The UEFA Champions League rolls towards the business end once again. The 2021/22 season has thrown up its own set of surprises and unexpected scorelines. From Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund getting demoted to the Europa League, and a spirited Villarreal knocking out Juventus, we've seen it all. But now that the quarter-finals are here, who are the key players to watch out for?
Champions League quarterfinal: Benfica v Liverpool
This is probably the most obvious one. Mo Salah is an incredible footballer, who hardly puts a step wrong for Liverpool. The World Cup qualifying failure with Egypt aside, Salah is a star that shines brightest in a Liverpool shirt. He arrived at Liverpool with a record of 29 goals in 65 games for Fiorentina and Roma. In fact, in 2016/17, he scored 15 times in 31 appearances. No one, then, could have predicted him bursting onto the Premier League stage with a 32-goal season. He didn't hit those heights again, but around 20 goals in each season is an exceptional record. This season, he has already scored 20 times in 27 games, and could very well hit those high marks again.
115 goals in 172 league appearances, 153 goals overall in 239 appearances for Liverpool. The 2017/18 Champions League winners are involved in a league title race, but that is unlikely to waver their resolve in adding a seventh European Cup. Mo Salah, as you might've guessed, will be a key player as they take on Benfica.
On the face of it, Benfica have done incredibly well to be here. They knocked out Barcelona to qualify from a group that also had Bayern Munich. In the Round of 16, they overcame Ajax, who were in fiery form in European football. But are Liverpool a bit too much to take for the Portuguese?
One thing's for certain: Darwin Núñez will have something to say about it. The Uruguayan centre-forward has scored 23 times in 27 appearances this season, including three in the Champions League. He was on the scoresheet when Benfica overcame Ajax, and he is understandably their biggest threat.
His quality is quite well-known, as evidenced by a 50 million offer from West Ham in January. The high-flying Hammers, in desperate need of striking reinforcements, were fully prepared to break their transfer record for the former Almería man.
Liverpool are probably the toughest team they will face since Bayern. Their fellow Portuguese sides have all exited the tournament. Porto were dumped out to the Europa League from Liverpool's group, while Manchester City gave Sporting a thrashing in the Round of 16. Benfica are flying the flag now, and Darwin has something to say about it.
Champions League quarterfinal: Manchester City v Atletico Madrid
Joao Cancelo / Riyad Mahrez
The toughest job in football is predicting exactly who is Manchester City's key player. It could be anyone, from attacking midfielders Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, to defenders Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte, or the multi-talented goalkeeper Ederson.
In the end, it's a shared responsibility - between Portuguese full-back Joao Cancelo and Algerian forward Riyad Mahrez.
Cancelo has been a revelation since signing for Manchester City. Equally adept on the left or the right, Cancelo has few rivals for the best Premier League full-back. He shoots brilliantly with both feet, and is excellent in defence. At the other end of the pitch, Riyad Mahrez has grown into his role a lot. Initially, the Algerian was a certain Leicester star, but just another face at City. A bit-part player to start with, Mahrez is now a major part of the team. He is currently City's top scorer this season with 22 goals in all competitions. Six of those have come in the Champions League, and he'll certainly be the key.
For all of the praise Atletico's defence gets, Oblak isn't appreciated nearly enough. A major part of the reigning La Liga champions' defensive strength comes from their goalkeeper.
So far this season, Oblak hasn't hit the same heights that made him famous in the last few years. He's finally started to hit his stride now, and the impact on Atletico's results has been telling.
Oblak's story is quite intriguing. The goalkeeper was initially unwanted by Diego Simeone, so much so that Atletico tried to sell him back to Benfica.
Simeone came around eventually, and the rest, as they say, is history. He's contributed heavily towards Atletico's successes, which include a Europa League, a La Liga, and a run to the Champions League final. Oblak is widely regarded as one of the world's best goalkeepers and one of his country's best ever players. In fact, he has been named Slovenia's Footballer of the Year in six of the last seven years - only losing out to Josip Iličić in 2019. If the former Benfica and Olimpija Ljubljana stopper is in form, Atletico may yet upset another Manchester club, having already knocked out Ralf Rangnick's messy United side.
