While the Champions League final didn’t live up to its billing, this season’s edition as a whole served up plenty of excitement and drama.
We’ve also witnessed some outstanding individual displays along the way with a few youngsters really coming of age while established stars have delivered as well.
After our end-of-the-season awards for Europe’s top-five leagues, we’re now honouring the Player of the Year and Breakthrough Player of the Year for the Champions League.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Lionel Messi, Barcelona, 31 years old
Barcelona as a whole were rather unremarkable this season. That they retained their La Liga crown and made the final four in the Champions League is testament to the phenomenal abilities of their seasoned talisman Lionel Messi. The Argentine ran the show for his side and finished as the competition’s top scorer for a fifth time, bagging 12 goals on this occasion, four more than Robert Lewandowski in second place.
He may not boast the electric pace he did a couple of years ago but he remains peerless when running with the ball, completing more dribbles (35) than anyone else in the tournament. His close control, passing range and vision accounted for the bulk of Barcelona’s creativity. With three assists as well, Messi directly contributed to more than half of his side’s goals in Europe.
His consistent orchestration of proceedings and timely moments of magic took the Catalans to within minutes of a final berth only to be let down by his team-mates.
Best performance: Brace in 3-0 first leg win against Liverpool
Putting three past Liverpool’s defence was no mean feat and Messi was the chief architect of this victory. His superb solo run set up Luis Suarez who struck the crossbar before he swept up the rebound. A spectacular free-kick made it 3-0 while he also laid it on a plate for Ousmane Dembele to add a fourth on the break, but the Frenchman wasted what could’ve been the goal that would’ve taken Barca to the final before Liverpool’s incredible revival at Anfield.
What next for Messi?
He’s got absolutely nothing to prove but one would expect Messi do the unthinkable and improve. He’s adapted his game of late and has grown into one of the best playmakers in the world while maintaining his ruthless scoring streak. With Barcelona adding to their squad over the summer, he may have more to work with in the final third next season.
Honourable mentions: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Dusan Tadic (Ajax)
BREAKTHROUGH PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Matthijs de Ligt, Ajax, 19 years old
De Ligt’s extraordinary European campaign put him on the wish list of the biggest clubs in the world. He’s strong yet sophisticated, young but mature. His positioning and ability to read danger is up there with the best while he wasn’t fazed at all when competing with the likes of Lewandowski or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Dominant in the air and quick enough on the deck, the Dutchman led his team by example regardless of the phase of play. De Ligt won 46 aerial duels in this edition of the tournament, the third-highest and five more than Van Dijk.
He was always at the right place when defending, key to their build-up play in possession and even proved an attacking threat from set-pieces, scoring crucial goals in the process. At just 19, he inspired his Ajax side to within moments of a Champions League final berth.
Best performance: Scoring the winner to knockout Juventus
His display at the Bernabeu in the previous round was memorable but getting the better of Ronaldo and heading his side into the semi-finals in the process epitomised his campaign. With his composure on the ball and fearlessness in physical challenges, he inspired his team-mates against the Italian champions.
What next for De Ligt?
With the world at his feet, the possibilities are endless for football’s most sought after centre-back. Juventus, Barcelona and the two Manchester clubs are vying for his signature but De Ligt has the opportunity to win the Nations League with a young Netherlands side first, possibly raising his price tag. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t go on to become the best defender in the world at some stage.
Honourable mentions: Donny van de Beek (Ajax), Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon)
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Liverpool etched their name onto Ol’ Big Ears for the sixth time after sucking the life out of Tottenham on Saturday night.
Worthy winners they may well be, but it doesn’t mean that the XI who won the trophy was the Champions League‘s best XI this season.
We’ve watched Ajax’s golden generation blossom before our very eyes, while there’s been magic from some of the usual suspects.
You’ll disagree with bits of the below – it’s a game of opinions after all – but hear out our reasons …
Goalkeeper – Alisson Becker (Liverpool)
If Alisson hadn’t made a save in December, Liverpool wouldn’t have been standing on the podium in June.
