With Europe’s premier club competition set to return to action next month with some highly anticipated round-of-16 clashes, we at the Bleacher Report are here to remind you of who exactly lit up our screens during the group stage.
Which players really caught the imagination during those late autumnal and early winter nights across the Continent and as a result will need their cards marked when that now familiar Champions League music starts up again on Feb 12 and 13?
Well, if the group-phase action all seems a bit too distant in the past for you, then not to worry as here are our top 20 players in the Champions League so far, in positional order, and I will leave it up to you the reader to decide on who was the top performer of the lot …
He may be having his most inconsistent season to date domestically for Manchester City, but boy did the England international live up to his billing as the world’s best goalkeeper with his Champions League displays between the sticks for the Premier League champions.
In fact, it says everything about Roberto Mancini’s struggle to come to terms with this competition that his goalkeeper was easily the club’s standout performer in the group phase, culminating in his man-of-the-match display against Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund at the Ethiad on matchday two when it is fair to say that the game ended Joe Hart 1 Dortmund 1 so impressive was he.
The world’s best centre back? Well, if he is not, then he must surely be the second best after a series of imperious displays at the heart of his new club Paris Saint-Germain’s defence, including helping Carlo Ancelotti’s side to clean sheets home and away against Dinamo Zagreb, and in Kiev, as they won Group A.
And, not only was the classy Brazil international keeping the goals out at one end, but he was also scoring them at the other, with strikes in the Parisians’ first and last group games.
An absolute rock at the centre of the Juventus back four, playing every single minute of all six group games as the Italian champions emerged as unlikely winners of their pool ahead of both Shakhtar Donetsk and the holders Chelsea, conceding just four times along the way, a run that included three clean sheets in a row in their decisive final three fixtures.
Easily the best, most consistent and flexible full back seen on display in the group stage, equally comfortable operating on the right side as he is on the left flank, Bayern Munich’s Mr Dependable was an easy choice to make the top 20.
The German international is rarely, if ever, flustered in defence, his number one priority as a full back, while in attack he offers the Bavarians much-needed width at times and as such fulfils a crucial tactical role for the team, as demonstrated by his three assists against Lille at the Allianz Area.
A key performer as surprise package Malaga made it all the way through to the round-of-16 on what was the Liga side’s debut in the competition, and what’s more, they ended up winning Group C ahead of more experienced campaigners such as AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht.
And, the secret to the success of Manuel Pellegrini’s side was their solid foundations at the back, with the Spaniards keeping three consecutive clean sheets midway through the group phase thanks to their domineering Argentinian, who brought all his experience to the fore.
Classy performances throughout the five Group A matches in which the Portugal international started, including two man-of-the-match displays, the second of which culminated in his most imperious showing against Dynamo Kiev at the Dragao on matchday five when the midfield player created two goals before curling in a delightful free kick himself to seal a comfortable 3-0 win, and with it safe passage through to the knockout stage.
The group phase only really served to reinforce the commonly held view that the 26-year-old is one of Europe’s most coveted and technically accomplished attacking midfield players.
What a debut campaign in the Champions League for the impish Brazilian, and quite a contrast too to his Premier League displays for the West Londoners, with his five goals from midfield making him the join second top goalscorer in the group stage, just one behind forwards Burak Yilmaz and Cristiano Ronaldo.
And, the playmaker really left his mark on the competition in his very first game against Juventus with two contrasting strikes from distance that will live long in the memory: the first was a deflected drive past Gigi Buffon from the edge of the area, before his sublime second that some will argue was the goal of the group phase, starting with a delicious nutmeg on Andrea Pirlo, before the 21-year-old curled an unstoppable 20-yard effort past the helpless Italy No 1.
The midfield player went on to net three more times, including yet another contender for best goal of the group stage, a 35-metre volley against Shakhtar Donetsk, as well chipping in with an assist at Nordsjælland.
Let’s face it, if we were picking a Champions League Team of the Group phase, then Oscar would be one of our creative players in the XI …
The midfield maestro just keeps on doing it at the highest level, despite him having just celebrated his 33rd birthday, never missing a beat in the centre of the park and continuing to be the heart and soul of this brilliant Barcelona midfield.
