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UEFA Champions League: Best XI After the Semi-Final 1st Legs – Bleacher Report

Sports 04 May 2017
UEFA Champions League: Best XI After the Semi-Final 1st Legs – Bleacher Report

UEFA Champions LeagueUEFA Champions League: Best XI After the Semi-Final 1st LegsDaniel TilukFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2017UEFA Champions League: Best XI After the Semi-Final 1st Legs0 of 11

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    It is frequently cited that knockout-stage football is a lottery. Moreover, once the UEFA Champions League reaches the final four, one cannot be certain which two clubs will earn places in the final. This season, however, both Real Madrid and Juventus have proved themselves to be particularly difficult to beat, and the two footballing superpowers seem on a collision course.

    Real Madrid look primed to eliminate Atletico Madrid from Europe's most prestigious club tournament for the fourth time in four seasons. In the other semi-final, AS Monaco's opulent displays against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund came to a halt when pitted against a tactically astute Juventus side.

    With a minimum of 90 minutes left to play, to call both legs over seems premature, but to expect either Atletico or Monaco to overturn their respective 3-0 and 2-0 deficits would be foolhardy considering the level of opposition they face.

    That being said, the games are played for a reason—anything can happen.

    Before fully turning our attention to the semi-final second legs (and the potential heavyweight clash at Cardiff's Principality Stadium), one piece of business remains from the semi-final first legs.

    All season, Bleacher Report has dissected player positions, attempting to find the best UCL players in their respective roles. As the competition shrinks and tension rises, the time has come to put everyone in the same boat—judging players simply on their performances during each leg.

    No complicated formulas. No complicated grades. Just simply: Who were the best XI during those 180 minutes of football?

    After the semi-final first legs, we have our first team (using the 4-3-3 formation).

GK: Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus1 of 11

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    Juventus' 2-0 victory might falsely suggest the Italians dominated Monaco, but the French Riviera side had several spells of consistent pressure. One man sure to comprehend that would be Juve's timeless goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon.

    The 39-year-old made five saves. One occurred in the opening stages from a Kylian Mbappe header, which would have sent the Ligue 1 outfit to the races. Another came in the closing stages, when Monaco were searching for a late spark ahead of the second leg. Valere Germain fired a shot toward Buffon's goal, but the spry goalie was equal to the Frenchman's rocket.

    One wonders how long Buffon can last. People have asked the question for about five years, but the Italy No. 1's play always suggests he can maintain for the foreseeable future.

RB: Dani Alves, Juventus2 of 11

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    Leaving Barcelona under controversial circumstances, Dani Alves must have known he would land somewhere special last summer, and the 33-year-old right-back found the perfect home at Juventus.

    Manager Massimiliano Allegri's tactical arrangement allows the Brazilian enough freedom to get forward and play with forwards. Additionally, the stability of Juve's centre-backs and midfield offers Alves a measure of comfort from the defensive point of view.

    Taking advantage of that freedom, Alves was the best attacking defender in the semi-final first legs. Assisting Gonzalo Higuain twice—the first an audacious backheel and the second a cross with pinpoint accuracy—the right-back was simply amazing under the Stade Louis II floodlights.

CB: Raphael Varane, Real Madrid3 of 11

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    Earmarked as one of Europe's best young centre-backs, Raphael Varane has gone through trying times of late. Not always first choice in La Liga and struggling through injury and overall form, the 24-year-old defender showed against Atletico Madrid why any reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

    Varane's passing and cool headed were paramount for manager Zinedine Zidane's back line. Having 62 percent of possession, the Spanish giants required central defenders who were comfortable making passes and mindful of Atletico's counter-attacking potential. In the first leg, Varane ticked both those boxes with ease.

    The France international has started eight games in the Champions League this season, and certainly warrants a ninth start when the Madrid clubs switch grounds for the second leg on Wednesday.

CB: Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus4 of 11


    Each of Juventus' preferred three centre-backs (Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini) should receive plaudits after their Champions League semi-final first leg, but the member of Juve's lauded BBC who played best versus Monaco was man-mountain Chiellini.

    The Italy international was everywhere the ball was: he made two tackles, won four aerial duels and had 15 clearances.

    Shutting down a high-octane Monaco side—who scored 12 goals in their two previous knockout ties against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund—Chiellini's presence and game reading made (and makes) Juventus exceedingly difficult to break down.

    We're prepared to gloss over the elbow on Radamel Falcao that could easily have earned a red card.

