UEFA Champions League: Most Important Player to Watch in Each Last 16 Fixture

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2013

UEFA Champions League: Most Important Player to Watch in Each Last 16 Fixture

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    With the European elite set to clash once more in the coming weeks following a lengthy winter break, clubs from around the continent are preparing for what promises to be the closest section of the tournament thus far.

    At this knockout stage of the tournament, clutch players are nearing their most essential stages in terms of importance. But it’s not just a case of “the best” being the most important.

    In the next eight slides, we’ll see that it’s often the playing style, weaknesses, strengths and tactics of the opposition that decide just who will be that one make-or-break chink in the proverbial armour during that particular game.

    Of course, matters such as these are rightly debatable, so why not let us know some of your selections in the comments section below?

    You can follow me on Twitter @TomSunderland_.

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich

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    Thomas Müller

    Having not met for almost eight years, the economically conscious pairing of Arsenal and Bayern Munich would appear to be leaning in favour of the German representatives, not least thanks to a star-studded cast at the Allianz Arena.

    One vital component of "Der FCB’s" season thus far and an increasingly senior member of the squad is Thomas Müller, who will likely line up on the right side of a three-pronged Bayern attack.

    Although Arsenal brought in Nacho Monreal in the dying hours of the January transfer window, the left-back is unavailable to play, having featured for Málaga in the competition already.

    With Kieran Gibbs out until the end of the month with injury, this would appear to mean that either Thomas Vermaelen or the less likely option of Andre Santos line up in the full-back slot.

    Any way one looks at it, it’s hard to see Müller—already with 15 goals and 11 assists under Jupp Heynckes this campaign—having an incredibly tough time against his forthcoming marker.

    As one of the primary routes in which Bayern stage their Bundesliga leading attack, Mario Mandzukic will be counting on his German wing teammate to provide him with an endless supply going forward, and it’s likely Müller will pose a significant threat on goal himself.

Celtic vs. Juventus

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    Andrea Pirlo

    As a two-time winner of the Champions League during his Milan days, it’s clear that Andrea Pirlo knows his way around the European stage.

    In quite opposite fashion to much of the Juventus squad, Celtic have not one player over the age of 30 amongst their ranks. While a lot can be said for youth and the benefits it brings, the same can be said for the importance of experience in a tournament such as this.

    An incredibly gifted playmaker that performed beyond his years even before entering his prime, Pirlo’s refined technical ability will likely provide the difference for Juventus both at Celtic Park and back at the Old Lady.

    Having been picked as Juve’s Player of the Season after the last campaign, the Architect will undoubtedly provide his usually mature take on matters and it’s up for debate as to whether the likes of Victor Wanyama, Scott Brown or Joe Ledley will have enough about them to answer the 33-year-old’s quality.

Galatasaray vs. Schalke 04

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    Benedikt Höwedes

    With Joel Matip and Kyriakos Papadopoulos posing relatively inexperienced forms, aged just 21 and 20, respectively, the importance of Benedikt Höwedes’ presence in the Schalke back line can’t be understated at this moment in time.

    To say the Miners were on a disappointing run of form would be putting it lightly. While Jens Keller’s side may be struggling for goals at the moment, it’s perhaps in defence that lays the greatest reason for concern.

    Höwedes hasn’t been the same imperious centre-back that he has in recent seasons this campaign but will need to revive his better form if Schalke are to come away from Istanbul unscathed.

    The Turkish giants are newly rejuvenated following a busy January transfer window and if the form of Burak Yilmaz wasn’t enough, the addition of Champions League winner Didier Drogba, will only buoy Gala fans further.

    As a leading figure amongst the Schalke defence, a lot of the responsibility of restraining the Turkish club’s attack will rest with Höwedes, especially considering that 61 percent of Gala’s shots come from the central channel, according to WhoScored.com.

Milan vs. Barcelona

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    Christian Abbiati

    Although the Italian giants are now enjoying a good run of form in their native Serie A, it’s obvious that some substantial holes still exist in the AC Milan setup, holes set to be exposed by arguably the strongest side in the world.

    Although there are those that will say Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and others of the Barça fraternity hold more in terms of importance, it’s almost a given that the Catalan club’s stars will turn up for the two-legged affair.

    Therefore, what would seem more “important” in this article’s definition of the word is that AC Milan’s playing staff ensure they turn up at the races, not least of which is goalkeeper, Christian Abbiati.

    This season, Barcelona have managed to rack up an average of 14 shots per game, half of which are usually on target (via WhoScored.com).

