Champions League Last 16: Picking an All-Star XI from the Contenders
The knockout rounds of the Champions League are underway this week. So it's time to look at 11 of the most important players from the remaining teams.
These aren't necessarily the best players from each team, but these are the players that will need to have a good campaign if their team wants to advance through the knockout rounds. The players that are essential to the success of their team. Without these players, their teams don't have any chance of hoisting the trophy in May.
Manuel Neuer: Goalkeeper, Schalke 04
This list isn't necessarily the best players at their position, but the most important players at that position. Even if this list was the best goalkeepers in the world, Neuer would likely find a spot on the list.
While he may not be considered the best goalkeeper in the world or the best goalkeeper of the 16 teams left in the Champions League, he is undoubtedly the most important goalkeeper for his team's success.
This season has been a down season for Schalke and to say that Schalke is a dark horse to win the Champions League would be an understatement. Few people realistically think they can win the tournament. They may be able to beat Valencia, but they will unlikely go much farther.
But whatever their ultimate fate is, it will rely almost entirely upon Neuer. Most teams rely on their goalie, but most teams also have other players to pick up the slack if their goalie falters. Schalke has Raul and Huntelaar, but the field players as a whole have been underperforming, which is why Neuer is essential to Schalke's success more so than any other keeper for the other remaining teams.
Ashley Cole: Defender, Chelsea
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Chelsea was off to a dominant start this season but has since struggled. Winning the Premier Leauge will be extremely difficult, but they can still regain their form in time for the Champions League.
With the recent addition of Torres, Chelsea should be an offensive powerhouse. But even the best offense will struggle or only be able to score one goal in some games. Which means it will be up to the defense to hold the fort down if Chelsea wants to beat the best clubs in Europe.
John Terry and Ivanovic are of course important to Chelsea's defense, but the team would suffer the most without Cole. He contributes on offense and has been reliable at left back. Chelsea needs Cold if they hope to make a legitimate run in the Champions League.
Gerard Pique: Defender, Barcelona
Everyone knows Barcelona has a dominant midfield and arguably the greatest scoring duo in the world with Messi and Villa. Yet, Barcelona's dominant offense is the reason why their defense is is so essential.
Everyone assumes the midfield will control the game, and at some point, Villa or Messi will break open the scoring. Nine times out of 10, Barcelona's offense will be strong, and they will easily outscore their opponent. But even Barcelona isn't perfect and has its bad nights, and they will need to rely on their defense to get them through some of the tough Champions League opponents.
In the past, Puyol was the main fixture of Barcelona's defense. No doubt, he is still valuable and can contribute. But Pique is now the main force in the center, and the success of shutting down teams rests more and more with the Barcelona native.
Barcelona will score goals, but their offense won't be able to completely carry the team to a Champions League title. They will need a solid performance from their defense, and it is Pique that will be the center of that defense, which is why he is essential to Barcelona's ultimate success in these final rounds.
Alessandro Nesta: Defender, AC Milan
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Nesta was sidelined a couple weeks ago with a shoulder injury, but he appears to be back in form in time for the match against Tottenham. Great news for any Milan fan as Nesta is crucial for Milan in the Champions League.
At 34, Nesta is as important to his team as ever. Ranked as the best defender in the Serie A last season, he has been just as valuable this season. Milan has surely appreciated the acquisition of Ibrahimovic and the contributions of Robinho and Pato at forward.
But it is Nesta that will control the defense and is vital to Milan's success. The offense is improved, but not dominant enough to overpower most of the Champions League teams. Milan still will need to rely heavily on their defense, and Nesta is key to that defense. Without Nesta, Milan wouldn't be able to enjoy much success in these final knockout rounds.
Nemanja Vidic: Defender, Manchester United
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Vidic rounds out the list of defenders. It would be tough to omit him from any list that involves defenders that are essential to their team's success.
Manchester United does have Patrice Evra who has been solid and a great contributor this season, but it's Vidic that United can't live without. If United lost Evra, they would likely struggle, but they could still manage to get by.
United would be lost without Vidic as he has been dominant and controlling the central defense. They may be able to get past some of the lower Premier League clubs without Vidic, but they couldn't beat the best in Europe without their best defender.
United has been dominant this season and proved to be the team to beat in the Premier League. They have a great chance to win the Champions League. If they ultimately are able to do so, it will be because of the continued dominant play by Vidic in the back. They won't be able to pull it off without him.
Gareth Bale: Midfielder, Tottenham
Bale has burst onto the headlines this year and become one of the hottest players in the planet. That is largely due to his ability to dominate the left wing and terrorize right defenders.