You could say that Arkadiusz Milik’s shot was aimed straight at his body, but that the Brazilian had positioned himself there in the first place – in the 92nd minute of a must-win group stage game versus Napoli – showed he had both the mind and frame for the big occasion.
Given Loris Karius had proven he lacked in both, the Reds could not have asked for a more significant upgrade between the sticks. Whether with his hands or his feet, he makes everything looks so easy.
Right-back – Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
The youngest player to start consecutive Champions League finals is wise well beyond his years.
It hardly seems fair that at just 20, Alexander-Arnold had the nous to catch Barcelona cold from a corner and whip it in for Divock Origi to conjure up one of Europe’s greatest-ever comebacks.
Already a phenomenal passer and crosser of the ball, the Merseyside-born right-back’s defending has markedly improved this season, too. What a gem.
Centre-back – Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool)
No player managed to dribble past Van Dijk and retain possession in his last 64 games in all competitions. Not even Lionel Messi.
His dominance has been such that his name has even been cast as a possible Ballon d’Or winner, almost unheard of for anyone but a forward.
Liverpool could have all the Salahs and Manes in the world – but it this man who has been emblematic of their rise.
Centre-back – Matthijs De Ligt (Ajax)
To break the Liverpool streak we turn to Van Dijk’s countryman and the youngest man in this team – so young that he was five years old when the Reds last won the Champions League in 2005.
There’s only been one winner between boy versus men this season. The 19-year-old’s command of an Ajax backline that is asked to do so much with and without the ball has been nothing short of remarkable.
There are still some imperfections to this game, but look at what he’s achieved – his Ronaldo-esque header helped dump Ronaldo’s Juventus out of the UCL.
Left-back – Jordi Alba (Barcelona)
It could easily have been four of five Liverpool players here, but Andy Robertson’s Champions League campaign has been one of consistency over his assist-making audaciousness in the Premier League.
For audacity we turn to Alba for his assist to Luis Suarez alone, bisecting Jordan Henderson and Alexander-Arnold before reaching the onrushing Uruguayan.
He had a night to forget in the return leg, of course – as did every Barca player – but his five assists, joint-most with Kylian Mbappe, give him the edge.
Centre-midfield – Christian Eriksen (Spurs)
The Dane was neutralised in the final, but let’s not forget the form he showed in helping Spurs get there.
Chief string-puller against Borussia Dortmund before providing two Son assists across an incredible 180 minutes of football against Manchester City, the 27-year-old was able to show what the world what he has always been capable of on the grandest of stages.
Real Madrid may want Paul Pogba – they’d be better served concentrating on a perfect Luka Modric replacement.
Centre-midfield – Frenkie De Jong (Ajax)
On to an eventual Sergio Busquets replacement. The Barca-bound De Jong in one word? Omnipresent. The 22-year-old loves to collect the ball from deep, drive through midfield, and spends a lot of his time conducting play on the left side of the pitch.
Wherever he is, his pass success rate never drops. The ability to make the correct decisions – and swiftly at that – is gold dust given the breakneck speed of modern football. Banner performances against Juventus and Spurs before heartbreak struck more than justified his transfer to Spain.
🇳🇱 Frenkie de Jong picks his Top 4⃣ (👀 3 of them have played for Barça 🔵🔴) pic.twitter.com/nC3nlP6n4I— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) June 3, 2019
Centre-midfield – Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool)
The third midfielder was a hard spot to fill. Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva were unbelievable in certain games, but didn’t play enough. Moussa Sissoko ranged from wonderful to blunder-ful. So why not give the place to Liverpool’s Mr Dependable?
Wijnaldum has been moulded into a man of multi-purpose by Jurgen Klopp, Though the German is not averse to mixing up his midfield, Wijnaldum played in 12 of 14 games – starting 11 – but it was for the substitute’s appearance against Barca that he’ll forever be cherished by the Kop.