    The Rossoneri have managed to keep clean sheets in just 22 percent of their fixtures this season, Abbiati having conceded 20 goals in just as many games across all competitions.

    Given the current standing of the two clubs in their respective leagues, it would seem Barça are assured to test Milan’s goal, meaning Abbiati will need to be on his toes if Massimiliano Allegri’s side are to have any chance at success.

Porto vs. Malaga

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    Jackson Martinez

    The current top goalscorer in the Portuguese top flight, all eyes will be on Porto hotshot Jackson Martinez in the club’s efforts to break down Spain’s best defence.

    Conceding an average of just 0.91 goals per game in the La Liga season so far, Málaga have, at times, been a difficult outfit for even the toughest clubs to break down.

    A lot of that defensive success can be attributed to the Anchovies’ form away from home, making it all the more interesting to see how Martinez fares when Málaga makes their way to Portugal.

    The Porto forward already has 18 goals to his name this season and has thrived in the absence of Hulk—now of Zenit St. Petersburg—by stealing much of the scoring opportunities for himself.

    WhoScored.com says that a dominant 69 percent of Porto’s shots come from the middle of the pitch rather than down the wings. With Martinez averaging more than three shots per Champions League game this campaign, it’s foreseeable that the Colombian will test Willy Caballero’s goal.

    With six goals in his last three games, Martinez will undoubtedly be featured in the goalscorer betting come the Round of 16, and rightly so.

Real Madrid vs. Manchester United

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    Cristiano Ronaldo

    The homecoming of one of the greatest players ever to grace the Premier League, Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford is certainly coming in the opposite fashion to how many a Manchester United fan might prefer.

    The forward’s reunion with the club that truly provided him with the base to establish himself as a worldly force is a heart-warming factor in what is already assured to be an epic encounter between two of the world’s biggest clubs.

    That being said, you can bet it will be all business come kickoff time in Madrid and Manchester, respectively, and Ronaldo’s performances will likely decide the outcome almost single-handedly.

    Manchester United are unfortunate enough to be going through one of their most defensively frail seasons of recent memory, although it would appear to be enjoying an upward trend of late.

    On average, the Red Devils have conceded 1.24 goals per game and are worse than the average Premier League defence when playing at home this season.

    Fortunately, an incredibly gifted attack has seen them out of some sticky situations, much like Los Merengues, although Real Madrid’s back four have been far more assured in La Liga, despite a league position that might suggest otherwise.

    Ronaldo’s 33 goals already this season are an incredible tally for this stage of any campaign and depending on whether or not the Portuguese star performs to the specification the world knows he can, his former side may be in trouble.

Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Borussia Dortmund

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    Borussia Dortmund’s encouraging ascension as a European power is a feat largely traced back to what is an increasingly potent attack under Jürgen Klopp.

    The Borussians are comfortable in just about every facet of the game going forward, whether it’s from set-pieces or counter attacks. But they are undoubtedly most threatening when attacking from open play.

    Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Jakub Błaszczykowski’s supreme form has been a massive part of Dormund’s success so far this season and Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fernandinho will be deployed with the intention of dampening their influence on matters.

    All three of the aforementioned Black and Yellows have been known to take up residence just behind the striking line, although Reus undoubtedly has the potential for more attacking positions.

    If Shakhtar are to emerge from their first-leg meeting with the Bundesliga champions with a home advantage, it’s imperative that Dortmund’s biggest creative assets be stopped from exercising their influence upon the game to their full extent.

    Fernandinho will most probably line up in an anchor role alongside Tomas Hübschman, although you can be assured that the Brazilian has a higher expectation placed upon him to lead the Ukrainians out of the Donbass Arena with a fighting chance.

Valencia vs. PSG

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    Lucas Moura

    In what will be his first-ever involvement in European competition, the coming month of football could define just how quickly, or slowly, Lucas Moura is truly adapting to the continental style of play he now calls home.

    Having officially completed a big-money move to Paris Saint-Germain in early January, Valencia will be the Brazilian’s first Champions League opponent and provide Lucas with the opportunity to continue impressing in PSG colours.

    Leonardo’s new asset is looking likely to line up opposite Tino Costa, who has played in defensive midfield for Valencia for much of the campaign, although Fernando Gago is an Argentine alternative.

    Regardless of his marker, Lucas has shown in just four appearances for the Parisian club that he certainly has the potential for greatness being associated with his name of late, grabbing three assists in his first four Ligue 1 appearances.

    The 20-year-old has the potential to unlock defences with apparent ease at times and has the advantage of a striker like Zlatan Ibrahimovic ahead of him, providing the young starlet with an ideal target man and attacking focal point.

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