We’ve reached the business end of the Champions League as the quarter-finals begin this evening, each of the remaining eight sides now just two wins away from a place in the final.
The reformatting of the competition into a mini-tournament in Lisbon has perhaps made this the most open Champions League for many seasons, the neutral venues and one-legged encounters offering a unique feel to world football’s premier club competition.
Ahead of the last eight ties we’ve decided to look at players who could prove the difference for their respective sides, here is the player each UCL quarter-finalist will be looking to for inspiration this week:
Paris Saint-Germain – Neymar
Paris Saint-Germain may never have a better chance of reaching the Champions League final despite the Parisian’s notable injury concerns, the French champions falling on the more favourable side of the draw ahead of their last eight meeting with first time qualifiers Atalanta.
Thomas Tuchel’s side head into their quarter-final clash having secured a domestic treble in France, and will be confident of progressing to the semi-finals for just the second time and first since their billionaire takeover.
Key to their hopes will be the form of Neymar, who has enjoyed arguably the best form of his PSG career this season, scoring 19 goals and providing eight assists in just 24 appearances in all competitions.
More than just statistical evidence, however, the Brazilian seems to be enjoying his football in the French capital once more following continued speculation over his future, whilst his shoulders will be burdened with added responsibility amid the fitness concerns of Kylian Mbappe.
Neymar’s world-record transfer fee was justified on the basis he was the player to lead PSG to a long-awaited Champions League success, the 28-year-old may never have a better chance on which to deliver.
Atalanta – Papu Gomez
Everyone’s second favourite team have bounced back from a nightmare start to their Champions League journey in stunning style, losing their opening three group stage games before recovering to qualify – becoming just the second side after Newcastle 2002/03 to achieve the feat – and going from strength to strength.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s free-scoring and interchanging side is far from reliant on one player and the whole is undoubtedly more than the sum of its parts, but if there is one player the Italian’s will need as they bid to overcome Paris Saint-Germain in the quarter-finals – it’s Papu Gomez.
The club’s experienced captain continues to flourish as Atalanta’s chief conductor, weaving his magic in the forward line amid Gasperini’s innovative tactical approach. The 32-year-old Argentine provided more assists than any other player in Italian football’s top tier this season, registering 16 for an Atalanta side who finished as Serie A’s leading scorers for the second successive campaign.
Their formidable forward play has not been restricted solely to domestic competitions, however, scoring eight times over two legs against Valencia in the last-16 of the Champions League.
The likes of Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic – who scored five times against Valencia but is set to miss their clash with PSG for personal reasons – have all been essential to Atalanta’s success this season, but it is Gomez who continues to knit this wonderful attacking force together.
Atletico Madrid – Jan Oblak
If Atalanta are a side whose qualities are built on a free-flowing carousel of attacking rotation, Atletico’s strength comes via a different method entirely – their discipline, doggedness and organisation the key factors behind the success of Diego Simeone’s reign.
In an era when the traditional 4-4-2 formation is viewed by some as expansive, Atleti have shown that it is a system that can be implemented without compromising the defensive side of the game, the Spaniards arguably the most formidable side in European football to break down.
Behind their determined defensive rearguard, however, lies a goalkeeper many feel is the best in world football. Jan Oblak has flourished as the last line of a notoriously uncompromising defence, with Simeone describing the Slovenian as the ‘Lionel Messi of goalkeepers’ after Atletico’s elimination of holders Liverpool in the last 16.
Oblak has been named as the best goalkeeper in Spanish football for four consecutive seasons, whilst his record of keeping a clean sheet in 54% of his games is the second-highest ratio of any goalkeeper in European Cup history behind only Milan’s Sebastiano Rossi.
The 27-year-old made a phenomenal nine saves during Atletico’s comeback win over Liverpool at Anfield – the most of any goalkeeper in a knockout stage game this season – and is likely to be the key figure as Simeone’s side bid to exorcise their demons of final defeats in 2014 and 2016 to win the Champions League for the first time this season.
RB Leipzig – Christopher Nkunku
RB Leipzig’s rapid rise in recent seasons has led to the Bundesliga side reaching the Champions League knockout stages for the first time this season, with the Germans entering the quarter-finals of the competition after eliminating Tottenham in the last 16.
Leipzig’s chances of progressing further have been dealt a major blow with the departure of leading scorer Timo Werner, however, the forward having opted out of the remainder of their Champions League campaign after completing a summer move to Chelsea.
Werner has scored 34 goals in all competitions this season and replacing his firepower looks an unenviable task for highly-rated manager Julian Nagelsmann, who will hope Christopher Nkunku can deliver as his side look to upset the odds against Atletico Madrid in the last eight.
