Why So Many Crosses? Real Madrid vs Manchester City – UEFA Champions League 19/20 Preview

The final battle of the round of sixteen, and it might be the best one. Real Madrid, the only team to win the competition three times in a row; against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the best attacking team in Europe. Will their attack be enough to overcome their defensive instabilities, or will Madrid return to the winning machine we saw during Zidane’s tenure. Let’s find out.

We’ll start with Los Blanchos, who have arguably been the best team in a rather weak La Liga season. Real Madrid are the second best defensive team in the league, only behind their city rivals for xG against. They’re second in the league for shots against, with the league’s surprise package of the season, Getafe, being the only side bettering their 9.2 shots against per game. Madrid restrict their opponents to poor shots, which is different to the defensive performances seen during Zidane’s final year. Madrid were heavily reliant on Ramos or Varane to bail them out of poor organisation. Now they’re more of a cohesive unit, able to surpress the best attacks in Spain.

What’s helped Madrid a lot is improvements in personnel. Ferland Mendy has become the starting left-back for the club and while he isn’t nearly as fun to watch going forward as Marcelo, he’s younger and has the pace to recover; something Marcelo simply doesn’t have anymore. Courtois has gone from a underwhelming to above average again, and Carvajal has returned to his best.

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It’s in midfield where personnel has been a factor, with the way Zidane has managed to make them functional deserving plaudits. I criticised Madrid for not buying a midfielder in the summer, while allowing both Kovacic and Ceballos to leave the club. It left the midfield without balance, and put even more pressure on Casemiro to do the hard yards for Kroos and Modric. I expected Zidane to keep playing the same midfield trio he did during those successful Champions League wins, even with Modric now 34 and far past his best. Yet, he’s surprised me again. Casemiro has been the best defensive midfielder in Europe this year, putting in an insane amount of defensive work for the team and even contributing in ball progression; with no one in the squad completing more through balls than Casemiro’s 6.

Casemiro has been sensational, but Fede Valverde’s involvement in the team was the balance needed to compliment Casemiro’s defensive work and Kroos’s ball progression. Valverde is obviously not the player Modric was four years ago, but he is exactly what Madrid need. He has the energy to cover the distance, and is the only player in midfield who can press. Valverde isn’t the flashiest, but is comfortable in possession and does the defensive work needed to help carry some of Casemiro’s load. The 21-year-old has played in a majority of the big games, and wouldn’t surprise to see him start against Manchester City.

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Real Madrid have always garnered a reputation for having some of the best attackers to ever grace the game. However under Zidane, it’s arguably been the most boring and unimpressive part of their game, even when Ronaldo was still there. Madrid’s main outlet for attacking is crosses. No other team in La Liga has completed more crosses than Zidane’s team. It’s always baffled me why they do it. Crossing is famously one of the most ineffective ways of scoring goals, and only works when you have a team of excellent passers. Madrid use their full-backs for a majority of creativity, with Carvajal and Ferland Mendy completing a combined 13 crosses into the penalty area in La Liga. It might not sound like a lot, but crossing is an unproductive use of possession. If looking at quantity over quality, Mendy and Carvajal have attempted roughly 122 crosses, which means they have around a 10% success rate.  (These have to be taken with a pinch of salt. I’ve used fbref.com to find the crosses into the penalty area and whoscored.com to find the amount of crosses attempted. Nevertheless, the point still stands).

Their style of crossing can perfectly define their attack this season: quantity over quality. Madrid are top of the league for shots taken per game with 16.02, nearly 3 shots more Villarreal, who are in second with 13.42. Top teams should always be the ones racking up the most shots, since they’ll be dominating games and have more of an opportunity to do so. The volume is good, but the quality is not. Their non-penalty xG per shot is at 0.10, placing them seventh in La Liga and behind their classico rivals Barcelona with 0.13. Zidane has gone down the logic of if we create enough chances, no matter the quality, we’ll eventually score. This does work against inferior opposition, but without Ronaldo, this just isn’t as effective. Benzema has been great this season, but the question marks surrounding his finishing quality persist. Luka Jovic could be that guy, but right now it makes Madrid a team with all bark but still without the bite.

