UEFA Champions League Last 16: Top 10 Midfielders Left in the Tournament

Pauly Kwestel@pkwestelWFAN Correspondent IFebruary 24, 2011

UEFA Champions League Last 16: Top 10 Midfielders Left in the Tournament

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    The UEFA Champions League has moved on to the knockout stages where scoring goals is at a premium. The teams with the top midfielders hold a big advantage, as they could score and keep possession of the football. 

    In the knockout rounds, each tie consists of two legs, with one home game for each team. The team with the most goals in the two matches moves on to the next round. 

    This style creates a major emphasis on scoring goals, but once you have that goal, it is more important not to concede any. The most effective way to do that is to keep possession of the ball; after all, if you have the ball, the opposing team can't score.

    When you are trying to keep possession, the burden falls onto your midfielders. If they are dominant, they will be able to control the flow of the game and keep possession. However, if they are not, you could be conceding many more goals than you want to.

    Midfield is one of the hardest positions to judge who the best is at the position. There are several different types of midfielders with different roles. Some midfielders excel at attacking and scoring goals, while others excel at defense and keeping possession of the ball. Some may not score a lot of goals, but are terrific passers and their play often leads to goals. 

    Sometimes midfielders are not terrific on their own, but when paired with another player the two of them become fantastic. 

    Here are the top 10 both players and pairs of midfielders who remain in the Champions League. 

Dishonorable Mention

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    Frank Lampard (Chelsea)  

    It has been a tough season for the Chelsea midfielder, spending much of the first half of the season injured. Lampard has not yet played in the Champions League this season, but even his career numbers in the Champions League are...average.

    Lampard did score Chelsea's lone goal in the 2008 Champions League final, but he has often been unable to get Chelsea over the hump in Europe. To top it off, Lampard's league form has struggled this season, especially since the team signed Fernando Torres. Lampard has struggled most of this season and his current form does not make him one of the top midfielders in the game. 


    Florent Malouda (Chelsea)

    The French winger got off to a blazing start this season, scoring six goals in Chelsea's first five league games, but he has cooled off considerably since then, scoring just three more over their next 22 matches. Even worse, Molouda has never really gotten himself going in the Champions League for Chelsea, scoring just three goals in 34 Champions League appearances.

    His great start suggested he could be set to become one of the top wingers in the world this season, but it is ultimately turning out to be a disappointment. Molouda has now even seem himself dropped from the starting XI recently, as Chelsea continue to find the right combination of players to play with Fernando Torres. Molouda had a chance to be one of the best, but since September Malouda could only be best described as average. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Mezut Ozil (Real Madrid) 

    Ozil burst onto the scene this summer following a fantastic World Cup, which led to his transfer to Real Madrid. This season at Madrid, Ozil picked up his first career Champions League goal. While Ozil is not known for scoring goals, he sure creates a bunch of them. Ozil recorded 20 and 21 assists during his final two seasons at Werder Bremen, with 14 of the 41 total assists coming in European play. This season Ozil has already assisted on three goals in five Champions League appearances for Real Madrid, and has picked up 12 in all competitions. 


    Ji-Sung Park (Manchester United)

    Ji-Sung Park's greatest asset is his motor. The winger can run and run for days. While he often drew the ire of Manchester United fans for only running and not doing anything else on the pitch, Park has stepped up his game in recent years, especially in big matches.

    While he may not be a tremendous midfielder, Park has had a knack for scoring big goals in big games. During the 2009 semifinal, Park scored an early goal in the second leg against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, helping to quickly dash Arsenal's hopes of advancing to the final.

    Last season Park struck at Old Trafford against AC Milan in the round of 16, as well as doing a fabulous job of man-marking Pirlo. Park's tremendous play helped United pick up a victory in Italy that helped them move on to the next round.

    This season, Park had been having a tremendous season for United until he left the club in January to compete in the Asian Cup. Park has since picked up an injury but for the first time in his career, and he has United fans wondering when he will return. 


    Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid)

    Xabi Alonso is the best midfielder not in the top 10, as he is one of the most difficult players to judge. Alsonso is not a goal scorer so his goal numbers are obviously not prolific. However, Alonso is often credited for being the man whose pass leads to the pass that scores the goal, or in other words, Alonso's passing often starts Real Madrid attacks.

