There will be immense star power on display during the Champions League quarterfinals, even without Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in action. And though the big names garner much of the attention, there are a host of players who will be equally important if their teams hope to reach the final four. Below we look at the X-factors who can swing their respective matchups.
Real Madrid: Marco Asensio
Asensio’s career hasn’t taken off the way many expected it would. In a stark reminder that progression is anything but linear, the Spanish attacker has struggled for consistency since bursting onto the scene in explosive style in 2016. At the time, his trickery on the ball and wicked left foot thrust him into the conversation as one of the game’s next great attackers. A torn ACL in 2019 provided a major hurdle, but after a long, frustrating road back, the 25-year-old appears to be rounding back into form at exactly the right time.
With goals in each of his last three appearances, including against Atalanta in the round of 16, Asensio is providing Karim Benzema with a much-needed sidekick; the Frenchman can’t score all the goals, even if it feels like he does. Zinedine Zidane clearly trusts and believes in Asensio’s talent, which is no small accomplishment. With Eden Hazard spending more time on the treatment table than the pitch and Vinicius Junior lacking consistency, Asensio has a chance to solidify himself as the team’s secondary scoring option.
Fabinho is back in midfield, and Liverpool are winning again. The Reds simply look better when the Brazilian sets the tempo in the middle of the park. That’s not to say Fabinho played poorly in the center-back position; the Brazilian actually filled the void better than most midfielders could at a time of desperate need. He’s just more effective when he’s tackling and supplying teammates at the base of Jurgen Klopp’s midfield three.
Thiago Alcantara may benefit the most from the tactical switch. With the more conservative Fabinho by his side, the Spanish international is finally free to move up and contribute in the most dangerous areas of the pitch. He doesn’t need to worry about defending against the counterattack or losing possession when Fabinho is there to tidy up. Now, Thiago can pass and carry the ball forward without fear of consequence. Expect Fabinho to provide more assurances in the Champions League, and Liverpool to continue to do damage.
Manchester City: Joao Cancelo
Cancelo is a unicorn. Much like Dani Alves and Marcelo did when they were at their peaks, the Portuguese international transcends his position. Ostensibly a full-back, Cancelo is an attacking monster whose output going forward trumps what many actual attackers are capable of producing. Only Kevin De Bruyne and Riyad Mahrez have completed more key passes for Manchester City in all competitions this season, and the Belgian – arguably one of the world’s three best players right now – is the only member of the team with more progressive passes on the campaign.
After a steep learning curve upon his arrival from Juventus, Cancelo has developed into a pillar of Pep Guardiola’s team; his ability to tuck inside and play the vaunted role of the inverted full-back has been central to City’s success this season. He’s become a smarter, more dependable player without sacrificing any of the creative instincts that make him so exciting to watch.
Borussia Dortmund: Mahmoud Dahoud
Guardiola knows Borussia Dortmund have players of immense quality. But he may have surprised a few people when he name-dropped Dahoud, the 25-year-old midfielder who’s started just nine Bundesliga matches this season. Guardiola, though, is quite obviously a keen observer. Dahoud has become more and more important to Dortmund as the season’s gone on, facilitating play as a roaming No. 8.
He was also one of Dortmund’s best players in the round of 16. It wasn’t just the spectacular goal he scored in the first leg against Sevilla, but also the confidence he showed to break the lines. He did a little bit of everything in the tie: blocking passes, pressing high, and setting up another one of Dortmund’s goals with a fantastic through ball into the penalty area. City have more than just Erling Haaland to worry about in this quarterfinal fixture.
Bayern Munich: Kingsley Coman
Spoiler alert: Bayern Munich are less dangerous without Robert Lewandowski in the side. But he hasn’t been the team’s most productive player in the Champions League this season. That title belongs to Coman, who’s had a hand in a team-leading six goals in Europe’s premier competition.
Maybe Coman flies under the radar because he’s just one of many stars in the lineup. There’s too much quality on the field for any opposing manager to consider man-marking one player. Even when Coman isn’t effective, one of Serge Gnabry, Thomas Muller, and Leroy Sane is there to pick up the slack. But Coman should have an impact in the tie against Paris Saint-Germain. He won’t face as much resistance from opposing right-back Thilo Kehrer, who’s set to replace Alessandro Florenzi. With the Italian out with COVID-19, Kehrer will have a tough time stopping Coman from cutting in and dealing significant damage.
Paris Saint-Germain: Moise Kean
Kean is loving life at PSG, and not just because he gets to live in the French capital. After a rough debut season at Everton during which minutes were limited and goals even more so, the Italian international has reminded everyone why he was viewed as a soon-to-be superstar prior to his spell in England. Kean, 21, is finding the net with regularity once again; only Kylian Mbappe has more goals across all competitions for PSG this season. More impressively, all 15 of the Italian’s tallies have come from open play.
The team looks more fluid with Kean on the pitch as opposed to Mauro Icardi, who offers a more obvious focal point at the expense of being involved in buildup play and pressing. Kean – with his athleticism and willingness to drift out wide and run at defenders – is a better, more versatile option in support of star forwards Mbappe and Neymar. After scoring against Barcelona in the previous round, he has an opportunity to add another impressive notch to his belt against Bayern Munich.
Otavio is Porto’s handyman. He plays everywhere in midfield and, occasionally, in more advanced roles. But he’s not exactly a No. 10, or easy to define for that matter. The value in Otavio’s game is his work rate, which he demonstrates in all areas of the pitch. He presses, tracks back, and facilitates play, a wild card Porto could use to great effect against Chelsea.
Expect Porto boss Sergio Conceicao to lean on Otavio to disrupt Chelsea’s rhythm. The Blues’ possession-based approach is effective only if teams give them the time and space to build up plays. Chelsea can hurt opponents on the counterattack, as well, but Porto’s low block should mitigate those chances. Otavio can do just about everything else.
Chelsea: Mateo Kovacic
Already boasting an impressive crop of young attacking talent, Chelsea went on a well-documented spending spree last summer, splashing big on the likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. Those signings, combined with the continued progression of internal options like Mason Mount, created a top-heavy side; to make things work, there needs to be some semblance of balance. Kovacic provides exactly that. The underrated 26-year-old is, perhaps surprisingly, the team’s primary ball carrier. The Croatian leads Chelsea in ball progressions in the Champions League, a stat that tracks how many times a player carries the ball at least five yards toward the opponent’s goal or into the penalty area. He’s played more minutes, admittedly, but Kovacic’s total of 41 is level with Neymar, of all people.
Only N’Golo Kante has completed more successful dribbles for Chelsea in the tournament this season. The former Real Madrid man is among the team leaders in tackles and interceptions, too, while acting as a vital – and prolific – cog in Thomas Tuchel’s counter-pressing game. He’s shifty in possession, energetic, and feisty. In short, he does it all. With Kante sidelined due to injury, Kovacic will play an even more influential role against Porto.