Sometimes regarded as a mere appetiser to the rest of the competition, the Champions’ League group stages have hosted some impressive displays, Dan Roberts writes.
JUST THE START
There is a school of thought that suggests that the Champions League doesn’t get going until the knock out rounds and nothing of note really happens in the group stage. But there have been some outstanding performances already this season – and there are a number of players and teams that will be hoping to continue their fine form into 2020.
When it comes to standout performances in this season’s Champions League, Bayern Munich is probably the best place to start – and in particular Robert Lewandowski. The Bundesliga club were the only side in the competition to have a 100% record after five games and their talismanic Polish striker is one of the major reasons for that.
Lewandowski had already equalled his best ever Champions League goal haul after just five games of this year’s group stage. He last scored 10 in Europe back in the 2012-13 season when he was still at Borussia Dortmund – and it took him 13 games to achieve that record then.
Bayern simply blew away the competition in their group. The reigning Bundesliga champions may not be performing so well domestically, but the fans will not care if they can finally celebrate another Champions League triumph next May. Bayern scored more than 20 goals in the group stage, and although the 6-0 win in Belgrade was impressive, it is the 7-2 thrashing of Spurs in their own stadium that is the real highlight.
Robert Lewandowski may be having another great season in the Champions League but there are other, younger players also starting to make their names in this year’s competition. A good example is RB Salzburg’s Erling Braut Haaland. The striker – son of former Norway and Manchester City player Alf-Inge Haaland – was actually born in Leeds when his father played at Elland Road, but had played all his professional football in Norway before moving to Salzburg at the beginning of the year.
Recently called up to the senior Norway squad, Haaland has been a revelation in the Austrian Bundesliga – and has replicated that fine form in the Champions League. He has managed an incredible five hat-tricks already this season but has saved some of his most impressive performances for the most prestigious competition in Europe.
His imposing frame has been likened to Zlatan Ibrahimovic – and he has also attracted the attention of several Premier League clubs, including Manchester United. But for now he is ensuring that his club is enjoying its best ever season in the Champions League. Grouped with Liverpool, Napoli and Genk, there were not many predicting that the Austrian club would have a chance of progressing, but Haaland led the way with only Lewandowski scoring more goals in the group stage.
It would seem that Haaland will not be plying his trade in the Austrian Bundesliga much longer after breaking through this year. He has always said that he would love to sign for an English club – but after this group stage he will probably have his pick of the top clubs from all over Europe.
But it is not just the goal scorers who have stood out this season. Players such as Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe may make the headlines, but without a strong defensive unit, no club will make it very far in this most demanding of competitions. Manchester City is a team with an array of attacking talent at its disposal, but it was the defenders that came to the fore. With another Premier League title looking more unlikely every week, there is even more pressure on Pep Guardiola to bring the Champions League trophy to the Etihad Stadium.
Vincent Kompany left the club at the end of last season and there had been worries that the likes of John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi would not be able to command the defence in the same way. The defence has looked vulnerable domestically, but has been one of the major reasons for City’s impressive European displays.
Critics would cite the lack of real opposition in the group but conceding less than a goal per game is impressive whoever they were playing. Once the competition hits the knock out rounds, sound defensive units will be the difference between the very best teams – and City look like they really want to lift the trophy this season.
Paris Saint-Germain are another team that has shown impressive form in both attack and defence. The seemingly perennial French champions navigated the tricky Real Madrid games without much trouble and will feel like they can take anyone on in the round of 16. Maybe this is the year that the PSG owners finally get the prize that they have been wanting for so long.
But, the way the group stage has gone, the first knock out round will be full of the usual suspects in February. Barcelona and Juventus will join the clubs already mentioned in progressing – and the draw for the Round of 16 will be hugely important as to who looks more likely to go all the way.
In that context, there are few disappointing campaigns to note. It is probably unfair to highlight Atalanta, who were competing in their first ever Champions League, but the excitement of their play last season did not translate onto the bigger stage. The experience will do the squad well, however, and if the Serie A side can manage to repeat their top four finish this term then they could be one club to look out for in next season’s competition.
Yet however a side has performed, the experienced players will know that a good group stage will mean nothing if they depart in the round of 16. There have been some incredible performances so far – by clubs and individuals – in this first stage of Europe’s premier club competition, but the serious business starts in February.