With four games gone in the Champions League group stage, the eight pools are beginning to take shape and the various narratives are beginning to unravel.
The fixtures so far have thrown up numerous dramatic clashes and a handful of outstanding individual performances.
This article celebrates the tournament’s top performers so far and ranks the 20 best players in the Champions League’s opening four rounds. Naturally, the competition is crammed with sublime talents and numerous different players could have fought their way onto this list.
Comment below and let us know what you think of our selection.
Some of you laughed when, in late August in my rough guide to the Champions League’s teams feature, I identified Simon Rolfes as Bayer Leverkusen’s star player.
One contributor even derided my choice and suggested that the German midfielder’s best days were long behind him.
However, over the last few games, the midfielder’s surging runs, energy and dynamism in the midfield of the park have been invaluable. Leverkusen have lost only once this season when Rolfes has played—the 4-2 defeat to Manchester United in which he scored.
The midfielder also bagged a penalty in the win against Shakhtar and the opening goal (when playing on the left) in the defeat of Sociedad.
These performances, and the results born from them, have seen Bayer take the second spot in Group A, behind United, with only two more games to play.
It looks like Rolfes might be having the last laugh after all.
Over the last few years, Branislav Ivanovic has proved himself as one of Europe’s finest defenders.
He has been present for both the highs and the lows of Chelsea’s Champions League campaign this term. He was on the pitch during the club’s opening, shocking defeat at home to Basel, and has been present for the three subsequent triumphs.
In the pair of fixtures against Schalke, as well as the 4-0 victory away in Bucharest, Ivanovic has been a rock in Chelsea’s defence. The side didn’t concede in any of the three games. Only Bayern have a better defensive record this term.
Unfortunately, Ivanovic will continue his recent tradition of missing major centrepiece matches next summer, as his Serbian side have failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Over the last few weeks, the Express have linked Atletico Madrid midfielder Arda Turan with a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Liverpool. On top of this, they also reported, in early September, that Manchester United had been frustrated in their attempts to recruit the Turkish winger.
It is no surprise that such illustrious clubs have been keeping tabs on the former Galatasaray skipper.
The wide man consistently delivers fine performances, dazzling with his dribbling, creativity and excellent touch and control.
His three Champions League performances this term have yielded two goals and one assist, but beyond demonstrating his worth in Europe, he is gradually becoming one of La Liga’s stars. Consider, for example, his outing against Rayo Vallecano in August—the midfielder contributed one goal and two assists in an all-around performance that earned him the Man of the Match award.
Certainly, eyebrows were raised when Paris Saint-Germain splashed out a remarkable €32 million to snare Marquinhos from Roma. Sure, the young defender is a prodigious talent who will go far within the spot, but nonetheless, even by PSG’s standards, it was an extravagant purchase.
Few people are spitting such words anymore.
Marquinhos "fits" at Paris.
Speaking about the deal himself, the centre-back referred to the club’s Brazilian heritage and, when he has played alongside Thiago Silva, Maxwell or Alex, he has certainly looked the part.
Particularly impressive have been his forays into the Champions League.
The defender scored in each of the victories over Olympiakos and Benfica, and in his four appearances in the tournament, the club have conceded only twice.
He has all the tools to be a world class centre-back.
Mario Mandzukic emerged as one of Europe’s finest forwards last season. This year, however, under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, there are indications that his game is gently improving.
The goals have flown readily in the Bundesliga, where the Croatian has taken teams apart with both his feet and his head. His performance against Hertha Berlin toward the end of October was particularly memorable; Mandzukic entered the fray only midway through the first half, but left his mark with two goals as Bayern secured a 3-2 victory.
It’s been a similar story in the Champions League as well. A sole Mandzukic header was enough to beat Plzen in the Czech Republic, while he also found the net against CSKA. The striker adds valuable presence to Bayern’s forward line and will doubtless be a valuable asset as the tournament progresses.
The fortunes of the two big-name Spanish forwards to have arrived in England this summer stand in stark contrast.
While Roberto Soldado is struggling to involve himself in the play, let alone score a goal from anywhere other than the penalty spot over at Tottenham Hotspur, Alvaro Negredo is gently growing into his role at Manchester City.
The Citizens’ wealth of offensive options has, naturally, allowed the Spaniard to adapt to his teammates and to the English games under less pressure, but nonetheless, the former Sevilla man ought to be commended for the quality of some of his contributions.
