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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