The UEFA Champions League will edge a little bit closer to the final at Wembley Stadium this week with the first leg of the semifinals for 2013.
Last year's runners-up, Bayern Munich, will take on Barcelona in the first semifinal whilst 2012 German champions Borussia Dortmund will welcome 2012 Spanish champions Real Madrid to town—two spectacular matchups that will no doubt provide plenty of thrilling action across the two legs.
All four teams will rate themselves as great chances to win through to the final of the tournament this year, but to do so, they'll need several players to step up.
Obviously they'll be looking for their stars to fire—the likes of Lionel Messi, Thomas Mueller, Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo—but like always, it will be the underrated stars who make the biggest difference on the night.
Let's have a look at each semifinalist's most underrated (and important) star for the semifinals of the 2013 UEFA Champions League.
Barcelona: Xavi, CM
Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta might be what makes Barcelona's attack tick, but it is the role of Xavi behind that pair that holds their formation together.
And as we saw in the first leg against Bayern Munich, where they were promptly dismantled, the fact that Bayern's attackers were capable of shutting down Xavi's distribution to the midfielders ahead of him was key to their victory.
Their constant pressing of the Spanish international forced Barcelona to spend the majority of their possession in their own half. Moreover, their ability to get forward in attack and catch La Blaugrana's defense on the run was a huge factor in the build up for all of their goals on the night.
If Barcelona are to earn anything from the second leg, they need to get Xavi into space. The defenders behind him must push up and fill that central corridor with another body—giving Barca another man advantage—which will in turn, provide more space for the Spaniard.
Bayern Munich: Dante, CB
Anyone who doubts the importance of Dante to Bayern Munich needs only to look to his performance against Barcelona to see his significance.
The central defender was superb in shutting off the supply at the top of the attack and forced Messi back into a central midfielder role—simply so he could try and locate the ball.
He was strong in the air and an incredibly tough presence to get past on the ground. He was physical, composed and communicated brilliantly with his fellow defenders—something that he'll no doubt do throughout the second leg, and as he has done all tournament.
Dante's importance to Bayern is not just defensive, however, with his tall frame giving them a huge advantage in the air. He was responsible for the first goal and outplayed the Spanish side in the air all night. He'll no doubt look to continue that in the second leg and will be a huge player to watch when the German heavyweights walk out at Wembley Stadium next month.
Borussia Dortmund: Ilkay Gundogan, CM
Against a team like Real Madrid, Ilkay Gundogan could be a genuine star.
Gundogan is a defensive midfielder who holds the Dortmund attack together perfectly and doubles as another body in defense. Both of those qualities will be paramount against Los Blancos, who love to counterattack and work through the middle of the field, but also can be exposed at the back as well.
Simply put, if Gundogan can pick up the likes of Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil or Angel Di Maria when they try to hurt Dortmund on the counterattack, Dortmund's defense will hold up, and it will be very difficult for Jose Mourinho's side to break through.
Similarly, if Gundogan can get forward and chime into the attack—as he did very well against Madrid in the first two games this season—then Los Blancos' defense may struggle. They're already likely to face a multipronged attack with Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Lewandowski; adding another player arriving on the top of the box might just be the difference here.
Real Madrid: Fabio Coentrao, LB
Both in attack and defense, Coentrao could play a huge role for Madrid against Dortmund, and he'll be a key player to watch, especially in the first leg.
With Dortmund likely to attack a great deal throughout the game, Coentrao's ability to break down the left and operate as a winger at times—chiming into the attack—will be key. Especially against Manchester United, his ability to get outside of Ronaldo when he cuts in makes it very difficult for defenses to adjust and can see him with some key goalscoring chances.
He'll no doubt have plenty of defensive work to get through and must not shirk those responsibilities in order to help the attack; otherwise, Dortmund's dominant offense will punish the away side.
Coentrao has averaged over five tackles and interceptions per game this year and creates a goalscoring opportunity for others nearly every game he plays.
Look for him to be an underrated but very important X-factor for Madrid.
Hit me up on Twitter for more sports goodness: Follow @dantalintyre
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!