Two goals, three minutes, 4-0.
Left wing – Raheem Sterling (Man City)
Oh, Raheem. What does it feel like to wheel away in ecstasy only for VAR to cause such despair? Hopefully a berth here proves some consolation prize.
In truth the 24-year-old could have hardly been more effective for City in the knockouts. He was the chief destroyer against Schalke – though there were a few candidates – and terrorised Spurs at the Etihad Stadium.
His superb finish set the stadium rocking and his last-minute, would-be winner did again, only for the video verdict. It doesn’t take away from another season of elite evolution for the England attacker.
Forward – Dusan Tadic (Ajax)
Liverpool cherry-pick the best Southampton players have to offer, but they clearly let Tadic get away. After a very good – if not staggering – career in the south of England, the playmaker turned into… one of the best goalscorers Europe has ever seen with 38 from 56 games.
Though his and Ajax’s season started in July, Tadic helped pen a modern day fairytale through three qualifying rounds, Real Madrid and Juventus, before the cruel twist against Spurs.
His magnum opus? A masterclass at the Bernabeu, first supplying Hakim Ziyech, then David Neres following an outrageous pirouette past Casemiro, before adding a screamer of his own.
Could watch this spin and assist by Tadić on a loop forever. Imagine rocking up to the Bernabéu and pulling this off on your way to knocking Real Madrid out of the Champions League. pic.twitter.com/x0yy0mRU8o— Gordon McGuinness (@PFF_Gordon) March 6, 2019
Right wing – Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
There’s no forgetting Leo, no matter how many Champions League comebacks he’s now on the wrong end of.
The maestro of maestros netted 12 goals in the process of taking free-kicks to a new art form, with his effort against Liverpool worthy of any set-piece aficionado’s collection.
He laid waste to PSV, Spurs, Lyon, Manchester United and Liverpool … before the Reds returned fire. One thing is for sure – Messi was not at fault.
Mohamed Salah opened the scoring in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Tottenham in the Champions League final as the Reds claimed their sixth European trophy.
The Egyptian scored in the second minute after he converted a penalty following Moussa Sissoko’s handball. Divock Origi doubled their advantage on the 87th minute to confirm victory for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Here, we take a look at Salah’s performance.
Shots (on target): 6 (1)
Passes (success-rate): 16 (44%)
Having sustained a shoulder injury in the early stages of last season’s Champions League final, Salah was hungry to prove his mettle as a big-game player and lead Liverpool to their sixth Champions League crown.
With Spurs enjoying the bulk of possession, Salah’s role changed into a more defensive one early on following his penalty, as he helped restrict ball-playing from the back. From an offensive sense he was closely marked by Jan Vertonghen and was restricted from getting on the ball himself. Despite showing flashes, he didn’t get close to another magical moment after his penalty.
Rose to the occasion: The pressure that accompanies a Champions League final – especially when you’re the talisman of the team – is truly immense. Salah had a few nervy moments while trying to pull the trigger, but he rose to the occasion when his team needed him to. Ultimately, the night will be remembered for the indelible impact he had on the game – a goal that set the tone for most of what was a dour contest.
Threat on the counter: With Spurs pushing for a goal, it was only a matter of time before Salah’s pace began to cause serious problems. Both Sadio Mane and Salah were dangerous on the counter but failed to threaten Hugo Lloris.
Shooting accuracy: It was one of those nights for Salah when the ball just wasn’t connecting right. He hit six shots, only one of which was on target. There were occasions where he could have done a lot better given his quality, but he failed to do so. To his credit, the Egyptian struck the goal that decided the fate of the game.
Clearly, it was not the best of nights for the former Roma man, but the Champions League medal on his mantlepiece will have you believe otherwise. Salah deserves the plaudits for his early goal and diligence in a thoroughly professional display.
Stats from whoscored.com