Atletico’s clashes with Juventus are likely to be tight and low-scoring, which means this tie could be settled by a handful of key moments. With Oblak between the sticks, the Spaniards will fancy their chances of keeping Cristiano Ronaldo and co. relatively quiet.
Leandro Paredes (PSG)
When the draw for the last 16 was made in December, PSG looked to have landed a favourable draw. However, not only are Manchester United a team transformed under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but the Ligue 1 leaders have been hit by an injury crisis which has claimed Neymar and Marco Verratti among its victims.
Paredes only arrived at the Parc des Princes last month but will be expected to hit the ground running; a makeshift midfield trio of Marquinhos, Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler may be good enough to do the job domestically, but the Champions League is another matter. How Paredes performs in the engine room could play a big part in determining the outcome of this tie.
Nabil Bentaleb (Schalke)
Having been a regular starter in Mauricio Pochettino’s first season as Tottenham boss, Bentaleb found himself out in the cold in 2015/16. Restricted to just two Premier League starts as the north Londoners challenged for the title, the midfielder sealed a season-long loan move to Schalke the subsequent summer.
Now a permanent member of the squad, Bentaleb has been one of the Royal Blues’ standout performers this term. If Schalke are to cause an upset against Manchester City, they’ll need the Algerian to be at the top of his game.
After spending the Christmas period without a club following the termination of his Besiktas contract in December, Pepe returned to Porto – with whom he won two league titles and a Portuguese Cup in the mid-2000s – last month.
Although he turns 36 in two weeks’ time, the rugged centre-back has lost none of the hunger and aggression which characterised his 10-year stay at Real Madrid. Many tired of his antics during the latter stages of his career at the Bernabeu, but it will be fascinating to watch Pepe’s individual battle with Roma’s Edin Dzeko in the first knockout round.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
Ronaldo’s league-high 18 goals have helped Juventus open up an 11-point lead at the summit of the Serie A standings, but the Portuguese wasn’t acquired with domestic trophies in mind. Instead, Bianconeri fans are hoping that the five-time Champions League winner becomes only the second player after Clarence Seedorf to lift the trophy with three different clubs.
Max Allegri’s men will first have to negotiate a tricky last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid, which is precisely the type of match Ronaldo was signed to make the difference in. The pressure will therefore be on the 34-year-old to deliver; thankfully for Juventus, he tends to thrive in those situations.