With the Champions League at the knockout stage, here’s a look at one unsung hero from each of the 16 sides left vying for the continent’s most-prized crown.
Pablo Sarabia (Paris Saint-Germain)
Sarabia has quietly become a factor at Paris Saint-Germain following a summer move from Sevilla. A selfless provider whose movement creates opportunities for PSG’s stacked forward line, Sarabia, 27, has thrived in combination with Mauro Icardi and Angel Di Maria, and his performance in the team’s 5-0 win over Galatasaray was faultless.
Achraf Hakimi (Borussia Dortmund)
Moroccan right-back Hakimi was arguably Dortmund’s best player during the group stage, scoring a team-high four goals and producing a masterclass in the pivotal 3-2 win over Inter. The 21-year-old – who’s still on Real Madrid’s books – benefits from a variety of two-way talents, including keen dribbling and passing. He and Jadon Sancho on the same wing is a bit unfair.
Casemiro (Real Madrid)
It seems almost ill-advised to call one of football’s best defensive midfielders an underrated talent, but Casemiro has been discreetly elite this season amid a stacked squad. The Brazilian ranks fifth in the Champions League in successful tackles and is a principle reason why Real Madrid have conceded the second-fewest goals (16) of any team in Europe’s top five leagues.
Ilkay Gundogan (Manchester City)
Having completed the second-most passes (505) in the tournament, Gundogan does all the simple things extremely well and enables the more attack-minded players at Manchester City to excel. With midfield lynchpin Fernandinho deputizing at center-back this season, Gundogan’s been a dependable player who’s capable of swiftly changing the tempo of any match. He’s the epitome of an unsung hero.
Robin Gosens (Atalanta)
German wing-back Gosens is one of several reasons why Atalanta lead Serie A with 63 goals, and why they became the first Champions League club to ever book a last-16 spot despite going winless in their opening four group matches. Gosens has recorded seven goals and five assists in the league – obscene numbers at his position – and is a symbol of La Dea’s adroit scouting pipeline.
Maxi Gomez (Valencia)
Valencia won’t oust goal-happy Atalanta without some attacking returns of their own, and with Barcelona target Rodrigo set to miss out with a knee worry, Los Che will need someone else to step up. Valencia boss Albert Celades is certain to start a 4-4-2 formation, and it’s likely forward Maxi Gomez, who’s quietly scored a team-best nine league goals, will get the chance.
Thomas Partey (Atletico Madrid)
Partey is the latest undervalued talent in an Atletico Madrid side that’s rife with selfless workers. Able to play as a defensive midfielder or in a more advanced role, the 26-year-old has seamlessly filled the void left by Rodri’s move to Manchester City, thwarting opposition attacks before swiftly moving the ball with top-tier vertical passes and stellar vision.
Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool)
Fabinho’s absence and Naby Keita’s frequent trips to the treatment table have made Wijnaldum an indispensable part of Liverpool’s midfield, and for good reason – the Dutchman wins the ball and rarely gives it away. The 29-year-old is the ideal No. 6 in Jurgen Klopp’s team against pressing sides. Also, that quick-fire brace off the bench against Barcelona last season was a delight.
Second among all players in the tournament with 19 key passes and second behind Lionel Messi in successful dribbles (27), Willian continues to be a needed veteran presence in Chelsea’s young setup, which is short on continental experience. The Brazilian will likely line up on the left side and look to get in behind Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard.
Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich)
It’s tough to identify an unsung hero in Hansi Flick’s star-studded Bayern Munich squad, but versatile defender Pavard merits a nod for being a constant source of composure in possession. The 23-year-old Frenchman has made the fifth-most passes (462) in the Champions League, and his ability to deputize at center-back has been vital amid a slew of injuries for the Bundesliga leaders.
Karl Toko Ekambi (Lyon)
Lyon recorded the joint-second-fewest goals of any side to progress from the group stage, and with leading scorer Memphis Depay out long term, newcomer Ekambi could be thrust into an important role. Capable of playing as a No. 9 or on either flank, the Cameroonian on loan from Villarreal has hit the ground running with two goals and an assist in 254 Ligue 1 minutes.
Juan Cuadrado (Juventus)
Cuadrado’s near-seamless transition to right-back this season under Maurizio Sarri has filled the void left by Joao Cancelo’s move to Manchester City. The versatile Colombian has embraced the role, and in Juventus’ come-from-behind group stage win over Lokomotiv Moscow, Cuadrado led his side with an absurd 151 touches, displaying just how imperative he is for the Scudetto holders.
Serge Aurier (Tottenham Hotspur)
Tottenham disciplinary misfit Aurier has been a player reborn under Jose Mourinho with three Man of the Match-caliber outings in his last eight appearances. Improved deliveries from the right flank have highlighted the right-back’s uptick in form, and against Leipzig, the Frenchman could be afforded the necessary room to operate while being monitored by the unproven Angelino.
Konrad Laimer (RB Leipzig)
Ranking first among players remaining in the tournament with 25 successful tackles and tops in the entire contest in tackles per 90 minutes (5.5), RB Leipzig’s Laimer has excelled as a ball-stopping midfielder in Julian Nagelsmann’s ever-changing setup. The 22-year-old will likely be tasked with shadowing in-form Tottenham stud Giovani Lo Celso in the last-16 clash.
Jose Callejon (Napoli)
Despite sitting third among all Champions League players with 17 key passes, Callejon is often overshadowed by fellow Napoli attackers Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, and Arkadiusz Milik. The 32-year-old Callejon’s penchant for pinpoint crosses and strong set-piece deliveries could be the difference against a Barcelona side that’s kept just two clean sheets in its last nine La Liga outings.
Clement Lenglet (Barcelona)
Ranking fourth among all players in the Champions League with 464 total passes, French center-back Lenglet has been a constant source of poise who’s boosted by top-tier skills on the ball. The 24-year-old played every minute of Barcelona’s six group stage matches, and against Napoli, he’ll be depended upon to snuff out the Serie A side’s occasionally dynamic attack.