The UEFA Champions League is a mesmerizing tournament for footy fans across the globe. Not only does it pit 32 of the best teams in the world against each other year after year, but it also allows fans to grasp the dynamics of every unforgettable moment and gets them connected with players who are destined to shine for their respective clubs.
The European tournament has had its fair share of memorable occurrences, with certain individuals and teams making a name for themselves throughout the tournament’s history.
From Zinedine Zidane’s wonder goal against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, to Jose Mourinho’s rise to dominance with Porto in 2004, to the years in which Barcelona reigned supreme -- all the way to last year when Bayern Munich outplayed German rivals Borussia Dortmund in the final, there’s no shortage of life changing experiences for players and fans of their respective teams.
These sequences never stop, either. There are always plenty of dramatic scenes to talk about for years to come, and it’s a place where a dark horse can instantly become the leader of the pack.
It’s a given who is supposed to shine on a yearly basis, although there are many unsung heroes and popular players who excel in doing well for their clubs -- even if they aren’t the biggest star on the roster.
In light of the quarterfinals, which begin Tuesday, April 1st, 2014, here are 10 players in the Champions League who could surprise observers by being the unsung heroes and difference makers for their clubs. Anyone can name a list consisting of Messi, Ronaldo and Ribery, but we're going to look at some secondary players who can make all the difference.
10 Toni Kroos (Bayern Munich)
Having attracted interest from the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, the 24-year old German International has been making waves in the Champions League this year, displaying a ferocious attacking style that fits the mold for the Bavarians.
His goal against Arsenal in the first leg of their round of 16 tie was breathtaking, exchanging short passes with Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm before slotting home a cracker in the top right corner from outside the box.
Kroos has the advantage of playing on the best team in the world right now, but he also needs to come into his own in a midfield that is currently occupied by Robben, Franck Ribery, Mario Gotze, and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Still, Kroos gets the playing time he deserves and makes a difference for the German giants time and time again.
If the club repeats and wins the tournament for the second year in a row, expect the youngster to move abroad and for Manchester United to build a midfield revolving around him.
9 Dani Alves (Barcelona)
It’s not that Dani Alves has been on a slump for these past few years, because he’s still a threat no matter where the game goes. It’s just the Brazilian had slowed down a bit in terms of flair and finesse.
It seems like the Champions League this year has birthed the Alves of old.
The former Sevilla star has brought forth a sense of maturity to his game as of late, dangerous as ever on the flank when moving up to attack. The best part about being on a team like Barcelona is a defender or a midfielder could jump into attacking play from out of nowhere, and that’s exactly what Alves has done for the majority of his career.
He’s no stranger to goals, since he plays more like a midfielder than a rugged defender who’s job it is to get in your face and nullify your game -- even if he’s able to do that, too. Expect the Brazilian to continue his fierce game throughout the tournament if Barcelona advances, with Alves looking to be front and center on the back-line of Brazil’s national squad into the World Cup this summer.
No wonder Manchester City is targeting him -- he scored his two 90-minute goals against them in the tournament on two separate occasions.
8 Oscar (Chelsea)
Another Brazilian entering the World Cup with high hopes is Chelsea starlet Oscar, who is becoming one of the brightest young players in all of the sport. He’s got a goal and four assists thus far in the Champions League, and for everything Eden Hazard lacks on several occasions, the Brazilian is there to pick up the pieces. He’s not exactly the next Frank Lampard for the Blues, yet his composure and strong mindset on the pitch could bring him to that comparison sooner rather than later. Plus, he’s more attack-minded than the Romford-born player ever was.
Oscar will thrive under Jose Mourinho if both decide to commit their long-term futures to the club, so expect him to have a major role in the center of the field for years to come. With Chelsea’s strikers being unpredictable, especially with Samuel Eto’o being doubtful for their first leg match against Paris St-Germain, the secondary scoring can come from players like this 22-year old phenomenon.
7 Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich)
If you had to pick one goalkeeper for your fantasy squad, who would it be?
Manuel Neuer is the best net minder in the game today, and although we utter the names of Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas, Petr Cech and even Thibaut Courtois (who is doing marvelous over at Atletico Madrid), the Bayern Munich stud has proven his worth is between the posts. He’s guided his club to Bundesliga supremacy for the second year straight, not to mention to the Champions League victory last year over rivals Borussia Dortmund.
Perhaps his most valuable display of goalkeeping was stopping his countryman Mesut Ozil’s penalty in the first leg of the Bayern Munich-Arsenal tie, where Neuer stiffed the Arsenal playmaker by forking out his shot. The best team in the world has a boatload of impressive athletes, although their anchor in the back really deserves a lot more credit.
6 Edinson Cavani (PSG)
The former Napoli hitman is a bit on and off when it comes to his current club, Paris St-Germain, yet he should never be overlooked or taken with a grain of salt. He has four goals in six appearances for the Ligue 1 leaders this year in his European campaign, without any intention of stopping, either. He’s formed a good partnership with PSG superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which is not always the easiest thing to do, and when “Ibra” decides to sit back and play the ball, looking for targets, he usually finds the Uruguayan more often than not.
