UCL group stage top 10 players: Messi and Van Dijk lead the way

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Messi was as brilliant as ever for Barcelona.

The group stage of the Champions League is over, and it’s no surprise who the standout player of the first round was.

Lionel Messi may have only finished fifth in the voting for this year’s Ballon d’Or, but he’s playing like the best player in the world at the moment.

He finished the round as the second-highest scorer, behind Robert Lewandowski, and the two players lead our list of the group stage’s top ten…but who else made the cut?

1. Lionel Messi

Messi made a mockery of the Ballon d’Or voting with his displays for Barcelona in the group stage. Six goals, including that brilliant one against PSV Eindhoven with four players around him, helped his side cruise into the knockout stages.

2. Robert Lewandowski

Lewandowski was the top-scorer of the group stage with eight goals, and Bayern Munich have desperately needed him to be in that form. For an in-crisis team, the striker scored over half their goals across the six games.

3. Virgil Van Dijk

Liverpool‘s defensive improvement with Van Dijk in the lineup has been well-documented, and it’s safe to say that he’s one of the biggest reasons they can be considered among the favourites for the Champions League title. His display against Napoli in the final group game was brilliant.

4. Dusan Tadic

Imagine what Southampton must be feeling at the moment. Languishing in the relegation zone, struggling for goals, and a player they let go this summer is among the top scorers in the Champions League. Tadic and Ajax certainly aren’t complaining.

5. David Silva

Is David Silva the best midfielder in the world on current form? With Luka Modric having dropped off since the World Cup, there’s an argument that he is. The Spaniard’s play in midfield for Manchester City has been superb.

6. Neymar

After a disappointing World Cup, Neymar‘s performances for Paris Saint-Germain were always going to come under increased scrutiny. It’s Champions League trophy or bust for both player and club this season, and so far, the Brazilian is delivering, scoring five goals in the group stage.

7. Kylian Mbappe

The world’s best young player continues to see his star rise. Mbappe was among the leading assist providers in the group stage, and since the start of last season only James Milner has provided more assists in the Champions League.

8. Nicolas Tagliafico

On current form, Tagliafico is the best left-back in Europe, and he’s a big reason why Ajax are marching into the Round of 16 with an unbeaten record. Players like Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt are getting most of the attention, but Tagliafico is doing just fine as the unsung hero.

9. Paulo Dybala

Cristiano Ronaldo is the star attraction at Juventus, but Dybala stole the show in the group stage, top-scoring for the club and getting his first Champions League hat-trick in the process. His return to form is coming at the perfect time.

10. Raphael Guerreiro

Borussia Dortmund’s leading scorer in the Champions League isn’t Christian Pulisic, Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho, or Paco Alcacer. Left-back Raphael Guerreiro is the surprise man topping the charts, and he’s also been a big part of Dortmund ending the group stage with the competition’s best defensive record.

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Leroy Sane pleased with Man City's Champions League revival

Andy Hampson 13/12/2018
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Leroy Sane

Leroy Sane felt Manchester City rediscovered their verve as they overcame a slow start against Hoffenheim to claim top spot in their Champions League group.

City were knocked off the top of the Premier League as they suffered their first domestic defeat of the season at Chelsea last weekend and the hangover initially seemed to carry over into Wednesday’s outing.

The German side created some good early chances at the Etihad Stadium and took an early lead with a penalty from former Leicester striker Andrej Kramaric.

That sparked City into life and they responded by hitting the woodwork twice through Gabriel Jesus and Nicolas Otamendi before two goals from Sane secured first place in Group F. City created numerous other chances and should have won more convincingly than 2-1.

“At the beginning maybe we were a little bit sleepy but at the end we did it really good,” said Sane. “We woke up and played really good football. I am happy, especially with the way we played altogether.”

All of City’s best chances in the first half came from set-pieces with Sane equalising from a stunning free-kick on the stroke of half-time. Due to a spate of injuries, City had no obvious specialists from the 25-yard distance on the field when the 22-year-old stepped up.

“I think in my professional career I have never scored a free-kick,” said Sane. “I thought this was the moment and I just tried it.”

Sane paid tribute to team-mate Raheem Sterling for his involvement in his second, which came from a quick counter-attack.

He said: “I thought Raheem was running in space and I wanted to give him the ball so he could go one-on-one.

“But he’s got good vision, a good eye, and he saw the run coming and passed again to me. I just had to tap in the ball. It was a really good goal.”

Sane, however, could have had a hat-trick had he not passed up a shooting chance on another lightning break from deep. Again Sterling played in Sane but he opted to pass inside to Bernardo Silva, who was denied by goalkeeper Oliver Baumann.

Sane said: “I just regret we didn’t score the goal. It was three against just the goalkeeper.

“I thought I would pass to Bernardo and he would just have to tap the ball in but my eye wasn’t as good as Raheem’s.

“I think it would have been better if I’d just shot the ball in but at the end we are all happy we won.”

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Phil Foden 'played like a real man' for Man City against Hoffenheim

Andy Hampson 13/12/2018
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Pep Guardiola hailed the performance of Phil Foden after the youngster was handed a starting chance in Manchester City’s Champions League victory over Hoffenheim.

Leroy Sane scored twice as City came from behind to beat the Bundesliga outfit 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday and secure top spot in Group F.

Highly-rated teenager Foden shone in midfield, particularly as City took firm charge of the game in the second half, having been given a long-awaited opportunity by Guardiola following a spate of injuries.

The 18-year-old almost got on the scoresheet himself when he forced a fine save from Oliver Baumann with a fierce left-foot volley.

Guardiola said: “Phil was incredible, the way he played.

“I would never have doubts about the quality of that guy. It is not just the quality with the ball. He looks skinny, not strong, but he’s really, really strong.

“He’s an outstanding young player, a huge talent. I think England has a diamond.

“He’s special, he has had minutes and in the future will have a lot of them. He played like a real man. He played so good.”

Hoffenheim took an early lead with a penalty from former Leicester striker Andrej Kramaric but City responded well and hit the woodwork twice before Sane equalised with a brilliant free-kick.

Sane secured victory just after the hour as he took one of several chances City created that could have made the win even more comfortable.

Germany international Sane, who may have been keen to prove a point to an audience from his homeland, did receive some abuse from visiting fans. After the weekend’s incident involving Raheem Sterling, this did attract some attention but there was no suggestion it was racial.

Asked about the matter, Guardiola said: “I don’t know if anything happened. If it happened it’s bad news but I don’t know.”

Going through to the last 16 as group winners will assure City of a better seeding in Monday’s draw.

Guardiola said: “Before they scored we were flat, they were better, but after the penalty we were normal and created a lot of chances.

“We finished group stage in the best way. We’re in the best 16 teams in Europe.

“It’s a big compliment to everyone involved in the group because it was tough. It’s more difficult in the Champions League because the opponents are so much better. If you sleep a little bit you are in Europa League.

“All our teams are there and it’s really good for the Premier League.”

Guardiola added that John Stones was withdrawn at half-time due to a “little problem” in his knee.

Hoffenheim finished bottom of the group with three points from three draws but, having reached this stage for the first time, coach Julian Nagelsmann was pleased with his players’ showing.

He said: “I’m proud of the way we have played in the Champions League. As a newcomer to the Champions League, we’ve played well. We’ve done a lot for the club and we hope to do more of this in the future.”

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