Arabic players are set to light up Europe’s two elite leagues as they get down to the pointy end.
v Porto (Feb 14 Estadio do Dragao, Mar 6 Anfield)
Any list of this kind has to start with the extraordinary Egyptian who has been absolutely magnificent since arriving from Roma to Liverpool in the middle of last year.
He has scored a stunning 29 goals this season, including five in the Champions League, plus a further eight assists and his partnership with Roberto Firmino gets better every match.
Yacine Brahimi (Porto)
v Liverpool (Feb 14 Estadio do Dragao, Mar 6 Anfield)
The talented Algerian has slotted in superbly on the left for Porto since his arrival from Granada in 2014.
He played all six of the group stage matches, playing 506 of a possible 540 minutes, scoring a goal and assisting another in the crucial 5-2 win over Monaco that saw Porto confirm their qualification for the knockout stages.
In all he has scored eight goals in 34 matches in all competitions for Porto this season.
Medhi Benatia (Juventus)
v Tottenham (Feb 13 Juventus Stadium, Mar 7 Wembley)
The Moroccan centre back has been ever reliable at the heart of the Juventus defence this season with 21 appearances in all competitions, including five in the Champions League.
His growing understanding with Andrea Barzagli has been vital to Juve’s defensive solidity this season and he has also popped up with a couple of goals in Serie A, the first against Crotone and the second a crucial winner against AS Roma.
Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid)
v PSG (Feb 13 Bernabeu, Mar 7 Parc de Princes)
The 19-year-old Moroccan made history last year becoming the first Arabic player ever to play for the famous Los Blancos.
Achraf, or “Arra,” as his team-mates call him played the full 90 minutes against Spurs in his Champions League debut at the Bernabeu and backed it up by also playing the full match in the return fixture at Wembley.
“He had a lot of the ball; he didn’t look out of place at any stage,” El Pais journalist Pablo Perez said after the match. “He incorporated very well in attack. He didn’t suffer much in defence.”
We’ll have to wait and see if he appears in the knockout stages but its clear he has a big future ahead of him in Madrid.
Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal)
v Ostersund (Feb 15 Ostersund Arena, Feb 22 Emirates Stadium)
Along with Salah, Elneny played a key role in Egypt’s historic qualification for the World Cup.
Since his arrival at the Emirates in 2015 he has made 33 appearances for the Gunners contributing three assists.
The jury is still out with most Arsenal supporters about just how big a role Elneny can play for the Gunners but the 25-year-old is sure to feature as they try to go deep into the Europa League.
He’s played six matches in the tournament so far, scoring a goal in the 6-0 rout of BATE Borisov.
Sofiane Hanni (Spartak Moscow)
v Athletic Bilbao (Feb 15 Stadion Spartak, Feb 22 Estadio de San Mamés)
The 27-year-old Algerian attacking midfielder began the season at Anderlecht in Belgium where he played all six group matches of their unsuccessful Champions League campaign, even scoring against Bayern Munich.
On the January deadline day he joined Spartak Moscow in a three-and-half-year deal, which will now see him turn out for them in the Europa Laegue, starting with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday.
Hanni scored 18 goals in 61 league appearances for Anderlecht and led the Purple-Whites to league triumph last season as the captain.
He gained his first cap for Algerian side in June 2016, aged 25, in an Africa Cup of Nations qualification match against Seychelles.
Sure, the money undoubtedly was a factor, but the biggest motivation to leave the Catalonia paradise and eject himself from potentially one of the greatest ever attacking triumvirates, was to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and assume a starring role.
Seeing as he dominates the narratives ahead of PSG’s trip to Real Madrid — mission accomplished … well, sort of.
Taking centre stage was never going to be a problem following his high-profile €222 million transfer that made him the most expensive player of all-time.
The second and third phases of his mission are slightly more daunting — win the Champions League and his first Ballon d’Or. Failing to do so would render his move to the French capital redundant.
Despite the fact that he’s been given every privilege at PSG, including jetting off for a week to celebrate his 26th birthday, the transition hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Neymar.
And that started with a transfer saga that turned into a rather ugly affair with him storming off during a training session and Barcelona’s lawyers attempting to block the deal by pulling out every technicality in the book.
Having successfully made the switch, French football – predictably – hasn’t proved to be a very challenging landscape for the Brazilian who has nonchalantly cruised to 22 goals in 21 games in the domestic scene this season without breaking a sweat.
A strained relationship with Edinson Cavani, which often boils over on the pitch, hasn’t helped matters. After their initial clash over penalty-taking duties back in September, tensions ran high again last month in a fixture against Dijon.
Neymar, who scored four goals on the day, was jeered by his own fans when he refused to let the Uruguayan take a penalty in the 8-0 win which would’ve seen him become the club’s all-time leading goal-scorer.
