Soccer

UEFA Champions League round of 16 underrated stars: Under the radar standouts for Liverpool, Sevilla and more

Welcome to Benge’s League Table. Every week James Benge ranks something, anything, breaking down everything from the nerdiest tactics to the best kits, to the worst haircuts. This week, he’s looking at the underappreciated star performers of the first round of Champions League knockout fixtures.

Two weeks are done, and one set of fixtures is in the books in the Champions League knockout stages. The first eight games have not been short on drama and talking points. If there has been a standout narrative arc of the first legs of the round of 16 it has been the emergence of two young superstars who took control of their ties in stunning fashion: first Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint-Germain and then Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland.

You don’t need to hear again how great these two are but they weren’t the only players to excel over the past few days. Here are some of the best performances you might not have spotted:

5. Curtis Jones (Liverpool)

It’s been a struggle to find much to be excited about for Liverpool over the course of this season. But, there has at least been one unqualified silver lining amid their disappointing defense of the Premier League crown. Curtis Jones has been thrust into a more prominent role than he might ever have expected and at every turn he has risen to the occasion.

That was just as true in his first European knockout tie, where Jones was tasked with joining Liverpool’s front three in a press that forced mistakes out of RB Leipzig in a 2-0 away win that has Jurgen Klopp’s side in control of the contest.

According to fbref, Jones applied pressure on the RB Leipzig team on 19 separate occasions. None of his team-mates did so more than 13 times. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he led his team in the number of occasions where Liverpool successfully regained the ball within five seconds of his press.

With Jordan Henderson forced back into defense (and now sidelined for several months), Georginio Wijnaldum often filling in deeper in midfield and Thiago coming to grips with a new league the punch with which Liverpool look to recover possession high up the pitch has been deadened at times this season. But in Jones they have a player schooled in the Klopp approach who is already showing he can execute at the highest level. That’s not bad at all for a 20-year-old.

4. Isco (Real Madrid)

For all the many key players sidelined for Real Madrid in their first leg against Atalanta none felt quite so significant as Karim Benzema. In defense Zinedine Zidane could just about get by, but he seemed well aware of how irreplaceable his center forward was. The nominal replacement, Mariano Diaz, did not even get a look in in the starting XI. Instead, the burden fell to Isco.

He took it on, but in a particularly unusual way. He was not a center forward, nor a false nine drifting from advanced roles deeper into the pitch. He was not even much of a number 10. Certainly he was not occupying the positions he has when he previously played that role for Madrid with Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of him. Instead, he was something akin to a free forward, one who would drift from one flank to another, dragging Atalanta center back Cristian Romero with him, and creating angles for his fellow attackers to drive into.

At times he looked like what he was, a fringe player thrust into an awkward role because it was him or no-one else, but there were also moments where this roving playmaker played his part, never more so than in the build-up to Remo Freuler’s red card foul on Ferland Mendy, for whom Isco’s movement created a seam to drive into.

No wonder Zidane was keen to credit him after an underwhelming 1-0 win in Bergamo. “It has been a long time since he played so many minutes and he has done very well in a position that is not his,” said the Real Madrid boss. In all likelihood this was just a brief dalliance with a new role for Isco but he deserves credit for how he carried it out.

3. Oscar Rodriguez (Sevilla)

In his side’s 3-2 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund, Rodriguez completed all of his passes in the final third, came within a few millimetres of scoring a brilliant free-kick and provided a superb assist for Luuk De Jong’s goal that revived Sevilla’s hopes in the round of 16. Not bad for a full game, outstanding for an 18 minute cameo off the bench.

Against a Dortmund side that did not really look like creating all that much after an Erling Haaland-inspired treble before the interval, Sevilla monopolized possession and did next to nothing with it. This was supposed to be what Alejandro Gomez’s arrival during the January transfer window would fix, but the Argentine was sucked into a game of passive domination in which the opposition went untested.

