UEFA Champions League: The 10 Best Performers in This Season's Competition
After last night’s round of fixtures, four of the sides who will contest the 2011 UEFA Champions League quarterfinals are now known. Schalke and Tottenham joined Barcelona and Shakhtar Donetsk in the draw, while next week eight more teams will hope to move one step closer to Wembley on May 28th.
The Champions League so often throws up great individual performances being, as it is, the platform for Europe’s best to compete. But which players have impressed the most in this season’s competition?
While many of the top performances so far have come from familiar sources, some surprise packages have also caught the eye. The likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich are so packed full of individual talent that they always provide some of the competition’s shining lights. However, Shakhtar, for instance, have also been excellent and fully deserve their place in the final eight, due in no small part to their multitude of brilliant Brazilian attackers.
One issue to note is that only one defender makes the list (if you discount a marauding fullback who has been used almost exclusively in midfield this season). This is to be expected, as defenders have less chance to impress in the early rounds, with weaker opponents to face. The best defensive record belongs to Manchester United who rotate their back four regularly and increasingly, and as the top sides defend more as a team, it is defensive units who stand out rather than individuals.
The criteria have been to select players who have either performed way above expectations or those who have been so brilliant it would be foolish to exclude them. It has also been an aim to select mainly from players still in the tournament, although there are one or two exceptions.
What follows, then, is a list of the 10 stars who have shined brightest in the first half of this tournament and as the latter stages approach, perhaps a guide as to who might lead their team to glory.
Nicolas Anelka: Chelsea
So often the support for Didier Drogba in Chelsea’s attack, Anelka has stepped out of the Ivorian’s shadow this season to become Chelsea’s most potent striker. While Drogba suffered with malaria, Anelka has had no problem filling his boots with seven goals, coming from just six appearances in the competition.
The Frenchman has managed to find the net against every opponent he has faced in this season’s Champions League, most recently with a brace away to FC Copenhagen. Moreover, his partnership with new £50 million man Fernando Torres looked promising in that game, and the club will be hoping the pair can fire them to the only trophy that has eluded Chelsea in the Roman Abramovich era.
With progression to the quarterfinals looking likely (Chelsea hold a 2-0 lead going into their home leg against Copenhagen), they are among the favourites to go all the way. Anelka, though, also has his eye on beating Lionel Messi to the golden boot, and much will depend in that particular battle on whose team goes the furthest.
Gareth Bale: Tottenham Hotspur
One night in Milan has defined the career to date of this young Welshman.
Spurs were 4-0 down to Inter in the San Siro when the match transformed into the Gareth Bale Show. In a second-half whirlwind, the flying winger scored three sublime and almost identical goals from the left of the penalty area, as Spurs fell just short of a legendary comeback.
A fortnight later, he put in another stunning performance at White Hart Lane against the same astounded opponents, this time turning provider for Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko.
It was not just the impressive statistics that made Bale a superstar over those two weeks. It was not just that he did it against the defending European champions and a right back, Maicon, widely lauded as one of the best in the world.
What most dumbfounded was the relentless, force-of-nature style of his play, the lightning pace he showed to eat up the ground in front of him and leave top defenders for dead.
Bale plays the game so simply. He knocks the ball past his opponent and runs after it. He plays with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of a schoolboy, yet transforms this into world-class performances with his superb delivery and awareness.
At just 21, he has a glittering career ahead of him, but equally, with Tottenham having vanquished AC Milan to reach the quarterfinals, he may not be finished with this season’s tournament just yet.
Samuel Eto'o: Inter Milan
Cameroon’s all-time leading goalscorer has fantastic pedigree in the Champions League, scoring in two victorious finals for previous club Barcelona. He has already scored more goals this season (seven) than in any of his previous campaigns, including a hat-trick against Werder Bremen.
Eto’o is not just a finisher, as his tireless work for the team and clever movement demonstrate. However, he has been best known in this tournament for wonderfully placed strikes against FC Twente and Tottenham Hotspur, which have shown how deadly he can be given space.
Eto’o faces a tough task to win a fourth Champions League winners medal (he won with Inter last year to add to the two medals from his Barcelona days), as Inter must overturn a 1-0 deficit from their home leg at Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena on March 15th.
