The field of 16 teams for the Champions League knockout stages is set after this week’s fixtures, with some teams acquitting themselves better than others during the group stage.
Real Madrid may have won this competition three years running, but on current form it looks like there will be a new champion at the end of the season. But who?
Here’s our top-five favourites to win the 2018/19 Champions League.
In a group with Manchester United and Valencia, there was the potential for slip-ups – and indeed, Juventus lost to United at home despite leading in the 85th minute, and then suffered a shock reverse to Young Boys in the final game of the group stage, nearly costing themselves top spot in the process. But they took that top spot, nonetheless.
For a team that has been knocking on the door of European success for the last few years, there were encouraging signs that the team is ready to take that final step. One, of course, is the mere presence of Cristiano Ronaldo. But there was also an imperiousness on show when they beat Valencia 2-0 away from home with 10 men, and when they brushed aside United in the away game. Right now, they look like the best team in the competition.
Last season’s beaten finalists were in danger of crashing out heading into their final group game. But nothing symbolises why this year’s Liverpool are considered an even better bet to win the trophy than that final clash against Napoli. They battled to a 1-0 victory to seal their round-of-16 spot – they would have been hard-pressed to manage that sort of result last season.
Though finishing second in the group makes their route a little harder, this Liverpool side would probably fancy themselves against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich. Jurgen Klopp’s long wait for a trophy as Reds manager could finally be coming to an end.
3. Paris Saint-Germain
PSG had to answer a lot of doubts during the group stage. They lost their opener away to Liverpool, and four games in the only team they’d beaten was Red Star Belgrade – a state of affairs that left them with just five points.
But they won their last two to top the group, and now they can look at finally getting the Champions League trophy that the club so desperately desires. Thomas Tuchel has drilled a new level of discipline and nous into the side, and in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe they have players who can turn a game in an instant. Could this finally be their year?
4. Manchester City
Manchester City had their slip-ups – losing to Lyon at home, falling behind to Hoffenheim twice – and Lyon in particular showed up City’s defence. With top spot secured on the final day, however, they can look ahead to conquering the competition that, like with PSG, has become their biggest dream.
Their form overall, both in the Champions League and domestically, sets them out as one of Europe’s best sides, though the same thing was said last season as well. Ultimately, until they win this competition, their credentials will be questioned. But they’ve got an excellent chance of silencing the doubts.
5. Borussia Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund have only lost once all season across competitions – a record matched by just one club in Europe’s top five leagues, PSG. This team looks like the 2010-13 vintage which won the Bundesliga twice in a row and then reached the Champions League final.
Their dismantling of Atletico Madrid at home, in a stunning 4-0 win, should be enough to convince anyone that Dortmund are for real. They also finished the group stage with the best defensive record of all teams, conceding only twice. And they have a host of talented players who are all in top form. Dortmund are poised for a deep run.
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.
Lionel Messi has now contributed to AT LEAST 70 goals in each of the past five calendar years.— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelonaHQ) December 13, 2018
2014 - Goals + assists: 80
2015 - Goals + assists: 78
2016 - Goals + assists: 90
2017 - Goals + assists: 70
2018 - Goals + assists: 71
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.
Only Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi have more Champions League goals than Dušan Tadić this season (5).— bet365 (@bet365) December 12, 2018
He's just made the Champions League last 16.
Southampton sold him for just £10m. pic.twitter.com/l24I9C1C8p
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.
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.
Most assists in the 2018-19 Champions League group stages:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 12, 2018
🇫🇷 Kylian Mbappé (4)
🇳🇱 Memphis Depay (4)
🇩🇿 Riyad Mahrez (4)
Europe's top creators. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/l9M7QO6M23
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.
4 - Nicolas Tagliafico scored or assisted more goals in his last four Eredivisie games (4) than in his first 23 combined (3). Wings.— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) December 2, 2018
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.
5 - Paulo Dybala has scored five of the last seven Juventus’s Champions League goals. Key. #YBJuve— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) December 12, 2018
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.
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.”