Football Features

Combined XI: The Champions League’s most underrated players

By Steve Jennings

Published: 10:57, 19 February 2019 | Updated: 15:05, 21 March 2024

When we think of the Champions League, we usually picture the very best players in Europe.

Images of Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo lifting the trophy in recent years spring to mind, while the name of the competition also conjures up magical moments from the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar.

But under the radar, a number of underrated players have helped their sides reach the knockout stages this season – not forgetting those who have already shone in the first round of last-16 fixtures.

To celebrate those undervalued stars, we’ve put together a combined XI of this season’s Champions League’s most underrated players, selecting no more than one player from each team competing in the last-16.

Goalkeeper: Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona)

Remarkably, Ter Stegen is rarely in the conversation when the topic of the world’s best goalkeeper comes up. It feels like only a matter of time before that changes.

The German has been excellent for Barcelona over the last two seasons. He conceded four goals in his five group stage appearances this term, letting in two against Tottenham at Wembley but preventing a potential embarrassment by stopping the hosts from adding to their tally with a couple of fine saves.

Right-back: Joao Cancelo (Juventus)

There is little doubt for some observers who Europe’s prominent right-back is. However, with that being said, Cancelo is yet to get that mainstream treatment when it comes to compiling a best XI. That should change soon.

The 24-year-old Portuguese international has been dependable for Juve, chipping in with an assist in three Champions League outings as the Old Lady look to move on the road to Madrid.

Centre-back: Marquinhos (PSG)

Having spent most of his career at centre-back, Marquinhos has played in central midfield on a few occasions this season, taking advantage of Adrien Rabiot’s omission.

Marco Verratti received most of the credit for helping PSG to control their first leg against Manchester United, but Marquinhos was every bit as influential. The Brazilian plugged every gap United attempted to exploit, keeping Paul Pogba quiet throughout.

Centre-back: Aymeric Laporte (Man City)

It’s incredible to think Aymeric Laporte is yet to play for the France national team. Part of that is down to a dispute over which country he will represent, but his underrated status is also responsible to a degree.

The 24-year-old has proved to be just about undroppable for Manchester City this season. He played in all six group games, scoring two important goals to send the English champions through to the knockout stages, where he will be aiming to keep Schalke out.

Left-back: Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax)

Nicolas Tagliafaco scored three goals in six group stage appearances, including a brace against AEK Athens and a stoppage time equaliser against Bayern Munich – not bad for a left-back.

Another impressive display against Real Madrid saw the 26-year-old’s reputation go up another level. Tagliafico has scored four goals and provided five assists in 27 games across all competition this season.

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Central midfield: Thomas Partey (Atletico Madrid)

A nominee for the African Player of the Year in 2018, the nature of Thomas Partey’s game perhaps explains why he doesn’t receive a similar amount of plaudits to the likes of Koke and Saul Niguez in Atletico’s midfield.

Partey goes about his work quietly yet provides plenty of energy in every game. He played in five of Atletico’s six group games, helping the La Liga giants easily reach the knockout stages.

Central midfield: Axel Witsel (Dortmund)

Before joining Dortmund last summer, Witsel spent six years of his career in Russia and China, so most fans’ only glimpses of him came for the Belgian national team.

Dortmund were clearly watching closely. He is the both the engine and a calming presence in Lucien Favre’s midfield. Despite being part of the Dortmund team that lost 3-0 at Spurs, Witsel impressed in the middle of the park, and other clubs in Europe must regret ignoring his availability after the World Cup.

Central midfield: Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool)

Jurgen Klopp has struggled to find his best midfield set-up all season, but Georginio Wijnaldum has been an ever-present when available thanks to his tireless displays.

The Dutchman, who scored a stunning goal against Bournemouth in the Premier League earlier this month, played in every group game and will be a crucial player if Liverpool are to reach the latter stages of the competition once again this term.

Forward: Son Heung-min (Tottenham)

Very few players across Europe are in better form than Spurs’ No. 7. Affectionately dubbed “Sonaldo” by his club’s supporters, Son Heung-min translated his irresistible domestic performances to Europe where he played a pivotal role – by scoring the opener – in their 3-0 round-of-16 first-leg win over dark horses Borussia Dortmund at Wembley.

Striker: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)

It’s either feast or famine as far as Karim Benzema is concerned. Despite boasting an envious goalscoring record he’s not the first ‘No. 9’ that comes to mind when the very best modern strikers are discussed.

Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane will often be mentioned before the four-time European Cup winner, who has bagged 60 goals in 110 appearances.

Only Raul (71), Lionel Messi (106) and former Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo (121) are ahead of Benzema in the all-time standings.

Striker: Edin Dzeko (Roma)

With so much requested of modern strikers, who need to combine playmaking with scoring, it’s easy to overlook those who share the same traits as poachers from years gone by. Ruud van Nistelrooy was a prime example, but it would be crazy to label him underrated.

However, back then goals were enough for a number nine to be lauded, but not so much these days which is where Edin Dzeko comes in.

Again, the numbers back him up, but you don’t often hear the Bosnian’s name in the conversations discussing the world’s best marksmen.

Though maybe he should be when you consider only Messi (six) and Lewandowski (eight) have bagged more Champions League goals than him (five) so far this season.