LB: Filipe Luis, Atletico Madrid5 of 11

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    The best of a bad bunch, Filipe Luis seemed the only Atletico Madrid player who knew a Champions League semi-final was taking place.

    Defensively, the left-back made seven tackles, the most of any player on the pitch; offensively, he completed 92 percent of his passes. Luis was undone by his team-mates' inability to handle Cristiano Ronaldo. The Brazilian defender's showing did not warrant a 3-0 loss, but one out of 11 players performing to his ability is never enough.

    Atletico must push the proverbial envelope at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on Wednesday to erase their three-goal deficit. This will demand Luis gets forward to aid attacking moves but could leave dangerous space for Real to exploit.

    It is not looking fantastic for Diego Simeone's side.

CDM: Casemiro, Real Madrid6 of 11

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    Real Madrid manager Zidane tasks Casemiro with breaking up play and recycling possession. Whenever the defensive midfielder can contribute offensively, though, his value increases exponentially.

    Against Atletico Madrid, Casemiro found himself in an attacking area and delivered the cross that found Ronaldo's head for the first of Real's three goals.

    Additionally, completing his usual mandate of protecting Real Madrid's back four, the Brazil international made four tackles, had five clearances and claimed two interceptions. If the 25-year-old can repeat his two-way performance in the second leg, Atletico Madrid's comeback mission verges on impossible.

CM: Toni Kroos, Real Madrid7 of 11

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    Toni Kroos dominated midfield for Real Madrid in their first leg against Atletico Madrid. Some players use speed and strength to control the middle third. The Germany international simply uses his brain and the ball.

    Attempting 104 passes, Kroos completed 100 of them; the closest player to that mark, Luka Modric, was 22 completed passes off the former Bayern Munich star's pace. It is not just the volume that impresses but also the accuracy. Completing 96 percent of his passes, the 27-year-old kept Real's attack running smoothly and held Atletico's entire squad under sustained pressure.

    Kroos' role in his side's 3-0 victory was imperative, and the Liga giants will require a similar showing in the second leg.

CM: Luka Modric, Real Madrid8 of 11

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    Completing the trio of Real Madrid midfielders, Modric settles into this particular Champions League XI alongside Casemiro and Kroos.

    Against Atletico, the Croatia international was his usual consistent self, keeping manager Zidane's side ticking. Completing 94 percent of his passes, making three dribbles and helping Brazilian team-mate Casemiro with some defensive work, Modric is Real Madrid's most important player—embarrassing Atleti forward Antoine Griezmann with some tidy skill was icing on the cake for the 31-year-old.

    With a 3-0 advantage heading into the second leg, the veteran's serene nature will be imperative in seeing his side through to the Champions League final.

RW: Mario Mandzukic, Juventus9 of 11

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    Mario Mandzukic played on the left side of Allegri's formation on Wednesday, providing cover for Alex Sandro. He appears on the right side of this formation to accommodate others, which exemplifies why he features at all.

    A recognised centre-forward, scoring 20-plus goals in each of the three seasons prior to joining Juventus (split between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid), Mandzukic's role in Juventus' setup is about sacrifice.

    Tracking back, working for his team-mates and doing the dirty work, the Croatia international is a necessary component who allows the likes of Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic—all players who benefited against Monaco—more freedom to attack and inflict damage.

ST: Gonzalo Higuain, Juventus10 of 11

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    Frequently admonished for failing to perform in the so-called "big matches," a brace of away goals in a Champions League semi-final should improve Juventus forward Gonzalo Higuain's reputation by an indeterminable margin.

    Two calm and composed finishes from the Argentina international were the difference between the Old Lady and Monaco in their first leg.

    Not known for pace, the 29-year-old's movement and nous were crucial in finding the openings for his goals. Having players like Alves assisting him makes that task slightly easier, but showing his clinical nature was equal parts impressive and necessary.

LW: Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid11 of 11

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    In yet another mammoth UEFA Champions League performance, Cristiano Ronaldo destroyed Real Madrid's crosstown rivals.

    Atletico Madrid had no answer for the Portuguese forward's combination of movement and finishing. Scoring three goals, finding space for crosses and displaying his ubiquitous fancy footwork, Ronaldo was yet again a thorn in Atleti manager Simeone's side.

    With 90 minutes left to parse, the 32-year-old talisman has time to improve his record 103 Champions League goals tally before he seals a possible fifth UCL final appearance.

    Atletico might feel relieved passing Ronaldo and his torturous movement to Juventus or Monaco.

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    Stats and transfer fees per WhoScored.com, Transfermarkt and Soccerbase where not noted.

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