Champions League Group-Stage Awards: Best Player, Breakthrough Star, More
The 2018-19 Champions League group stage came to a conclusion on Wednesday, with 16 teams moving on to the knockout stage in February.
Some groups went according to general expectation (H and G), some went right down to the wire in dramatic fashion (B and C) and others provided surprise after surprise along the way (D and F).
All in all, it was classic Champions League football. No domestic competition can match it for excitement; it's the best club football you can watch.
We say goodbye to it until February (when it gets even better)—but not without commemorating what we've witnessed over the last four months. We've created 10 awards to hand out—five serious, five less so—to honour those we've appreciated, supported and enjoyed.
Best Player: Dusan Tadic, Ajax
There are strong arguments for several players here, with many impressing during the group stage.
Lionel Messi was magnificent in the games he played; Robert Lewandowski top-scored with eight strikes as no defence was able to stop him; David Silva rescued Manchester City on several occasions; Nikola Vlasic helped mastermind two famous victories for CSKA Moscow over reigning champions Real Madrid.
But no player was more pivotal to his side's fortunes than Dusan Tadic, who had a big hand in guiding Ajax to the knockout stages for the first time since 2006.
The Serb had a direct hand in six goals (five scored, one assisted), several of which could not have been more crucial.
He created the goal that stole a point off Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, scored the goal that took a point off Benfica at the Estadio da Luz, netted the brace against AEK Athens that sealed qualification and added two more for good measure in an epic finale with Bayern.
From whichever position he's been picked—and he's played nearly all of them—he's been productive, positive and decisive.
Best Goal: Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus
With sincere apologies to Ivan Rakitic's incredible volleyed effort against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium, Cristiano Ronaldo's even more remarkable volley in the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United wins the award.
Spotting the Portuguese's darting run in behind the defence, Leonardo Bonucci launches an inch-perfect ball over the top for Ronaldo to run onto.
Watching it over his head and onto his foot—at near full speed—he connects perfectly with the top of his boot, lashing an unstoppable finish past one of the world's best goalkeepers in David De Gea.
It's a goal you can watch over and over again and still marvel at; you find new elements to it you can't quite process with every view. It's what feels like a one-in-a-hundred strike, one so few on the planet could execute.
Most Disappointing Team: Monaco
When the draw was made, few expected Monaco to qualify from a group containing Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid.
Given the exodus of talent at the club over the summer, plus the incredible improvements BVB have shown under Lucien Favre, even second place looked a clear bridge too far for Les Monegasques.
But for the principality outfit to manage just a single point is really disappointing.
For context, Young Boys managed four points despite landing in a group with Juventus, Manchester United and Valencia; Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow managed seven points each in a group with Roma and Real Madrid!
Meanwhile, Monaco had two cracks at Club Brugge—the perfect chance to secure a win—but failed, even losing 4-0 at home to the Belgian outfit.
Biggest Surprise: FC Porto
There's no disrespect intended toward FC Porto in awarding them the biggest surprise award, but the manner in which they dominated Group D has raised a fair few eyebrows.
At the time of the draw it looked a pretty even set, with Lokomotiv Moscow the clear weakest link on paper, but Porto, Galatasaray and Schalke 04 all seemed fairly well matched. What many envisaged was a Group C scenario—where three teams would be vying for two spots to the end.
Instead, Porto made light work of things. A draw and five straight wins accrued a whopping 16 points; they won three games by two goals or more and finished up with the most points of any side in the group stage.
Breakthrough Player: Tanguy Ndombele, Lyon
Tanguy Ndombele rose to prominence in France last season thanks to a stunning performance against Paris Saint-Germain during a 2-1 win. This term he's taken another step, into Europe's wider consciousness, with a brilliant Champions League group-stage showing.
Two superb performances against Manchester City entrenched his reputation as a star in the making, and it comes as no surprise that Tottenham Hotspur and City have previously been linked with a move for him, per BBC Sport's Julien Laurens.
Choosing to continue at Lyon for 2018-19 has proved smart; he's broken into the France squad off the back of his barreling, dominant performances under Bruno Genesio.
