Commentary

Five players to watch in Champs League

Updated: February 14, 2012, 2:34 PM ET
By Michael Cox | Special to ESPN.com

The Champions League returns over the next two weeks with various evenly balanced matches. Here we take a look at some players who might have a big influence in their ties.

[+] EnlargeWalcott
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesArsenal will likely deploy Theo Walcott on the right to attack Milan's Gianluca Zambrotta.

Theo Walcott, Arsenal (vs. Milan)

Arsenal might not want to take too many lessons from its rival Tottenham Hotspur, but Harry Redknapp put some highly effective tactics into place away at Milan this time last season. The plan was simple: Spurs sat deep, soaked up pressure through the middle and broke quickly at speed down the flanks. Gareth Bale was unavailable on the left, but Aaron Lennon flew down the right and set up the winner for Peter Crouch.

Milan's 4-3-1-2 system means it's very narrow and its full backs lack protection. In Italy that isn't a huge problem, as there are few pacy wingers, but Arsenal will probably use the duo of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on either flank, which will concern Milan boss Max Allegri.

Walcott should be the key man for three reasons. First, while Milan right back Ignazio Abate will push Arsenal's left winger back, left back Gianluca Zambrotta isn't as energetic as he once was, so Walcott should be able to stay high up and attack him quickly. Second, Arsenal lacks a fit left back, so Thomas Vermaelen will probably fill in there -- he lacks the natural overlapping quality to cause Milan's right back overloads, but on the other flank Bacary Sagna combines well with Walcott. Third, Walcott was very effective four years ago against Milan by stretching the play and providing crosses for Emmanuel Adebayor. A repeat performance might be in the cards.

Nicolas Gaitan, Benfica (vs. Zenit)

A cruel injury has ruled Zenit's Danny out for the rest of the season, but Gaitan will make sure there's one intelligent playmaker pulling the strings in this exciting tie. The Argentine recorded five assists in the group stage, more than any other player in the competition. Zenit will sit back and look to counterattack at home, which means that Gaitan should get plenty of chances to influence the game in the final third.

Much will depend on which formation Jorge Jesus plays, however. Having favored a midfield diamond for a couple of seasons, the manager now more regularly plays a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 in Europe. Gaitan's adaptability means he can play on the left, on the right or in the center, and in this match he might be best deployed in a wide role. Zenit packs the defensive midfield zone with three central midfielders, and opponents find it easier to get space on the flanks. From there, Gaitan can drift inside into dangerous positions, and should be able to inspire Benfica to the quarterfinal stage after an absence of six years.

[+] EnlargeAilton
AP Photo/Petros KaradjiasBrazilian striker Ailton spearheads APOEL's attack.

Ailton, APOEL (vs. Lyon)

APOEL was supposed to be the no-hopers at the group stage, drawn in a tough group featuring Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto. But its defensive, counterattacking game outfoxed its more illustrious opponents, and APOEL ended up topping the group.

Brazilian striker Ailton spearheads the attack, playing up front alone with support from three midfield runners. But he's often happier to go alone, and his play is reminiscent of Asamoah Gyan -- constantly working the channels and making runs in behind the defense. He gets caught offside too frequently, but it only takes one well-timed run for him to score, and APOEL has proved how effectively it can defend 1-0 leads.

Lyon is susceptible to these kind of attacks, as goalkeeper Hugo Lloris admitted this week when discussing APOEL. "They sit back and make the most of their counterattacks," he said. "They're typically the kind of side that can score against us … we have seen that when we fall behind against a team that defend deep on the pitch, we struggle to come back."

It's a remarkably honest assessment of his team's tactical weakness, and hints that Lyon will adapt its game, but Ailton will still be the main threat.

Stefan Kiessling, Leverkusen (vs. Barcelona)

Is there ever a good time to play Barcelona? Well, yes. Pep Guardiola's side often seems to have a dip in form around February and March, and now it also has to recover from the huge psychological blow of going 10 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga.

In the 3-2 defeat to Osasuna, Barca seemed to have a particular problem defending crosses, with both Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol looking nervous at the back. This would have suited Eren Derdiyok, the powerful Swiss striker, but he is out injured after a bizarre accident -- he dropped a glass in his bathroom and walked on the shards, cutting his foot.

But 6-foot-4 Stefan Kiessling will also thrive on crosses into the box. Like Arsenal, Leverkusen can take inspiration from a league rival for this tie. Two years ago, Stuttgart played quickly down the flanks and launched crosses into the box at home to Barca in the first leg of the second round to outplay Guardiola's side, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic netted an equalizer.

Hopefully Leverkusen will be brave and use its 4-2-3-1 rather than the 4-3-1-2 it played in the loss to Dortmund this past weekend, because width is the way to get at Barcelona here.

[+] EnlargeRemy
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesMarseille's Loic Remy excels in making runs in behind the defense, so Inter's Walter Samuel and Lucio should be on full alert.

Loic Remy, Marseille (vs. Inter)

A little like Milan, Inter can be vulnerable to pace, though it's weaker with quick attacks through the middle than down the wings. That was demonstrated with the 4-0 defeat at Roma last week, where fast, mobile players like Fabio Borini and Bojan Krkic thrived by running onto balls over the top of the defense.

Marseille looks like the ideal side to take advantage of Inter's poor recent run of form. Andre and Jordan Ayew will be back from Ghana's ultimately disappointing Africa Cup of Nations display, but top goal scorer Remy will spearhead the attack. He's intelligent with his movement and makes good runs on the outside of center backs into space behind the defense. Lucio and Walter Samuel lack mobility, and Schalke's thumping victory over Inter last season showed how the Nerazzurri can fall apart when up against speed.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.