And then there were four. It has been another thrilling and eye-catching UEFA Champions League campaign, and on Friday morning in Switzerland at UEFA headquarters, we will learn the lineup for this season’s semi-finals after some quite extraordinary last-eight ties that have been played out over the past fortnight.
From the Spanish peninsula we have the reigning Liga champions Real Madrid, looking for that elusive Decima 11 years after Los Blancos were last crowned kings of Europe, while alongside Jose Mourinho’s side are their arch-rivals, FC Barcelona, who have qualified for the semi-finals for a record sixth successive year.
And in a neat symmetry we also have two more sides from the same country, with the Bundesliga providing us with the recently crowned champions, Bayern Munich, hoping to appear in back-to-back finals and make up for the agony of losing last season’s showpiece event on their own ground to Chelsea.
Meanwhile alongside the Bavarians are the team who they just replaced as kings of Germany, Borussia Dortmund—back at this stage of Europe’s premier club competition for just the second occasion, and the first time since they went all the way in 1997—after what was one of the most unbelievable comebacks in the 58-year history of the European Cup on Tuesday night against Malaga.
However, which player will be the most important for each of these four sides come the semi-finals later this month?
Name: Cristiano Ronaldo
Matches this season: 10 (900 mins)
Yellow cards: 1
Red cards: 0
The Portugal international appears to be on a one-man mission in this season’s competition to show the watching world just who really is the greatest player on Planet Football at present, and to be fair to the Madrid attacker he is not doing too bad a job at it.
Ronaldo is currently the top scorer in the Champions League with 11 goals, three more than you know who, which is actually not that surprising when you realise he has had almost double the amount of shots on target, 49, than anybody else.
And those 11 strikes to date include both a crucial last-minute winner against Manchester City in the Spanish capital followed by a spell-binding hat-trick at the Amsterdam ArenA as the forward netted in Madrid’s first three group-stage fixtures.
However, his most important contribution so far came in Los Blancos’ last-16 encounter against his old club Manchester United when Ronaldo’s two strikes across the course of the two legs, the first a thumping back-post header and the second a more simple tap in at the far post, ultimately kept Jose Mourinho’s men in the competition.
Of course, there were three more goals in the quarter-final against Galatasaray, and so it goes without saying that not only is the Portuguese Real’s most important player in their bid to be crowned champions of Europe, but equally he will be the one man above all others that the Spaniards’ next opponents will be trying to close out of the game by any means necessary.
Name: Lionel Messi
Matches this season: 10 (736 mins)
Yellow cards: 0
Red cards: 0
While clearly not at the absolute peak of his powers in this season’s competition, both in a technical and a physical sense, the little playmaker still showed on Wednesday night that he is Barca’s most important player.
Entering the fray just past the hour mark with his team heading out of Europe, the half-fit Argentina international still had the class to create his side’s crucial equaliser on the night against Paris Saint-Germain that sent them through to a record-breaking sixth Champions League semi-final appearance in a row.
So any side that draws the Catalans on Friday knows just what a threat Messi will pose to their hopes of being at Wembley on May 25, especially given the fact that he has already found the back of the net on eight occasions in only 10 matches, making him the joint-second highest goalscorer in this season’s tournament, while only Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has had more efforts on target than him.
However, it is not just the amount of goals that the four-time Ballon d’Or winner has scored, but like all great players the context and importance of those strikes, which include two late goals to help overturn a 2-1 deficit on Matchday 1 against Spartak Moscow at Camp Nou, as well as two more precious strikes in Barcelona’s stunning comeback victory at home to AC Milan in the round of 16.
And do not forget either that before he limped off in the French capital last week, Messi had just fired the Catalans in front against PSG, a goal that after last night’s second leg looks more and more vital by the second.
Now Barca’s medical department have a little under a fortnight to get the club’s most important player back into peak physical condition for the first leg of the semi-final, although even on one leg it would be foolish to underestimate this impish attacker.
Name: Robert Lewandowski
Matches this season: 10 (823 mins)
Yellow cards: 0
Red cards: 0
Whichever team Dortmund draw in the semi-finals on Friday, they will immediately be instilled as the underdog in their two-legged contest, and for an underdog to cause an upset, they almost always need their big-match players to perform; this will be no different for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
And no one comes much bigger than giant Poland international Lewandowski, a striker who has an innate eye for goal, combined with the silky-smooth touch and control of a graduate from La Masia.
The 24-year-old front man has found the back of the net six times already in his 10 Champions League matches to date, making him the third-highest goalscorer in this season’s competition, and were the Bundesliga outfit to be paired alongside Real Madrid as they were in the group phase, then the Liga champions will not relish facing Lewandowski again.
Over the course of their two meetings last autumn, the highly skilled Pole both scored against Madrid in their 2-1 home win, before then creating the opening goal for Marco Reus at the Santiago Bernabeu in a 2-2 draw.
However, Lewandowski left his best moment of this season’s tournament to last as his vital equaliser just before the break on Tuesday night against Malaga not only brought his side back into the contest, but it was also a superb finish following team work of the utmost quality.
And so if Dortmund are to cause a shock and make it through to the final at Wembley, you feel that they will ultimately need yet another match-winning contribution somewhere over the course of the two-legged semi-final from their most important player.
Name: Thomas Muller
Matches this season: 10 (782 mins)
Yellow cards: 1
Red cards: 0
Muller really is Munich’s Mr. Dependable, their go-to man and a big-game player who always seems to be on hand just when his team really need some inspiration, but you feel that the German is going to need to step up to the plate once again in the semi-finals if the Bavarian giants are to make it through to their second final in succession and their third in just the previous four years.
As in the absence of key striker Mario Mandzukic from the semi-final first leg through suspension, head coach Jupp Heynckes will be forced into some team alterations. However, wherever the 23-year-old Germany international is asked to play, you just know that in the really important matches he will be bringing his A-game, as both last year’s final and this season’s competition so far have shown.
Muller is Munich’s top scorer in the tournament to date with five goals, but like with all top players it is when and against whom the goals are scored that really counts, with the midfield player firing a vital winner on Matchday 3 in Lille, while both his assist for Toni Kroos’s opener followed by his own strike in their 3-1 first-leg win at Arsenal in the round of 16 were equally crucial in the Bundesliga champions’ run to the semi-finals.
And it is man-of-the-match displays such as Muller’s at the Emirates in February that really mark this youngster out as both Bayern’s standout and most important performer so far as the club look to banish the heartache of losing last year’s final to Chelsea in their own stadium.