With Lyon qualified for the round of 16, February will give us the chance to see Ndombele take on more of Europe's best. How he fares could go a long way to dictating his price tag in the summer of 2019.
Can't Wait to Watch in the Europa League: Napoli
The eight third-placed teams in the Champions League groups all drop into the Europa League round-of-32 draw. It's an eventuality no one sets out to achieve, but it does keep dreams of silverware alive in a lesser competition.
Those that drop down regard the competition with varying degrees of seriousness, leading some of the big names to field second-string XIs as they struggle to manage their workload. You can't always count on the likes of Inter Milan or Valencia to put out their strongest teams.
Napoli, though, have every reason to go all-out to try to win the 2019 Europa League. With Juventus already eight points clear at the top of Serie A the Scudetto is a pipe dream, so their attention can be focused elsewhere—on silverware.
They didn't showcase it at Anfield on Tuesday, but the Partenopei are a superb attacking team that frequently rip teams to shreds. They have it in them to win the Europa League and have every reason to make it a priority.
Patience of a Saint: Ajax Fans
For the first time since 2006, Ajax have qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League. That's a long wait for a club of their size and heritage.
Their campaign so far has been outstanding, totalling 12 points and putting in some memorable performances. Dusan Tadic has spearheaded the attack superbly, while Frenkie de Jong, Hakim Ziyech and Matthijs de Ligt have won a number of admirers thanks to some excellent work.
They'll draw a heavyweight in the round of 16 by virtue of finishing second behind Bayern Munich, but they won't care. Ajax are back.
Sharing Is Caring: Lyon
Lyon's run of results over the course of the group stage reads bizarrely.
After opening with a 2-1 victory in by far the hardest fixture on the schedule—Manchester City away—they proceeded to draw each of their next five. It took until the final match, a 1-1 scoreline in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk, to rubber-stamp their passage to the round of 16.
Perhaps Lyon's mentality should come into question here, as they squandered good positions all too often. Two-goal leads were thrown away more than once, and in both games against Hoffenheim 91st-minute equalisers prevented them from taking three points.
Or perhaps manager Bruno Genesio couldn't quite bring himself to pour misery on others, instead sharing the spoils. Either way, Les Gones negotiated a tricky group unbeaten and can now look forward to a glamorous February fixture.
Leave the League Behind You: Bayern Munich
For certain clubs this season, the Champions League has been a neat escape—a haven—from the terrors of domestic league play. It's amazing how mentalities and form refresh when the competition changes.
Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Real Madrid have all epitomised this stark inconsistency between competitions, with all three struggling in their respective leagues but earning results on the continent.
The unbeaten Bayern Munich side we see in the Champions League is a far cry from the one nine points off the top of the Bundesliga; the resilient United side that secured a 2-1 win at Juventus was unrecognisable from the one that usually turns out in the Premier League; Group G toppers Real Madrid have routinely tripped up in La Liga this season.
The trio were neck-and-neck for this award heading into Matchday 6 before United and Real lost games they had no business losing—reverting to league form, you might argue.
That paved the path for Bayern Munich to be crowned.
Home Comforts: Liverpool
Liverpool lost each of their three away games in the Champions League group stage, falling to Napoli, Red Star Belgrade and Paris Saint-Germain.
It left them in a tricky situation entering the final matchday; not only did they have to beat Napoli, they had to do it in specific circumstances—either 1-0 or by two clear goals.
They managed the former result thanks to a strong performance at Anfield, but once Jurgen Klopp's jubilation and relief over qualifying dies down, he'll need to figure out exactly why his team failed to perform away from home.
It's not just that they lost—it's that they were clearly second best on all three occasions (even against Red Star). Star men struggled, with Virgil van Djk looking ropey against the Serbian league leaders and Mohamed Salah being swept up at the Stadio San Paolo.
Klopp has two months to locate and fix the problem. If he doesn't, Liverpool's journey could easily end at the round-of-16 stage.
All statistics via WhoScored.com.