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African All Stars

Will Haller's Champions League magic continue against Benfica?

09:42 GMT+3 22/02/2022
Sebastian Haller, Ajax
The competition’s top scorer leads the African storylines as the final four first-leg games in the Round of 16 take place this week

Robert Lewandowski’s blank in Bayern Munich’s 1-1 draw at Red Bull Salzburg undoubtedly pleased the Austrian side, but probably also had a smile plastered over Sebastien Haller’s face.

The two men ended the Champions League group stage separated by one goal, with the legendary frontman on nine.

Indeed, there was an expectation that the Poland star would score at the Red Bull Arena. Instead, Bayern’s best player failed to register a shot attempt for only the second time this season in league and Europe on an off-night.

Thus, the Ivory Coast international remains the only player to hit double figures in goals in this season’s competition and it is likely to stay that way barring a four-goal return by Cristiano Ronaldo against Atletico Madrid.

But the red-hot Haller is not content with standing still, not when Lewandowski handed him the chance to pull further away against Benfica following last week’s underperformance.

Three of the 16 sides that progressed to this stage conceded more than the Portuguese side’s nine goals in their opening six games, but their Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 11.1 suggests they should have conceded even more.

Haller, oh-so deadly inside the opponents’ box on his competition debut, will be licking his lips. All 10 of his goals have come inside the penalty area, with the breakdown extra pleasing—four goals with his right foot, three goals with his left and as many with his head.

Only one of the aforementioned were penalties, further underscoring the threat he carries in a record-matching and shattering maiden campaign in Europe’s top club competition.

The Ajax man became the first player since Marco van Basten to score four times on his CL debut, matched Didier Drogba’s African record of scoring in his first three matches in the competition, equalled Cristiano Ronaldo's 2017/18 feat of scoring in every group stage game and has hit double figures in this competition in record time.

Haller will take some stopping.

The African narratives do not end with Haller, however, with Edouard Mendy and Hakim Ziyech likely to feature when Chelsea host last year’s Ligue 1 champions Lille on Tuesday.

The former recently helped Senegal to their maiden Africa Cup of Nations success, while the decisive Moroccan comes into the game at Stamford Bridge on the back of his match-winning showing against Crystal Palace at the weekend.

At a time when Thomas Tuchel’s Blues are not as free-flowing, the playmaker’s timely upswing has been one of their few positives in an attacking sense of late.

Ziyech has netted in three successive Premier League games for Chelsea and, on a night where the West Londoners seek a sixth straight European win at the Bridge under the German boss, the defending champions will hope for another strong showing from the wide playmaker.

Villarreal’s meeting with much-changed Juventus pits Unai Emery against Massimiliano Allegri, with the pair of Serge Aurier and Samuel Chukwueze likely to feature in varying capacities.

The full-back may have to make way for the more disciplined Juan Foyth who replaced the Ivory Coast captain right after his penalty give-away in Saturday’s 4-1 success at Granada.

It was the Arnaut Danjuma show, but Chukwueze’s slipped through-ball for Moi Gomez late on took the wide attacker’s goal involvements to four in La Liga.

Without the talismanic Gerard Moreno, their task will be doubly-difficult. Yet, the Spanish side have the quality to threaten the Old Lady and the Nigerian will hope for a big night on Juve’s first-ever visit to the Estadio de la Ceramica.

Wednesday’s high-profile clash at the Wanda Metropolitano pits Atletico Madrid with Manchester United, two sides currently far from in great form.

Geoffrey Kondogbia has started 12 times in his 18 league appearances for a Los Colchoneros whose soft underbelly has put paid to Atletico’s title defence and seen them concede more goals already than in any season under Diego Simeone.

The presence of Ronaldo in the United side probably makes the Red Devils slight favourites owing to the Portuguese supremo’s record in the Champions League and his unrelenting pounding of the La Liga side arguably gives the PL team the edge in Wednesday’s battle between two flawed sides.

From Haller’s incredible run up until now, Ziyech looking to carry his league form into Europe, Chukwueze striving to stun the Old Lady on her first visit to the Ceramica and Kondogbia’s Atleti tasked with preventing another Ronaldo Masterclass at Wanda Metropolitano, this week’s fixtures are undoubtedly significant for Africa’s men in action.

How they fare will make for interesting viewing.