The 22-year-old arrived from Paris Saint-Germain last summer and has enjoyed a hugely promising debut season in German football, the versatile midfielder looking like another sensible acquisition for Red Bull’s respected scouting network.
Nkunku has scored five goals and provided a hugely impressive 13 assists in just 21 Bundesliga starts this season, his creativity – alongside that of Marcel Sabitzer – likely to be decisive in Leipzig’s bid to unlock Atleti’s stubborn rearguard.
Bayern Munich – Robert Lewandowski
Arguably the finest footballer in world football this season, the unprecedented cancellation of the Ballon d’Or must have come as a major disappointment to Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich forward surely the red-hot favourite to win the game’s most illustrious individual honour.
Lewandowski has long been one of the planet’s premier players, but his game has been elevated to even greater heights during a sensational season for the Bundesliga champions.
The Poland international has scored a barely believable 53 goals in all competitions to date, the 31-year-old firing Bayern to a domestic double and sitting as the leading scorer in the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League.
Lewandowski has been the star turn of a Bayern side which has reached the quarter-finals amid minimum fuss, winning all six of their group stage fixtures before a 7-1 aggregate thrashing of Chelsea in the last 16, a two-legged tie that saw the forward have a direct hand in all seven goals.
His goalscoring exploits have seen Lewandowski average a goal every 47 minutes in the Champions League this season, scoring 13 times and providing four assists in just seven appearances to close in on Cristiano Ronaldo’s all-time single season record of 17.
Bayern face Barcelona in the pick of the last eight ties before a potential semi-final date with Manchester City, though Hansi Flick will be confident his side can add a sixth European Cup to their collection with the presence of the world’s best number nine amongst their ranks.
Barcelona – Lionel Messi
Barcelona’s hopes of winning a first Champions League title in five years are pinned almost entirely on the performances of Lionel Messi, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner as influential as ever to the Spanish giants.
It’s been a disappointing season for the Catalan club as they surrendered the league title to Real Madrid, an ageing side having been exposed and looking in desperate need of a refresh.
Messi’s performances have continued to drag his side forward, however, finishing as the leading scorer in Spain for the fourth consecutive season in a campaign which also saw the Argentine break the division’s single season assist record with 21.
Messi’s magic makes him one of the few players in world football capable of winning games singlehandedly, and the one-legged format to the knockout stages may work in the Argentine’s benefit in a Barcelona side perhaps adrift of the competition’s best sides.
The likes of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suarez and Frenkie de Jong will all be expected to make a contribution ahead of a daunting quarter-final clash against Bayern Munich this week, though it is the performance of Messi – desperate to respond from embarrassing eliminations in each of the past two seasons – that will prove crucial to Barca’s chances.
Manchester City – Kevin De Bruyne
Manchester City will be looking to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since Pep Guardiola’s arrival at the club this season, with confidence increased at the Etihad following their display in eliminating record-winners Real Madrid in the first knockout round.
Guardiola’s side controlled both encounters against the Spanish giants to secure a 4-2 aggregate win, setting up a winnable looking last eight meeting with a Lyon side who finished seventh in France’s top tier.
City possess arguably the most talented and deepest squad in the competition but the jewel in their crown is Kevin De Bruyne, the 29-year-old having enjoyed a sublime individual season to cement his claim as the best midfielder in world football.
De Bruyne equalled the Premier League’s single season assist record with 20 goals provided this term, the Belgian’s repertoire and range of passes marking him out as the central figure of City’s attacking play.
The midfielder has stood head and shoulders above his City teammates this season and is the star amongst stars at the Etihad, the hopes of a first Champions League trophy arriving in the blue half of Manchester largely dependent on whether De Bruyne can influence the latter stages.
Lyon – Memphis Depay
Few expected Lyon to reach this stage of the competition but the French side are here on merit, an away goals victory over a Juventus side many considered amongst the favourites earning them their place in the last eight.
Rudi Garcia’s side endured an indifferent domestic campaign prior to the Ligue 1 season’s curtailment amid the coronavirus pandemic, slumping to a seventh placed finish to miss out on qualification for Europe next season.
They face Manchester City in the quarter-finals as rank underdogs, though their hopes have been boosted by the return to fitness of Memphis Depay – the forward having scored from the penalty spot with a Panenka effort against Juventus after recovering from an ACL injury suffered in December.
The Netherlands international disappointed during his spell in the Premier League at Manchester United but has rebuilt his career since moving to France, and will no doubt be keen to prove his critics wrong with a strong showing against his former side’s city rivals.
Depay has scored 15 goals in just 19 starts in all competitions so far this season, whilst his record in the Champions League has been exceptional – the 26-year-old scoring in each of his six appearances in Europe throughout the 2019/20 campaign.