Despite starting only two games in the Champions League, only four players have scored more than him in the competition this term.
As his understanding with his teammates steadily improves, and as the prospect of a World Cup spot with Spain sharpens on the horizon, expect Negredo to take his Champions League contributions to another level.
Arguably the finest individual performance in the tournament so far was Kostantinos Mitroglou’s against Anderlecht.
The Greek forward has finally begun to deliver regularly on his immense potential this season and is one of Europe’s most in-form strikers. He has been Man of the Match on five occasions already in the league and has scored four hat-tricks—a remarkable achievement.
One of these, in Olympiakos’ away victory at Anderlecht, made the rest of Europe sit up and take note of Mitroglou’s majestic finishing and powerful forward play. If he can transfer his regular domestic plundering to the continental stage, then Mitroglou could inspire Olympiakos to a few more upsets along the road.
I certainly didn’t earmark Olympiakos as a surprise package in this year’s Champions League. However, the Greek giants have been exceptionally impressive in their opening fixtures and sit in a qualifying position in Group C.
Their campaign started dreadfully, with a 4-1 home defeat at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain. Since then, however, Olympiakos have picked up their game—taking four points from Benfica has given them every chance of joining Paris in the next round.
Ever since that opening defeat, Olympiakos’ success has been built upon a fantastic, obdurate defence. The key man has been goalkeeper Roberto Jimenez—the stopper, who is on loan from Atletico Madrid, has been Man of the Match on two occasions. He has conceded only once since that opening defeat.
If, and when, Thibaut Courtois returns to his parent club, Chelsea, Atleti can be confident that they have a fine replacement already on their books.
Almost the sole positive note for David Moyes during his early tenure at Manchester United has been the superb form of Wayne Rooney. The club’s summer was plagued with rumours that the two men didn’t get on and that the legacy of their disputes during their Everton days would affect their working relationship at Old Trafford.
To both men’s credit, there have been no signs of friction. In fact, Moyes has managed to spur Rooney to some dazzling performances.
While United’s league form has stuttered, their performances in the Champions League haven’t suffered too much from the much-publicised change in management.
Rooney scored twice in the 4-2 defeat of Bayer Leverkusen and his offensive contributions for United have been invaluable. He ranks among the top 10 in the competition for key passes and shots per game.
While Chelsea’s indifferent form so far this season has affected the reputation of teammate David Luiz, Ramires’ status has only improved under Jose Mourinho.
The Brazilian midfielder was recently linked with a move to Real Madrid, with James Dickenson of the Express suggesting that Mourinho’s former club would turn to Ramires to bolster their team come January.
While Chelsea do possess a fair raft of central midfielders of one type or the other, they would be mad to sell Ramires, who has been such a consistent figure for them since his early, uncertain days under Andre Villas-Boas.
In his three Champions League games this season, Ramires has scored twice and has averaged 4.3 tackles per game (via whoscored.com). Only seven other players have contributed more defensively than the Blue Kenyan thus far in the tournament.
Argentine international Angel di Maria was supposed to have been the forgotten man of Real Madrid this term.
The arrivals of Gareth Bale and to a lesser extent Isco were expected to have pushed Di Maria to the peripheries of the side. The reported interest from Arsenal, per the Daily Mail, and Spurs, per the Independent, contributed as well, indicating that Di Maria’s future lay away from the Spanish capital.
However, Bale’s fitness struggles and Carlo Ancelotti’s preference for pace and intelligence on the flanks have seen Di Maria earn an unlikely reprieve.
The winger’s performances in the Champions League have helped to soften the loss of Mesut Ozil. In his three starts to date, he has scored two and made four assists. No individual in the competition has set up more goals for his teammates than Di Maria.
Alaba has been in sterling form for Bayern Munich so far this term, building on his exceptionally impressive campaign last term.
He opened the team’s scoring after only four minutes of their clash with CSKA Moscow and also added another in the demolition of Viktoria Plzen.
Alaba is already a Champions League and Bundesliga winner, and if his currently trajectory continues, and if Pep Guardiola can help to develop his game further, we could well be looking at one of the finest full-backs in a generation.
Italian international Thiago Motta may not be the most heralded or exciting talent within PSG’s ranks, but he has demonstrated his value during the club’s four Champions League games this season.
While Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani have stolen the headlines, Motta has effectively marshalled the centre of midfield and provided the assists for those ahead of him.
