As the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 begins this week, international soccer fans are coming ever closer to determining the top club team in the world.
But moving beyond this round requires teams to step up their respective games even further, and that means that struggling players across the board will have to improve their play if their teams want to go anywhere.
James Rodriguez of Porto has been shooting, but not quite scoring. In 538 minutes of Champions League play, he's put 16 attempts on target, third-most in the league, but has only scored one goal. The only two players to shoot more—Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—have six and five goals, respectively.
But at least Rodriguez is putting the majority of his attempts on target. Three players—Shakhtar Donetsk's Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Real Madrid's Angel Di Maria, and Juventus' Mirko Vucinic—are tied for the lead among remaining teams with 11 off-target attempts apiece. Di Maria's struggles are perhaps the worst, as only five of his 16 attempts have gone on net, and he has no goals to show for them.
On defense, Arsenal is dealing with some serious issues related to injury. Captain Thomas Vermaelen may be forced to play beyond the health of his ankle, if he's even able to play at all. With two ankle injections already this season in hopes of avoiding surgery, Vermaelen's play is bound to suffer. Injuries to Kieran Gibbs and Laurent Koscielny may put him in the difficult position of trying to step up, regardless.
In net, Manchester United's David De Gea has been dealing with intense scrutiny over his adjustment to the team. But manager Sir Alex Ferguson is backing his keeper, insisting that De Gea's struggles will be over soon.
“David came as a young goalkeeper, one who was not used to the English game, and he couldn’t speak language. He also had to mature physically, but young kids have wobbles, they get up, wobble again, get up and then walk, and the boy is walking now.”
Fans must be hoping that Ferguson is right, as Manchester United heads to Estadio Santiago Bernabeu to face Real Madrid on Wednesday. Facing Cristiano Ronaldo on visiting soil will prove De Gea's toughest test yet. But if the 22-year-old can stand up to one of the world's best, perhaps there's hope for everyone on this list.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.