Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

We’re halfway through the group stages of the Champions League after an intriguing week that saw Paris Saint-Germain bounce back, Manchester United get points on the board and (inevitably) Jude Bellingham score for Real Madrid. Here’s our pick of the best players this week. And, as always, you can catch all the Champions League action across across Paramount+CBS Sports Golazo Network and CBS Sports Network

GK: Andre Onana, Manchester United

Before Scott McTominay’s high boot threw United into the mire, Onana had hardly been putting together a case for goalkeeper of the week. Of the three saves he had made, only one — a Lukas Lerager shot that was bending away from him — really tested him. However, the goalkeeping position is one that can be defined by moments, moments such as a springy penalty save in the last minute of an emotional match at Old Trafford. There is a good shot stopper and a quality all-around goalkeeper waiting for Erik ten Hag to unearth, but Onana surely needed a moment like that to remind himself of that simple fact.

“He showed personality,” said Ten Hag. “He knows that before, given the levels of what his skills are, he didn’t match his skills and he could do better. Don’t forget that brilliant save [from Lerager] just after half-time in the counter-attack. And also don’t forget, one of his skills is he’s a very good penalty saver.”

RB: Joao Cancelo, Barcelona

Between you and I, dear reader, I always find full backs the fiddliest of positions to fill in this team (with the exception of this week’s left back spot where the likes of Takehiro Tomiyasu and David Raum had impressive outings). Given that one manager might ask his right back to tuck in and bolster the center backs, while another might function as his team’s chief ball player.

Cancelo was certainly the latter, leading his team in touches, completing all his passes in the attacking third and delivering a fine cross for Joao Felix at the back post. It might be on the opposite flank to that which he excelled in a Manchester City shirt, but the Portuguese international is looking no less effective for Barcelona.

CB: Mats Hummels, Borussia Dortmund

This was proper veteran stuff from the 34-year-old, a player utterly at ease in what should have felt like a cauldron at St. James’ Park. For all the pressure that Newcastle exerted on the Dortmund final third in the second half, it never particularly translated into any great threats on Gregor Kobel’s goal as Hummels and his impressive partner Nico Schlotterbeck dealt with everything.

CB: Kevin Danso, Lens

Given how fearless and front-footed PSV Eindhoven are, any defense that allows them to turn 54 percent possession into just 10 shots worth a combined 0.48 xG deserves almighty praise. Indeed if it had not been for a wonderful strike from favorite of this parish Johan Bakayoko, Lens may well have ground their way to an extremely impressive win and top spot in Group B. Crucial to that defensive solidity was Danso, who made a staggering 12 ball recoveries.

UEFA’s technical observer panel said of Danso: “He had an excellent game in defence and had a hard job with [Luuk] De Jong. He was good in the air and on the ground and was great in his positioning. He was also dangerous in attack and overall did a great job.”

LB: Alphonso Davies, Bayern Munich

Davies has been a presence at the top level of the European game for so long that his qualities do not always go as appreciated as they might. And yet, the 22-year-old was one of the few in black, green and purple who stood firm under the wave of early pressure that Galatasaray placed on Bayern in the first half. Tete and Sacha Boey played particularly outsized roles in the hosts’ attacking build-up, but for all the pressure placed on Davies, he rarely buckled, if ever.

RM: Calvin Stengs, Feyenoord

Robbed of a quite wonderful assist by a marginal offside call, he ultimately had to accept an altogether more prosaic delivery for Ramiz Zerrouki as Feyenoord ran riot against Lazio. Stengs ended the first half with six chances created, almost exactly half of his completed passes resulting in a shooting opportunity for his teammates. A critic might say that this tells us just as much about how woeful the Italian visitors were, but they still had to be put to the sword. Stengs did exactly that.

CM: Hakan Calhanoglu, Inter

With all due respect to his rivals — looking at you James Ward-Prowse (and you can too when West Ham take on Olympiakos in Europa League action Thursday on Paramount+) — there might be no more deadly set piece taker in world football than Calhanoglu, who showed the variety of a vintage Greg Maddux to bamboozle Red Bull Salzburg in the first half of Inter’s 2-1 win. His first free-kick from wide on the right channel crashed to the near post for Lautaro Martinez to flick on, a corner from that same flank deserved better than Davide Frattesi heading wide at the near post. In total he created four shooting opportunities from dead balls before the interval, after which he proved he was no less adept from 12 yards than 20, striking from the penalty spot.

If that dead ball wizardry is to be expected, then it was what Calhanoglu did off the ball that stood out. The repurposed number 10 is improving in his deeper role on a daily basis and showed a real sense of anticipation for where second balls might land and the shape of Salzburg counters. With that, Inter were able to open up a four point gap in the qualification spots, the knockout stages beckoning for last season’s finalists.

CM: Warren Zaire-Emery, Paris Saint-Germain

Someone call 911, Matt O’Riley’s been robbed. I really, really wanted the Celtic man in the team for his elegant positioning around the edge of the box but how can you not make room for Zaire-Emery? At 17 years old he isn’t just a key cog in Luis Enrique’s midfield plans, it is hard to imagine how they could function without him. A teenager shouldn’t brush off Tijani Reijnders with the ease that Zaire-Emery did and he certainly shouldn’t then put a ball right in Kylian Mbappe’s path for the opening goal. The youngster ended an impressive win with two assists, putting the ball in the perfect spot for Goncalo Ramos to dummy and Kang-in Lee to strike.

LM: Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal

On his first start in a Champions League game, Martinelli delivered much the same as he had in the Premier League, Europa League and EFL Cup: a goal to mark life in a new competition. His bursts in behind offered Arsenal a dimension that they sorely lacked in Lens last time out, but it is not just that that means the youngster stands out ahead of his compatriot Vinicius Junior and Kvicha Kvarastkhelia.

Gabriel Martinelli’s actions in Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Sevilla
TruMedia

No one in an Arsenal shirt managed more recoveries or interceptions in what was a performance of the sort of diligence and energy that Mikel Arteta loves in his No.11. The touches in the final third might have been the ones that won the game for the Gunners, but the road to victory would have been rather more arduous without Martinelli’s off-ball work.

ST: Evanilson, Porto

It was going to take something extremely special to snare a spot that frankly had Gabriel Jesus’ name in pen, double underlined just to make sure that no one else snuck in. Something extremely special like a substitute netting a hat trick, turning the tide in a crucial game that gave his side a strong foothold in their group. That is exactly what Evanilson delivered, immediately rewriting the script by converting Medhi Taremi’s cross.

The pick of his goals, one of the best of the week in fact, was his second, the sweetest of first time connections, one that Jean Butez understandably concluded was not worth diving towards. Better to take a moment to admire. 

ST: Santiago Gimenez, Feyenoord

How could you not pick a Champions League debutant with a brace to his name? Gimenez’s penalty box instincts, most obviously on display as he scarcely looked up before striking home his first, feel like they are becoming more infrequent in the European game. 

The 22 year old might be a little high risk given the sketchy record of Eredivisie form translating into the top leagues on the continent. but given the paucity of reasonably priced options on the market right now, one wonders how long until a club makes an offer for Gimenez that PSV can’t refuse.

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