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.

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Is The Serie A Title Race Already Over? Top 5 League Talking Points

Bundesliga

The Revierderby

While Dortmund’s game against Bayern is always a huge fixture, their game against Schalke is arguably just as big. Both sides are only a 23 minute drive away. They are both located in a real working class area and this derby has produced 152 meetings, with Schalke coming out as the better of the pair. Going into this game, it was clear that while Schalke have picked up some form in recent weeks, Dortmund were the favourites. While it was close, it was Dortmund who came out as victors, thanks to goals from Thomas Delaney and Jadon Sancho. Schalke did bring the game level thanks to Caligiuri’s penalty, but it just wasn’t enough.

Let’s discuss the victors, who weren’t great on the day, but still managed to win the game. The Veltins-Arena is not an easy ground for Borussia Dortmund, with their last win coming in October 2013, so the fact they were able to pick up the victory is still very impressive. However their performance wasn’t their best showing. They only managed 3 shots on target. Schalke managed the same but they have a valid reason being they lack forward options at the moment, with Mark Uth and Breel Embolo both picking up injuries. Dortmund didn’t have any massive injury troubles going into this game. They started all of their big performers, with Reus, Sancho, Alcacer and Brunn Larson all starting as their attackers. Reus was very good on the day. He has been revived this season, and while isn’t the brilliant winger in his earlier days, he has evolved as a player, similar to how R9 changed from a player who relied solely on physical power, and instead used his technical prowess to his advantage. Reus is the leader in this young side, and knows what it means to play for the club. In this game he created 3 chances, more than any other player on the pitch, and got the assist with a delightful free kick into the box. Other than Reus, their attackers weren’t good enough on the day. Both Sancho and Brunn Larson were lack lustre, but they are young players. This is a game that is so hard to predict, and it can be overwhelming. Paco Alcacer was arguably the worst out of the three. He didn’t manage a single shot on target, and was taken off for Mario Gotze. While Dortmund should be happy with the win, it wasn’t vintage from them. Lucien Favre has garnered a reputation for completely misleading xG. They are currently top of the table, yet xPTS claims they should actually be 2nd, with Bayern as the comfortable leaders. They are actually the luckiest team in the league, with Favre’s side only expected to score 27, 12 less than they have actually managed. Dortmund have been very good this season, there is no denying that. But with Bayern being more dominant, Hoffenheim taking more shots and Leipzig having a better defense, it does show how maybe they’re fortunate to be where they are. I still hope they can keep it up. The Bundesliga has been very boring for a while now and it needs this refresh. Not only does it throw Dortmund right back at the top, but it will make Bayern really reconsider how well they think they’re ran.

La Liga

Atletico Madrid show quality against in form Alaves

Onto La Liga, which has had a predictable, yet interesting week. The high scoring game between Levante and Eibar, but let’s look at Atletico Madrid. They have truly disappointed me this season. With the huge additions they made in the summer, it was expected for them to finally push on. They have been fine enough. They still have a very good defense, but Simeone has faced some real problems. The first was his midfield. Since the loss of Gabi, a player so similar to Diego Simeone, it was as if there were two of them. The signing of Rodri from Villarreal was so good. I’ve already gone through previously why he’s so good, but there was doubt he could be the guy to replace Gabi. But after a start to a season which lacked minutes, he has finally found his place in the side. Only Koke completes more passes a game than Rodri. He also completed the most tackles in the side and the most clearances out of any midfielder. He holds the ball very well and is a great shield for the defense. I bring this up because he was one of Atletico’s best players on the day. He scored, completed more passes than any other Atletico Madrid player, and made 3 tackles and 8 clearances. He was very good on the day, and it seems Simeone finally has put his trust in him.

The Rojiblancos were deserving of the victory. They created better chances, and kept Alaves quiet and unable to create real substantial chances. While Alaves did take more shots, they only managed 3 on target. Atletico Madrid are one of the best sides in Europe at ensuring the chances you make are poor ones. It is why they are such a good side, and even with aging defenders, they are still rock solid at the back. One of their stand out defenders in this game was Santiago Arias. The Columbian was brought in as a replacement for the departing Sime Vrsaljko, and has been a worthy successor. He had a very successful time at PSV, where his dribble numbers and attacking threat were his most notable attributes. He was very good in this game, and showed all these qualities. He created 2 chances, more than any other defender, and even got an assist. It was a very good display from a player who will need plenty if he is to replace Juanfran.

Let’s quickly touch on Alaves, who while didn’t deserve the 3 points, they still had some chances in this game. Ibai Gomez managed more shots on target than any of his teammates, with 2. Alaves have been fine this season. While they don’t score many goals, they take the chances they get and play a very direct style. They can seem old fashioned, with Alaves being near the bottom of the table in shots, possession and pass accuracy, but right now they are just taking advantage of the state that is La Liga right now. The league is a mess, which has left teams like Alaves and Levante to climb the table, in times where they really shouldn’t be this high. While they are having a good season, it’s mainly because of how bad some other sides in La Liga have actually been.

Ligue 1

Ligue 1 will not be spoken about this week. The yellow vests protects have brought up security concerns. France is not exactly the happiest nation at the moment. 5 games have been suspended this weekend, including the game I most looking forward to, St Etienne against Marseille. It is still unsure when these games will be played, but I will cover Ligue 1 when it eventually comes back.

