Meet the men who could decide the Champions League last 16 ties
THE MAN WHO could prove English football wrong
Everything about Adel Taarabt’s general outlook and demeanour suggests that Adel Taarabt thinks – and has always thought – that Adel Taarabt can and should be playing at the highest level. Finally, in January, someone called his bluff; Clarence Seedorf signing the man, who remains as fist-clenchingly unpredictable as a slot machine on Blackpool Pier, on loan from QPR until the end of the season.
At FFT we’ve spent many a Weekend Debrief pontificating over and tut-tutting at the troublesome Moroccan, who alternates between dazzling and infuriating like a dishwasher with two default settings. Despite his continuing inability to offer anything like defensive work in red and black (though he has been trying, bless him) his brilliant goal in the 3-1 defeat against Napoli offered early promise.
Having been registered for Champions League duty, can Taarabt be Milan’s joker in the pack against Atletico Madrid?
THE MAN WHO became one of Europe's best midfielders in his spare time
You are Pep Guardiola. You are manager of the treble winners. You have Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze and Thiago Alcantara all to choose from in your midfield, among others. What do you do?
The answer, apparently, is you take your right-back and stick him in there too. Why not?
So far it has worked out very well. Operating in a deep-lying midfield role, Lahm has casually gone about becoming one of Europe’s best midfielders this season, using his exemplary technique, positioning, awareness and all-round football savvy to brilliant effect.
His passing is crisp and his reading of the game is almost unparalleled, leading Guardiola to call Lahm the most intelligent player he’s worked with to date. Superb against Manchester City at the Etihad, Bayern’s captain is another player Arsenal must quell if they’re to dethrone Europe’s best side.
SEE ALSO Exclusive Philipp Lahm Q&A
THE MAN WHO brings balance to City's Barca masterplan
If there’s one thing Chelsea’s 1-0, record-busting, form-obliterating win at the Etihad taught us a fortnight ago, it is that we should not understimate Fernandinho’s importance to Manchester City this season. The Brazilian’s impact on the team is in fact two-fold – not only is he a classy central midfield stopper in his own right, his presence is also a huge influence on Yaya Toure.
The balance they bring to City’s team through their mutual understanding in midfield is a key aspect of Manuel Pellegrini’s setup, and given Toure’s relative defensive weaknesses – a facet of his game often masked by his blockbusting further forward – Fernandinho’s role as a screen protecting his defence is almost essential. Particularly given the manager’s lack of faith in the alternatives – Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell or an out-of-position Martin Demichelis.
The former Shakhtar Donetsk star is back in City’s squad for the Barcelona game, and they desperately need him around if they’re to see off the Spanish champions.
Gregory van der Wiel
THE MAN WHO will supply the bullets for Ibrahimovic
Looking away from the more obvious, limelight-hogging stars in PSG’s expensively-assembled galaxy, Gregory van der Wiel is a man Bayer Leverkusen will need to be wary of as they take on a team many consider dark horses to go all the way. Pacing his way up and down the touchline, the Dutch right-back is the man who supplies the bullets for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to do the damage in PSG’s assault on Europe.
Van der Wiel notched four assists during the group stage, the joint-second highest in the competition, and all four of them involved him teeing up Ibra to score. Highly rated as a youngster at Ajax, graduating from their esteemed De Toekomst academy and going on to play in a World Cup final at 22, Van der Wiel is in his second season in Paris and has dislodged Christophe Jallet to become Laurent Blanc’s first-choice right-back.
THE MAN WHO could end his mentor's European dreams
This game is all about the return to English soil of one man; an Ivorian talisman of style, class and charisma - a true legend in this corner of the capital city where his contributions ensure he will be remembered forever. Yes, Emmanuel Eboue is coming back to London!
OK, perhaps his reunion with former team-mate Ashley Cole is more deserving of a place on the undercard. The real story, of course, is Didier Drogba’s return to Chelsea.
“I’m the luckiest man in the Champions League,” Drogba opined when the draw was made and the opportunity to stroll down the King's Road to memory lane ensures this should be a tie packed with nostalgia and thousands of replays of that header and that penalty in Munich.
THE MAN WHO has the zip to see off Zenit
Jurgen Klopp must have walked under a ladder or opened an umbrella indoors at some point in the last six months, because the brains behind Borussia Dortmund’s renaissance has simply had no luck this season. Injury after injury has severely hampered his team’s prospects over in North Rhine-Westphalia, and last season’s Champions League finalists now find themselves third in the Bundesliga, 17 points behind Bayern Munich and only two points above eternal rivals Schalke in fourth.
Cup competitions are their only hope at success this season therefore, and if they’re to see off a tricky Zenit side then Gabonese speedster Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang will need to be on form. Long-term injury to Jakub Blaszczykowski has seen him removed from Dortmund’s Champions League list and Aubameyang appears to be the man likely to replace him.
Aubameyang has four goals in his last three Bundesliga games and is one of the fastest men in football – his pace, skill and super-fast acceleration will be a huge asset to Dortmund on the counter attack.
Angel di Maria
THE MAN WHO Real Madrid really rely on
A month is a long time in football. It was the 65th-minute of a hitherto cagey, early January game between Real Madrid and Celta Vigo, locked at 0-0, when Di Maria’s number came up and he was replaced by Gareth Bale. Booed by all and sundry, the antsy Argentinian grabbed his genitals as he left the field, a ‘polemic gesture’ apparently aimed at the Bernabeu faithful.
Outraged, there were those who wanted Di Maria sold somewhere he could never darken Real Madrid’s doors with his clammy cojones again. Madrid opened an inquiry into the matter but Di Maria, protected by his manager Carlo Ancelotti, was cleared.
A month later and Di Maria has since become one of Ancelotti’s most important players. Three goals and five assists have helped him win back at least some of the public’s affection. The Argentinian is now a key part of Ancelotti’s 4-3-3, his hard work defensively as important an attribute as his offensive threat. With five assists in the Champions League so far this season, nobody has been as creative.
THE MAN WHO could end United's season
There were sighs of relief at Old Trafford when Olympiakos were pulled out of the hat during the draw at UEFA headquarters, but at present Manchester United are in no position to take any opponent lightly. The Greek champions may have lost their star striker Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham – a sale David Moyes congratulated Rene Meulensteen on for making his own task appear slightly easier – but in Michael Olaitan they may have the ideal replacement ready to step up.
A versatile young Nigerian who impressed for his country at the Under-20 World Cup last summer, Olaitan can play either as an advanced midfielder, in a deeper-lying forward role or as a pure striker. Pacy, quick-witted and a fast learner, the 21-year-old has seven goals for Olympiakos this season including five in his last five games.
He played the full 90 minutes in Olympiakos’ last Champions League game in December, a 3-1 win over Anderlecht, and as a bit of a wildcard Olaitan could prove a tricky customer for Nemanja Vidic and United’s struggling defence to deal with over the two legs.