The UEFA Champions League is probably the most unpredictable tournament in modern football for Europe’s elite vie to claim top spot but who were the star performers from the group stage this season?
Eight groups, 32 teams, 96 matches and 306 goals scored but there can be only 11 players who make the cut and The Statesman has picked the best in a 4-2-3-1 formation for you:
Goalkeeper: Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Barcelona)
Barcelona conceded just the solitary goal enroute to topping Group D and they had their goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to thank for that.
The German custodian was an calming presence at the back for the first five group-stage games (he was rested for the final game) and while he certainly was helped by a solid four-man backline, the 25-year-old deserves his share of the acclaim.
La Blaugrana may have been sup-par in Europe for the past two years, but their improved display at the back has enabled them to re-affirm their tag as favourites for the title this season.
Left back: Layvin Kurzawa (Paris-Saint Germain)
Kurzawa put many attackers in the shade with a tally of three goals and two assists from six games and is the only defender to have scored a hat-trick in the UEFA Champions League this season.
Due to PSG’s monopoly on the ball, the left-back is almost always found near the opposition box, hence his incredible feat but the 25-year-old has seriously upgraded his all-round game and the results are there for all to see.
Questionable hairstyle aside, the Frenchman has lit up Europe with his cavalier displays and his presence on the wing gives Les Parisiens’ expensively-assembled squad an extra dimension in attack.
Centre back: Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City)
Big things were expected from Otamendi when the ‘next Ramos’ signed for the Citizens in 2015.
After a difficult start, the no-nonsense Argentine has begun to find his feet at the Etihad and his performances this year have been seriously impressive.
City may have conceded five goals in six games, but considering Group F consisted of Shaktar Donetsk, Napoli and Feyenoord, that’s not a bad figure.
In fact, Pep Guardiola rotated his squad for their final group-stage clash, an away trip to Feyenoord when the Dutch side consigned the Sky Blues to their first defeat of the season with a 2-1 result.
So if one takes away the last game (for which Otamendi was rested), City conceded just thrice in five games. A remarkable statistic, especially if one considers the shambolic state of their defence last season.
And for good measure, Otamendi chipped in with a vital goal in City’s 4-2 win away at Napoli on Matchday 2.
Centre back: Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
Gerard Pique’s been at the top of his game for so long that any dip in form is scrutinised with a magnifying glass.
Needless to say, the centre-back has, like the rest of his Barcelona teammates, rediscovered his best form and has formed a steely partnership with Samuel Umtiti in the heart of the La Blaugrana’s defence.
Criticised for being overly outspoken at times, the 30-year-old is enjoying life under Ernesto Valverde and if he keeps up this form, will likely feature in the FIFA FIFPro World XI next year.
Right back: Dani Alves (Paris-Saint Germain)
At 34, Dani Alves shouldn’t be doing the things he does but to our continued amazement, the Brazilian continues to typify the modern-day buccaneering fullback.
With a tally of two goals, including one against European giants Bayern Munich, Alves is making a mockery of his age and is carrying on for Les Parisiens where he left off with Juventus last season.
Alves’ sheer work-rate coupled with his pace make him a constant nuisance on the flank and his contributions in the final-third make him among the finest fullbacks in the world.
Defensive midfield: Marco Verratti (Paris-Saint Germain)
Considering PSG topped a group that had Bayern Munich in it, their players understandably dominate our selection and Verratti is the first part of the midfield pivot.
In what is seen as a coming of age season for the diminutive Italian, Verratti has scored twice and provide as many assists in just six games.
If one takes in the fact that the big-spenders have a plethora of attacking talents at their disposal and that Verratti usually plays in a deep role, that’s no mean feat.
However, Verratti’s primary role is to break up the opposition’s attacks and that is something the 25-year-old has done with consummate ease.
Defensive midfield: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona)
The gold standard for all defensive midfielders, Busquets has rediscovered his mojo and is benefiting from the addition of Paulinho in the Barcelona midfield.
Unfortunately, his theatrics will always be a blot on his otherwise-stellar CV but for once, Busquets’ footballing abilities have come the fore.
At 29, the lanky enforcer still has plenty of football left in him and he’s done a remarkable job of shielding Barcelona’s defence in the group-stages.
Central attacking midfield: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
If Pep Guardiola is the brains behind the revolution that is taking place Manchester City, Kevin De Bruyne is clearly the heart.
For the Belgian maestro has been ever-present in each of City’s first five games (he was suspended for the final game against Shaktar, which City lost, due to a yellow-card accumulation).
His offensive contribution (1 goal and three assists) may not be worth writing home about at first glance, but the 26-year-old puts in a remarkable shift each time he plays and it’s not a coincidence that Europe’s elite are eying him for he would improve any squad in world football at the moment.
Left wing: Neymar (Paris-Saint Germain)
Whether or not Neymar is worth €222 million will probably be a question that will dog him for the rest of his career, but it’s been safe to say that the world’s most expensive footballer has hit the ground sprinting since his move to Paris.
Six goals and four assists in just six games is an splendid total and the Brazilian has already begun to pay back on his club’s incredible investment.
Alongside Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe, Neymar has transformed PSG from also-rans to serious title contenders.
‘Penalty-gate’ may have dominated the headlines, but there can be no denying that PSG’s talisman has proved up to his billing.
Right wing: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
Premier League, UEFA Champions League, it doesn’t matter.
Put Mohamed Salah on the pitch and he will score.
Such has been the irrepressible form of Liverpool’s flying winger this season, for a tally of five goals and an assist from six games just underlines the fact that the Egyptian has been a bargain signing at £35 million.
Heavily criticised during his tenure with Chelsea, Salah reignited his career at Roma and since signing for Liverpool, the 25-year-old has silenced his critics with his prolific displays.
Centre forward: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
Ronaldo may be struggling to find the back of the net, but the reigning Best FIFA Men’s Player has continued to break records in continental competition.
The 32-year-old sensation became the first player to score in all six group-stage games and his mind-boggling tally of nine proves he’s head and shoulders ahead of the rest.
His athletic prowess may be on the wane but the winger, who is essentially a forward, has no equals when it comes to scoring and was the first name for this XI.