Let’s move onto Manchester City. It’s hard to talk about the champions without discussing their upcoming European Ban after constant Financial Fair Play problems. Unfortunately, this is an area where I don’t have a full opinion on, based on the fact I don’t know the full extent of the rules and the full story; it simply isn’t my area of expertise. We’ll stick to the football, where it’s the best in Europe at times, and frustrating at others.

Pep’s quest for creating the perfect attacking has reached a new peak this season. With Kevin De Bruyne back and fully fit, It gave City their best creator back. Bernardo Silva did a fantastic job in filling for De Bruyne, while adding that extra bit of energy in midfield, but lacked the same level of creativity his Belgian teammate could offer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better passer in the Premier League than De Bruyne. His vision and way he can hit a pass just perfect for one of the forwards to reach it in the box is pure magic. It’s not even on the eyes where De Bruyne blows me away, but in the numbers. He’s top of the league with passes into the penalty area and 11th for passes into the final third, showing just how influential he is for not only chance creation, but ball progression as well. He comfortably leads the league for assists with 17, making De Bruyne incredibly likely to beat Thiery Henry’s record of 20, by quite a margin.

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The most interesting part about Manchester City’s attack is, like Madrid, crossing. Even excluding De Bruyne, Manchester City do possess some of the best passers in the league, and have looked to beat teams through the elite passing ability of their players. City comfortably top the league for crosses attempted and completed. This has worked in a way.  Having De Bruyne sending the balls into the far post is cheating slightly, since he’s so good at it. I still don’t like crossing as a main method for scoring goals, but it’s hard to deny City have the talent to pull it off, even if they shouldn’t do it.

The Belgian playmaker’s success does dovetail quite nicely to why City have just been so far behind Liverpool in the league. Luck does definitely play a part in this. City have underperformed both in xG for and against. There have been some games (both games against Spurs are perfect examples) where City have dominated the game and created enough chances, but failed to score the decisive goal; mostly down to poor finishing.

However, it’s defensively where the issues are most apparent. Just starting with the backline, Manchester City have faced a massive injury crisis. Laporte suffered a long term injury; when combining that with Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones struggling to find form all season, it leaves City with a lot of uncertainties at the back. Fernandinho has had to cover there for most of the season. The Brazilian is very old now, and while he’s still great, his aggression and issues in the air become more apparent when playing further back.

Manchester City’s very long pursuit for a new defensive midfielder to replace Fernandinho took far too long, which ended up with them spending a lot of money on Rodri when they could have gotten him a year earlier for far cheaper. That’s another topic entirely, but the adaption period hasn’t been as smooth as expected. Rodri and Fernandinho are very different. Rodri is a better passer, more physically dominant and of course, younger. The issue is his lack of speed and just lacks the experience of his Brazilian teammate. City face a lot of counter-attacking opportunites and having someone with the in-game awareness of Fernandinho, massively helped in supressing any potential goals. He regularly put in a foul, just to stop any attacks materialising. Rodri does actually commit a lot of fouls, but not in same vital way that Fernandinho did, instead doing it out of desperation rather than reading the situation.

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Rodri wouldn’t be as much of a problem in midfield, if it wasn’t for the attacking dominance. As mentioned, Pep has sought to keep getting the attack better, even at the cost for defensive solidity. Their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at home epitimised the Champions at their worse. They consistently left themselves vulnerable to counter-attacks; arguably Manchester United’s biggest strength in attack. It’s baffling because it seemed Pep was desperate to protect his team from counter-attacks, but has instead increasingly left them more open. Pep’s side has the joint worst xG per shot against in the league, alongside West Ham United. City give up the ball rarely, but when they do, they constantly give their opponents great scoring opportunities.

De Bruyne is a problem in this regard. Guardiola has tried to adjust his lineup, in an attempt to give De Bruyne a free role in attack, and cover for the space he opens up for his general lack of defensive work. Playing Rodri as a single pivot just doesn’t work against teams who can punish them with counter-attacks. Pep has switched to a 4-2-3-1 in a handful of games this season, playing Gundogan alongside Rodri, but this hasn’t lead to much success either. City will always be vulnerable to counter-attacks, but I’ve never seen a Pep team look this bad when caught out of possession.

