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Sky Sports picks out ten players to keep an eye on when the UEFA Champions League returns next week

More than two months have passed since a ball was kicked in the UEFA Champions League, when the group phase came to a dramatic conclusion and the number of combatants was cut in half.

We have had plenty to keep us entertained in the meantime, with the transfer window taking centre stage and lot of excitement in domestic competitions, while Fabio Capello has resigned as England manager.

Europe's elite will reassemble next week, though, and while there may not be as much British interest left as in previous years, the knockout rounds promise to be no less thrilling.

The established powerhouses such as Barcelona and Real Madrid will be tough to overcome, but it says something about the strength in depth of football on the continent that both Manchester United and Manchester City have already been eliminated.

Here, Sky Sports picks out ten players who could be worth watching for as long as they stay in the tournament.

Alexis Sanchez

Barcelona are definitely the team to beat after conquering Europe so majestically last season, when the talents of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and the peerless Lionel Messi dazzled football fans around the globe. The same stars will be on display in the last-16 tie against Bayer Leverkusen but there are also some new faces in Pep Guardiola's ranks, including Sanchez. The Chilean forward arrived at Camp Nou in a big-money deal last summer but was struck down by injury at the start of his career in Catalonia and has yet to start a Champions League game for the club. Strong, skilful and a lethal finisher, he will feel this is the perfect stage to showcase his ability as Barcelona strive to cement their standing as one of the game's greatest ever teams.

Karim Benzema

While Barca may be the favourites to retain the trophy they won at Wembley, Real Madrid are also genuine contenders to go all the way after opening up a considerable lead over their fierce Spanish rivals at the top of the Primera Liga this season. Jose Mourinho's side cruised through Group D with the best defensive record in the competition, while everyone is fully aware of the devastating threat of Cristiano Ronaldo. Others will have to step up and perform, though, if Real do face Barcelona further down the line, and Benzema has been in blistering form this season as he begins to fulfil the prodigious potential that has been evident since his time with Lyon.

Mario Gomez

Bayern Munich appear one of the sides best equipped to challenge Barcelona and Real after coming out on top of this year's 'group of death'. They have not looked quite so formidable since the early part of the season but the resumption of the Champions League should bring out the best in them, and any team hoping to win the competition will need a world-class goalscorer. Gomez is that man for Bayern, having netted six times during the group phase to take his place at the top of the scoring charts alongside Messi, and he is a player that seems to be going from strength to strength.

Thiago Silva

Serie A champions AC Milan have a proud record in the UEFA Champions League and can never be discounted, having already shown in two close games against Barcelona in the group stage that they can compete with the best. While the Italians have an attacking arsenal that many of their rivals are sure to envy, they are also very strong defensively and Brazilian centre-half Thiago Silva has been at the heart of their recent success. Solid at the back but with extreme composure on the ball that has come from playing in a variety of positions during his career, Thiago has reportedly attracted the interest of several clubs including Manchester City.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

If Milan are to progress to the quarter-finals they will have to get past Arsenal, who are flying the flag for the Premier League along with Chelsea. The Gunners will be determined to make the most of their European adventure, especially with their participation in next year's edition far from certain, and Arsene Wenger may decide to unleash Oxlade-Chamberlain against the Italians. The teenage winger has become an instant fans' favourite at Emirates Stadium with his pace, power and cool head, to also emerge as one of the most exciting young players in Europe.

Xherdan Shaqiri

Another dynamic young talent, Shaqiri is already an established member of the Switzerland team at the age of just 20. Swift and inventive with a good work ethic, the winger was an inspirational figure for Basel in their remarkable group stage campaign, which culminated in Manchester United's shock exit. Basel face a tough challenge to go any deeper into the competition as they prepare to lock horns with Bayern, who are reportedly close to agreeing a deal to sign Shaqiri in the summer.

Nicolas Gaitan

Another man who lined against Manchester United during the group phase, Gaitan was so impressive during those two games that reports surfaced linking the Benfica playmaker with a £30million switch to Old Trafford. The Argentina international, 23, stayed calm about the rumours and a move failed to materialise in January, but speculation about his future is only likely to increase if he carries on his fine form in the knockout rounds, starting against Zenit St Petersburg.

Seydou Doumbia

Doumbia played a starring role for CSKA Moscow as they advanced to the last 16 of the Champions League from a tricky Group B behind Inter Milan. The Ivory Coast international netted five goals in total during the first phase of the competition, including a stunning brace in the home game against Trabzonspor. A prolific goalscorer wherever he has been, the 24-year-old is reportedly wanted by many of Europe's top sides and has expressed a desire to play in England.

Edinson Cavani

Manchester City know only too well what Cavani is capable of after he scored for Napoli at the Etihad stadium in September, and twice more in the second match between the sides in Italy. In fact, the Uruguayan striker has been sensational since moving to Naples after the 2010 World Cup, and he will be looking to inflict further misery on English opposition when Chelsea come to town in the last 16.

Loic Remy

A player who reportedly came close to joining Tottenham in January, Remy will now be able to focus fully on his duties with Marseille after the close of the transfer window. It is no surprise that the 25-year-old has attracted so much attention, following a series of wonderful displays and consistent goalscoring over the past couple of seasons, and he will be the main danger man when Marseille meet Inter Milan.

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