Champions League roundtable: Who are the most underrated players from each semifinal team?

The UEFA Champions League is halfway through the semifinals with the biggest stars in the world taking center stage. The world is watching the biggest names, and sweating every twinge of Kylian Mbappe’s hamstring as they look at the most influential players on the pitch. And there are no shortage of stars. From Karim Benzema on Real Madrid to Mbappe and Neymar on PSG to the American Christian Pulisic on Chelsea to Kevin de Bruyne on Manchester City there are plenty of marquee names looking to make their mark as they propel their teams to the Champions League final. And you can watch all the action when it kicks off on Paramount+.

But soccer, as we all know is a team game. And while the stars might sine the brightest, and get the lion’s share of attention, it takes 11 players working together to get the job done. So we wanted to shine the light on some less heralded players, some of the underrated contributors that make these great teams tick. These are the players that likely won’t show up on the score sheet at the end of the day but will be no less influential in helping their teams compete for one of the two coveted spots in the Istanbul fina.

So, whether it’s a midfielder committed to keeping possession, or a center back developing into a force of nature, here are the players to watch on Tuesday and Wednesday, even if the world’s eyes will be on their teammates.

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PSG — Abdou Diallo

Jonathan Johnson: PSG are up against it ahead of the return leg of their semifinal with City and Abdou Diallo’s return to the starting XI could be key. While left back Mitchel Bakker did not disgrace himself filling in during the first leg, City’s Riyad Mahrez was picked up by microphones asking “who even is this guy?” of the inexperienced left back at one point. The Dutchman’s lack of maturity told later on as the team collectively lost their heads and Mauricio Pochettino’s men now need somebody solid enough in defense and also capable of pushing forward. 

Diallo has performed well on the left in Manchester already, in the 3-1 win over United back in December and his insertion at half-time against Barcelona in the second leg helped to turn the tide. He was also missed against Bayern Munich after twice being forced off. In a squad that mixes the superstar and the understated to occasionally jarring effect, Diallo is one of those lesser lights who regularly steps up to play an important defensive role. His ability to start will certainly be key to getting the best out of Presnel Kimpembe on the left side of central defense.

Manchester City — Rodri

Michael Goodman: It’s hard to pick one player out of the Manchester City unit. The team is such an intricated and interrelated group of players that it feels like suggesting somebody is less regarded than their peers would be a personal affront to Pep Guardiola. That said, it’s worth highlighting Rodri, who sits at the base of midfield and reliably controls the game for this defensive possession machine. What makes Rodri unique on this squad is that his role isn’t complicated, or revolutionary, it’s traditional. He’s a midfielder, playing midfield, and doing typical midfield things. He just happens to also be very very good at them.

City’s attack usually doesn’t play a striker and instead features four interchanging attackers, oftentimes joined by a fifth in midfielder Ilkay Gundogan marauding forward. In defense, City’s fullbacks are absolutely unique, operating alternatively as extra midfielders or in Kyle Walker’s case a third center back, but rarely supporting the attack in the traditional manner by getting high up the pitch and providing width. But between the two eye catching units there’s Rodri, quietly and calmly linking play, moving the ball up the field and seemingly never ever ever making a mistake. He leads City in touches this season, and only center back Bruno Dias has played more passes. Rodri is on the ball a ton and the fact despite that he receives considerable less attention than his teammates is evidence that he’s doing his job extremely well.

Chelsea — Jorginho

James Benge: So much of Chelsea’s success under new management has been based around control. They dominate possession to a remarkable extent, their positioning is thoughtful and without the ball they are rigorous in their defense of the penalty area. It is little wonder that Jorginho is such a good fit in Thomas Tuchel’s system then; he has been the one setting the tempo with the ball and vocally organizing the press without it.

Since the change of management no-one has regained possession for Chelsea more frequently than the Italian international, no-one has completed more passes and only three players have started more sequences that end in a shot. Where N’Golo Kante rightly wins plaudits for his more dramatic and visible work in transitioning defense into attack, Jorginho does so in no less effective a fashion. It is little wonder that he is proving to be such a trusted lieutenant in the Stamford Bridge engine room.

Real Madrid – Eder Militao

Roger Gonzalez: It’s easily Eder Militao. The former Porto defender has come into a side riddled with injuries and has put forth superstar performances. With the team boasting depth that would make any Liverpool fan envious, Militao has helped cover for the absence of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane in a big way. Not only did he set up Karim Benzema’s goal in the first leg with his head, he also scored the winner against Osasuna last weekend to keep Los Blancos alive in the title race in La Liga. 

He’s strong in the air, he isn’t afraid of any challenge, and he does a fantastic job of marking attackers on their runs. Keep an eye on how Chelsea’s attackers will check to the ball at the top of the box and how Militao will be within a foot at times to apply pressure. The futures of Ramos and Raphael Varane are up in the air at Real, but they already have the person in place to not miss a beat. Underrated but a superstar in the making.  

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