This tie is so difficult to call because even after looking at both teams, I still don’t know who will go through. Madrid still have the experience of winning these knockout games and could take advantage of how poor Manchester City is in defence at times; but Benzema could have one of his off-days and not be decisive enough in front of goal. Man City have the best attack in Europe and could simply overwhelm Madrid. I’d probably back Madrid to win both legs, especially with how unlucky City have been at times this season.

Every Champions League Club’s Most Important Player

The round of 16 is where the Champions League truly begins. With the predictable group stages finally over, let’s look ahead to all the teams left in the competition. The previews will be coming, but for now, let’s look at every team’s most outstanding player. These are the players who are irreplaceable in their sides, who will be relied upon to win these close ties. I will not be speaking about these players in the previews, to avoid repeating myself. 

Atletico Madrid: Alvaro Morata 

While this season, with all of the departures in the summer, can be argued as a transitional one, it’s still been very frustrating for Atletico. Their city rivals have been above average, but they’ve had chances to stay closer in the title race. While they’ve remained solid at the back, it’s in attack where, as usual, they’ve misfired. Yet, it’s hard to include any defender as their most important player, when Simeone is so reliant on his attackers to produce some magic. Saul Niguez does deserve mention for remaining as consistent as ever, but Morata is easily the player to be relied upon.

The former Chelsea striker has garnered a reputation for being a poor finisher, which is still valid. Morata has again missed a few big chances this season. Possible game-winners against Sevilla and Real Valladolid and a header against Granada would put him in double figures for goals. Morata has always missed the occasional sitter, but it shouldn’t deflect from his all-round game. He’s still taking the most shots per 90 for Atletico Madrid with 3.5, with 2.3 coming from inside the penalty area. He’s winning over 5 aerial duels per 90, reminding everyone how much of an aerial threat he still is, as well as creating 1.4 chances. Even in a very defensive team, these are great numbers. It becomes more significant when Joao Felix hasn’t hit the ground running, and Thomas Lemar still looks like the same shadow as last season.

Morata will need to be at his very best to beat the best team in Europe. Liverpool have been sensational over the last couple of years, especially in the knockout games. I can’t see Atletico creating many chances during both legs. Morata’s ability to do a bit of everything could help his team get the much-needed goals to advance, even if he won’t be putting the chances away.

Liverpool: Virgil Van Dijk

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There were surprisingly a lot of candidates for Liverpool. Any of their superstar forwards, Alexander-Arnold’s elite chance creation and Allison ridiculous ability to make that defence even better than it already is. But the runner-up for the Balon d’Or is my choice. Philippe Coutinho’s sale and the arrival of Virgil Van Dijk must be considered one of the best deals in the history of the modern game. The Dutchman is fantastic in the air, an elite distributor and a constant goal threat. Not only has Van Dijk been individually unbelievable, but he simultaneously improved everyone around him. Joe Gomez looks like a future England starter alongside him, and Matip began earning heaps of praise for the first time in years. Not much needs to be said. While a lot of money has been spent on Van Dijk, he has definitely paid it back. Two European finals, one Champions League, the third-highest points tally in the history of the league and most likely a first title. His influence and ability will keep his side fighting until the very end. 

Borussia Dortmund: Jadon Sancho

Marco Reus is obviously a contender here, but Sancho has taken another leap in his rapid development. The England international has become Dortmund’s biggest threat in the final third and has been the driving for some of their most significant results this season. Sancho made the difference in their massive comeback against Paderborn and scored and assisted in their 3-3 draw to RB Leipzig. He’s contributed to a goal in all of his past 7 games. Sancho finished the Hinrunde with 9 goals and 9 assists, more goal involvements than Reus and Thorgan Hazard. Sancho has overperformed his xG, but that’s been Dortmund’s story under Favre. The former Manchester City attacker has stood out among other elite attackers. Julian Brandt has been fantastic whenever he’s played, and Thorgan Hazard has, creatively, been one of the best players in Germany. Sancho’s speed, dribbling and chance creation will cause a lot of problems for PSG, especially considering their defensively poor full-backs. I can’t see Sancho remaining in Germany past the summer, meaning this could be his last chance to drag Dortmund over the line.