Eto’o, however, remains as driven as ever and could be a decent bet to be top scorer, should Inter reach the next round.
Mario Gomez: Bayern Munich
As Bayern’s first knockout round, first leg tie at Inter Milan was petering out to a scoreless draw, one Bayern player had other ideas. Mario Gomez, their leading marksman, pounced on a mistake by Inter goalkeeper Julio Cesar to give his side a vital away goal and put Bayern on course to avenge their defeat in last year’s final.
Gomez played just under 20 minutes of that game, with Croatian Ivica Olic selected in preference. This season, however, the German striker has set about proving a point to boss Louis van Gaal, scoring seven goals in seven appearances in the Champions League and topping the scoring charts in the Bundesliga with 19.
Gomez’s hat trick against CFR Cluj was the high point of his tournament so far, but he has been consistently impressive with his hold up play and physical presence. He will need to continue in his rich vein of goal scoring form if Bayern are to go one better than last year and return with the trophy.
Lionel Messi: FC Barcelona
What can be said about Lionel Messi that has not already been said? Officially the world’s greatest player, his performances in this season’s Champions League have served only to enhance that status.
A scorer in the 2009 final, he leads the goal charts in this season’s competition with eight and should comfortably hit double figures in a Barcelona side heavily favoured to bring home the trophy.
Surely there can be no player in history who has mastered a skill more than Messi has mastered close control. This was displayed to devastating effect on the stroke of half-time in Barca’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal in the Camp Nou on Tuesday.
Messi’s prodigious talent allowed him to flick the ball over Manuel Almunia’s head before volleying home to open the scoring. It was breathtakingly brilliant.
But Messi does brilliant all the time. We expect it of him now. He made a mockery of Arsenal last season and repeated the trick again this season.
With Messi, the magnificent becomes the mundane and defenders weep at the sight. Yet those who love football love the diminutive Argentinean, especially when he drives Barcelona on like he did against Arsenal.
It will take a monumental effort to stop him winning the golden boot, but that’s not the only piece of silverware he has his eye on in Europe this season.
Bastian Schweinsteiger: Bayern Munich
Coming off the back of such a successful World Cup campaign with Germany, Schweinsteiger has been rightly hailed as one of the top midfielders in Europe this season. And while Bayern have been disappointing in the Bundesliga, they have been electric in the Champions League and hold a 1-0 lead going into their last 16, home leg against Inter.
Schweinsteiger is Bayern’s Xavi. He doesn’t have the same exquisite consistency to his passing, but he operates as the fulcrum of his team’s play. Having started out as a winger, the 26-year-old has shown fantastic adaptability in switching to central midfield following the arrival of Arjen Robben and now looks completely at home in a deeper role.
Among Schweinsteiger’s highlights from this season’s competition have been his two goals to dispatch FC Basel and a Man of the Match display in Bayern’s 4-0 demolition of CFR Cluj. If Bayern are to knock out the holders Inter and progress further in the competition they will need their main man to replicate that form next week and for the rest of the tournament.
Chris Smalling: Manchester United
A relative unknown in Europe before this season, Smalling has risen from non-League football, with Maidstone, to the biggest stage of all in just over three years.
Sir Alex Ferguson has shown immense faith in Smalling, starting him in five of United’s seven games so far and the youngster has not disappointed. United are yet to concede a goal while the 21-year-old has been on the pitch, a remarkable statistic for a player appearing in his first Champions League campaign.
While Smalling has benefited from being part of an immensely strong defensive unit at United, he has also shown great composure and consistency despite his lack of experience. He has stood up to the challenges that have come his was so far, and with doubts over the fitness of Rio Ferdinand, he could find himself becoming even more important in his club’s attempt to reclaim the trophy they last won in 2008.
Xavi Hernandez: FC Barcelona
Over the past decade, Xavi has gone from being a well respected central midfield player into the vital cog in Barcelona’s football machine. The pass master, he had made 366 successful passes in the opposition half prior to Tuesday's game against Arsenal, the highest in the Champions League this season.
