Champions League Last-16 Best XI
Tuesday finally sees the long-awaited return of Europe’s premier club competition to our screens, with the now familiar sound of Handel’s Champions League anthem set to be ringing in our ears once more.
And, to get you in the mood for what is sure to be a feast of football from now until we reach Wembley stadium for the denouncement on May 25, we at Bleacher Report have chosen a Champions League last-16 best XI for you to digest and debate.
So, tell me if you agree with the XI starters, seven substitutes and head coach that I have selected, or if you think I have left out anyone in particular, and why …
Fraser Forster (Celtic)
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The 24-year-old shot-stopper was without a doubt one of the standout performers of the group stages, helping Celtic through to the round of 16 with a series of displays between the sticks that at times defied belief.
Forster began the Glasgow giants’ European campaign by shutting out Benfica at Celtic Park to earn is side what turned out to be an absolutely crucial point, but it was the England international’s two games against the all-conquering Barcelona attack on Matchdays 3 and 4 that secured his place in this XI.
Man of the match in both encounters, including even providing an assist for Tony Watt’s winner in Glasgow, the man who played in every single minute of the club’s six group encounters was a mammoth presence in goal for Celtic and ultimately one of the chief reasons for their shock qualification for the knockout phase.
Lukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund)
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The best right-back in world football based on his displays for Dortmund in the group stage, when the imposing, athletic Pole was faced with quelling the forward thrusts of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax.
The 27-year-old emerged on top in the majority of those contests, while also adding his usual attacking brio down the Bundesliga champions’ right flank whenever given the chance, as seen on Matchday 1 when his late surge helped set up Robert Lewandowski’s winner against Ajax at the Westfalenstadion.
However, his most eye-catching display came at the Etihad, where the Premier League champions could barely contain his right-sided surges, let alone expose him defensively.
Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain)
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Further cemented his burgeoning reputation as Planet Football’s most accomplished centre-back with his performances during the autumn as big-spending PSG topped Group A.
The classy Brazil international not only made the Parisians watertight at the back, with just six goals conceded in six group encounters, but he also made his presence felt in the opposition penalty area with goals against Dynamo Kyiv and Porto at the Parc des Princes at both the start and end of Carlo Ancelotti’s side’s European campaign.
Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund)
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No wonder English title-holders Manchester City and a whole host of other "big-name" European clubs are so desperate to sign the tall, silky-smooth Germany international after his imperious displays at the back as the Bundesliga champions caused a stir by topping the "Group of Death" ahead of Real Madrid, City and Ajax.
Charged with stopping the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Aguero, Christian Eriksen et al, the 24-year-old was a model of consistency throughout his 524 minutes of action, none more so than in the club’s back-to-back clashes with Madrid when Hummels’s calmness under pressure, authority and all-round reading of the game helped Dortmund remain undefeated in both contests.
Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich)
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The Bayern and Germany national team captain just churns out high-class displays on the biggest stages of all year after year, making him a real Mr. Consistent and a shoe-in for the left-back role in this team.
Not only is the 29-year-old full-back one of the most solid defenders in the game, but he is also one of the most effective attacking outlets a team can have, as demonstrated when he laid on a plate three goals for Bayern teammates in the 6-1 thrashing of Lille in the Allianz Arena back in November.
Mario Gotze (Borussia Dortmund)
An eye-catching group phase from the highly skilled and technically proficient young Dortmund midfield player, who was a creative spark throughout as Jurgen Klopp’s exciting outfit stormed their way past heavyweights Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax all the way to the top of Group D.
The 20-year-old got better with each group fixture, culminating in his man-of-the-match performance against Ajax in the Amsterdam ArenA on Matchday 5 when he not only created two goals but also netted one himself.
Arturo Vidal (Juventus)
Yet more confirmation, if we needed it, of the Chile international’s status as one of world football’s most decisive and effective midfield operators came in the group stages as the "Old Lady of Italian Football" nudged the holders Chelsea out of the competition thanks in no small part to this man’s performances in the two clashes with the Blues.
Like a fine wine, the 25-year-old just seems to get better and better with age, while appearing in front of the watching world in Europe’s premier club competition has also elevated his levels to new heights.
And it is always a sign of a high-quality player when they bring their A-game to the fore in the biggest of all matches, as Arturo Vidal did to such great effect against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and in the return meeting in Turin, both scoring and creating goals in each fixture.
Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Awesome, mesmerising, breathtaking, use whatever adjectives you like to describe the some-time Brazil international during Shakhtar’s run to the round of 16, with the 27-year-old all three of those things in one against the European champions Chelsea.
With all eyes on Shakhtar’s two eagerly anticipated group-stage clashes with the West Londoners, the club’s experienced midfield player really put on a show for the millions watching around the world as he completely dominated the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and John Obi Mikel.
Whether it be breaking up opposition raids, finding teammates with incisive passes to start counter-attacks, creating goals or even scoring them himself, at times it appears as though there really is nothing this man cannot do.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
The second-greatest player in the world saunters into this XI, and what’s more, he just loves saving his best for Europe’s premier club competition.
Whether it be last-minute winners against Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu, man-of-the-match displays to destroy Ajax in Amsterdam or simply having more shots on goal, 27, than any other player so far in the Champions League, the Portugal international is an absolute shoe-in for one of the three forward positions in this team.
And what's more, he goes into Wednesday's mouthwatering clash with former club Manchester United having just registered his 20th hat-trick in only three-and-a-half seasons in the Spanish capital against Sevilla last Saturday.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
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The little magician goes into next week’s last-16 clash with AC Milan in his usual scintillating form having just netted in a record 13th straight Liga fixture on Sunday, his strike against Getafe at Camp Nou being the Argentinian’s 35th of yet another remarkable season.
The 25-year-old also enjoyed a fairly impressive Champions League group stage, scoring five times and creating another three goals for teammates as the Catalans topped their group, although you get the ominous feeling that Lionel Messi and Co are still smarting from their semifinal exit at the hands of Chelsea last year and the world’s greatest player is saving something special up for the knockout round.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Paris Saint-Germain)
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Outstanding for new club PSG since joining the big-spending Ligue 1 outfit from AC Milan for €20 million last summer, scoring six times in his first five matches for Carlo Ancelotti’s men, as well as shining in Europe’s premier club competition last autumn.
And, if Ibra brings that eye-catching form with him into the knockout phase of the Champions League, starting with Tuesday night’s round-of-16 first-leg clash in Valencia, then there could be a brand-new name on the trophy come Wembley this May.
Substitutes and Head Coach
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And, we also have our seven reserves to call upon, as well as our head coach to direct operations from the dug-out should things not go according to plan…
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)
Joao Moutinho (Porto)
Andrea Pirlo (Juventus)
Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund)
Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund)
Robin van Persie (Manchester United)
Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
Jurgen Klopp (Borussia Dortmund)