PSG: Marco Verratti

In a team containing talented players like Neymar, Mbappe, Icardi and Di Maria, why have I chosen Verratti? I’ve already expressed my love for the Italian, and even with midfield reinforcements arriving in the summer, he has remained a vital piece in Tuchel’s team. Verratti is one of the best midfielders in the world at pretty much everything that matters. Similar to Thiago Alcantara, Verratti is a fantastic progressor of the ball, either through his incredible ability to pick out one of his teammates in difficult positions or his tireless work rate. Here’s statsbomb’s player radar of Verratti’s 18/19 season, and it’s insane:

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Verratti might go down as one of the most under-appreciated players of the 21st century. The popular opinion of Ligue 1 being the weakest league out of the top five, as well as PSG’s dominance, has made it difficult for people to take many of their stars seriously. But it’s not only in France where Verratti has shown his excellence. Time and time again, Verratti has demonstrated the best teams in Europe just how good he is. In their famous 4-0 first-leg win over Barcelona back in 2017, Verratti was instrumental in nullifying Rakitic, Gomes and Busquets. Even against (at the time) Solsjkaer’s high-flying Manchester United, Verratti dominated the game at Old Trafford, unbeatable on the ball while being a huge reason why PSG were able to transition so quickly against the Red Devils. I’ll most likely discuss Paris’ attackers during the preview. Still, there’s no debating that Verratti will be instrumental if PSG wishes to dominate the game against a tough and robust Dortmund midfield. 

Atalanta: Josip Ilicic

Papau Gomez is usually the choice for Atalanta’s most important player. And while their captain will need to bring his usual brilliance, it’s hard to argue with just how good Ilicic has been for Italy’s best attacking side. Alongside Zapata or Muriel, Ilicic has involvement in everything Atalanta do in the final third. The Slovenian’s dominates Atalanta’s shots, dribble and shot-assist numbers. In fact, it’s only in shot-assists where Ilicic isn’t top (Gomez averages 3 while Ilicic averages 2.8). The former Fiorentina forward is averaging 4.9 shots per 90, putting him on the Messi and Ronaldo level we wish every forward could reach. His xGChain (the total xG of every possession a player is involved in) is the highest in Serie A, with 14.05 (this is only counting players who’ve played over 700 minutes).

Do I think Atalanta will progress beyond Valencia? I’m not entirely sure, but I hope so. Atalanta under Gasperini have been so much fun in creating an elite attack, and Ilicic is arguably the crown jewel. His incredible offensive ability, as well as his creativity, could be a massive factor in taken Atalanta to the next stage in their first campaign in the Champions League.

Valencia: Dani Parejo

Not even a competition for this. Dani Parejo is another who’s massively underrated. In a league that’s been dominated by the likes of Modric, Iniesta, Busquets, Rakitic and Kroos throughout the decade, Parejo should definitely be considered among those fantastic players. The Spaniard has been so consistent for a team that has continuously changed personnel, whether players or coach. Parejo has been a consistent goal scorer and supplier. Since 15/16, Valencia’s skipper has contributed to at least 10 goals. A lot of goals either come from the penalty spot or free-kicks, but that’s a skill by itself. He’s actually scored 13 free kicks for Valencia, a frankly ridiculous amount for any player. 

Parejo’s biggest strength in assisting his side is by far his leadership. After their poor start to the 18/19 season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Parejo had a massive say in waking his teammates up from their misfortune and pushing them on to finish in the Champions League spots. Even if Atalanta manage to get a first-leg lead, Parejo will do all in his power to turn the tie to Valencia’s favour. 

Tottenham Hotspur: Heung-Min Son

Throughout Tottenham’s run to the final last season, Son was their key man, since Kane (as usual) missed key matches in their memorable campaign. While Lucas Moura did score that incredible hat-trick to sink a young Ajax team, they wouldn’t have reached that point without Son’s goals in the round of sixteen and the quarter-finals. During their first leg against Borussia Dortmund, Son scored the second goal at Wembley, giving them a massive advantage over the Bundesliga side. His performances during their two-legged affair against champions Manchester City were by far the highlight of his season. The South Korean international scored the only goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, ensuring that Manchester City were left fighting during their second leg. Son went on to leave his opponents in an awkward position, scoring two goals at the Etihad. 