Oscar changed that, offering some welcome punch to a static side. According to Opta data, the 22-year-old had the greatest direct speed, defined as the distance a player advances the ball towards goal per second, of any Sevilla outfielder. Only Haaland was more effective at getting the ball towards dangerous areas swiftly. And even the Norwegian would have been delighted to strike a free-kick as sweetly as Oscar hit his in the 74th minute, a fizzing effort that cannoned back off the post and onto Marwin Hitz’s hands.

From a deeper spot his delivery for De Jong’s goal was even more impressive, lofted up to the back post and dipping swiftly onto the boot of the Dutch striker. It was one of those crosses that there was simply no way of defending.

For Oscar, whose first season at Sevilla has been spoiled by injuries and illness, this could be a moment to kick on. Certainly Julen Lopetegui’s side would be better off with this version of the former Real Madrid player in from the off as they try to overturn their second leg deficit.

2. Leon Goretzka (Bayern Munich)

Goretzka returns to the Bayern side and they get back to winning ways. That should be no great surprise. After all, this team are so much more successful with the 26-year-old in the side. In games with him in the team: their record with Goretzka is 15-2-1, without him 11-4-2 and one of those draws was the penalty shootout loss where lowly Holstein Kiel dumped them out of the DFB Pokal.

In just his first start since returning from COVID-19 it was perhaps understandable that Goretzka slowed down in the second half, but in the first he was outstanding. He registered an assist for Jamal Musiala, taking advantage of a Lazio defense that collapsed in panic when the German drove at them, using a cute flick with the outside of his boot to tee up the youngster for his first European goal for Bayern.

Goretzka typified an aggressive approach by the holders, who were prepared to push upfield and choke Lazio near their own goal. “We were in matchday mode today and were aggressive from the start. We won the balls high, which is why the path to the goal was shorter,” he said after the game. “We planned to do that before the game. Today we were there. This was also required of the team leaders before the game. It always does us good when we get into the game through the physical elements.”

Add to that an impressive retention of possession with the ball, he conceded possession only four times in his 63 minutes on the pitch, a level of security bettered only by Jerome Boateng and Manuel Neuer, and you have one of the standout performances of the round of 16. Imagine how effective he will be when he is back to full sharpness.

1. Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea)

Everything Hudson-Odoi did in Bucharest on Tuesday was inevitably going to be seen through the prism of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Southampton. There, the youngster was substituted in and then out in the space of 31 minutes. If the reaction to his cameo felt overblown by the third day, it was still notable that Thomas Tuchel had felt compelled to criticize the player’s “attitude, energy and counter-pressing.”

The manager insisted he was not one to hold grudges and was as good as his word when Hudson-Odoi was introduced to the starting line-up on Tuesday. Tuchel’s faith was immediately vindicated. Everything that had been missing three days earlier was present in abundance in this crucial match.

Working backwards from the result and the widely-noted statistic that Atletico Madrid did not muster a single shot on target it might be assumed that Chelsea controlled this game. If they did it was largely passive. Only Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount seemed to be injecting energy into proceedings, combining menacingly on the right flank where several of the Blues’ best half chances came.

Though he was nominally Chelsea’s right wing-back Hudson-Odoi was liberated by the passivity of Atleti to play as a winger. Indeed in a normal match one might look at where his actions were (see above) and think that was a bit cavalier even if he were a member of the frontline. But it worked. Even if it did not result in a goal the youngster’s high, aggressive positioning dragged the defense that little bit wider. Draw Mount into the attacks in that area and the Mario Hermoso-Thomas Lemar combination could not cope.

Crucially Hudson-Odoi coupled that performance with impressive work away from the ball. Having recovered possession on no occasions against Southampton he did so five times in Bucharest, winning 80 percent of his duels and all of those in the air. No-one on his team made more tackles. In both aspects of the game, this was the perfect response to his manager’s demands.



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