1 player who needs to step up for each Champions League club

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Updated: March 10, 2020

With Europe’s preeminent club competition halfway to the quarterfinal stage, players from teams both heading into the second leg as favorites and hoping to make up ground will look to improve on their showings. Here, we look at one member from each of the last-16 participants who needs to step up in the return fixtures.

Alvaro Morata (Atletico Madrid)

Atletico Madrid played peak Diego Simeone football by stymieing Liverpool at Wanda Metropolitano, but they may not be afforded the same luxury in the reverse fixture at Anfield.

If Morata‘s showing in the first leg is any indication, the Spanish striker won’t be the one to get Atletico a crucial second goal. Morata missed Atletico’s two best chances following Saul’s opener, including this shocking slip-and-slide effort.

Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)

Liverpool didn’t record a shot on target during the away leg, and while that’s mostly a credit to Atletico’s relentless work to limit the Reds’ usually lethal front-three. Still, Salah wasn’t at his world-class best.

The Egyptian had just 36 touches and a curiously poor 67% passing completion in 90 minutes, and he didn’t exchange a pass with Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino during the opening 25 minutes. He also should have done better with the header on Joe Gomez’s perfect cross.

Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Dortmund)

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Borussia Dortmund were near-infallible in snatching a one-goal edge ahead of the return fixture in the French capital, but Hazard could improve on his showing at the Westfalenstadion if Julian Brandt misses out again.

Before coming off in the 68th minute for Giovanni Reyna, Hazard was dispossessed twice and misfired on eight of 33 passes. To the Belgian’s credit, his efforts to track back were stellar as Raphael Guerreiro sought advanced central attacking channels and consequently exposed space on Dortmund’s left flank.

Layvin Kurzawa (Paris Saint-Germain)

Paris Saint-Germain tactician Thomas Tuchel ditched his preferred 4-2-2-2 for a 3-4-3 that mirrored Dortmund’s setup in hopes of thwarting the German side’s lethal counterattacks, and it exposed left-sided wing-back Kurzawa.

Kurzawa will need to be more disciplined – especially when tracking Achraf Hakimi’s runs – if he starts the return leg over an injured Juan Bernat. Despite leading PSG in successful dribbles, Kurzawa could have been better going forward, with his botched pass after a brilliant run serving as a prime example of the Frenchman’s frustrating tendencies.

Jose Luis Palomino (Atalanta)

Lost in the talk of Atalanta‘s delirious football are the efforts of Gian Piero Gasperini’s backline. Palomino has arguably been La Dea’s best center-back, though he had a rough moment versus Valencia.

With the debutants boasting a near-insurmountable four-goal lead after 65 minutes, Palomino inexplicably played a limp sideways pass that Valencia substitute Denis Cheryshev buried with his first touch of the night. An avoidable mistake that offers the opposition a glimmer of hope.

Goncalo Guedes (Valencia)

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Guedes will have to do much better than his pointless display in the 4-1 battering if he hopes to nab an influential role in Fernando Santos’ Portugal team at Euro 2020.

The 23-year-old misplaced 30% of his passes and was dispossessed three times – not entirely shocking return for a player obsessed with running into traffic – before he was mercifully removed in the 64th minute. However, Guedes was too isolated on the left, which falls on manager Albert Celades’ shoulders, too.

Dele Alli (Tottenham)

“I think he was upset with his performance, not with the substitution,” Tottenham‘s Jose Mourinho said about Alli following the loss against RB Leipzig. The mercurial manager might have a point.

Alli was gifted talisman status up front in lieu of injuries to Heung-min Son and Harry Kane, and he was just average before getting shifted out wide left. The 23-year-old didn’t record a shot or key pass and completed a scant 16 passes ahead of a 64th-minute substitution. Hardly an inspiring shift from one of the side’s senior troops.

Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig)

Considering how well-balanced RB Leipzig were, it’s tough to pick one player who needs to step up for Julian Nagelsmann’s side. But Nkunku could have been a bit better in exploiting Spurs’ many weaknesses.

Nkunku set a Bundesliga record Feb. 22 against Schalke with four first-half assists, though the Frenchman should have done more just days earlier to manipulate Tottenham’s flawed full-backs, especially since Ben Davies couldn’t get near the former PSG product. A small gripe for a talented player.