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With Harry Kane out until April and Ndombele struggling to put together a consistent run of games, it’s tough to argue with Heung-Min Son’s importance to the Tottenham team. Son offers something that none of his teammates can currently offer a consistent goal threat. I much prefer him starting as a winger, because Kane regularly drops deep, Son feels like the only focal point for the team. His pace and ability on the counter-attack make him a threat to every team in Europe.

RB Leipzig: Timo Werner

Julien Nagelsmann has taken Leipzig to the next level, adding that needed improvement in possession. This allows them to stay competitive against all kinds of opposition, whether big or small. While players like Sabitzer, Nkunku and Mukiele deserve credit for the leaps, they’ve taken in their development. It’s hard to argue with just how good Timo Werner has been this season. The German international is easily the most inform striker in the league. His massive goal tally of 20 is difficult to match across Europe. Not only has his goals gone up, but his creativity is frankly ridiculous. Werner is fifth in the Bundesliga for assists with 6. Not only that, but his xA per 90 is currently at 0.37. Werner has a higher expected assists per 90 than the likes of Filip Kostic, Marcus Thuram and Jadon Sancho. Werner is flourishing in every way under his new coach, and easily the player Tottenham will be looking at stopping.

Chelsea: Matteo Kovacic 

Chelsea were easily the hardest choice here. Abraham, Rudiger, Azpilicueta and Kante were all considered, but Matteo Kovacic had to be here. The former Real Madrid midfielder has always been an enormous talent but struggled at his former club. Since signing for Chelsea however, he seems to be finally turning into that world-beater. When playing alongside Jorginho and Kante in a midfield three, it allows Kovacic to focus primarily on his best quality: ball progression. Kovacic has consistently averaged over 10 deep progressions per 90. There aren’t many better players in England who can transition the ball through each zone. It’s arguably been the most significant improvement under Lampard. While they have been somewhat naive defensively, they’ve been better to watch, and the midfield isn’t so static. Kovacic is completing over 3 dribbles per 90 in the Champions League. His defensive work has fallen off a cliff when in Europe, but that’s primarily down to having Kante, as well as Jorginho to do the defensive work. Kovacic will be a player that Bayern Munich have to limit. His ability to quickly move the ball into the opponent’s third is difficult to stop and could be a deciding factor in this huge tie. 

Bayern Munich: Robert Lewandowski

Whether Bayern are good or bad, there is one player you can always count on, and that’s their superstar striker Robert Lewandowski. Poland’s all-time top goalscorer has been running insanely hot all season. He went on a run of scoring in 15 consecutive games. He ended the Hinrunde with 29 goals in all competitions, more than many talented players manage in a whole season. Not only is his form in the Bundesliga fantastic, but he has brought it into Europe. Lewandowski is currently the top goal scorer in the competition, scoring 10 in 5. His finishes against Tottenham in their 7-2 demolition were outstanding. His first goal saw the former Dortmund star quickly turn his body and hit the ball right between the defenders, making it impossible for Lloris to stop the shot.

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Not only does Lewandowski continually put the ball in the back of the net, but he does so much for his team. I highly doubt Serge Gnabry would have reached 10 goals if it wasn’t for Lewandowski either intelligently dragging defenders away from him, or creating the goals himself. He is a perfect modern number nine but will need to bring his group stage form in the games where it truly matters. 

Napoli: Fabian Ruiz

While Milan and Sampdoria falling down the table is the story of Serie A, it’s Napoli’s drop off which has been the most astounding. Last season’s runners up have looked a shadow of the team they were under Sarri. It was difficult to choose a player here. Not because of a wealth of options, but a lack of them. Key and reliable players like Allan, Callejon, Koulibaly and Insigne have all dropped off massively. The only player that has stood out is former Betis midfielder Fabian Ruiz, who has still remained at a high level, even with all of the issues on and off the field. 

The Spaniard is a midfielder who can do a bit of everything. He arrived last season as a number ten or an advanced eight but primarily played in a double pivot under Ancelotti. Ruiz wasn’t necessarily bad there; however, he wasn’t being played to his strengths. Ruiz is an excellent progressor of the ball, continually getting involved during buildup through his passing. The 23-year-old’s xGChain sits at 11.51, higher than anyone else for Napoli. His best strength is comfortably his dribbling, consistently averaging over a 65% dribble success rate. He’s technically excellent and could have a massive say in their tie against Barcelona, who themselves have plenty of midfielders who can dominate a game. 

