Everyone knows who the stars of the Champions League semi-finals are going to be – or at least, are supposed to be.
Lionel Messi is looking to win the tournament for the first time in five years, while Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool‘s fab three up front want to banish memories of last season’s loss in the final. Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong are looking to sign off from their Ajax careers on a high and Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min are leading Tottenham’s quest for a first European title in 35 years.
But every side has its unsung heroes, or players who grab the headlines once in a while but aren’t always given top billing. Here’s a look at five such players to keep an eye on during the semi-finals.
The Dutch defender has enjoyed a renaissance since returning to the club where he began his career, having left in 2014 for Manchester United. Blind rejoined last summer in a departure from Ajax’s usual transfer policy which avoids high-profile, big-money – in relative terms – signings, and it’s proven to be an inspired decision.
Now he’s reminding United what they’re missing out on as he plays in a Champions League semi-final in a season where his former club are looking like they’ll miss out on the Premier League top four.
And with fellow centre-back De Ligt set to leave the club this summer, the 29-year-old Blind has a chance to show everyone against Tottenham that there will still be a top-class defender leading this brave new Ajax into the future – which possibly includes lifting a historic Champions League trophy in a month.
2016/17: Daley Blind beats Ajax with Man Utd in the Europa League final— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) April 16, 2019
2018/19: Daley Blind reaches the Champions League semi-final with Ajax; Man Utd get knocked out by Barcelona
He made the right choice. 😉 pic.twitter.com/auYBu9kOF2
Speaking of Ajax breaking their transfer policy to great effect – who saw this Dusan Tadic season coming? 34 goals and 19 assists from a player who never managed double digits at Southampton. The Saints are likely more looking at this season in wonder at how they never experienced such productivity rather than rueing the day they let him go.
Tottenham have seen Tadic before – the Serbian has one goal and two assists in seven previous games against Spurs – but they’ve never seen him quite like this, the standout attacking player in an all-conquering side.
And who knows, perhaps his season ends with a win over another Premier League side or even out-dueling the man who wears his number at Barcelona – a certain Messi.
Ajax are the first Dutch team in history to score 160 goals across all competitions in a single season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 23, 2019
Dušan Tadić has directly contributed to 53 of them. 🙇 pic.twitter.com/kU7ySGrcHW
Liverpool’s Dutch midfielder has gone under the radar somewhat, with headlines this season centering on the integration of Fabinho and Naby Keita or the form of Jordan Henderson.
Yet, despite scoring only three goals all season, Wijnaldum has been an effective cog in the Reds midfield. Henderson is energetic and Keita and Fabinho can control games, but no-one quite typifies Jurgen Klopp’s energetic, high-press system the way Wijnaldum does.
Though they play in very different styles and roles, it’s akin to what Sergio Busquets does for Barcelona. Wijnaldum’s energy and running from midfield make Liverpool’s system work just like Busquets’ metronomic passing and recycling of possession do for the Catalan side.
Georginio Wijnaldum's game by numbers vs. Cardiff:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 21, 2019
53 passes attempted
51 passes completed
1 successful take-on
1 touch in opp. box
Picked his moment to venture into the box. 😅 pic.twitter.com/y9oVpWm8Ey
A year ago, France were lifting the World Cup. Now, a player who wasn’t in the squad has a viable claim to be the best French defender on current form, and can lead his side into the Champions League final.
Clement Lenglet has benefitted this season from the injuries to compatriot and team-mate Samuel Umtiti, as well as the slight dip in form from Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, but there’s no doubting that the 23-year-old has improved and delivered on the promise that saw Barcelona make him a £35million signing last summer.
And he has previous against Liverpool – he was part of the Sevilla side that came back from 3-0 down to earn a draw in last season’s group stage. The semi-final could be the stage for him to provide an encore.
Lenglet: "I like to have all the information possible, where Robertson likes to cross and which post Firmino prefers."— barcacentre (@barcacentre) April 27, 2019
No Harry Kane. No Son for the first leg. Well, at least Tottenham can rely on a player who scored a hat-trick a little over two weeks ago.
True, Lucas Moura hasn’t scored since putting three past Huddersfield on April 13, and Ajax aren’t Huddersfield. But his goalscoring form in the time since has also been affected by playing as part of a front three rather than as the main man, which is what he’ll be in the first leg of the semi-final.
The Brazilian’s movement and tenacity make him just the sort of striker no-one wants to face, and he has an eye for goal. Could he be the one to lead Spurs into a Champions League final?
Spurs attacker Lucas Moura has now labelled Tottenham Hotspur’s Champions League Semi-Final against Ajax tomorrow evening as the biggest game of his career in the build-up:— Last Word On Spurs🎙 (@LastWordOnSpurs) April 29, 2019
"I need to enjoy this opportunity and to give my best!"
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