    However, it is also hard to throw all the credit Alonso's way, as he is surrounded by incredibly talented players who have the ability to create on their own. If Alonso was still playing for Liverpool he would easily find himself on this list, but at Real Madrid one may ask, how much of it is Alonso and how much is it the other players?

10. Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma)

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    De Rossi is the heart and sole of AS Roma. While he could be better in the Champions League, his personal success goes far beyond that. He has been an influential midfielder for both Roma and the Italian national team, the latter of which he helped to win the 2006 World Cup. 

    De Rossi, currently the vice captain of Roma, has been tipped by many to be the next Italian captain when Fabio Cannavaro steps down. 

    De Rossi has scored three goals in 33 Champions League appearances, but his impact goes way beyond scoring goals. De Rossi is the center of everything on the pitch for Roma, acting as a holding midfielder to provide a stable defense and to start attacks. 

    De Rossi has been tremendous defensively, helping Roma earn a reputation as one of the best defensive clubs in Europe. His passing allows Roma to switch from defending to attacking swiftly, catching opposing defenses off guard. 

    If you take De Rossi off the pitch, Roma are left with a gaping hole in the middle of the field. With Rossi, Roma has a man who can start their attacks, and someone who could defend their hard-earned leads. 

9. Ryan Giggs/Nani (Manchester United)

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    While Ryan Giggs is still making an impact at Old Trafford, it is clear his best days are behind him. Giggs can no longer play a full season of football, and it is up to Sir Alex Ferguson to pick and choose the spots where he will use him. However, when United struggled, the almighty Giggs is often able to come off the bench and rescue them. 

    The pathway to scoring goals still runs down the left side when Giggs is playing. Despite not featuring much in the Group Stages, Sir Alex Ferguson will return to using Giggs during the important matches in the knockout rounds. 

    Giggs provides a wealth of experience, as well as the occasional goal. Over his 21-year career, Giggs has made 135 Champions League appearances where he has scored 27 goals, the most ever by a British player. Giggs is also the only player to ever score in 11 consecutive Champions League seasons. 

    However, despite his great career, Giggs can no longer be counted on to be the main man at Manchester United, as United need newer and younger players to carry the burden. 

    Portuguese winger Nani is one of those players. When Nani signed with United in 2007, he was labeled as "Ronaldo's replacement." However, Nani failed to live up to the hype in a frustrating first few years at Old Trafford. 

    This season has been a breakout year for Nani, where he has scored nine goals and picked up 12 assists in 31 appearances in all competitions. But despite his moments of brilliance early on, Nani's success had been slow to translate to success in the Champions League. He has scored just three times in 31 appearances. 

    Things are looking brighter for Nani though. He has solidified himself in United's starting XI. He has also primarily moved back to right wing, the position where he is far more comfortable. He picked up a goal during the group stages this season, but his biggest game came when it counted last season. 

    Last season with United coming home trailing Bayern Munich 2-1 in the quarterfinals, Nani scored two goals to help United out to a 3-0 lead. It looked as if United had booked their ticket to the semifinals, but a late collapse allowed Bayern to come back and advance. Despite being knocked out, Nani showed Europe what will come from him over the years. 

    With Nani and Giggs, United have youth and experience on the wings in the knockout rounds, a combination that could be deadly for opposing teams. 

8. Kaka (Real Madrid)

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    I am fully aware that Kaka has struggled since his move to Real Madrid. I am aware that the Real Madrid style of play may not fit his style, and that playing at Madrid has hindered his ability to fully be the player that he could be. 

    In December rumors were swirling about the possibility that the Brazilian playmaker would be leaving Madrid in January, after Madrid manager Jose Mourinho said that Kaka didn't fit the new Real Madrid style of play. Kaka returned to football after an eight-month absence in January. He remained with Madrid but there are still rumors floating around that he will leave the club this summer. 

    Kaka's numbers have dropped since moving to Spain, both domestically and in the Champions League. But this has nothing to do with numbers, Kaka needs to have a place on this list solely based on his ability alone. At any point during a match, Kaka has the ability to go off and display the greatness that he once showed consistently. 

    One may argue that Kaka is now a shadow of his former self, but that could easily be attributed to him not having the freedom at Madrid that he used to have at Milan. 