Barcelona: Lionel Messi 

Nothing needs to be said. The best player to ever grace the game is going to be his team’s most important player.

Lyon: Moussa Dembele

Lyon are having an awful season, on and off the pitch. Sylvinho arrived as the new head coach, with Juninho has the new sporting director, in an attempt to push Lyon to the next level. Unfortunately, this has not worked out so far. Juninho was sacked after only winning three games in eleven. Rudi Garcia was shockingly appointing, which didn’t go down well with the fans, considering he was managing Marseille as recently as last season. When you pair that with Marcelo’s feud with some of the Lyon ultras, this season was over before it even started. 

With Depay tearing his ACL, meaning the Dutchman will miss the Euros, Moussa Dembele seems like the apparent player who could turn the tie for Lyon. Dembele has dropped off slightly from last season but remains a considerable threat. He’s Lyon’s top scorer in Ligue 1 with 11 goals. He’s excellent physically, able to beat players in the air or with his speed. His finishing has always impressed, consistently putting away more difficult chances. The only worry for Dembele is whether he can actually score in the Champions League, something he’s yet to do. Lyon’s sudden nose dive from the top of Ligue 1 has been staggering, and it puts their chances of progressing rather unlikely. They’ll have to hope Dembele can start putting in the performances that made him stand out last season.

Juventus: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Champions have been slightly worse under Sarri, including Ronaldo. While his form has improved in recent weeks, he’s finally started to look like a 34-year-old. His shot numbers are still on that elite level they’ve been since the start of the decade, but he has begun to look slow, with his start to the season, yet again, underwhelming. Still, Ronaldo is one of the best forwards around, with his knack for the big stage a massive factor when discussing Juventus. His hat trick against Atletico Madrid in last year’s round of sixteen perfectly showcased how Ronaldo can carry a team through the toughest of circumstances. The competition’s all-time top scorer is still the best headerer of the ball in the world and loves a score a spectacular goal. The success of Ronaldo’s transfer to the old lady rests on these big moments. He was brought in for a lot of money (too much), and if he doesn’t win the Champions League, this move will be seen as a failure.

Real Madrid: Karim Benzema

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Moving onto Ronaldo’s former club, who are finally starting to look just as good as they were when the Portuguese superstar was playing in the famous Los Blancos shirt. Even with Madrid looking solid in defence and their young players starting to flourish, it’s Karim Benzema who has remained at the same high level as he has throughout the last decade. Casemiro does deserve a lot of credit for keeping that midfield together, but Benzema has helped keep Madrid in the title race. He’s the club’s top goalscorer this season with 12 and assisting the most with 5. What’s impressed me the most about Benzema is how he’s returned to being more of a goalscorer. His insanely impressive 2 key passes per 90 do show how he is still a great all-rounder in terms of goals and creativity, but his involvement in buildup play has started to decline. This is actually a good thing. Benzema is now 32 and in a team full of future superstars. He is giving these players that reliable, experienced player up front, who will put the ball away when given a chance. Luka Jovic struggling for games is a testament to Benzema’s importance. It wouldn’t surprise to see him play a vital role against the Premier League Champions. 

Manchester City: Aymeric Laporte 

Kevin De Bruyne might be the obvious answer considering how unbeatable he has been this season. However, if Manchester City can reach 98 points with their Belgian playmaker missing most of the season, then he can’t be as vital as Aymeric Laporte. The former Athletic Bilbao defender has seen his importance grow over the last few months. After picking up a severe knee injury in September. It left Pep with a stagnant John Stones and an ageing Nicolas Otamendi as his only recognised centre-backs. While City have been really bad at the back throughout the season, losing a composed, intelligent and dominant defender in Laporte, did make things a lot harder. I have no idea if Laporte will be ready for their colossal tie with Real Madrid. Pep, as well 

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Team of the Group Stage

With this year’s exciting group stages over, let’s look at the players who have stood out massively this year. The only rule is 1 player per team, to add some variety to this team and to not go on about the same players. There are some great players in this side, so let’s get straight into it.