Premier League – Manchester City stunned by Sarri

Arguably the game of the weekend, Sarri was the first manager in the Premier League to truly dismantle Pep’s side. While City did dominate, Chelsea took their chances and limited City to create chances that aren’t as high quality as usual. It was arguably the most interesting game of the season.

Let’s start with Chelsea, who were truly great on the day. They came into this game in arguably the worst of situations. They lost 2 in their last 3, with their win coming against Fulham, a side even United could put 4 past. There was reason for worry, and even in the first half that worry was still there. City dominated and definitely should have got on the score sheet, but Chelsea rode their luck, and thanks to a goal from N’golo Kante and a late header from David Luiz, the blues managed to get the win. When I say that City dominated that first half, it was no exaggeration. Kante’s goal was Chelsea’s first shot on target. It’s Kante’s 4th goal contribution this season, the same as he’s managed in his last 2 seasons for Chelsea. While he is still learning his new role of box to box midfielder, it cannot be argued that he is definitely showing progress. While both Kante, Hazard and David Luiz will be remembered for what they did going forward, the man of the match was comfortably César Azpilicueta. The Spaniard was a monster at the back, that if you just add up all his defensive actions, he made 24. That is unheard of and it could be the first time I’ve ever seen a player amass that many. No matter where he plays Azpilicueta will always be one of the most consistent players in the side. He is just a delight to have for any squad. What Chelsea did so well is actually realise they are a lesser team than Man City. They might have played a 4-3-3, but in defense, it looked more like a 4-5-1. They were fine to have less of the ball, because they knew they could score a goal at the perfect opportunity. Both Kovacic and Kante are incredibly athletic, and could definitely help transition. It’s was a great approach from Sarri, and seems to be doing well at Chelsea, playing a different style to many of his predecessors.

This did seem like a huge off day for Manchester City. The champions dominated the first half, but late in the game they failed to get back a goal, and the pressure seemed to have got to them. The biggest talking point of the game was Man City’s lack of striker. Pep after the game said he was happy with how they played and the how his side set up, but I disagree. While he has played a striker-less team before, it just didn’t work here. Sterling just doesn’t have the same ability as someone like Jesus, to get in behind and make very intelligent runs. Sterling has been incredible this season, but it’s more as a winger, not a striker.

While Liverpool might be top of the table, City are still comfortably the better side. Every result they have had all been earned, with no luck to speak of. Let’s hope the better side actually win it this year.

Serie A – Juventus extend lead at the top

With Serie A going back to its one horse self, let’s look at their Friday night battle against Inter Milan, a side who have massively disappointed me so far this season. They have a very good manager, and made additions that should have seen them skyrocket up the table, but have been labouring on. While Icardi and Brozovic have been their usual great selves, Perisic, Nainggolan, Candreva and Vrsaljko have all underperformed this season. Perisic has always been their main creator, so having him slow down is a massive problem. Luckily, Keita Balde has been in good form recently and has helped his side. However even Keita couldn’t make the difference, with Juventus winning 1-0.

Inter had 2 incredible chances to get ahead, but thanks to Icardi creating them, instead of being on the end of them. Gagliardini hit the post and Skriniar hit it over the bar It meant they didn’t have their most clinical striker taking the shots. Other than those two chances, Inter only managed a single shot on target. They were wasteful in the final third and but the fact they created the chances they did, does earn credit. Vrsaljko was arguably their best player. While he hasn’t been as good as I expected, he did definitely bring his a game in this one. He completed 2 crosses, more than any other Inter player, and had their only shot on target. He was arguably one of the only highlights from a defense that wasn’t good on the day. xG had this game at 1.41 to Juventus, and 0.95 to Inter.

Let’s move on to the victors, who while weren’t great, still managed to get the job done. It’s classic Juventus. They are a winning machine. They have a team full of players who know how to win games, through the more dirtier side of the game, with players who have played at the top level for a long time, and know what it takes. They were good in this game, creating better chances than their opponents, with their forwards performing very well. Paulo Dybala was very impressive on the day. He created 3 chances, took 4 shots and even completed 4 crosses out of his 5 attempted, which is frankly ridiculous to see a player be that accurate. Mandzukic scored the only goal, and also had the most shots on target, and created 2 chances. Ronaldo wasn’t stand out in his game, but it’s good to see his teammates performing even when their main man isn’t. However another full back stole the show, this time it was João Cancelo. The Portuguese, while disappointing in Spain, has simply been brilliant since arriving from Valencia last summer. He was signed permanently by Juventus in the summer, after his loan spell with Inter came to an end. He has arguably been the signing of the season in Serie A. He created 3 chances, made 2 tackles, 2 interceptions and got the assist with a delightful ball to Mandzukic.

It’s hard to see how Juventus aren’t favourites for practically every competition they’re in. They have a deep squad, quality in every position, and huge competition for places. I still think their midfield is a bit weak. It’s the only thing truly holding them back from being the best side in Europe. While Atalanta and Napoli might be more fun to watch, Juventus are winners, and that is what’s most important when winning league titles.