    In his years at Milan, Kaka established himself as one of the best players on the planet. If you are still blinded by his recent struggles and can't remember the brilliance Kaka used to bring to the pitch, refresh your memory

    In Kaka's six seasons with AC Milan, he scored 24 goals in 63 Champions League appearances. He led Milan to a Champions League title in 2007, picking up the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or honors that same year. 

    This summer, Kaka was the top assister at the World Cup in South Africa. Since returning to Madrid he has been off to a solid start, scoring two goals in his first seven league appearances. 

    Kaka has struggled to replicate the tremendous play he showed in Italy since moving to Spain, but there is no doubt he is still one of the top midfielders in the world. 

7. Rafael Van Der Vaart/Gareth Bale (Tottenham)

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    Gareth Bale turned up his game in the second half of last season to help Tottenham reach the Champions League for the first time. This year in the Champions League, he is showing the continent just how good he is. 

    Bale announced his presence to Europe this season when he torched Inter Milan and Brazilian right back Maicon twice over a two-week period. In the first match at the San Siro, with Spurs down to 10 men, Bale ran wild in the second half, picking up a second-half hat trick to turn a 4-0 deficit into a respectable 4-3 loss. When the two squads met again a fortnight later at White Hart Lane, Bale ran wild again, helping Spurs defeat the reigning Champions, 3-1. 

    But last summer Spurs knew that they would not be able to compete in the Champions League with the current squad they had. They needed to bring in additional help. With that, Spurs pulled off the steal of the transfer window, scooping up Real Madrid cast-off Rafael Van Der Vaart for just £8 million on the final day of the transfer window. 

    Van Der Vaart has had an immediate impact at White Hart Lane, scoring 10 goals in 19 league appearances. 

    However, teaming Van Der Vaart with Bale has allowed the two of them to be the spearheads of Tottenham's offensive explosion in the Champions League. 

    Spurs have struggled to score in the Premier League, dropping more points than they should because of the lack of goals. However, in Europe, goals have been plentiful for Tottenham, picking up 19 goals in their first seven matches, in large part due to the play of Van Der Vaart and Bale. 

    The two midfielders have provided six of the 19 Spurs goals, with both players being injured for the first leg of the knockout round against AC Milan (though Van Der Vaart did give it a go playing 60 minutes). 

    The combination of Rafael Van Der Vaart and Gareth Bale have transformed Tottenham from a team people thought would be lucky to make it out of the group stages to a team that has a chance of making a strong Champions League run. 

6. Lucho Gonzalez (Olympic Marseille)

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    The former Porto captain is now raising eyebrows with Marseille in France. While getting less exposure than several other European players, Gonzalez has led Marseille into the knockout stages where they will face Manchester United. With Manchester United dealing with a whole slew of injuries, Gonzalez could be in position to lead Marseille to an upset over the English giants. 

    Gonzalez is no stranger to Champions League football, having played in the competition every year since 2006. In his four years at Porto, Gonzalez made 29 Champions League appearances, where he scored nine goals and assisted on three more. 

    Last season with Marseille, he scored two goals in five group stage matches, though Marseille finished third in the group and dropped down to the Europa League. 

    This season Gonzalez has scored two goals and assisted on one more during the group stages, starting in five matches and coming off the bench in one as well. 

    More importantly Gonzalez has taken control in midfield, helping to lead the Marseille attack, and allowing them to progress further in the competition this season. Gonzalez has less talent around him than many of the other top midfielders, making his accomplishments all the more impressive. 

5. Theo Walcott/Andrei Arshavin

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    Theo Walcott got off to a tremendous start this season before picking up an injury while on International duty. Nevertheless, Walcott is beginning to turn into the player many people predicted he would become. 

    On the other side of the Arsenal midfield is the Russian Andrei Arshavin. Arshavin has been thrilling Gunners fans since arriving at the Emirates in January of 2009. Just a few months later, Arshavin stamped his mark on the Premier League season when he scored all four Arsenal goals in a thrilling 4-4 draw with Liverpool at Anfield. 

    Walcott is currently in the middle of the best season of his career. He already has seven league goals, more than his former personal best of four, in just 18 league appearances. In addition he has picked up six assists this league campaign.