He had an amazing two games against Inter Milan in the group stages, and he will need to be equally impressive if Tottenham wants to advance through the knockout rounds. Reports indicate that Bale has not traveled to Milan for the first game against AC Milan. That is trouble for Tottenham as Bale is crucial for their success.
Granted, Tottenham does have many weapons. Van Der Vaart has been impressive in the center and Defoe is always strong up top. But Bale has easily been one of the strongest midfielders in the world and Tottenham isn't the same team without him on the pitch. It's unlikely Tottenham could squeeze by AC Milan at Milan without him. Even if they do, they can't expect to go very far without him in the lineup.
Cesc Fabregas: Midfielder, Arsenal
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It almost appears to be a foregone conclusion that Fabregas will eventually leave Arsenal for Barcelona at some point in the future. In the meantime, he has a great opportunity to increase his future paycheck from his eventual employers if he can help Arsenal upset Barcelona.
Fabregas has already come out and said this week that Barcelona is not invincible. While that may be true, even though they aren't the defending champions, they seem to be the team to beat.
Arsenal is a strong team, but they will need to be firing on all cylinders to take down the mighty Barcelona. Fabregas will be the key to Arsenal's success. Van Persie has been dominant up top which will surely help, but Fabregas will need to be orchestrating the team if they want to win.
The midfield focus is almost always on Xavi or Iniesta whenever Barcelona is playing. Fabregas will need to outshine his fellow patriots if Arsenal wants to advance.
Bastian Schweinsteiger: Midfielder, Bayern Munich
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Bayern Munich's coach recently stressed the importance of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery for the team's success. Robben and Ribery are brilliant players and have the potential to propel the team to victory, but both players have been injured and not consistent enough for the team to rely on.
Ideally, they will be able to quickly regain their form and find some chemistry with the team. But the team has been playing without both players for much of the season and is used to getting by without them.
Schweinsteiger on the other hand has been solid and the foundation and the more consistent midfielder for the team this season. The team knows how to play without Robben and Ribery but cannot play without Schweinsteiger.
He will need to improve somewhat in order to carry the team past Inter and other tough Champions League opponents. But he is their consistent player and is essential for the Bayern's success.
Wesley Sneijder: Midfielder, Inter Milan
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Even though Inter won the title last year, they don't seem to be the favorites again this year. That is probably due to the fact that they lost the Special One.
While Jose Mourinho is a great manager and was controlling things from the sidelines, it was Sneijder that was orchestrating all of the success on the field. He was snubbed for the Balon de Oro even though he had arguably one of the greatest individual seasons last year. He wasn't even a finalist which is ridiculous, considering he helped Inter win the Treble and guided the Netherlands to a World Cup final.
Inter hasn't been as dominant this season, but they still have a strong squad. Eto'o has been dominant this season, and they will of course need a great performance from most of their players.
But the team still runs through Sneijder and if Inter wants to make a run like they did last season, they will need Sneijder to step up his game and return to his brilliant form like last season.
Wayne Rooney: Forward, Manchester United
In years past, this slot would have probably been used on another forward as Rooney has always been a consistent striker for Manchester United. But this season has been anything but usual for Rooney, and he has yet to find his world class form. That was until this past weekend when he scored his amazing goal.
Manchester United is a solid team and could win a round or two without Rooney. Berbatov has been solid and picked up to scoring duties while Rooney has been in his slump. But Manchester United has been dominating the Premier League and are entering the knock out stages as a favorite to win it all.
Thus, winning one or two rounds isn't enough, and in order to hoist the trophy and beat the best in Europe, they will need Rooney to return to his world class form.
Fortunately for Manchester United, Rooney couldn't have picked a better time for his incredible goal. Hopefully, it is a sign of his return to form and not just a one-hit wonder. Many strikers are important to their team, but United's success hinges on Rooney.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Forward, Real Madrid
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This isn't Ronaldo's first season with Real Madrid in the Champions League. But this is the first season with Mourinho, and the helm and the pressure has never been greater for Real to finally advance a few rounds.
Ronaldo has been almost single-handedly carrying Real this season. No other player has really picked up the scoring slack once Higuain was sidelined with injury. Ronaldo is generally a better player when he is able to rely on other players and doesn't feel the responsibility to carry his team.
This season he hasn't had any other option and has been central to Real's success. Real picked up Adebayor, but it has yet to be determined if he will actually help with the scoring burden.
No other team is as dependent on their striker as Real is on Ronaldo. Even though they aren't even the best team in their own country, the pressure and expectations are still incredibly high. Real has many premier players, but Ronaldo will determine whether they are able to meet or exceed those expectations.