Power Ranking the Midfields of the Champions League Last 16
With the UEFA Champions League round of 16 edging closer, B/R continues its previews by checking in on the strength of each and every remaining team's respective midfield.
In selecting the midfields to judge, we only took into account players available to play in the round of 16 ties. Therefore, Ilkay Gundogan does not count toward Borussia Dortmund's strength and Juan Mata doesn't count toward Manchester United's.
For teams playing in a 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 formation, the midfield five are judged; for 4-2-2, the four; for 4-3-3, the three.
B/R's Chris Atkins ranked the forward lines last week; now, we move on to the midfields.
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Joel Campbell, Javier Saviola, Hernan Perez, Delvin N'Dinga/Giannis Maniatis, Andreas Samaris
Olympiakos came in 16th in the attacking rankings, and they come in bottom of the ladder here too.
They are, without doubt, the weakest team remaining in the UEFA Champions League, and very few—if any—of their midfielders could challenge for a starting role in any competing side.
Joel Campbell, on loan from Arsenal, will be of particular interest to Gunners fans, and Delvin N'Dinga has been a solid player in defensive midfield for the last few weeks.
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Nigel de Jong, Michael Essien, Kaka, Adel Taarabt, Ignazio Abate
Clarence Seedorf has installed a 4-2-3-1 formation at Milan since taking over, but suspensions and injuries will hit him hard for his tie against Atletico Madrid in the round of 16.
Riccardo Montolivo, a regular in defensive midfield alongside Nigel de Jong, is suspended along with Sulley Muntari, so January addition Michael Essien might well come in for a start.
His half-season at Chelsea was far from ideal, so that's a big worry. How quickly Adel Taarabt can adapt to a much higher level of competition will be another concern. Ignazio Abate will likely step in on the right wing, and Kaka is an unpredictable performer.
14. Bayer Leverkusen
Probable Midfield (4-3-3): Simon Rolfes, Lars Bender, Gonzalo Castro
Stefan Reinartz looks set to miss a third straight game with a heel injury, dealing Sami Hyypia a big blow in central midfield. The German is a warrior at DM and represents a big miss; Simon Rolfes will fill in, but he's not quite the same.
With Rolfes switching to the deepest position, Gonzalo Castro will likely come inside. He played right wing in place of Sidney Sam at the weekend, but the speedster should re-enter the XI now that he's not playing his future club Schalke.
Lars Bender is the one who makes the entire team tick, and his all-round, complete game will be important against a rabid Paris Saint-Germain midfield.
Probable Midfield (4-2-2 Diamond): Selcuk Inan, Felipe Melo, Wesley Sneijder, Sabri Sarioglu/Emre Colak/Ceyhun
Galatasaray sit a very unpredictable outfit.
Roberto Mancini has toyed with all sorts of formations over the past few months, trying the 4-4-2, the diamond, the 3-5-2 and more.
It makes for a difficult preview, but we know Wesley Sneijder, Felipe Melo and Selcuk Inan will play in a midfield shape of some sort. This versatility makes them to difficult to game-plan for, and it could well be a trump card that allows Mancini to stay ahead of the game.
Gala would be higher, but Selcuk hasn't been at his best for a little while now.
12. Zenit St. Petersburg
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Axel Witsel, Danny, Hulk, Viktor Faizulin, Roman Shirokov
Luciano Spalletti has played around with his Zenit St. Petersburg formation in the Russian Premier League, but in the UEFA Champions League, he clearly likes the 4-2-3-1.
Viktor Faizulin and Axel Witsel are a wonderful midfield pairing, with the latter in particular a world-class player who doesn't get nearly enough attention. There's a reason he's the second name on the Belgian team sheet.
Ahead of him, Roman Shirokov has a knack for grabbing goals, and Hulk is an obvious threat. He's considered overrated in the footballing community, but he's put together one hell of a season so far.
Danny blows hot and cold, and Spalletti will be hoping he's hot for the visit of Borussia Dortmund.
11. Manchester United
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney, Darren Fletcher
Manchester United's midfield strength takes a hit for two reasons: It's underperforming on a regular basis under David Moyes, and Juan Mata isn't eligible to play in the UEFA Champions League.
Adnan Januzaj becomes a strong selection in the absence of Mata, and Wayne Rooney remains a star in the No. 10 role.
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Roman Neustadter, Jefferson Farfan, Max Meyer, Julian Draxler, Kevin-Prince Boateng
Jens Keller has options in his midfield, and the recent emergence of Leon Goretzka has given him one of those "pleasant" headaches managers often refer to.
Roman Neustadter looks a lock in defensive midfield, but his partner is unclear. The role is Goretzka's natural one, and Jermaine Jones has been loaned out, so which way will they go?
Jefferson Farfan will provide pace and power on the right. Julian Draxler—if fit—will take up his regular No. 10 role, and Max Meyer could play the biggest game of his young career from the left.
Chinedu Obasi has re-emerged and becomes an option if the occasion is too much.
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Jack Wilshere, Mathieu Flamini, Mesut Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla
Arsenal looked to be cooling off at just the wrong time, but a 2-1 win over Liverpool in the FA Cup this weekend will do them wonders ahead of the Bayern Munich brawl.
Mesut Ozil is set to come up against several countrymen in midfield and defence, and with the Gunners likely limited to playing on the counterattack, his moments of genius could become key.