    Walcott's tremendous form has not been limited to just England, as he has scored two goals in five Champions League matches this season. Over his career Walcott has found the net eight times and has assisted on seven more goals in 36 Champions League appearances. Furthermore, Walcott has has forced manager Arsene Wenger to include him in the starting XI for every important match. 

    The funny thing about Champions League football is that it is not always a team's best player who becomes their most important one. That is the case with Arsenal, as Andrei Arshavin is emerging as the Gunners' most important player in Europe. 

    Arshavin has already scored three times in his last five matches in the Champions League for Arsenal this year. In his two seasons of Champions League football at Arsenal, Arshavin has scored five goals and picked up seven assists, all in just 13 matches. 

    It is not just what Arshavin does himself that is important but rather the impact he has on the team. Quite simply, Arsenal are unbeaten in the 13 Champions League matches that Arshavin has played in. HIs latest contribution was a big one as Arshavin came off the bench to score the winner in Arsenal's first-leg match against Barcelona. 

    Walcott had to leave Wednesday's match against Stoke with an injury, something that could be a devastating blow to Arsenal. But when together with Arshavin, the two of them give Arsenal one of the best attacking midfields left in Europe. 

4. Bastian Schweinsteiger/Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich)

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    Since Franck Ribery moved from Olympic Marseille to Bayern Munich in 2007, Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger have emerged as one of the best midfield pairs in Europe. 

    They not only possess the ability to score goals, but are superb at creating them as well. Needless to say, the Bayern Munich attack runs through these two players, and last year, they took that attack all the way to the Champions League final. 

    Schweinsteiger began his career playing on the right wing for Bayern. However, for last season's Champions League final, he was shifted to central midfield where he has thrived in his new role. 

    Ribery operates down the left side, where since his move to Munich, he has become recognized by the world as one of the best French players of his generation. 

    Both players have also had success with their national teams. Schweinsteiger has 21 goals and 27 assists in 85 appearances for Germany, while Ribery has seven goals and 10 assists in 48 appearances for France. 

    The arrival of Ribery at Bayern Munich has worked out well for both these players. At Munich, Ribery's game in the Champions League has grown considerably better. In his four seasons at Bayern, Ribery has scored 10 goals and assisted on 16 more in 28 Champions League appearances, including picking up two goals and an assist in his only two appearances this season. 

    As a right wing, Schweinsteiger was mostly a distributor for Munich, picking up 10 assists in 58 appearances. However, playing in his new central position this season, Schweinsteiger has scored twice and assisted on two more in Bayern's first five Champions League matches this season. 

    Bastian Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribery provide a scary midfield combo that could both score goals, and set them up, making them incredibly tough for any team to defend against in the Champions League. 

3. Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan)

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    Wesley Sneijder has played for three different clubs in what is still a young career, but has thrived everywhere he has been. Sneijder began his career in the famous Ajax youth academy, working his way all the way up to the first team. Sneijder impressed enough in his five seasons at Ajax to secure a 27 million Euro move to Real Madrid, making him the second-most expensive Dutch player ever. 

    After two seasons with Real Madrid, Sneijder moved to Inter in the summer of 2009. While his numbers have dropped at Inter, his impact has not. In his first season in Italy, Sneijder made 11 Champions League appearances, scoring three goals, but each goal seemed more important than the next. 

    Sneijder's first Champions League goal for Inter came in the 89th minute in a group stage match against Dynamo Kiev. The goal gave Inter a 2-1 win. His next goal came against CSKA Moscow in the quarterfinals; the goal put Inter ahead 2-0 on aggregate, nearly putting the tie to bed. Sneijder's final Champions League goal last season was his biggest, scoring an equalizer in the first leg of the semifinal against Barcelona. 

    The media were quickly being transfixed by Sneijder, giving him the nickname "The Sniper" due to his ability to score from distance and deliver perfect passes. Sneijder has developed a reputation for being a tremendous dead ball specialist. In addition, Sneijder is ambidextrous, giving him a huge advantage in being able to use both feet equally. 

    Sneijder's ability to use both feet give him a tremendous ability to possess the ball in the midfield, allowing him to have a huge impact on the match. Sneijder was a crucial piece that led Inter to a Champions League title last season, and he contributed himself by assisting on Diego Millto's opening goal in the final. After the match he was voted as the fans' "Man of the Match." 

