Champions League stars
Nick Bidwell on those who impressed in the early rounds
1 Arthur Barcelona
Outstanding in the 4-2 triumph away to Tottenham Hotspur and the 2-0 home win over Internazionale, the 31million summer signing from Gremio is seen by many as the spiritual heir to Barca’s former playmaking maestro Xavi.
The 22-year-old diminutive Brazil midfielder is a metronomic passer of the ball and has doublehelpings of awareness and imagination. Not too proud to put in the defensive hard yards either, he simply loves the responsibility of driving the team forward.
Club and country colleague Philippe Coutinho calls him “the motor of the side” which is high praise indeed for one still exploring the lay of the land in Europe.
It is incredible to recall that less than two years ago he was not even sure of a first-team spot in Brazilian club football.
Milan 2 PAvkov red Star Belgrade
The rangy Red Star striker is never going to forget the November night when his stunning seven-minute brace – a bullet header and a right-footed, long-range piledriver – put Liverpool to the sword.
Premium reputations are forged by such exploits and suddenly the 24-year-old is hot property, surely destined to imminently cash in with a big-money move to the European mainstream, with his agent having suggesting Milan are interested.
However, he has not always been a Red Star hero. His first six months at the Marakana following a 300,000 switch from Radnicki Nis in January 2017 were a disaster. He suffered injury problems and was unable to make first-team headway, playing just six minutes as a substitute. It was an embarrassing saga for Red Star who, much to the delight of rivals, had to pay Radnicki a 50,000 bonus for his one fleeting elite run-out.
Red Star’s response was to loan him back to Radnicki, where 23 top-flight goals provided the fuel for a third-place finish last season.
3 Hector Herrera Porto
After undergoing cosmetic surgery on his nose and ears a few months ago, the Mexican international midfielder and Porto skipper is barely recognisable these days. But little has changed with regard to his play, character or leadership ability.
The 28-year-old remains the beating heart of a side that ran out winners of their group. However, this is likely to be his last season with the club as contract renewal talks have repeatedly floundered and the smart money is on him leaving for free in July. And there will be no shortage of takers, with the list of admirers rumoured to include Roma, Internazionale, Juventus, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
A veteran of half a dozen Champions League campaigns with Porto, he has only once made it to the quarter-finals, losing to Bayern Munich in 2015.
4 Noussair Mazraoui AjAx
In his first season as an established starter for the Amsterdammers, the 21-year-old homegrown right-back has risen to the occasion in Europe, scoring the equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Bayern Munich and a late, late winner at home to Benfica.
A typical Ajax academy graduate, he is self-assured, over-endowed technically and a quick-witted reader of the game. Coming through the ranks he mainly occupied a midfield role and impressed for the first-team last term as a left-sided wing-back and central defender.
The Dutch-born son of Moroccan parents, he was in talks with Oranje coach Ronald Koeman earlier this season before opting for the North Africans and making his competitive debut, against Malawi, in September.
5 Maxwel CorNet lyoN
Anyone who saw the Ivorian winger’s contribution as his side claimed four points out of six in their group-phase encounters with Manchester City – scoring three goals and embarrassing the Sky Blue back-line with his blistering speed – will find it extremely hard to believe that the 22-year-old is only a spare-part attacker at the Groupama Stadium.
Signed from Metz four years ago, he has hardly featured in Ligue 1 this term and his performances against Pep Guardiola’s side even seemed to come as a surprise to the club’s loquacious president Jean-Michel Aulas, who said: “Bravo to Maxwel... he has come back from I don’t know where.”
He almost quit Lyon in the summer, with Aulas reported to be demanding at least 20million, plus a 30 per cent resale windfall.
Any sale price is likely to be even higher now.
6 aLLaN NAPoli
“A giant from first minute to last” said Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport of his part in the 1-0 win at home to Liverpool in October and an in-joke at the San Paolo stadium makes reference to his hyperactivity, with fans claiming: “Seventy per cent of Earth is covered by water, the rest by Allan.”
With Udinese for three seasons prior to joining Napoli in the summer of 2015, he used to be one of those players who constantly flew under the media radar. But it’s a decidedly different story these days.
He recently won his first cap for Brazil in a friendly victory over Uruguay in London, after which his country’s assistant-coach Sylvinho said: “He has wheels on his feet.”