He may have scored himself (twice against Olympiakos) but his greatest contributions have been the three assists he has provided.
In that clash with the Greeks he even claimed the Man of the Match award and has forged a wonderful triumvirate in midfield alongside Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti.
After a disappointing 2012-13 season, some of Manchester City’s title-winning heroes are finally rediscovering the form that made history 18 months ago.
Yaya Toure has once again been a dynamo in the heart of the midfield, while Sergio Aguero—who scored that unforgettable late winner against QPR to seal the Championship—has finally returned to his sparkling best.
He has arguably saved some of his best form for Europe. An Aguero double downed CSKA Moscow in Russia, while the Argentine, in tandem with Alvaro Negredo, defeated the same team at the Etihad Stadium earlier this week.
City have almost certainly made it out of the group for the first time in their history, and if Aguero can remain in such glittering form, they might remain in the competition until the latter stages.
Whispers around the Parc des Princes ahead of the season’s start suggested that Edinson Cavani’s arrival in Paris would create a conflict in the team’s forward line.
The Uruguayan arrived at such immense expenditure that he, surely, would become the team’s star man. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who turned 32 in early October, might have to get used to life playing second fiddle.
No one need fear.
The pair have been in fine fettle in the Champions League, and their goals have seen Paris all but qualify for the next round already.
Cavani has found the net against Olympiakos and Anderlecht, but Zlatan has been the undisputed star of the show.
The Swede bagged two against Benfica, a remarkable four against Anderlecht in Belgium and a valuable equaliser in the return leg at the Parc des Princes.
Zlatan is the figurehead of this trailblazing PSG side and will certainly be targeting a berth in the tournament’s final four as a bare minimum.
Considering his current form, it would be a great shame if Franck Ribery (and France) were to miss out on the World Cup.
Some have been suggesting that the left winger could be in contention for the 2013 Ballon d’Or. The likes of Thomas Muller, Mario Mandzukic and formerly, Mario Gomez, thrived playing just ahead of Ribery, whose intelligent and inventive wide play provided them with numerous gilt-edged chances.
This campaign has been no different in the Champions League, as Ribery has also demonstrated his own prowess in front of goal—having scored three, against Manchester City and Plzen (twice).
The tournament’s top scorer to date, Ronaldo has been simply irrepressible over the course of the group stage’s first four games.
He has bagged eight goals and set up a further two in his four games to date. These efforts have already all but guaranteed Real Madrid’s place in the knockout stages.
The talismanic figure scored a sublime second-half hat-trick in Los Blancos’ opening demolition of Galatasaray. He also hit two past both Copenhagen and Juventus at home—the latter pair securing a valuable victory—before a further goal and assist at the Juventus Stadium earned Real a point.
On this stunning form, few would bet against Ronaldo guiding Madrid to La Decima, their 10th European Cup.
You would merely need to have glimpsed Atletico Madrid’s Champions League showings this term to realise why Vicente del Bosque is so keen to involve Diego Costa in the Spanish national side.
Costa may have represented Brazil, the land of his birth, at senior level, but he is currently on course to play an instrumental role in La Roja’s defence of their world title.
Atletico haven’t missed the goals of Radamel Falcao as much as they might have done, with Costa stepping into the breach to replace the Tiger’s firepower.
While the Colombian languishes outside of continental competition, Costa has scored three in his two Champions League games to date this term.
Robben has continued his exceptional form in the Champions League final and has been one of Europe’s most outstanding talents during the current campaign.
While Bayern Munich are not yet the perfect creature under Pep Guardiola, I would argue that Robben is performing at his best. The Bavarians have dominated Group D due in no small part to the Dutchman’s efforts.
The winger scored against CSKA Moscow and Manchester City, but has also worked for the communal cause—he has played the decisive ball for three Bayern goals.
Messi at the top of the list—it’s a hard one to dispute.
The Argentine forward has banished the memories of his injury-ravaged campaign last term to lead Barcelona’s revival within the Group of Champions.
His return to the competition in September was outstanding. He almost single-handedly eviscerated Ajax at the Camp Nou with a hat-trick and followed that up with an equaliser against Milan at the end of last month.
In the midweek round of games Messi scored twice to contribute to Milan's downfall in Catalonia. Despite only playing in three games, no one in the tournament has received more Man of the Match awards this campaign—the Argentine has received the award in every game he has played in.