    Sneijder's year wasn't done there, as he played a key role in helping lead the Netherlands to the World Cup final. At the end of the year, he was named the UEFA Club Midfielder of the Year. At just 26 years old, Sneijder will continue making a huge impact on matches for years to come. 

2. Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal)

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    Ever since making his debut with Arsenal Cesc Fabregas has had fans marveling at his talent. Fabregas is planted right in the center of the Arsenal team, having the whole attack run through him. 

    Over the past year he has been unable to stay out of the transfer gossip pages, as rumors keep swirling about a move to Barcelona. But despite all the rumors, Fabregas is still the Arsenal captain, and he is still playing at an incredible level for Arsenal. 

    While Fabregas' goal record is pretty good for a midfielder, 17 goals in 59 Champions League appearances, it is his incredible passing ability that he is known for. Fabregas has picked up 15 assists in those 59 Champions League matches, and he has picked up a total of 97 assists in 293 career appearances for Arsenal. 

    However assists only count the last pass before the goal is scored, and Fabregas' impact goes well beyond that. Fabregas is often the man who starts the Arsenal attack, sometimes from his own penalty area. His long passes have the ability to spring Arsenal's winger down the pitch for quick counter attacks, making Arsenal very dangerous. 

    Over the past few seasons, Fabregas has started to play more aggressively. The more aggressive style has led to Fabregas increasing his goal total. However, while his goal total is rising, Fabregas has not lost his great passing ability, making him a double threat on the pitch. 

    It is awfully hard to watch Arsenal play and not notice Cesc Fabregas as one of the most talented players in the world. 

    A potential disaster came for Arsenal this week when Fabregas came limping off the field after just 14 minutes in a Premier League match against Stoke. When he left, Arsenal's game became much less aggressive and they looked like a completely different team, which just shows how much Fabregas brings to the table for the Gunners. If his knee injury is serious, the Gunners hopes for a Champions League run, as well as a title challenge in England could be in serious jeopardy. 

1. Andres Iniesta/Xavi (Barcelona)

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    It is slightly amusing that Cesc Fabregas, one of the best midfielders in the world, is not even good enough to start for his own national team. But that is what happens when you play on the same team as Xavi and Andres Iniesta; and considering Spain is coming off wins in both Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, it seems like they have made the right decision. With all the success that Xavi and Iniesta have led Barcelona and Spain to, it begs the question: What do Barcelona even need Cesc Fabregas for? And where would he play?

    Those questions don't need to be answered now, especially as Barcelona employ the world's best midfield partnership in Xavi and Iniesta. Neither individual has great numbers in terms of scoring goals, but then again they don't need to. During their time at Barcelona, the two midfielders have played with some of the most talented strikers in the world, such as Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto'o, David Villa and Lionel Messi just to name a few. 

    Instead, Xavi and Iniesta concentrate simply on possessing the ball and controlling the flow of the match. The duo control the ball in the middle of the field, with their incredible passing abilities allowing them to get the ball to the strikers in the attacking third, letting them do their thing. 

    The two have played together for nearly all their matches since Iniesta began getting regular first team football at Barcelona in 2004, but they both have their fair share of individual honors as well.

    Despite not scoring, Xavi's ability to control the flow of the match earned him "Man of the Match" honors in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United. In addition Xavi also took home the UEFA Euro 2008 Player of the Tournament award, and was named the World Soccer Player of the Year in 2010. Xavi also came in third place for the Ballon d'Or in both 2009 and 2010. 

    Not to let Xavi have all the glory, Iniesta has also had his moments of glory. Iniesta scored the winning goal in extra time for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, also collecting "Man of the Match" honors. In addition, Iniesta finished fourth for the Ballon d'Or in 2009, one place behind his midfield partner. In 2010 though, Iniesta was the runner up for the Ballon d'Or, finishing ahead of Xavi. 

    Individually, both Xavi and Iniesta are two of the best midfielders in the world. The two of them are inseparable though, playing together for both Spain and Barcelona. When paired together, they easily form the best midfield partnership in the world. 

    Despite losing the first leg of the knockout rounds at Arsenal, it doesn't change the fact that these two players make up the best midfield in the world.