Football on the continent took a back seat in late 2020 and the successful teams from group stages in the Champions League are into the round of 16.
It has been a fascinating campaign so far, ranging from the exciting to the surprising. Although the matches are lacking the heartbeat of why we love football – the fans’ interaction – the lack of ambience in the stadiums has thrown up more unpredictability than usual. Let’s focus further on the Champions League story so far.
The Champions League Story Recap
The Champions League returned on October 20 with 32 teams from 14 countries vying to conquer the continent. All roads lead to a final showdown, scheduled for May 29 at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Turkey.
Champions League games, on the whole, have created several surprise endings. Real Madrid losing 3-2 at home to Shakhtar Donetsk (with the Ukrainians 3-0 up at one stage) was the standout shock. Lightning struck twice with Madrid succumbing to a 2-0 defeat as they suffered back to back defeats against Donetsk. Shakhtar did throw a curveball in this group as they also secured a goalless draw at the San Siro against Inter Milan, who remarkably crashed out of Europe altogether, finishing bottom of Group B.
Barcelona losing 3-0 at Nou Camp against Juventus showed the Catalans are in free fall – the first time since they lost at home since 2016 in the group stage. In the showcase battle for the first time since May 2018, it was Cristiano Ronaldo who got the better of Lionel Messi with a determining performance and two penalties. 134 goals in the tournament and the Portuguese shows no signs of letting up. The same can be said for 42-year-old Gianluigi Buffon, who with a clean sheet became the first goalkeeper to record shutouts in four different decades from the 1990s.
Most Impressive Teams
Look no further the current Champions Bayern Münich. The Bavarians powered past a strong Atlético Madrid side 4-0 on the competition’s opening night. This set the tone for their unbeaten campaign, securing 16 points.
Another German side who impressed were Borussia Monchengladbach. In a tricky group involving European heavyweights Real Madrid and Inter Milan, the Germans finished second with eight points – the lowest points total to progress to the knockout stage but deserving of Champions League football after Christmas.
Champions League Stand Out Performers
The scintillating form of Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Braut Haaland. The Norwegian has six goals this season and is breaking record after record. He is the fastest player to arrive at 15 Champions League goals from just 12 games. Overall, he has amassed 16 goals. To put that into context, after 12 games Lionel Messi had just two goals while Cristiano Ronaldo had not scored at all.
A mention, too, for Álvaro Morata with the Juventus striker regaining his fine form scoring six goals. As does Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford who is performing heroics both on and off the field. His late winner away against PSG and a sublime hat trick against RB Leipzig cementing his impressive European form. Finally, Neymar ties this elite group with six goals, which included a hat trick in matchday six against Istanbul Basaksehir.
Moment of Controversy
Juventus striker Álvaro Morata is one of this season’s top scorers. However, he does possess an unwanted record which could have increased his goal tally. Morata has the distinction of the only player in history to record a hat trick of disallowed goals from offside situations. This occurred against Barcelona in matchday two when Juventus lost 2-0 in Turin.
Into February’s round of 16 can be found the usual suspects of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool and current holders Bayern Münich. The likes of Juventus, Manchester City, Sevilla and Chelsea also make up some of the teams still in the hunt for the trophy.
Champions League Candidates
Last season’s winners Bayern Münich remain this season’s team to beat. The German machine look as well oiled as ever. Champions League kings Real Madrid can never be written off in ‘their’ tournament. It is in their DNA. A wild card choice to triumph could lie in current Europa League holders Sevilla. The recent kings of Europe know their way round knockout football and could spring a surprise in Europe’s elite competition.