With the Champions League semifinals in the books, we’ve picked out a handful of standout footballers based on five different categories: The Gamechanger (MVP), The Finisher (scorer of many/jaw-dropping goals), The Playmaker (creator of goals/chances), The Protector (standout defender) and The Stopper (top goalkeeper).
Here are our five selections from both legs of the Champions League semifinals, including a midfield masterclass in Madrid and more dominance in Turin.
Isco, Real Madrid
Without the first-leg heroics of Cristiano Ronaldo or the incredible individual effort of Karim Benzema to set up Real’s goal in the second leg, the title holders may have found themselves on the wrong side of another all-Madrid Champions League clash.
But on Wednesday, it was the 25-year-old Spanish midfielder who was the difference-maker. After some impressive end-line work from Benzema (and some ugly Atletico defending), Isco put the tie to rest after Atletico’s torrid start to the second leg.
Isco has been a revelation in the midfield for Madrid over the past few weeks, and was a crucial part of another run to the final. He finished the tie with a whopping 93 per cent completion rate on 129 passes (four key), three shots on goal and the tie-sealing marker.
Gonzalo Higuain, Juventus
Despite scoring 202 goals since joining Real Madrid in 2007, the 29-year-old Argentine has drawn much criticism for failing to show up in the biggest of games. He did his best to shed that reputation in the first leg of the semifinals.
Thanks to a pair of dazzling assists from Dani Alves, Higuain gave the Bianconeri a commanding 2-0 lead heading into Tuesday’s second leg that would prove to be enough to see Juventus through to its second Champions League final in the last three years.
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Although he didn’t have as big an impact on the second leg (one shot on target, one key pass), Juventus’ €90-million man paid dividends on the big stage and will be looked upon to do the same in the final.
Dani Alves, Juventus
Arguably no player was as influential in his team’s success in the semifinals than the Brazilian wing back.
Alves followed up a spectacular two-assist performance in the first leg with a stunning volley from outside the box in the 44th minute to end any hopes Monaco had of mounting an unlikely comeback to bed.
The 34-year-old completed 88 total passes over the two legs at an 88 per cent clip (only Miralem Pjanic, 96, had more for Juventus), six of which created direct chances on goal.
Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid
In the blink of an eye Wednesday night in Madrid, Real saw its three-goal second-leg lead down to just one with 74 minutes left to play. With Atletico’s attack looking particularly dangerous, it would take a stout defensive effort for the defending champs to hold on.
But Real dug in their heels, and kept Atletico off the scoresheet for the remainder of the final Champions League game at the Vicente Calderon.
Ramos led the charge at the back for Real on this day, racking up 13 total clearances along with five interceptions and a pair of tackles.
Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus
The legendary Italian ‘keeper made just one stop in Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Monaco, but if not for a collection of big saves in the first leg the return match in Turin would’ve had a much different feel to it.
Buffon made a pair of saves on teenage phenom Kylian Mbappe in the opening 20 minutes of the first leg in Monaco, two stops that would’ve changed Juventus’ outlook drastically had their 39-year-old goalkeeper not come up with the stops.
And now, in what will be his 102nd Champions League appearance, Buffon will try to capture the one accomplishment that has avoided him in his 16 years at Juventus.