Jose Callejon (Napoli)

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Barcelona will be expected to find the net at the Camp Nou against Napoli, and with the tie locked at 1-1 on aggregate, Gennaro Gattuso’s defensive approach will require fruitful returns on the counterattack.

All eyes will be on Callejon, who botched a straightforward chance in the 63rd minute of the first leg when Marc-Andre ter Stegen smothered the Spaniard’s one-on-one chance minutes after Antoine Griezmann scored for Barca. Wastefulness could prove the difference for the visitors in the second leg.

Arthur (Barcelona)

Suspensions for Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets leave a massive void in the midfield ahead of the second leg in the Catalan capital, and Quique Setien can’t even turn to Swiss Army Knife Sergi Roberto, who has a thigh problem.

Arthur is almost certain to get the call as part of a three-man Barcelona midfield with Ivan Rakitic and Frenkie de Jong, and the Brazilian will have to adequately fill in for Busquets, who led all players in touches (134), successful passes (121), passes in the opponent’s half (86), and interceptions (six) in the first leg.

Ross Barkley (Chelsea)

Few, if any, of Frank Lampard’s charges will hold their heads high after the first leg debacle against Bayern Munich. That’s especially true for the attacking trio of Barkley, Mason Mount, and Olivier Giroud.

Lampard ditched the back-three he employed against the Germans for a 4-3-3 in Chelsea‘s last two matches, and Barkley shined on the right side of the midfield, scoring against Liverpool before notching two assists versus Everton. A prime opportunity presents itself at the Allianz Arena for the suddenly in-form Englishman.

Hansi Flick (Bayern Munich)

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Off-script, but with Bayern Munich boasting a three-goal edge, Flick’s squad selection could be more influential than the individual performances by his players. Robert Lewandowski is out with an injury, meaning the manager is likely to start Thomas Muller up top.

Flick’s dilemmas are at the back, though. Jerome Boateng picked up a knock and Niklas Sule is still recovering from a serious knee ailment. Does the gaffer opt for recent returnee Lucas Hernandez alongside David Alaba in central defense or will Benjamin Pavard get the call, shifting Joshua Kimmich or loanee Alvaro Odriozola to right-back?

Jason Denayer (Lyon)

It’s a bit unfair to single out any of Rudi Garcia’s charges after a near-faultless first-leg display, but considering Juventus will almost certainly come out firing in search of a goal in Turin, Lyon will once again require steadfast performances from their three center-backs.

Cristiano Ronaldo is unlikely to replicate his limp effort from the first leg, which means right-sided central defender Denayer will have to be perfect. His 24 touches were the fewest of any Lyon player and he’s unlikely to be as comfortably uninvolved during the return leg.

Miralem Pjanic (Juventus)

In 90 matches with Lyon from 2008 to 2011, Pjanic bagged 10 goals, emerging as a skilled and versatile midfielder pegged for big things. Against his former side in the first leg, he was painfully poor.

The 29-year-old underwhelmed before being replaced in the 62nd minute, and the midfield trio of he, Adrien Rabiot, and Rodrigo Bentancur were too labored in possession and well off the pace. Juventus fans will hope Pjanic is better in the second leg – if he starts at all – and that the in-form Aaron Ramsey gets a chance from the opening whistle.

Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid)

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Real Madrid‘s attack flat-out stunk against Manchester City, and while ineffective, it’s hard to malign Karim Benzema for a lack of service. Vinicius Junior, on the other hand, needs to be far better in the second leg.

Selected ahead of Gareth Bale, the 19-year-old was sloppy in possession and jittery in front of goal, especially on a confounding miss 30 minutes in. Even with the assist on Isco’s goal, the Brazilian winger lacked confidence in dangerous positions. He was Madrid’s most threatening player on the day, but that’s not really saying much.

Rodri (Manchester City)

If Rodri is again tasked with shielding a central defensive pairing without the again-injured Aymeric Laporte against a Los Blancos side desperate for goals, the Manchester City midfielder will have to be tidier than he was at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid can thank Rodri and Nicolas Otamendi for Isco’s opener, and while you expect it from the latter, Busquets’ Spanish international successor must be better. Rodri’s unnecessarily casual pass to Otamendi gifted the opposition a goal amid City’s best spell of play during an otherwise excellent display from the Premier League side.

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