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  • Rene Ramirez

Three Underrated Performances in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg

- By Rene Ramirez

The first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 provided a showcase of gritty defense, with an average of 23.6 fouls a match, mixed with a lack of offensive execution, as half of the eight total matches ended in a 1-0 result. Then there’s the anomaly of the fixtures: Real Madrid vs. Liverpool. Given that the matchup was a rematch of the previous year’s final, high anticipation put the “marquee matchup” label for many fans. A 2-0 lead within the opening 14 minutes of play, which included an error from world-class keeper Thibaut Courtois, was, at the time, surprising for most spectators. Then, a Madrid domination that was exemplified through five unchallenged goals, proved just how high the defending champions are in the European Football pecking order. There’s no guarantee the Madridistas will celebrate a fifth Champions League win in ten years, however it will take the “other” teams’ best form to provide proper competition.

The theme of defense that defined this week’s fixtures allowed for a brighter spotlight to be shown on defensive-minded players. To the general fan, these players may not be as recognizable as the superstar forwards Vinícius Júnior or Erling Haaland. Yet, in the knockout stages, where defensive mistakes are magnified, it’s important to recognize those players who have underrated performances.

1. Luka Modrić vs. Liverpool

As previously mentioned, Real Madrid had an outstanding 76 minutes against Liverpool, with each of their five goals progressively wiping the joy off the Liverpool faithful’s faces in Anfield Stadium. Youngster Vinícius Júnior took the spotlight winning Man of the Match, however 37-year-old midfielder (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Luka Modrić was a major factor in connecting the defense and offense through his 86.2% passing accuracy and eight possessions won. His disregard for father time was best shown in the 66th minute where he glided past Liverpool defenders through the midfield and passed to Vinícius Júnior, who set up Karim Benzema for a quick counterattack goal that put the game out of reach. Modrić’s performance against Liverpool joins the list of many that show his fantastic form in club football’s biggest stage.

2. Kim Min-jae vs. Frankfurt

S.S.C Napoli has caught the attention of European football, dominating Italy’s top-flight league, Serie A, with an 18-point gap between them and second place, Inter Milan. The team’s defensive motor, which has conceded a league low, fifteen goals, has translated to the Champions League, ranking fifth best in terms of goals allowed. In a traditional 4-3-3 formation, the

importance of the center back is elevated, (Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images)

however, South Korean back Kim Min-jae is flourishing despite the added pressure. In a 2-0 shutout versus Eintracht Frankfurt, Min-jae completed 94.7% of his 132 passes, won 12/14 of his duels in both the air and ground, and most importantly against a wide attack, had seven clearances. When, not if, Napoli play world-class offenses, Min-jae will be pivotal in maintaining the stingy reputation of the Italian defense. It’s also to be noted the financial benefits Min-jae is providing his side, with his market value, specifically his release clause, steadily increasing for interested teams, such as Manchester United.

3. Gregor Kobel vs. Chelsea

In Dortmund, Germany, much attention has been put on young phenom Jude Bellingham, who carries an outstanding $110 million market value and deservedly so, being at the forefront of England’s youthful rejuvenation in international competitions, and Dortmund’s (Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

title charge in the monopolistic Bundesliga, which rival Bayern Munich have won for a decade straight. Gregor Kobel, a Swiss goalkeeper known for his reputation as a “sweeper keeper”, has made his mark since his $15 million transfer in the summer of 2020. Two years removed from Kobel’s debut for the Schwarzgelben, he’s been the steady anchor for the German side that has only conceded three goals in the Champions League. In a Chelsea game where the Blues had 15 shots inside the box, Kobel managed to make seven saves, three of which were diving, and kept a clean sheet in the face of 2.13 expected goals. A steady presence at the goalkeeper position has been a major piece that kept Dortmund from competing with other top clubs, however, now with Kobel and a formidable supporting cast surrounding a generationally talented midfielder, Dortmund has a great chance to win the club’s second Champions League title, and their first in the 21st century.

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