For the first time since 2005, neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo will be involved in the Champions League quarter-finals.
While Barcelona’s exit to last season’s runners-up Paris Saint-Germain was perhaps not too much of a surprise, few saw Juventus coming out on the wrong end of an upset against Porto in the last 16.
So, could we be witnessing a changing of the guard in the competition? Is it a case of out with the old, in with the new?
While Messi and Ronaldo have dominated in Europe through the years, a collection of some of the most promising talents in the world game have the chance to take centre stage now.
Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund)
Even by his own prolific standards, Haaland has been in sensational scoring form in the tournament so far.
His 10 goals in six games includes scoring a brace in each leg of the last-16 tie with Sevilla, helping Borussia Dortmund progress to the quarters.
The Norwegian striker managed the same number in a Champions League campaign last season that saw him represent both BVB and Salzburg. Forget just breaking the record as the fastest to 20 goals, he has shattered it. Harry Kane was previously the quickest to reach that number, doing so in 24 games – Haaland managed it in just 14.
His big chance conversion rate this season sits at a clinical 81.9 per cent, while he has also demonstrated his all-round impact by creating eight chances for his BVB colleagues.
Next in his sights is Manchester City, a team with family ties as his father, Alf-Inge, played for the English club in the early 2000s. Haaland has been linked with them too, along with plenty of other clubs, and Pep Guardiola has been suitably impressed by a player who does not turn 21 until July.
“The numbers speak for themselves, of course he is one of the best strikers in the world right now at his age,” said Guardiola, who will be well aware that Haaland has the potential to ruin City’s hopes of European glory.
Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain)
Mbappe has six goals to his name in European outings in 2020-21, the same tally team-mate Neymar has managed for a PSG squad aiming to go one better than last year.
The France international hit a hat-trick in a 4-1 thrashing of Barcelona at Camp Nou, joining Faustino Asprilla and Andriy Shevchenko as the only players to record a Champions League treble against the Spanish heavyweights.
He was also on target when scoring a penalty in the drawn second leg, in the process becoming the youngest player to reach 25 goals in the competition, aged 22 years and 80 days. Messi was on the same pitch at the time his record was broken.
Mbappe has also demonstrated how he can provide for others, too. No forward from any of the teams still in contention can top his three assists, while only Karim Benzema (15) has bettered his total of 14 chances created.
PSG will be hoping the forward can continue his fine form when they take on Bayern Munich in a repeat of last year’s final.
22y 80d – Aged 22 years and 80 days, Kylian Mbappé has become the youngest player in UEFA Champions League history to reach 25 goals in the competition, taking the mantle from Lionel Messi (22y 286d). Idolise. pic.twitter.com/bPetOpNyri
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 10, 2021
Phil Foden (Manchester City)
After three starts in the Champions League last season, Foden has risen from the periphery to become a prominent figure for Guardiola.
Only goalkeeper Ederson has played more minutes in the campaign so far for City than the versatile 20-year-old, who has contributed a goal and two assists to help ensure smooth progress to the last eight.
Foden has created the most chances for City during his appearances, his tally of 12 putting him just ahead of Kevin De Bruyne (11), while he has also been successful with 64.7 per cent of his attempted dribbles.
The playmaker is set to feature in the Champions League knockout stage for a fourth season before turning 21 – a feat only previously achieved by Cesc Fabregas (2004-05 to 2007-08) and Theo Walcott (2006-07 to 2009-10).
In the Premier League, Foden’s 20 goal involvements (11 goals, nine assists) is comfortably the most by anyone aged 21 or under, showing just why he is no longer one to watch for the future but a player for the present, both for club and country.
4 – Phil Foden is set to play in the Champions League knockout stage for a fourth season before turning 21 – only the third player to achieve that, along with Cesc Fabregas (2004-05 – 2007-08) and Theo Walcott (2006-07 – 2009-10). Education. pic.twitter.com/YB7o3iRtbR
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 24, 2021
Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich)
It is not often a full-back catches the eye to the level that Davies managed during Bayern’s triumphant Champions League run in 2019-20.
The most eye-catching moment of all surely came in his side’s 8-2 rout of Barcelona in a quarter-final result that sent shock waves across European football, as he initially beat two opposing players before breezing beyond poor Nelson Semedo to set up a goal for Joshua Kimmich, one of his three assists in the competition.
Having arrived at the Bundesliga club as a left winger, the conversion to defence was made as quickly as he sprints up and down his flank (he clocked a top speed of 36.51 kilometres per hour in a Bundesliga game against Werder Bremen last year, the quickest speed recorded since such data began to be collected).
His participation in the group stage this season was limited by an ankle injury, with the 4-1 first-leg victory over Lazio in the last 16 just his second start.
However, the Canada international had no problems upon his return, having 101 touches (second only to team-mate David Alaba) while topping the list for Bayern in terms of tackles (four) and number of times possession was gained from the opposition (seven).
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