When the 2012-13 Champions League groups were drawn on August 30, fans of European football were given a treat in Group D.
While most of the other quartets drawn were relatively uninteresting, Group D featured four domestic title holders: Ajax, Dortmund, Manchester City and Real Madrid. Fundamentally, it was more of a league of champions than the Champions League itself.
Labeled the "Group of Death" after the draw, Group D has certainly lived up to its billing. And it has brought out the best—and worst—in many of Europe's most hyped players. Each of the participants feature an attack force of three or four stars. But while it's clear which clubs have played the best football, the staggering number of goals scored in the group (35 and counting), distributed among the many teams, makes the comparison of attacking triumvirates a trickier subject to tackle.
Touted as a team of immense class and even greater depth, Manchester City have scored seven goals in the group stage. Undoubtedly the club's most dangerous scorer, Sergio Aguero is the only player in the Citizens' ranks to have found the net more than once.
Roberto Mancini prefers to rotate his players, but it's hard to deny that David Silva, despite his miserable European campaign, is among the trainer's top three attackers.
Beyond Silva and Aguero are a number of attackers, including Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli. Among them, the Italian has been the most productive, playing a role in two goals.
For the second year running, City have had an embarrassing European campaign. And for the second year running, none of their supposed megastars has lived up to his billing.
|Siem De Jong||3||0|
Ajax have had similar results in front of goal as City, equalling the English side's tally of seven strikes. In contrast to the Premier League champions, the Dutch have relied on the individual brilliance of two key players to inspire them to success: Siem de Jong and Christian Eriksen.
Although he was rather quiet in his other two matches, De Jong scored the equalizer in the Dutch side's famous 3-1 defeat of City at the Amsterdam Arena, and was on target twice in the return leg.
Eriksen, meanwhile, has scored or assisted nearly every goal Ajax have scored, and may be the best young player of the tournament thus far. He's carried Ajax on his back. In a less competitive group, it would be hard to see the Dutch side failing to qualify for the knockout stage.
Although they remain three points behind leaders Dortmund, Real Madrid have a slight lead in goals scored with 11, one more than Dortmund. Bolstered by a hat-trick scored away to Ajax, Cristiano Ronaldo leads the way with five goals.
To his credit, the Portuguese didn't only score in blowouts; he netted a late winner against City in Los Blancos' group stage opener, and drew the Spanish champions level with Dortmund before their eventual loss at the Signal-Iduna Park.
Ronaldo has had plenty of support in the form of Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil. The Frenchman scored two vital goals against City, and has been nearly as effective a provider as finisher. The German, meanwhile, continues to impress as a playmaker, assisting three goals and netting one of his own.
Dortmund lead Group D in points and are second in terms of goals scored. They have only kept one clean sheet in the group stage, relying instead on goals created on the counterattack.
Robert Lewandowski leads the Bundesliga champions in goals scored with four, including the winner against Ajax in their first meeting. He also fired home BVB's first against Real Madrid in the home leg, and assisted Marco Reus' opener at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Though numerically behind Lewandowski, Reus has proven to be Dortmund's trump card on the road, having opened the scoring in Manchester, Madrid and Amsterdam.
Mario Goetze has had a frustrating group stage overall, with his performance away to City—two shots tipped onto the woodwork—being a perfect example. He found his form in Amsterdam, however, as he played a hand in all four of BVB's goals.
In other groups, star players have run up their numbers against lesser opposition. Lionel Messi has a staggering five goals and three assists, for example. All of the players in Group D have had to fight harder for their success while taking on superior opposition.
Regrettably, only Dortmund and Real Madrid can advance; we will only see their star attackers aim for success in the knockout rounds. Thus far, little has separated the triumvirate of Lewandowski, Reus and Goetze from that of Benzema, Ronaldo and Ozil.
The knockout rounds will tell all—and those are the matches that make champions.