Allison

While Szczesny and De Gea are also great shouts in between the sticks, Allison just has to win it for me. While many have been critical of his occasional errors, he has changed that defense, along with Van Dijk. He has added that reassurance to his teammates, that there is nothing to worry about. The way he commands his goal is incredible and his presence is why Liverpool have improved so much this season. His game against Napoli at Anfield was great, making an incredible close ranged save right at the end of the game to deny Milik a change to send his side through. He is the reason why Liverpool were able to get out such a tough group.

João Cancelo

He has been absolutely sensational this season. While I have covered him previously, with his great performances against Manchester United and Inter Milan all highlighted, he has been a key member to a Juventus side that easily qualified, thanks to underperforming opposition. He was such a great outlet for a side that has found it difficult to find a consistent player in that right back position since Dani Alves departed. His pace, dribbling and defensive work make him a perfect modern full back. While it is questionable to put a player who only played 3 games in here, he was just that good. He put in 4 tackles and interceptions, completed 2.7 dribbles and even was taking 1.3 shots per game. A real stand out performer for a side who are looking to finally win the trophy after waiting so long.

Aymeric Laporte

Man City were very good in the group. While they had massive struggles when playing Lyon, failing to win in both games against the French side. They were still able to get top of the group, and that was mostly thanks to their own french defender, Aymeric Laporte. He was at his best in the Champions League. He was great on the ball as usual, completing 5 long balls per game, and having a 93% pass accuracy while doing so. His defense work is quite difficult to judge, considering Man City are such a possession heavy side. He did put in more interceptions than any other defense for his side, and also won 2.2 aerial duels per 90, only Fernandinho and Otamendi winning more. However he will be remembered for the 2 goals he scored. The first was to help his side secure a 3-0 win against Shaktar, and the other was to draw his side level with Lyon in their final encounter. He is has truly turned himself into a key player for Pep, and has been their best defender throughout. Alongside Ederson, he has played every minute of the Champions League. To do that under a manager who usually rotates all of his outfield players, it tells a lot about how well Laporte has done.

Mattias De Ligt

Ajax have been a huge surprise this season. Their two great performances against Bayern Munich showed this team has the potential to remind Europe why they were once a European Giant. Their blend of youth and now experience, with players like Blind, Tadic and Huntelaar all helping talents like Van Der Beek and De Jong perform at a higher level. But the player I’m choosing here is De Ligt. The Golden Boy winner has truly shown why he currently holds that award. When I first watched him back in 2017, I thought he was a player who had a massive ceiling, but didn’t have the stature and size to be able to perform against the top sides. Two years later and he has turned into the most wanted defender in Europe. The Dutch International showed his quality in the group, showing maturity and intelligence for a player so young. It does help being paired with Daily Blind, one of the smartest players in the competition when it comes to reading the game. While he is a good defender, he lacks the size and physicality that De Ligt has. It gives their back line a lot of balance, and great ability on the ball. De Ligt averaged a 93% pass accuracy, and won 3.1 aerial duels per 90. His stand out performance was against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. It was a game that showed Ajax are finally back to being taken seriously. While Zieych and Tadic were all great, De Ligt was also very good. He completed the most passes out of the Ajax back line, won 5 tackles and even had 2 shots. It showed that he is a potential super star at the back, performing at a ground where many have struggled. What a season the Dutchman is having.

Alex Grimaldo

While Benfica have yet again disappointed in the Champions League, it was a tough group to get through. Both Bayern and Ajax are good sides, they still seemingly haven’t recovered since losing Lindelof, Ederson and Semedo back in 2017. They are good domestically, but those players were truly a step above what they currently have. One player however who has stayed forever consistent is Alex Grimaldo. The Spaniard has been one of the top left backs in Europe since his time playing for Benfica. Coming from La Masia, it has helped give Benfica a great dribbler and creator from the flanks. While his stats are great, with his chance creation looking exceptional, it has been swayed thanks to the Spaniard taking his side’s free kicks. But they are still great. He put in 5.2 tackles and interceptions and 2.2 clearances. He was able to attack just as well as he can defend. He was taking 2 shots, creating a chance and completing 1.5 dribbles. He has continued to show why many top clubs are still very much interested in him.

