Champions League stars
The knockout stages of the Champions League are upon us, which means it's time for the serious business to begin.
From exciting youngsters to established superstars, we've picked out 11 players we can't wait to watch in the round of 16. Including south London's prince of the Bundesliga we've all got our eyes on this week...
Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid)
It hasn’t exactly been a quiet season for Real Madrid so far. Julen Lopetegui was sacked from his dream job back in October following a 5-1 humbling by Barcelona which left the capital club down in ninth place and seven points adrift of top spot. Madrid have picked up under Santi Solari in the last few weeks, but it’s surely be a case of too little, too late as far as La Liga is concerned.
That does leave los Blancos free to focus on the Champions League, however, and the stage is set for a new hero to emerge following Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure. 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.
Matthijs de Ligt (Ajax)
Frenkie de Jong has agreed 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.
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.
Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Sancho took a risk when he decided to leave Manchester City and the country of his birth to join Borussia Dortmund in 2017, but the decision has paid off in spectacular fashion. The speedy and skilful forward has been fundamental to BVB’s title tilt in the Bundesliga this year, scoring seven goals and setting up another nine, while he could also help them reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the fourth time in six seasons.
Sancho possesses raw ability in abundance, but it’s the maturity of his decision-making which marks him out as a special talent. If the 19-year-old performs anywhere near his maximum level, Ben Davies or Danny Rose will be in for a testing night at Wembley on Wednesday.
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.
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 watch his efforts to win a first Champions League crown since 2015. Barcelona’s meek exit to Roma last season was the third year in a row where 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 Argentine has shown no signs of slowing down in recent months, but given that he’ll be 32 by the time that 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.
Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon)
Bruno Genesio's young team haven't yet mastered the art of consistency - that's why they're third in Ligue 1, miles behind leaders PSG and three points adrift of second-placed Lille.
But they have a knack for raising their game on the big occasions. Lyon were superb in victories over Manchester City and PSG this season, so Barcelona must avoid complacency if they're to successfully negotiate this last-16 tie.
Memphis Depay and Nabil Fekir are Lyon's key difference-makers in the final third, but just as impressive is the midfield partnership behind them. Houssem Aouar usually sets the tempo, but it's Ndombele's ball-carrying ability which could be most useful against a Barcelona team that don't always look comfortable in defensive transitions.
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 that Los 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 & 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.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus)
Ronaldo’s league-high 17 goals have helped Juventus open up an 11-point lead at the summit of Serie A, 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.
Nicolo Zaniolo (Roma)
Zaniolo’s switch from Inter to Roma last summer went under the radar, overshadowed by Radja Nainggolan’s move in the opposite direction. The 6ft 3in teenager has been magnificent at the Stadio Olimpico, though, earning comparisons with Steven Gerrard for his eye-catching displays as an all-round midfield talent.
Able to play as a No.8, No.10 or even as a false nine, Zaniolo could be on the radar of some of Europe’s biggest clubs this summer. Before that, the 19-year-old will be hoping to help Roma repeat last season’s run to the last four of the Champions League.
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