PSG may not feel like home for the prodigious talent but he must keep his eye on the prize and remember why he’s there in the first place.
Facing Real Madrid and going toe-to-toe with five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo in the pursuit of European glory is just the kind of challenge that Neymar would have coveted.
This is the sort of game that has the potential to exalt him to the pinnacle of world football alongside Messi and Ronaldo and Madrid’s interest in the Brazilian has only raised the stakes.
Despite his recent upturn in form in La Liga, the Portuguese has had a difficult season with the team struggling to find their rhythm. At 33, whispers of Los Blancos being in the hunt for an heir to Ronaldo’s Bernabeu throne are steadily rising in decibels.
Neymar is the latest to emerge as a potential target exclusively for that purpose and it’s no surprise given that they lost out to Barcelona for the Brazilian’s signature when he first landed in Spain.
Florentino Perez has recently reiterated his desire to sign Neymar and a return to La Liga would seem like an appealing next chapter in his career but not before closing this one on the right note.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic put PSG on the map and Neymar has been entrusted with elevating them to the next level, one where they’re capable of rubbing shoulders with the biggest European powerhouses, and not just in the transfer market.
Neymar moved to Paris for a purpose and this game, against the reigning European champions led by the Ballon d’Or winner, represents everything he needs to beat to fulfill it.
He spent four years as Messi’s deputy at Barcelona but did he pick up any new tricks along the way? He’s already proved that he is capable of delivering on the big stage when he inspired that remarkable comeback against his current employers in last season’s competition.
But can he hit those heights like Messi has, and still does, time and time again? A starring performance to help PSG past Madrid would be a good start to answering just that.
With Liverpool recording a morale-boosting 2-0 win over Southampton on the weekend, the Reds now head to the imposing Estadio do Dragao to face Porto, who are unbeaten in 20 Primeira Liga games so far this season – 16 wins and four draws.
Here are our talking points ahead of the crucial Round of 16 Champions League clash:
Klopp has midfield issues as Can can’t
With Emre Can suspended due to too many yellow cards in the group stages Jurgen Klopp has some tricky decisions to make in the midfield.
A fit-again Jordan Henderson was rested against Southampton and should start in the centre of the midfield but who will be alongside him?
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was poor on his return to St Mary’s and was withdrawn on the hour mark so unless Klopp was resting him as well, expect Gini Wijnaldum to start on the right with the ever-reliable James Milner on the left.
Both Wijnaldum and Milner have their flaws, the former tending to go missing when the battle heats up in midfield and the latter looking a few yards off the pace several times this year, but the only other option is injury-prone Adam Lallana and that is a risk Klopp is unlikely to take from the start.
Who partners VVD at the back?
No Liverpool fan needs reminding that defence remains the Reds Achilles’ heel this season, and no sooner have they put one good performance together (such as Southampton) than they have fallen in a heap (such as the last ten minutes against Spurs).
Reds supporters will meet with great trepidation talk that Klopp plans to partner the improving Virgil van Dijk against Porto with Mr Air-swing himself, Dejan Lovren.
Lovren’s mistakes have been spectacular this season – even more so than last season – with his regular gaffes leading to Liverpool giving up crucial points in the Premier League though he can’t be blamed for either the FA Cup exit against West Brom or the Carabao Cup demise against Leicester as he didn’t start in either match.
Joel Matip, it can be argued, was not much better against Southampton and for Klopp it really is a choice between the lesser of two evils – Lovren or Matip – with Ragnar Klavan being usurped by Van Dijk in the left centre-half role.
The thought of Alberto Moreno making an appearance on the left of the back four is a terrifying thought, especially after his personal calamity against WBA, but surely Klopp can not make that mistake again of starting the haphazard Spaniard in such a crucial tie.
Andrew Robertson has made nearly every post a winner in his first season at Liverpool and is arguably the in-form left full-back in the Premier league.
The Scot must start with probably Joe Gomez (20) getting the nod on the right ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold (19) as Klopp rotates his young defenders.
All in orange
Odd as it may sound, Reds fans will be happy not to see Liverpool wearing red on Wednesday night. Rather they will prefer the bright orange third strip which has been decidedly lucky for Liverpool this season.
The Reds have worn it five times without defeat this term: four wins – 7-0 v Maribor, 4-1 v West Ham, 3-0 Stoke and 2-0 Southampton – and one draw, the 3-3 thriller with Arsenal.
Wijnaldum and Van Dijk already know orange well as they play in it for their national team, the Netherlands, but the way the team plays when they are wearing it – Klopp, the rest of the squad (and supporters) are no doubt warming to it as well.