Champions League best XIs: No Bellingham?! Mbappe or Haaland? Our writers decide

Do you want to understand the biggest story of the day before anyone else? Sign up here to our brilliant new daily newsletter

The Champions League has reached the quarter-final stage and the reigning champions of the continent’s big five leagues — England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany — have all made the last eight.

Some of the world’s best players will be taking part across the two-legged ties, beginning with Arsenal vs Bayern Munich and Real Madrid vs Manchester City on April 9 before Paris Saint-Germain host Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund visit Atletico Madrid on April 10.

To celebrate this wealth of talent, we asked some of our writers to share their best XIs based on the players available across the four quarter-finals.

See if you agree and comment below with who you would include and leave out and why.

Follow the Champions League on The Athletic

Who’s in, who’s out — and why?

For no reason other than I like making my life difficult, I capped myself to no more than three players from each club. Apologies to Dortmund and Atletico Madrid fans, I couldn’t find space for any of your players.

The front three derives from a coin toss between Kane and Erling Haaland. I opted for the Englishman because he already has a good playing relationship with Saka and you can see Mbappe enjoying his long passes. Behind Mbappe is Alphonso Davies at left-back, largely because I wanted to see what the world’s fastest counter-attack could look like. Jules Kounde can shift over to form a centre-back trio when the Canadian gets forward.

(Julian Finney/Getty Images)

I recently had a fascinating conversation with someone who claimed Luka Modric is the Champions League’s greatest-ever player. There’s an old quote on Johan Cruyff that described him as “four-footed”, such was the quality of his passing with the outside of the boot – it feels appropriate to use it for the Croatian as well. In the most fraught moments of knockout football, his presence of mind sees him nudge ahead of Declan Rice in the “dangerous midfield partner” role next to Rodri. If I were allowed a substitute bench, Modric would make way for İlkay Gundogan on the hour mark.

There’s an embarrassment of riches for the most advanced midfielder role, but I’ve gone for De Bruyne over Martin Odegaard, Antoine Griezmann and Jude Bellingham. I’m sure the comment section will inform me of the many ways in which I am wrong.

Carl Anka

Who’s in, who’s out — and why?

I had three absolute must-picks: Rodri, Vinicius Jr and Kylian Mbappe, three players who are, to my mind, the best in world football at what they do.

I’m conscious that picking John Stones, Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane — as opposed to, say, Kim Min-jae, Jamal Musiala and Erling Haaland — might attract accusations of English bias, but all three were tight decisions which I think can be justified by their performance level over the past 12 months. Haaland is the better goalscorer, but I feel Kane is a more complete player.

(Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Achraf Hakimi, David Alaba… that’s all straightforward and uncontroversial enough, isn’t it? The third position in midfield was probably the most difficult; there were four or five contenders from Real Madrid alone. But I went for Bernardo Silva because he’s an extraordinary footballer, so intelligent and so adept in everything he does.

As for the formation, this could easily be 4-2-3-1, with Bellingham pushed up in a more advanced role behind Kane, but, with the likes of Bernardo in there, they would work that out for themselves.

Oli Kay

Who’s in, who’s out — and why?

Marc-Andre ter Stegen is the form goalkeeper among those left in the competition. It will not stop him being overlooked by Germany in the summer — what a fun controversy that promises to be — but we’re running a meritocracy here. 

Ahead of him, Mats Hummels’ best days are probably behind him, yes, but he has had a sensational Champions League and Dortmund would not have emerged from the group stage without him.

Alphonso Davies will bring some aggression from left-back, so on the other side, Benjamin White will be our counter-balance. He’s good enough going forward, but those defensive instincts will be useful and would also allow him to move into a back three.  

Midfield? Easy. Rodri is Rodri, that’s simple enough, and Fede Valverde will play as the No 8, making the midfield robust but flexible and equipping it with the capacity to shift shape if and when it needs.   

(Manuel Reino/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

In attack, this team is determined to entertain. Antoine Griezmann is still such a classy player and he’s precisely the right centre-forward around which we can build an orbit of fun. We want skill and motion, craft and adventure. Jude Bellingham is the No 10. Freed from defensive responsibility further back, he will revel in the fractures this team will inevitably create. 

And Vinicius Jr and Bukayo Saka will play either side of him. No defender in the world can contain either of them one-on-one, but with so much threat elsewhere, somebody will have to try.

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Who’s in, who’s out — and why?

I’ve decided to act like Florentino Perez circa 2004. I’m also convinced Carlo Ancelotti will encounter some of the same problems facing this team when it comes to balancing Real Madrid next season.