Champions League quarterfinal: Villarreal v Bayern Munich
What a time this is to be a Villarreal fan. For the first time in their history, they won a major trophy, and it was a European title. The city is a place rich with culture. The birthplace of Francisco Tarrega, one of the greatest classical guitar composers and classical musicians of all time. Football has always been a major part, and now, they are in a period of great success on the European stage. They won the Europa League, only lost out on penalties in the UEFA Super Cup, and are in the Champions League quarter-finals. Unai Emery has done the Europa trick three times with Sevilla, and now he's taking Villarreal to great heights.
They have a fine team spirit, but Gerard Moreno is still their major source of goals. The Spain international was the one who came off the bench to open the scoring against Juventus. Until then, the game was evenly poised and extra-time seemed to be on the horizon. Moreno triggered a fantastic end to the game for Villarreal, who struck two more goals for a 3-0 win. Gerard Moreno scored 30 goals in 46 games last season, but this has been a more injury-hit term. Only 21 appearances this term have still yielded 12 goals. If Villarreal are to come away from this tie with something, they need their all-time top scorer fit and firing.
Who else? Robert Lewandowski, ladies and gentlemen. Poland's best player, Bayern's talisman, and the Bundesliga's top scorer. Unfairly missed out on the 2020 Ballon d'Or title which was cancelled due to Covid-19. The 2021 title was always going to go to Lionel Messi after his Copa America win, but at least they created the 'Best Striker' award for him. He did win the FIFA Best Men's Player the last two years.
Since 2015, Lewandowski's seasonal goal tallies read like this: 42, 43, 41, 40, 55, 48. This season, he has scored 45 times, and there's still quite a few games to play. His hat-trick helped Bayern thrash Salzburg 7-2 in the second leg after the Austrians had worked hard to secure a draw in the first leg. It is a safe bet that Robert Lewandowski will have something to say about the outcome of this tie.
Champions League quarterfinal: Chelsea v Real Madrid
Man of the Match in both legs against Real Madrid last season, N'Golo Kante is set to face off against the serial European winners again. In last season's semi-final, Kante was everywhere. He tackled and harried the Real players, set up clear chances, and won the hearts of every Chelsea fan. The 20/21 Champions League Midfielder of the Season was excellent, and the Real players could not get close to him. It was Kante who won the ball in the build up to both goals in the second leg. He won the ball off Casemiro and set up Havertz for a clear attempt which hit the bar, but Werner turned in the rebound. He then won the ball late and provided Pulisic with a chance. The American overran it, but passed for Mount to score the second.
In reality, Kante has not hit the heights of 2020/21 this season. He has been good, but nowhere as close to the quality he showed in the last four Champions League games of last season. Yet, Chelsea will hope the French World Cup winner is at his best, for when he is on song, no one can get close to him. Kante led the charge last season in Europe. This season began with a lot of promise for Chelsea, but injuries and inconsistencies have killed their charge for the league title. If Kante can find another gear, Chelsea can have a crack at retaining the Champions League - a feat only ever managed by Real Madrid themselves in the modern era.
If ever you doubted Karim Benzema's importance to Real Madrid, all you needed to do was watch their game against Barcelona. Without the driving force of Benzema, Real fell apart and lost 4-0 to a rapidly improving Barcelona. Benzema is tour de force all by himself, fashioning opportunities where there seems none, scoring goals from positions where no one else would even attempt a shot.
Indeed, Benzema's importance now to Real Madrid might be even more than what Cristiano Ronaldo's importance to the side was during their golden era of European dominance.
Last season, it was Benzema who secured a draw in the first leg against Chelsea, and the striker drew two excellent saves from Edouard Mendy in the second leg. His 22 goals anoints him as top goalscorer in La Liga this season - eight goals more than those in second place. Further, Benzema also has more assists (11) than any other player in La Liga this season. He looks very likely to lead Real to another La Liga title, even if Xavi's Barcelona are making a late charge.