So that’s it for another year, the Champions League group stage is done and dusted.
In the end, we saw a the biggest sides all make it through. There were plenty of shocks and turns along the way, but in the end no one we expected to qualify didn’t. All four English sides made it into the round of 16, as did holders Real Madrid and tournament favourites Barcelona and Juventus.
But what about the players? Who distinguished themselves? Who didn’t? We here at Squawka have come up with two combined XI’s highlighting the best and worst performers of the 2018 UEFA Champions League group stage. And to keep things interesting the “worst” list will comprise more notable players, rather than simply reeling off the outright worst performers from the weakest teams.
Liverpool paid £75m and all they got was this world-class goalkeeper with a tremendous beard. Look, Liverpool already had an improving defence with Virgil Van Dijk but sometimes you need a little extra; you need some peri peri salt on your fries. And Alisson is very much the peri peri salt of the Liverpool defence. Spicy!
If you ever watched Joao Cancelo play in Spain you may think that the guy currently lining up for Juventus is a Skrull or something because the difference is like early 90’s Serie A vs. early 2010’s Serie A. Cancelo is a freight train of a full-back constantly supplying attacking width and pace in a team that needs every bit of it.
It’s hard to say what is more unexpected: Dortmund’s excellence this season or the ease with which Manuel Akanji has adapted to life at the top table. The Swiss centre-back has become a true stalwart for Dortmund and at just 23 years old is the leader of Lucien Favre’s defence.
In terms of under-the-radar consistent excellence you’d be hard-pressed to find a better defender than Gerard Piqué, unless of course you looked over to Turin where Giorgio Chiellini has been breaking attackers hearts for what seems like two decades now but has in fact been just fourteen years. The foundational stone that has helped Juve’s excellent defence guide them to the round of 16 (it will surprise no one that he missed the final, whimpering defeat to Young Boys).
Jordi Alba is the approximate height of a tin of biscuits yet he has the second-most assists in the Champions League this season and has become a genuine flank-conquering full-back. He even scored his first Champions League goal since 2013, making Inter his victim after doing the same to AC Milan all those years ago.
Lyon worked their way to the knockout rounds through the quality of their attacking play, and that attack was powered largely by Houssem Aouar. The 20-year-old (yes, he is just 20) has been a creative force at the heart of the French side’s midfield, constantly moving the ball forward for the likes of Nabil Fekir, Maxwell Cornet and Memphis to do the damage.
He’ll never get the recognition but Sergio Busquets is the best midfielder in the world (sorry Luka) and has been brilliant once again as Barcelona have made the so-called Group of Death look like a Sunday afternoon stroll down Las Ramblas. Passing, tackling, intercepting, The Grandmaster can do it all.
What more is there to say about the phenomenal Kylian Mbappé? He continues to thrive in the Champions League, even as PSG struggled collectively. Mbappé’s pulsating runs forward caused havoc for every opponent and his unselfish play has led to a competition-high 4 assists, giving PSG what few successes they’ve managed to conjure.
The best player in the planet has, hey what a shock, been the best player in the Champions League group stages. The Argentine missed the double-header with Inter through injury and was just a sub in a dead-rubber (for Barça) vs. Spurs. But in three games he still managed to put in a masterclass at Wembley and score a team-high six goals, guiding his side to top spot with sublime and entertaining ease.
No one expected Ajax to hit the Champions League as hard as they have, but Dusan Tadic’s dribbling, creativity and nerves of steel have allowed them to do just that. The Dutch side didn’t just play well, but they are improbably back in the knockout rounds, largely thanks to Tadic leading them from the front.
Whilst Lewandowski’s peers have more or less confined their goalscoring genius to domestic competition, the Polish striker is still battering them in for fun in the Champions League – with eight goals scored he is the competition’s leading scorer and a guiding light for Bayern who have looked mostly just “alright” in general.
It’s hard for Pyatov, but Shakhtar have been diabolical as a defensive unit. They conceded at least two goals in every game up to the make-or-break clash with Lyon, where they only conceded one; but that was enough to send them home.
Juanfran should have been phased out of the Atleti side two years ago, but he wasn’t. So instead we got what happened this year, where an old and hobbled Juanfran got torn asunder by Jadon Sancho and Borussia Dortmund, resulting in Diego Simeone’s heaviest ever defeat.
Oh, Jemerson. He was poor from start to finish in the Champions League but so was basically every other Monaco player. What makes Jemerson stand out was, against Atlético Madrid, whilst playing with two teenagers with two appearances between them, Jemerson literally collapsed to the turf when trying to defend Angel Correa. This allowed the Argentine to square it for Antoine Griezmann and end the game.
Lyon have leaked goals for fun and only the potency of their attack saw them qualify for the round of 16. Denayer in particular has been exposed repeatedly; most recently by Shakhtar with the Ukrainian’s first goal.
Fabian Delph was absolutely class for Manchester City last season but this time around some cracks are beginning to show in the Champions League. Lyon in particular exploited him repeatedly, most notably for their first goal at the Etihad; where Delph’s air-kick is destined to go on those blooper DVD’s they put out around Christmas (assuming they still make those).
Nemanja Matic is very tall. He also possesses fairly impressive aerobic endurance and stamina. These are good things you can say about Nemanja Matic, probably the only good things. How he is still in the United side after a season of shambolic displays is anyone’s guess. He doesn’t do anything and José Mourinho resting him for Anfield is all that prevented him from featuring in the Valencia humiliation too.
Key Stat: Nemanja Matic has made more sideways (121) and backwards (135) passes than any other Manchester United player in the Champions League this season.
Dani Parejo has been underwhelming as Valencia have sort of limped their way out of the Champions League in depressing fashion, but that alone wouldn’t get him on this list. Oh no, Parejo takes it to the absolute next level by, in the first group game, facing 10-man Juventus, Parejo first conceded a penalty to give Juve the advantage and then late on when he could have nabbed a consolation from the spot, he missed! Imagine conceding a penalty and missing a penalty… in one match!
Youri Tielemans is struggling to really be his best self at Monaco. He’s still doing alright statistically, but the side are still terrible because the Belgian cannot exert any influence over them. Henry is even bringing this up at press conferences, hoping that things will change. Well, Monaco have crashed out of the Champions League in absurd fashion and Monaco won’t be back anytime soon.
Obviously it would be unfair to blame all of Valencia’s woes on Rodrigo but he is their only starting forward who hasn’t scored. This guy bagged 19 last season and was talked about as a potential target for Real Madrid. Hindsight being what it is, maybe Valencia should have sold? Rodrigo has been abysmal in the Champions League and is a large part of why Valencia are out.
World Cup hangover is a real thing. The Croatian players are nearly all suffering from it after their Herculean efforts to get to the World Cup final. Ivan Perisic looks shot, and right now Ed Woodward is probably feeling pretty smug. The Croatian has been nowhere near his creative best and that’s a large part of why Inter have bombed out of the Champions League because they couldn’t get PSV at home.
Romelu Lukaku has been pretty bad so far this season. He has no goals in the Champions League and has been caught offside more times than any of his team-mates. He says he’s been carrying too much muscle, so let’s see if he can slim down in time to have an effective round of 16 because if he plays as pathetically as he did in the groups then United are in trouble.