Let’s kick things off with my goalkeeper. People are sleeping on Gianluigi Donnarumma and the season he’s having at Paris Saint-Germain. He gets the nod over Madrid’s third-choice shot-stopper Andriy Lunin, who deserves a lot of credit for how well he has stood in for Thibaut Courtois at Kepa Arrizabalaga’s expense. 

Pau Cubarsi is the hype pick. I got to see him in the flesh in the last round and the kid can not only ping it, he isn’t afraid to step in front of some of this competition’s scariest strikers. Cubarsi’s youthfulness encouraged me to go with Ruben Dias’ experience over William Saliba.

I want John Stones to step into midfield knowing Kyle Walker can hang back and cover if needed. When it came to left back, I deliberated on Joao Cancelo and thought: well, if you’re going to be that gung-ho, why not double down, play Vinicius Jr and get Walker on the other side to stand back and shuffle across. Whether he’d step on Mbappe’s toes or not is something I guess we’ll find out next season. Carlo Ancelotti will have to make them co-exist. 

(Pedro Salado/Getty Images)

A rational mind would maybe have put Declan Rice or Rodri next to Toni Kroos, but kids don’t watch 90-minute games anymore. They want reels. They want goals. They want madness and I’m here for that, so Bellingham can do a bit of everything and De Bruyne is on hand to feed my strikers. I don’t want Mbappe or Haaland coming short and playmaking as Kane or Griezmann would do. So I’ve gone for guys hell-bent on running in behind.

James Horncastle

Who’s in, who’s out — and why?

Playing this game feels as though it is as much about who you don’t pick as those you do. So with apologies to Ederson, Toni Kroos, Declan Rice, Vinicius Jr, Antoine Griezmann, Erling Haaland et al, here we go.

There are better goalkeepers in the competition, but Borussia Dortmund’s Gregor Kobel deserves acknowledgement for his performances this season. To face PSG, AC Milan and Newcastle in the group stage and a goal-hungry PSV in the round of 16 and come out with four clean sheets and just four goals conceded is worthy of credit. No goalkeeper has prevented more than his 4.9 goals in this year’s competition.

You cannot have William Saliba without Gabriel. The pair have been the most formidable partnership in Europe this season, helping to ensure Arsenal have the best defensive record among the top five leagues when looking at their expected goals conceded per 90 minutes. Flanking them will be PSG’s Achraf Hakimi and Barcelona’s Joao Cancelo. That’s right, we’re going attacking, but Saliba and Gabriel are capable of locking things down.

Rodri has to be in, which makes me feel less guilty about leaving out Declan Rice and Toni Kroos — both of whom are having fantastic seasons. Bernardo Silva has the footballing intelligence to sit alongside Rodri in the build-up phase but run riot in pockets of space when the team attacks. 

This season’s non-negotiable is obviously Jude Bellingham. We don’t have to justify this pick, but he too can drop into deeper areas or box-crash whenever he sees fit — creating a perfect blend in the midfield three.

Ahead of them, we’re going pace in wide areas and a clinical striker who can also be the provider. Europe’s most potent goalscorer Harry Kane will spearhead this team and he will get on the end of attacks in the crucial moments but also know when to pull the opposition centre-backs out to make space for the piercing runs of Kylian Mbappe and Bukayo Saka. 

It’s a 4-3-3 that would suffocate any side who had the temerity to think they had a chance to beat this all-star side.

Mark Carey

Who’s in, who’s out — and why?

First of all, I would like to apologise to the fans of Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Arsenal for not including players from their teams in my ideal XI. 

Having got that out of the way, I think that although it may be a little controversial due to the number of goals Barcelona are conceding this season, Marc-Andre ter Stegen is still at a superlative level and saves the team from conceding even more. For me, he is the most in-form goalkeeper of the teams remaining. The same with Ronald Araujo. Even if he is not having his best season, he is still one of the best centre-backs in Europe. Accompanied by Ruben Dias, he is a tall and strong centre-back capable of covering everything. They would make a good wall in defence.

Joao Cancelo has not found his place as a right back but he has on the left. Kyle Walker would compensate for the defensive part on the other side. 

(Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In midfield, Rodri and Bellingham, and with De Bruyne back, the debate for the third position was settled.

The forward line is probably the one that offers the fewest doubts. Haaland is facing what could be the tie that will catapult his career against Real Madrid. Vinicius Jr is the best one-on-one dribbler, offers pace and thrives in big games.

There is little to say about Mbappe, possibly the best player in the world today — always with the permission of Leo Messi — he is the fastest, the one who can decide the most games and the 39 goals he has scored this season are a testament to that.

He is Barcelona’s biggest nightmare in the quarter-finals of this Champions League and looks set for many more seasons to come.

Laia Cervello Herrero

(Top photos: Getty Images)

First appeared on

Leave a Comment