The Champions League returns on Tuesday with the semifinals set to kick off (live, 2 p.m. ET on FS1). Real Madrid host bitter rivals Atletico Madrid, while Juventus travel to Monaco on Wednesday to open their first leg. We've got a blank slate to work with, and anyone can be the hero from here on out, but some players are clearly more important to their teams than others.
Who's the most indispensable player to their team in the Champions League semis?
Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid)
Saul is the quintessential Atletico Madrid player. He's technical, works his tail off on both sides of the ball, and he's got both flair and a little bit of a nasty streak in him as well. He can play anywhere in the midfield equally well, and he just *clinches fist* gets the job done. Atleti are such a unit, Koke might have an argument for this slot, as might Filipe Luis, Gabi and a couple other guys. Saul is one of those glue players that makes the whole team better, and he's got a knack for coming up big when it really matters. He's scored some really important goals for Atletico in the last couple years, and it's crazy to think he's only 22 years old.
Mario Mandzukic (Juventus)
Moving bruising center-forward Mario Mandzukic to the left wing and switching Juventus to a 4-2-3-1 formation might have seemed crazy when Massimiliano Allegri first did it, but it's been one of the most successful tactical changes of the season. Mandzukic's incredible work rate on the defensive side of the ball has made his partnership with Alex Sandro on Juventus' left side nearly impenetrable, and they've formed a perfect partnership going forward as well. Mandzukic's aerial ability, hold-up play and constant running have made him one of the key components for Juve, and his unselfishness helps drive the team forward, making for the perfect balance with Juan Cuadrado on the other side. Add in the fact that Marco Pjaca, the only other natural winger in the team tore his ACL earlier in the season, and Super Mario has made himself even more important to the cause.
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Who would've thought Falcao would come back this strong? His career looked all but done after he tore his ACL a couple years ago, but a move to the south of France has saved his job as a footballer. Since then, he's gotten back to scoring goals at a ridiculous clip, and he's now the most efficient goalscorer in European history. Without his goals, Monaco don't get to where they are, even with the heroics of his younger teammate, Kylian Mbappe.
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Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
Ronaldo may have lost a step of pace, he's not as dynamic as he was as a younger player, and he doesn't exert quite as much of an influence on proceedings as he did in the past, but he's still a goalscoring machine. He's also become more of a team player as he's matured, and his seven goals and five assists in Champions League this year back that assertion up. Even though Madrid have ridiculous attacking depth, he's still the main man, and he's proved it with some absolutely clutch goals on the biggest stage this year.
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Marcelo (Real Madrid)
Marcelo's like two players combined into one. We haven't really seen a defender who can control the entire left side of the pitch like him since Roberto Carlos. And Marcelo's nonstop dynamism, unbelievable skill with the ball, and the fact that he's Brazilian playing for Real Madrid makes the comparison more than just a little bit accurate. Marcelo's athleticism and energy means Cristiano Ronaldo can roam the pitch freely, and his improved defensive ability and threat going forward have been invaluable for Madrid this year. He's the type of guy who will make 75-yard runs down the pitch against Bayern Munich in the 110th minute, and still lay the ball off for Ronaldo to get his hat trick. He might even be too low on this list.
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Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid)
Atletico are probably the strongest collective still left in Champions League, but Diego Godin still stands out amongst his teammates. He's been one of the best defenders in the world for years now, and it doesn't really matter who Diego Simeone lines up beside him in the back. You know exactly what you're going to get: Steady defending, leadership, and set piece goals to boot.
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Kamil Glik (Monaco)
Monaco's attack has been the focus all season, and it makes sense. They score goals at a incredible clip, and nobody really talks about defenders if you're putting up three goals a match on average. That's unfair to Kamil Glik though, and the Polish center back has been fantastic for Monaco. In a team where counterattacks and danger on the defensive end is the norm, Glik has been the steadying anchor for Monaco, and his importance can't be denied. Somebody's gotta stay back when his teammates go pouring forward, and he's been the guy to put out fires all year.
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Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)
Juventus have absurd defensive depth, but there's not a more important defender in their team than Leonardo Bonucci. Not only is he a superb reader of the game and a ferocious tackler, it's his passing range and ability to break the lines with his pinpoint long balls that really opens up the game for Juventus. Without Bonucci, who is almost like their defensive Andrea Pirlo, they simply lack an extra dimension going forward, and because of that, he's vitally important for the Bianconeri.
Sergio Ramos - Real Madrid
Just call him Goalio Ramos. Please, call him Goalio Ramos, we're trying to make this a thing. Or not, whatever, do what you want.
Even if you choose not to adopt his new nickname, there's still no doubting the fact that Madrid depend on their captain. He's a rock in the back, he's their inspiration, and he's got a better goalscoring eye than a lot of strikers out there. That's why we call him Goalio Ramos!
Ok fine, so maybe I'm trying a little hard here.
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Antoine Griezmann - Atletico Madrid
We've established that Atletico Madrid are a unit. But that unit is clearly led by a star, and it's Antoine Griezmann. Even though he works for the team like a no-name player, make no mistake, the Ballon d'Or nominee is superstar material. His attitude drives Atleti forward from the front, he never stops working, and his positive attitude is undeniably contagious. Just try not to crack a smile when you see him celebrate after goals*.
*Not applicable for Real Madrid fans and teams Griezmann has just scored on
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Paulo Dybala - Juventus
La Joya is Juve's most important creative outlet. Without him they're often one-dimensional and lacking ideas, and it's telling that he's been given a free role in Max Allegri's new formation. He scores goals, he links play, he adds assists, and he does it all while looking like someone's little brother found a kit and wandered onto the pitch. That's also important.
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Kylian Mbappe - Monaco
There, we've gotten that out of the way. It's impossible to get rid of the comparisons to the former France and Monaco legend, and the more Mbappe keeps balling, they're only going to get more frequent. Even though he's only 18, he's probably been Monaco's best player this year, and he's definitely the player most under the spotlight. Mbappe scores goals, he stretches the pitch for Monaco, he creates, and he’s consistently their most dangerous player on the attacking end. He does a little bit of everything, and that's why he's so important to this free-flowing Monaco attack. That's not to mention the fact that he's willing to work on the defensive side of the ball as well. Monaco can't do without him.