The Champions League returned to action last week after a brief hiatus and consequently witnessed some incredible footballing action. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid stunned Liverpool with a superb defensive display whilst Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland sunk Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain. RB Leipzig recorded a fantastic win against a Jose Mourinho’s toothless Tottenham Hotspur side with Atalanta continuing their dream campaign with a hammering of Valencia.
In the following week, Bayern Munich slapped Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge whilst a defiant Napoli side held Lionel Messi and Barcelona at home. In the final round, Lyon stunned Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus and a Kevin de Bruyne-inspired Manchester City recorded a historic win away at Real Madrid.
In this section, we take a look at the best performers of the Champions League Round of 16 first leg encounters.
GK: Peter Gulacsi (RB Leipzig)
The RB Leipzig shot-stopper came up big in the Champions League Round of 16 first leg away at Tottenham Hotspur as he recorded five saves and a clean-sheet to keep Jose Mourinho’s side at bay. The Hungarian number one was tested a number of times by Spurs’ fluid trio of Lucas Moura, Giovani Lo Celso and Steven Bergwijn but he denied each shot with smart saves. In the end, his resistance could not be breached.
Left-back: Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
Bayern Munich’s 19-year-old left-back Alphonso Davies was unplayable against Chelsea in the Bavarians’ statement 3-0 win at Stamford Bridge in the Round of 16 first leg on Tuesday. Previously a left-winger for his country Canada and former club Vancouver Whitecaps, Davies has been handed a more defensive role by manager Hansi Flick, deploying David Alaba in the centre-half position. The teenager has the potential of becoming one of the best left-backs in the world, such is his influence and effectiveness in games.
Against Chelsea, Davies was a constant threat with his excellent runs in-behind the defenders. His pace and agility help him make speedy recoveries and his attacking prowess allows him to create chances for the forwards. He went past four defenders to provide the assist for Robert Lewandowski’s goal in the second half in what was a flawless performance by the youngster.
Centre-back: Felipe (Atletico Madrid)
Atletico Madrid’s €20m summer signing Felipe continued his Champions League form with a well-marshalled performance against a relentless Liverpool side. He was crucial in nullifying the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino and even made a huge clearance in the first half to deny the Egyptian from scoring. Whilst many eyes were on the opposite side of the pitch hoping to see Virgil van Dijk deliver another solid performance, it was Felipe who’s resistance and steadiness at the backhanded Diego Simeone a lead to take into the second leg at Anfield.
Centre-back: Fernando Marcal (Lyon)
In the most shocking result of the Champions League Round of 16 first leg ties, Ligue 1 strugglers Lyon defeated Italian champions Juventus at home. The French outfit were up against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, but the back three of Fernando Mercal, Jason Denayer and Marcelo. However, it was the Brazilian Marcal who stepped the most with his stalwart performance at the back. The 31-year-old recently became a laughing stock after he scored an unusual own goal against Paris Saint-Germain, but his resilience and defensive stability against Juventus was on-point.
Right-back: Hans Hateboer (Atalanta)
Usually deployed as a right-back for Atalanta, Hans Hateboer played in a much-advanced role against Valencia and his two goals highlighted just why. The Dutchman scored within the first quarter of the match when he coolly finished off an Alejandro Gomez cross before driving forward from the right flank to fire a low shot past Jaume Doménech. Hateboer’s performance rounded off an excellent display from Atalanta, who might just be the dark horses of this Champions League season.
Centre midfield: Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid)
Match-winner against one of the best Liverpool sides in footballing history, Saul Niguez provided Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid with a ray of hope in what has been a substandard campaign. The Spaniard looked in complete control in central midfield, spreading passes with ease and dominating the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. His goal came from a chaotic corner, however, the 25-year-old racked up a game-high five dribbles, completed 85 percent of his passes and covered about four miles of the pitch in a Man of the Match performance.
Centre midfield: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City)
One can run out of superlatives in order to describe Manchester City superstar Kevin De Bruyne’s performances this season. The Belgian maestro tormented Real Madrid all night with his clever passing, movement and intelligent play. De Bruyne has been the Premier League’s most consistent performer this season and he took that form with him to the Bernabeu.
The assist to Gabriel Jesus for the equalising goal was exemplary before he came up clutch with the winning penalty in the final stage of the game. Pep Guardiola will be beating himself up after the game thinking why he did not appoint spot-kicks to De Bruyne earlier.
Centre midfield: Mario Pasalic (Atalanta)
Atalanta’s unimaginable run in the Champions League continued as they destroyed Valencia 4-1 in the first leg at the San Siro, one of the chief architects of which was midfielder Mario Pasalic. Underrated and under-appreciated, the Croatian once again proved his value to his parent Chelsea, who are in talks with the Italians over a permanent move.
The London club will be monitoring Pasalic’s growth with his performance against Valencia a potential eye-opener. The 25-year-old, who could have had a goal himself early on, created havoc in midfield with his slick passing and playmaking. He bagged two assists in the game, the second of which was a beautifully-clipped pass for Hans Hateboer’s all-important second goal.
Right wing: Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich)
Another trip to London, another world-class performance from Bayern’s high-flying winger Serge Gnabry. The 24-year-old German was relatively quiet in the first half but sprung into life in the second, scoring a tie-killing brace against former rivals Chelsea.
Gnabry had already left his mark on the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the group stages after his four goals against Arsenal’s North London rivals. His lightning-quick feet, positional intelligence and attacking prowess were too much for Frank Lampard’s defenders to handle.
Left wing: Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City)
In what was one of the finest performances in a Manchester City shirt, Gabriel Jesus hushed all those who were unsure of him being Sergio Aguero’s natural heir. Guardiola benched the club’s record goal-scorer at the Bernabeu and put out the Brazilian up-top leaving many fans scratching their heads.
However, Jesus worked hard, tracked back, shifted positions and carved out some wonderful opportunities to score. However, he could only get the better of the Real Madrid defence late in the second half as he towered above Sergio Ramos to score the equaliser before getting him sent off less than minutes later. Even Aguero would have been proud of that performance.
Centre-forward: Erling Braut Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)
Erling Braut Haaland’s fairytale run with new club Borussia Dortmund is showing no signs of stopping after another remarkable two goals against French giants Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16 first leg. The Norwegian teenager is becoming the most talked-about subject in world football after his incredible attacking exploits in Germany. Against Thomas Tuchel’s men, Haaland was energetic and constantly on-the-move.
He was rewarded for his hard work in the second half when he tapped in Raphael Guerreiro’s blocked shot before showing his world-class potential with a stunning strike past Keylor Navas from outside the box. On a pitch consisting of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland was the star of the show.
Published 27 Feb 2020, 17:31 IST