The Spain international attempted a quite astonishing 719 passes during the group stage (yes that is correct, 719, you’re eyes are not deceiving you), 92 per cent of which successfully found a team-mate, which is a full 259 more than any other player in the competition, and two of which led directly to goals, including a crucial equaliser against Celtic at Camp Nou as the Catalans once again topped their group.
The Italian maestro is the same age as his midfield counterpart at Barcelona, Xavi, and like the little Spaniard has had an equally effective and eye-catching group stage for the ‘Old Lady’.
Never hurried in possession, always comfortable on the ball and forever spotting the right pass, the hirsute holding midfield player gave another series of demonstrations of how to play the water-carrier role, while also chipping in with three assists, including a vital one to create the equaliser at home to Nordsjælland, before creating Fabio Quagliarella’s opener against Chelsea in Turin that ultimately sent Juve through to the knockout stage at the holders’ expense.
Like a fine wine, Pirlo just gets better with age …
Shakhtar’s Brazilian midfielder was just sensational throughout the entire group stage as the Ukrainian champions piped holders Chelsea to second place in the standings, and it was the 27-year-old’s two dominating displays against the Blues that really caught the eye.
In Donetsk in their first meeting, the technically accomplished player ran the show from first to last, capping off a fine display with his second-half winner, while despite somehow losing the return 3-2 at Stamford Bridge Fernandinho perhaps turned in an even more dominant performance, standing head and shoulders above his fellow midfielders on both sides, with the highlight being his piece of close control, dribbling down the touchline and delicious cutback to set up compatriot Willian’s first-half equaliser.
If it was up for debate before the competition got under way in September, then the title of the best midfield player in the Champions League no longer is after the Chilean’s group-stage displays for the Bianconeri last year.
Delivering a consistently high level of performance in each one of his six matches, the 25-year-old really left his best, however, for the two critical meetings with champions Chelsea that ultimately ended up sealing the Serie A champions’ progress through to the round of 16.
In the ‘Old Lady’s’ first meeting with Chelsea, Vidal was the inspiration behind the visitors’ impressive comeback from 2-0 down, scoring the crucial first just before half-time when injured and playing on only one leg, before his perceptive, cute through-ball allowed Fabio Quagliarella to level maters up late on.
However, it was the creative playmaker’s man-of-the-match display against the holders in Turin on matchday five that was his stand-out performance as his deflected strike from the edge of the area put his team 2-0 up and well on the way to victory just after half-time, before he laid a goal on a plate for substitute Sebastian Giovinco right at the death.
Brilliant, effervescent, magical, call him what you want, the Brazil playmaker has really caught the eye once again in the Champions League and you feel that this may just be the stepping stone towards greater things for the creative genius who has it all.
The 24-year-old pretty much played a key role in all six Group E matches that he started in and there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that without his influence, Mircea Lucescu’s side would not still be in the competition.
Whether it was scoring goals (four) or setting them up for a team-mate (twice), the midfield player did it all, although perhaps his greatest performance actually came in defeat against Chelsea when his two goals were not enough to avoid a hugely unjust 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge.
Cannot wait to see what tricks he has in store for us in the knockout phase …
The young Spanish midfield player turned in some eye-catching displays during the group stages to inspire debutants Malaga all the way through to the round of 16, starting in their opening game with Zenit St Petersburg at La Rosaleda where the 20-year-old’s brace at the very start and end of the match made sure of a confidence boosting opening-day win for Manuel Pellegrini’s side.
Both strikes were of the very highest standards, although his opener was a real beauty as he somehow managed to brush past the attentions of Aleksandr Anyukov, before curling a delightful 20-yard effort past a helpless Vyacheslav Malafeev.
And, it was not only his strikes that caught the attention, as Isco also set up crucial goals for team-mates away at Anderlecht and Milan along the way.
A lot is still expected of the young Dane, despite his tender years, and yet he always seems to stand up to those pressures and perform on the biggest stages of all, delivering when it matters most, which bodes very well for his future, which must soon be away from the Amsterdam ArenA.
