10 young players to watch in Champions League’s last 16

Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele, pictured above. (Francisco Seco/AP)

The UEFA Champions League’s round of 16 begins this week with a few high-profile matchups on tap and some youngsters set to play key roles.

More than half of the teams left have put significant trust in several youngsters, so it will be intriguing to see if they deliver strong performances on the big stage.

Here are 10 players aged 23 or under to watch in the round of 16.

Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham)

Sanchez may only be 21, but he’s already participated in some high-pressure games. He was a member of the Atletico Nacional side that won the Copa Libertadores in 2016, he started the Europa League final last season with Ajax, and he played in several CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers with Colombia.

Juventus is on a tremendous defensive run at the moment ahead of Tuesday’s showdown with Tottenham in Turin. The Serie A champions have only conceded one goal in their last 16 matches in all competitions with an astounding 15 clean sheets. However, the absence of Blaise Matuidi could allow Spurs to threaten the back line via Sanchez.

Matuidi covers a lot of ground, so that might lead to more freedom for the Colombian centre-back to push forward and operate as a deep-lying playmaker when Tottenham has the ball. That, in turn, means there is another creative presence outside of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Tottenham’s full-backs. That could spell trouble for Juve.

Dimitri Oberlin (Basel)

Oberlin has been central to Basel’s attack throughout the Champions League. He was restricted in the 1-0 win over Manchester United back in November, as United shut down any open space, preventing the 20-year-old from exploiting it.

Given Basel’s tendency to sit deep, absorb pressure and counter with speed, it could lead to a couple of opportunities for Oberlin on Tuesday when Basel hosts Manchester City. Leicester City created a few chances against Pep Guardiola’s side in the first half over the weekend with timely pressing and swift movement forward. Jamie Vardy profited with a goal.

Oberlin has four goals so far in the Champions League and four in 16 appearances in the Swiss Super League. He can play out wide or as the No. 9, plus he’s incredibly fast. Expect him to drift across the pitch to try and expose City, like Vardy did on Saturday.

Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City)

Laporte has only played two games for Manchester City since arriving from Athletic Bilbao. West Bromwich Albion seldom threatened the defence, so it was a comfortable debut for the Frenchman. However, Leicester wreaked havoc in the first half on Saturday and exposed the French defender’s main weakness prior to the goal. Laporte appeared indecisive when Vardy ran towards him, which gave him the time to place his shot.

That is why it’s worth watching Man City’s new signing versus Basel. Laporte will be key with ball circulation and providing an outlet from deep positions. But if he’s in a similar situation from the weekend, then he must be alert and time his challenges accordingly.

Adrien Rabiot (Paris Saint-Germain)

Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery revealed that Thiago Motta is not fit for the first leg against Real Madrid on Wednesday. That means Adrien Rabiot will likely start in the heart of midfield in, arguably, PSG’s biggest match of the season.

The 22-year-old thrives in a more advanced position in midfield, although Rabiot has deputised well in the deeper role when called upon. The PSG academy product is a consistent distributor of the ball, calm under pressure and a stable defender.

Wherever Emery decides to start Rabiot, his box-to-box presence will be crucial, especially with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric on the other side.

Joe Gomez (Liverpool)

Gomez has been a consistent starter for Liverpool at 20 years old, despite playing out of position at right-back throughout the season. He’s been relatively secure defensively, but the round-of-16 matchup against Porto on Wednesday presents a tough test.

Porto’s Yacine Brahimi is a tricky, fast and technically gifted winger with excellent vision. Gomez has struggled to track aerial balls and was positionally indiscipline against Leroy Sane, another dynamic wide player, in Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Man City on Jan. 14. If the Reds defender nullifies the Algerian, then he’s clearly learned some valuable lessons from the City game.

Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich)

Bayern Munich has had the luxury of rotating its players in the Bundesliga due to its insurmountable lead atop the table. Therefore, the likes of Tolisso will be fresh for the first leg versus Besiktas next week.

This is helpful to Bayern’s chances. Tolisso was impeccable in the 3-1 win over PSG in the group stage, but since he’s rotated in and out of the lineup, he’s yet to put together a consistent run of form. Despite that, the Frenchman has arguably been the standout player for the Germans in the Champions League this season.

When the 23-year-old starts, the team looks more fluid and is infinitely more balanced in the middle. That is why Tolisso’s box-to-box presence will be crucial to Bayern’s chances of winning the competition. His distribution and ability to break up oncoming attacks could be the difference.

Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona)

Dembele has missed a total of four months with two separate hamstring injuries since joining from Borussia Dortmund in the summer. Now Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde has some crucial decisions to make ahead of next week’s first leg against Chelsea.

The 20-year-old Frenchman returned over the weekend in Barca’s 0-0 draw with Getafe. He was clearly rusty, which is to be expected. However, he’ll be worth monitoring in terms of his role with the team, and his potential impact on the pitch.

There is no doubting Dembele’s abilities. He’s exciting, dynamic and an incredibly gifted player on the ball. However, with Philippe Coutinho’s arrival and the success of the 4-4-2 system, the ex-Dortmund man has plenty to prove in the round of 16.

Andreas Christensen (Chelsea)

Chelsea’s past three contests have demonstrated how vital Christensen is to the back line. The 21-year-old exited Chelsea’s match versus Bournemouth with an injury, the defence collapsed and lost 3-0. A 4-1 defeat to Watford followed without the Dane, but he returned on Monday as the Blues cruised to a 3-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion.

Christensen is a calming presence and is seemingly always in the right position when defending. He’s proven himself against some of the top forwards in the Premier League and now he’ll face one of the world’s toughest strikers in Luis Suarez. That will be an incredible duel.

Joaquin Correa (Sevilla)

Sevilla has enjoyed a mini resurgence under Italian manager Vincenzo Montella and Correa has especially benefitted.

Correa, 23, scored against Atletico Madrid and Leganes in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals and semifinals, guiding Sevilla to the final versus Barcelona. His league form is still patchy, but the clutch performances in the cup are promising.

Sevilla takes on Manchester United in its round-of-16 matchup next weej, so it will be intriguing to see if Correa excels in another marquee clash.

Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma)

Roma has been hit-and-miss since their monumental Champions League group stage performances, but one constant has been midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini.

The 21-year-old Italian has been Roma’s best midfielder this season. Radja Nainggolan has clashed with the club over his off-the-pitch behaviour and Kevin Strootman has declined this year, so Pellegrini has had to compensate, but he’s met that challenge so far.

Pellegrini will be tasked with distribution from deep positions, or whilst running forward into the final third when Roma takes on Shakhtar Donetsk. The Giallorossi will need the academy graduate to dominate a midfield that will include Fred, a tireless worker and solid passer in his own right. That should be a treat to watch.

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