Cavani's size is beneficial; he’s lethal once inside the box, and he’s able to be clinical when the team needs him most. Once the ball hits his foot and he’s in range, it’s destined to find the back of the net. If PSG like their chances against Chelsea in the quarterfinals, players like Cavani will need to perform and be on their game. Does it help that Cavani has already scored against Chelsea before in the tournament, even if it was in a shirt for Naples?
Psychologically, it does.
5 Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid)
Say what you will about Diego Costa’s on-field and off-field antics, however he’s one of the main reasons Atletico Madrid is resurging in La Liga and currently hold the lead in Spain. He’s become one of the most feared strikers in Europe, scoring a combined 33 goals in all competitions this year.
Certainly, a player of his caliber is attracting interest from teams who want to revamp their forwards, but his focus on achieving greatness for the Madrid side is in tact. He’s fourth in scoring right now in the tournament, behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- three players who needed to be excluded from this list because they’re not quite unsung.
It’s the best possible time for Atletico Madrid to face Barcelona in the Champions League, because of the current situation in Spain, where the Catalonians sit in second place by a point behind the current leaders. If Atletico want to advance into the semi-finals, dethroning Barcelona is no easy task, yet they have to look no further than Costa as the striker who could get the job done and pile on the misery for Lionel Messi and his bunch.
4 Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund)
His transfer to Bayern Munich really stings the rest of Germany, making the treble-chasers look like The New York Yankees of European football. Robert Lewandowski is set to move to the Bavarians, but he still has a bit of time to redeem his club’s poor fortune last year at in the final, when Borussia Dortmund lost to Bayern Munich.
The Polish striker has six goals in the tournament thus far, and with the injury woes surrounding the club at the moment, his fine form can help them achieve the upset against Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. After all, it was Lewandowski who scored four goals against the Spanish club last year to advance to the final.
His Dortmund side may be a shadow of what they once were last year, but you can’t say he’s not able to make the difference all by himself.
3 Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
This could be an early indication if the money spent on Gareth Bale was well worth it in the end. Moving to Real Madrid and breaking nearly every transfer record possible in the books, Gareth Bale may not have been worth all that money (most players aren’t), yet he’s sort of living up to expectations in Spain.
He’s got 12 goals in La Liga, and has scored four goals in the Champions League this year. To make matters more interesting is that upon his arrival, he’s actually woken up Karim Benzema to perform better, too. He plays well with Ronaldo, forming a solid partnership and has had his fair share of pivotal moments thus far since joining the club -- including his stunning goal against Rayo Vallecano this past Saturday where he took the ball end to end by himself.
He needs to channel his inner beast -- the one he was at Tottenham and the one he shows signs of in the Madrid shirt -- if the team is looking to progress in the tournament and in their respective league, as well.
2 Neymar (Barcelona)
He’s set to become the golden boy at Barcelona, wearing the prince’s crown for now, but can Neymar emulate the club’s king, Lionel Messi, and lead his team to greatness by himself? Apart from his stellar play in his first year at the club, he still needs to prove that he could be one of the greats. It’s easy to be noticed when you’re playing for a team like Barca, but can the former Santos stud do it on his own?
His hat-trick against Celtic in the group stage this past December proved he could fill the gap in attack when Messi isn’t available, and that’s exactly what he needs to do in the near future. He’s got all the qualities to be a great player -- it’s just still very early in his career to declare him as one of the world’s greatest players.
If Neymar can be crucial when it matters most for his team this year, then we get more of a clearer sense of what he’s capable of. With Barcelona’s aging midfield not getting any younger, mixed with the fact that there are already plenty of attacking options for Barca including Pedro and Alexis Sanchez, his chance to steal the spotlight is now.
1 1.Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
You would think Wayne Rooney shouldn’t belong on this list. Why include the England International when he’s proved himself to be more than a dark horse time and time again?
The truth is Manchester United isn’t in a good place right now and the former Everton striker is the right guy to bring them back to supremacy -- or at least salvage their season with something positive. Robin van Persie can’t do it alone, and quite frankly, his pouting leads many to believe his heart just isn’t in it. That can’t be said for Rooney, who despite flirting with an exit away from Old Trafford, remains one of the most passionate players on this Manchester side.
If you’ve been watching David Moyes’ team this year, they have trouble adjusting when they face just about anyone, yet Rooney’s playmaking and sheer heart on the pitch can’t be matched by anyone on the squad. You might say he’s a hero when he gets the job done, yet does anybody think Manchester United can get any sort of job done at the moment? And would you pick him ahead of van Persie to get the ball rolling?
If the Red Devils want to escape embarrassment at the hands of Bayern Munich, they need to rely on difference makers and players who rise to the occasion. All eyes are on the forward, who can turn the tide. The question is, does he have the right support to help him do that?