And while the midfield player was by no means at his absolute creative best during a disappointing group stage for the Eredivisie champions, he was still the Amsterdammers standout performer throughout, with his man-of-the-match display in their 3-1 home win over Manchester City on matchday three the pick of the bunch, including a well-taken goal and an assist to go with three others that made the 20-year-old the joint second-highest assist maker in the group phase.
Pretty easy selection this one as the giant Swede virtually carried his new team single handedly into a rare appearance in the knockout stages of the competition on the back of some virtuoso performances up top for the Parisians, which included a record-breaking four assists in one Champions League match, PSG’s 4-0 thrashing of whipping boys Dinamo Zagreb at the Parc de Princes.
And, those four goals that Ibra laid on a plate for his team-mates on matchday four meant that the front man finished the group phase at the head of the assists table, while also contributing two goals himself as Carlo Ancelotti’s men finished top of Group A.
Not a particularly hard one this as the joint top scorer in the group phase with six goals once again continued his love affair with Europe’s premier club competition, and this season it did not take the Portuguese long to leave his mark. In Madrid’s opening group game, and with Jose Mourinho’s side being held at home by Manchester City, the forward once again stepped up to the plate to drive home a last-gasp winner that gave the Spaniards a crucial 3-2 win.
Ronaldo then followed that up with a man-of-the-match display in Los Blancos’ next fixture in Amsterdam as his scintillating hat-trick helped thrash Ajax 4-0, before further strikes at Borussia Dortmund and at home to the Eredivisie champions in Madrid’s final match, which also included his first assist of the group phase, rounded off yet another highly impressive set of Champions League displays by one of world football’s greatest-ever players.
Oh and by the way, no player had more attempts, 27, than Ronaldo managed in the entire group stage, not even the great Lionel Messi ….
A relatively quiet Champions League to date from the four-time Fifa World Player of the Year, although by anyone else’s standards, we would of course be raving about his world-class displays.
Messi, however, is not like everyone else and so in a way, one almost feels slightly underwhelmed that he only turned in just the two man-of-the-match displays in his six group fixtures, at Benfica and Spartak Moscow (the latter where in fairness he was virtually unplayable on a plastic pitch, taking on the Russian champions almost by himself at times), although he did of course contribute five goals along the way, and three assists, as the Catalans topped their group!
But somehow, crazy as it sounds, we yearned for more, which no doubt will come when the competition hots up next month …
Put quite simply, without Burak Yilmaz’s contributions Galatasaray would not only have failed to qualify from Group H as runners-up behind Manchester United, but they would also have finished bottom of the standings and been out of Europe altogether.
That is because the front man scored all but one of the Turks’ goals in the group stage, with his six strikes in six games making him the joint leading scorer alongside Cristiano Ronaldo (although with a far superior goals-per-minute ratio than the Portuguese), including a stunning hat-trick in his man-of-he-match display at group rivals Cluj that all but sealed their unlikely passage through to the round of 16.
One of only a handful of players out of the 20 we have selected who will not be featuring in the knockout phase after Braga finished bottom of their standings, but the Brazil midfield player deserves his recognition after a sensational group stage in which he found the back of the net on five occasions, including three times in back-to-back matches against eventual Group H winners Manchester United, leaving the 33-year-old joint second in the goalscoring charts alongside Oscar and Lionel Messi.
Where would Valencia be without their evergreen captain? Well, one thing is for sure, they would not be contemplating a round-of-16 tie with big-spending Paris Saint-Germain next month as the Spain international’s four vital strikes in the group stage helped propel the Liga outfit through to the knockout stage at the expense of third-placed BATE, while also leaving Soldado joint third in the goalscoring standings at the end of the group phase.
And, it was in those two crucial head-to-head meetings with the Belarusian champions that the front man really came to the fore, scoring a memorable hat-trick in his man-of-the-match performance in BATE, before finding the back of the net again in the return fixture at the Mestalla, strikes that ultimately proved to be the difference between Valencia and BATE finishing as runners-up to Bayern Munich in Group F.