Xavi controls everything that Barcelona do. His metronomic passing is vital to releasing their fantastic attackers, and he acts as a calming influence on the rest of the side. On Tuesday, he provided the second goal (his first of the campaign), which equalized the tie on aggregate and calmed Barca nerves. He is a joy to watch for spectators and a joy to play alongside for his teammates.
Another member of Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League-winning side, Xavi would dearly love to add a third winners medal to his collection (he was an unused substitute in the 2006 final), and looks as though he may get his wish, with Barca sweeping all before them thus far.
While, like Messi, he may not have done anything particularly out of the ordinary by his standards this year, he has nonetheless been one of the season’s stand out performers and continues to be one of the highest rated midfielders around.
Willian: Shakhtar Donetsk
Shakhtar Donetsk have been one of the surprises of this year’s tournament so far, beating the likes of Arsenal and Roma on their march to the quarterfinals. Much of their success has been down to a staple of Brazilian attackers who have led them to score as many goals (18) as Barcelona, with only Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur having found the net more often.
While Douglas Costa, Eduardo and Luiz Adriano could all have been named in this list, the ever-present Willian just edges it thanks to his brace in Shakhtar’s 3-0 victory over Roma to put them into the next round. The skilful winger was a constant threat to the Italians and rightly won Man of the Match for his endeavours.
Shakhtar are not many people’s pick to emerge triumphant this year, but few also had them down to reach even this stage. Their style is based on superb movement and interplay by the forward players, so including Willian is more a tribute to all their Brazilian attackers, and they are incredibly difficult to defend against.
If they get a favourable draw in the next round there is no reason why they can’t reach the semifinals or even further.
Jack Wilshere: Arsenal
Despite losing 4-3 over two legs in the first knockout stage, there was one huge positive for Arsenal to take out of the tie. Jack Wilshere played all 180 minutes over the two legs and at no stage looked out of his depth. Considering the 19-year-old was in direct competition with the world class triumvirate of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Javier Mascherano this is even more astonishing.
Wilshere has been in superb form this season, both in the Premier League and Champions League. He has aided Arsenal’s cause in Europe with three assists and provided a wonderful balance to their midfield, alongside Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas. Very much the modern central midfield player, he can tackle, pass, run with the ball and he has an instinctive ability to exploit space.
Wilshere already plays with the mind of someone far beyond his years and is arguably the most exciting prospect to emerge in English football since Wayne Rooney. If anything, he is a more intelligent and technically gifted footballer than Rooney, and this, allied to his determination and work rate, means he will be a star for years to come.
It is a shame for the youngster that Arsenal were knocked out at this stage, but he has many years ahead of him to rectify this season’s failure. Perhaps it was too early for Wilshere and Arsenal this time around, though it seems likely that his time will come eventually.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Nemanja Vidic and Other Honorable Mentions
There are so many other players who deserve to make the list but limited space prevents their inclusion:
Manuel Neuer has been brilliant in goal for Schalke and looks to be on his way to Bayern Munich, while Steve Mandanda has kept five consecutive clean sheets for Marseille, including shut outs against Manchester United and Chelsea.
Nemanja Vidic just missed out to his teammate Chris Smalling but has been vital in helping the youngster look so impressive in his debut Champions League season.
Carlos Martins has five assists for Benfica and looked the part until they were knocked out in the group stages, but he is the joint leader for goals created alongside the devastating Aaron Lennon, whose run and pass for Peter Crouch sent Tottenham through to the quarter finals at the expense of AC Milan.
Samir Nasri was fantastic in the group stages but lost out due to the more impressive performances by Jack Wilshere against Barcelona.
Matheus of SC Braga looked excellent in spells but was a victim of his side’s failure to make it out of the group, while Eduardo has scored four in six for Shakhtar Donetsk and was perhaps unlucky to be left out in favour of Willian.
Finally, while not at his effervescent best, Cristiano Ronaldo has nonetheless been one of Real Madrid’s top performers, though he has been outscored and at times outperformed by his teammate Karim Benzema, whose excellent hat trick against Auxerre gives him five goals from just six appearances.
It is difficult to juggle so many excellent players and select just ten. But if you disagree with any of these selections, or have suggestions of your own, feel free to comment at the bottom of the page.