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 By Nick Ames

Champions League pivotal players, Neuer vs. Dybala, Rakitic vs. Ramsey

With the Champions League Round of 16 set to kick off on Tuesday, ESPN FC's Nick Ames takes a look at which players will make a big difference in the knockout stages of the competition.

Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea

Marquinhos - Serge Aurier's Periscope outburst disgraced the PSG right-back but, more importantly, it also did a huge disservice to his team. His suspension means that alternative measures will be sought to fill the right-back slot in which he had been performing well and suggestion is that this means a call-up for Marquinhos, who has deputised in that position before but is very much a centre-back by trade. Eden Hazard and company may be keen to exploit any positional uncertainty early on.

John Obi Mikel - The Nigerian midfielder might not be the first name Chelsea would expect to rely on in a crunch Champions League tie but his role will be amplified in the absence of Nemanja Matic, who is suspended. Paris Saint-Germain have problems of their own, with Marco Verratti's lack of match fitness unlikely to see him through 90 minutes, but the likes of Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot are enough to get by and it will take an imperious performance from Mikel, whose form has been good in recent weeks, to help lock things down in the middle of the park for Chelsea in Paris.

Roma vs. Real Madrid

Stephan El Shaarawy - Roma may have lost Gervinho to Chinese club Hebei China Fortune but the forward who has replaced him, AC Milan loanee El Shaarawy, has the potential to make a difference at the highest level. Real have shown themselves vulnerable to pace and direct running in attack at times, particularly in their narrow win at Granada 10 days ago. Roma have won four games in a row since El Shaaraway joined -- with the newcomer scoring in his first two matches --, and scored 10 goals. Perhaps things are clicking -- and perhaps a much-vaunted talent is in the right environment to make the leap to 'world class.'

Luka Modric showed a superb work rate at both ends of the pitch in Sunday's 0-0 draw at Sporting.
Luka Modric has been one of Madrid's top performers during Zidane's reign.

Luka Modric - Cristiano Ronaldo's top-scoring, record-breaking group stage was the latest advertisement of the appetite this competition piques in him, but Real Madrid's star under Zinedine Zidane has been Modric. The playmaker seems to have found the right mentor in Zidane, to whom his technical attributes and quickness of mind must seem rather familiar, and has been sensational in their free-scoring recent performances -- scoring a stunning winner in that victory at Granada. The Croatian could prove the key figure in Real's assault on the Champions League.

Gent vs. Wolfsburg

Gent's rise has come from left field and the Belgian side will know that they could have had a tougher draw than a Wolfsburg side that -- by its own recent standards -- is toiling in the Bundesliga. Sven Kums, the outstanding central midfielder who signed a new contract until 2019 earlier this month, is the heartbeat of their side. Wolfsburg will look towards Julian Draxler, brought in to replace Kevin De Bruyne but largely unsuccessful thus far, to build on his two goals in the last three Bundesliga games and rise to the big European occasion.

Benfica vs. Zenit St Petersburg

The Argentinian schemer Nicolas Gaitan was Benfica's shining light in the group stage. He scored twice and created plenty more. While it may seem obvious to highlight him here, ingenuity will be needed to break through a disciplined Zenit side that is likely to sit in deep and look to play on the counter. For Zenit, the explosive Hulk tends to take the headlines but the predatory instincts of Artyom Dzyuba, who poached six goals during the group stage, will have to be fine-tuned to convert the chances they create.

Arsenal vs. Barcelona

Aaron Ramsey - When Arsenal famously defeated Barcelona 2-1 in the first leg of their last-16 tie five years ago, Jack Wilshere was outstanding. Thrillingly dynamic in and out of possession, and leading a relentless tempo against the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta as the Gunners came back from a goal down, he looked well on the way to becoming Europe's most influential young midfielder. It has not worked out that way but someone will need to step up this time if Arsenal can come up with a surprise. Perhaps it is the occasion for Ramsey, who has never quite built on his swashbuckling form of two years ago, to set the tone. If he can operate at his box-to-box best, he looks the Arsenal player most capable of matching Barcelona's intensity.

Ivan Rakitic typifies the passing style that Barcelona are renowned for.

Ivan Rakitic - If this tie really is to be won in midfield and not blitzed away by a front three that looks increasingly like the best ever, then Rakitic will be crucial. His promptings drive Barcelona on and, while his goal output has slowed since arriving at the Nou Camp, the Arsenal defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin will be relied upon to stop the late arrivals into the box that can cause so much damage. Rakitic, who has been picked more times than any other Barcelona player under Luis Enrique, is capable of being both a supply line and an end product -- and will gladly help those ahead of him run amok if left unchecked.

Dynamo Kiev vs. Manchester City

Denys Garmash - As FC Porto can confirm, Dynamo Kiev are no slouches and in Andriy Yarmolenko, they can call upon one of Europe's most explosive forwards. But they will need to get a foothold further back in order to supply him with the ammunition. If Garmash, an excellent midfielder with a good engine and ability to get on the end of crosses, can match an increasingly inconsistent Yaya Toure in midfield, then the home side might just create the platform to cause another upset.

Kelechi Iheanacho - Barring another injury to Sergio Aguero, it is unlikely that the young Nigerian will start this tie but in current form it is hard to imagine him not having an impact along the way. Iheanacho, 19, has been named in a Champions League squad for the first time and -- as a cracking finish against Tottenham showed on Sunday -- can produce against anyone. His sharpness could be useful in helping City put this one to bed before things get too awkward. Nudge ahead in Kiev and chances might open up to virtually finish things on the night; could Iheanacho be deployed from the bench to give City a commanding advantage.

Bayern Munich vs. Juventus

Manuel Neuer - Bayern could not field a single recognised centre-back in their 3-1 win at Augsburg on Sunday. It was, for once, not one of Pep Guardiola's tactical experiments and it is hard to imagine them getting away with the same against the runaway train that Juventus have again become. Medhi Benatia should be fit for this tie but Javi Martinez will not be ready and long-term injuries rule out Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber. Whoever starts in front of him, Neuer may have to be at his sharpest -- both in stopping shots and clearing up behind the back line -- as an unfamiliar defence takes on last year's runners-up.

Paulo Dybala
Dybala has been a revelation for Juventus since joining from Palermo.

Paulo Dybala - The prospect of getting stuck into a creaking Benatia would be music to the 22-year-old forward's ears. Dybala has scored nine goals in his last 15 games, and 13 overall this season, acclimatising superbly after his move from Palermo in the summer. He is yet to break his Champions League duck but looks the most likely Juventus player to prey upon any chaos and indecision in Bayern's reshuffled defence. With Mario Mandzukic unlikely to return from injury in time for the first leg, a front pairing of Dybala and Alvaro Morata would certainly not lack for movement.

Atletico Madrid vs. PSV Eindhoven

Atletico are rated fourth-favourites for the tournament and should not be overly troubled here. They struggle for goals when Antoine Griezmann is subdued, though, and may need their supporting cast to come up trumps if PSV make life difficult. Could Fernando Torres, who has scored twice in consecutive games -- including a winner at Getafe on Saturday -- make another priceless intervention at the top level? PSV, who have not dropped a point in the Eredivisie since Christmas, may struggle to break Atletico down and will need 19-goal Luuk de Jong, once of Newcastle, to feast on whatever pickings come his way.

Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.


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