Mathieu Flamini will be in charge of disrupting attacks in the heart of midfield, and Arsene Wenger will hope he doesn't pick up his token yellow card too soon. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's great recent form makes him a potential trump card in the making.
8. Borussia Dortmund
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Sven Bender, Nuri Sahin, Marco Reus, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang
Some of you may be surprised to see Borussia Dortmund relatively low down, but with Ilkay Gundogan absent due to injury and Henrikh Mkhitaryan unconvincing as yet, this isn't the unit that rocked the UEFA Champions League last season.
Nuri Sahin has stepped up superbly to knit things together in the meantime, and his prowess is coming to the fore. Marco Reus is a consistent threat in off the left side.
Sven Bender will likely anchor the midfield if he doesn't have to drop back into central defence again. Quietly, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang already has 16 goals on the season.
Probable Midfield (4-2-3-1): Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian, John Obi Mikel/Frank Lampard, Ramires
Jose Mourinho has crafted a solid, steady midfield built to absorb pressure, sit in a low block and explode on the counter.
The emergence of Eden Hazard as a key goal-getter has aided that transformation, and the Belgian is very much becoming the reincarnation of Cristiano Ronaldo in the manager's 4-2-3-1 blueprint.
Willian and Oscar work hard, track back and provide immediate high press when the ball is lost, but the lack of Nemanja Matic—forced due to his participation with Benfica earlier in the competition—is a monumental loss.
6. Paris Saint-Germain
Probable Midfield (4-3-3): Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti/Yohan Cabaye
Laurent Blanc likes to dominate the ball and therefore possession, so the ball-playing strengths of his midfield three will come under serious scrutiny against Bayer Leverkusen.
The Werkself thrive on the counterattack and play their best football in space, so it should be another big night for Thiago Motta, who has been incredible as an anchor this season.
Marco Verratti will hope he retains his place ahead of January addition Yohan Cabaye, and Blaise Matuidi, as ever, will be key moving forward with the ball at his feet.
This midfield is unsung due to the forward line ahead, but it's stacked with talent.
5. Atletico Madrid
Probable Midfield (4-4-2): Gabi, Koke, Arda Turan, Tiago/Raul Garcia
Atletico Madrid's midfield is built in manager Diego Simeone's image: hard-nosed, hard-working and disciplined beyond belief.
They've created a rigid, deep-lying 4-4-2 that forgoes possession in favour of perfect shape and organisation; Gabi and one other defensive midfielder shield the back four at all times.
Arda Turan plays a freer role from the left with attacking intent, while Koke balances the formation out by tucking in on the right. The interchangeability has reached new levels since Koke began excelling in a more central role.
The system relies on the movement and creativity of Diego Costa and David Villa up front; all the midfield four need to do is make sure everything is compact.
4. Manchester City
Probable Midfield (4-4-2): Yaya Toure, Javi Garcia/Fernandinho, David Silva, Jesus Navas/James Milner
Without Fernandinho, Manchester City's midfield strength—on pitch or paper—takes a massive hit. The Brazilian might be fit, but he's a big "if" right now.
There's little risk of Martin Demichelis appearing alongside Yaya Toure, and Javi Garcia's strong performance against Chelsea in the FA Cup is a major plus.
David Silva remains one of the most creative individuals in world football, and tucking inside and finding runners is a real strong suit. Right wing belongs to Jesus Navas, but James Milner may be asked to double up on round of 16 opponent Neymar in the second leg.
3. Real Madrid
Probable Midfield (4-3-3): Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Angel Di Maria
Carlo Ancelotti has settled on an incredibly well-balanced 4-3-3 system.
Angel Di Maria, converting to a flatter role despite playing most of his career on the wing, provides purposeful drive, energy and—in basic terms—a ton of running. Behind him, Luka Modric reigns supreme in the final third, and Xabi Alonso creates from his deep-lying role.
In terms of depth, Asier Illarramendi and Isco round off an extremely strong group.
Probable Midfield (4-3-3): Xavi/Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets
This will be the greatest test of Gerardo Martino's new-look midfield so far, as the tiki-taka element to Barcelona's play has diminished under their new Argentine coach.
Cesc Fabregas is thriving under a more vertical system, and the focus is on getting the ball from back to front—Gerard Pique to Lionel Messi and Neymar—faster than we've become accustomed to.
How big a role will Xavi play? Will Sergio Busquets cope with Manchester City's movement? Can Andres Iniesta unlock the door? There are far more questions than answers at this point.
Barca's midfield is still elite despite their slight fall from grace.
1. Bayern Munich
Probable Midfield (4-1-4-1): Javi Martinez/Philipp Lahm, Thiago Alcantara, Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Arjen Robben
Bayern Munich are harbouring two key injuries in midfield for their game against Arsenal, but they're still among the strongest in the pack.
Bastian Schweinsteiger has been injured of late and, according to Raphael Honigstein on BT Sport's European Football Show, will likely not be risked for the game. Franck Ribery is also sidelined, and his natural replacement, Xherdan Shaqiri, picked up an injury on Saturday afternoon.
That likely means Thomas Mueller in on the left opposite Arjen Robben and Javi Martinez or Philipp Lahm in defensive midfield, as Thiago isn't strong enough to play without a proper anchor.
Whatever the XI, this free-flowing setup will dominate possession and control matters with ease.
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