Axel Witsel

This whole midfield is going to very different, considering none of them play for super clubs, like PSG and Bayern (sticking to my one player per club rule), so let’s begin with Witsel. A player I used to hate for so long, but he has been absolutely sensational this season, and has actually changed my opinion of him. I used to think he was a clumsy player who loved to put in a late challenge, but now he has turned into a really good passer, and is so important to what Favre is doing. Only Diallo has played more minutes than Witzel. He has also completed the most passes with the highest pass accuracy of any midfielder at the club. He helps massively in build play retaining the ball. He has improved Dortmund massively and is one of the key reasons why they have been this good so far this season.

Lorenzo Pellegrini

Another player who you might not expect to be here, but deserves to be. Pellegrini is currently in his second season in the capital, and after a season where he wasn’t given as many chances as the likes of Nainggolan and Strootman. But as soon as they departed, The Italian has truly stepped up to the plate in this competition. While he has been good in Serie A, it’s in the champions League where his stats have rocketed. He’s got 3 assists in 3 starts, creating 3.5 chances per 90. It’s the highest in the Roma side and only Depay and Kroos (a player who maybe should be here) have created more chances per 90. He’s stepped and is finally showing why United seem so interested in him.

Nikola Vlasic

The final surprise pick if this XI. As previously mentioned, Kroos and Pjanic all would have been good options, but I’ll stick with arguably one of the surprise packages of the Champions League. The midfielder is currently on loan from Everton, after a season of a lack game time. He did show moments of real quality, but he just wasn’t able to show it. He was the best player in the group stages, when not including a certain Argentine. Vlasic was massively influence in their two leg shock over Real Madrid. He was the man of the match in both, scoring in the first and assisting the second. His numbers are just outrageous. Playing as an inside left forward, he played every minute for Moscow, and there’s a reason why. Per 90, he was taking 2.5 shots, creating 3 chances, completing 3 dribbles and even put in 2.3 tackles. It’s crazy to see that from a 21 year old. While Moscow are out of the competition, Vlasic has definitely put his name on some club’s radars.

Lionel Messi

Of course he has to be here. The best player of all time, even when he barely starts in the competition, still managed to score 6 in only 4 starts. His highlight so far was easily his performance against Tottenham at Wembley. The GOAT played Tottenham like they were Leganes. He had 6 shots and 4 on target, the highest in the match. Messi is arguably the only player in Europe where he is truly unstoppable when he is at his A game. His performances throughout the champions league have highlight just how irrelevant the Balon d’Or is, if Messi finishes fifth. The best player to ever play the game, the golden boot winner and has already got double figures in goals and assists, and is the top scorer in La Liga, even with missing a month through injury. He is the best player of all time and will always deserve a place in this side.

Robert Lewandowski

While Dzeko, Dybala, Tadic and Marega all deserve mentions here, Lewandowski scored the most goals in the group stages, giving him the spot for the best number 9. While Lewandowski is starting to show his age, with his mobility being the biggest problem as these years go on, he is still a very good striker. He was taking a very good 4 shots a game, with 2.7 of them coming from inside of the penalty area. Like in the Bundesliga, Bayern were not vintage in the champions league. Their massive struggles against Ajax highlighted that this team is definitely beatable. They couldn’t handle Tadic’s movement in the first leg, and played an entertaining second leg. They finished the group unbeaten. This is what you expect from them however. Their group was a gift. A poor Benfica side and Athens made it so easy for them. Lewandowski did definitely show his best though. Bayern will have to keep him fresh.

Neymar

I have made this very clear in the past, but I can’t stand Neymar as a professional. I think he takes the dark arts of the game too far sometimes and seems to have zero professionalism on the pitch, refusing to shake player’s hands because of disagreements on the pitch. While I can’t stand him a majority of the time, he is still just so incredible to watch. His hat trick against Red Star, including 2 delightful free kicks, was Neymar at his best. Even against Napoli, a game where he didn’t score or assist, he still managed to complete 13 dribbles and create 4 chances. He is arguably the most talented player in Europe. It is a shame he has a horrible way of showing it.