The first question I asked myself was how many appearances did a player have to make to be eligible for this prestigious award?
If we say we’re only considering guys who played in at least five (out of a max of six) group stage matches, that means no Erling Haaland, no Cristiano Ronaldo and no Lionel Messi either.
While I hate to leave those guys off the list, it certainly made for a more compelling selection process, if nothing else. It also means we’ll talk about some players we don’t typically give a lot of love to, like … Neymar.
Damnit, at least I’m trying.
It probably goes without saying, but players whose teams did not reach the round of 16 are also ineligible, hence no one from Manchester United (though Bruno Fernandes otherwise had a case) or Inter Milan.
On to the best XI, from the start of group play back in October to the conclusion of Matchday 6 earlier this week. We’re going with a 4-3-3.
Keeper: Édouard Mendy (Chelsea)
Kepa Arrizabalaga’s immediately beloved replacement has gotten a ton of love for his work in the EPL, but how about his performance in the Champions League?? In five starts, including two against a good Sevilla team, Mendy produced four shutouts. Regardless of the opposition – and no, Rennes (two games) and Krasnodar are not elite – one goal allowed in 450 minutes is outstanding. Mendy has been even more impressive when you consider his back line.
Back line: right back Juan Cuadrado (Juventus), center back Cristian Romero (Atalanta), center back Fabinho (Liverpool), left back Angeliño (RB Leipzig)
We’re automatically including Cuadrado thanks to his absurd tally of five assists in five games.
Angeliño is a rising star for RB Leipzig who earned the nod here with three goals and three assists. Just ask Manchester United about the 23-year-old Spanish Manchester City loanee, who also played a big role in RBL’s run to the UCL semifinals last year.
One of the center back spots goes to Atalanta’s Cristian Romero. The Argentine earned an impressive WhoScored rating of 8.17 — only Haaland and Messi got higher marks from the site — after helping Atalanta allow just one goal in its final three games of group play. At 22 years old, he’s the youngest player in this XI and is worth keeping an eye on going forward.
I struggled to choose the final member of the back line, but I’m going with Fabinho for stepping in at center back due to Liverpool’s injuries and looking like a natural. He was particularly outstanding vs. Ajax on Matchday 1. As long as he’s fit, Liverpool appears to be in much better shape defensively without Virgil van Dijk than anyone could have imagined.
Midfield: João Félix (Atlético Madrid), Ferran Torres (Manchester City), Diogo Jota (Liverpool)
Are all three of these guys a bit out of position here? Absolutely. But they’re also all three deserving, and at least they’re all wingers, at least some of the time, right?
Torres’ four goals were big for City, even though his team was going through with ease in that group. He might not be a regular starter for Pep Guardiola yet, but he’s another problem for City’s opponents.
Rounding out the midfield is Jota, as I simply can’t unsee the effort he turned in against Atalanta on November 3. That hat trick made it four games in a row with a goal and gave him six total goals over a four-game span (two UCL and two EPL). Yes, that kinda seems like ancient history now because of the compressed schedule over the last several weeks. Who’s to say, though, that he wouldn’t have provided further heroics if his team had needed him over the final three games of group play?
Up top: Neymar (PSG), Alassane Plea (Borussia Monchengladbach), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)
(Honorable mention: Juventus F Álvaro Morata)
Through Matchday 3 of group play, PSG had captured just three points, and their Brazilian star had been quiet. With his team in danger of not advancing, Neymar scored the only goal on Matchday 4 in a huge win over RB Leipzig, added two goals against ManU on Matchday 5 and chipped in three more against Istanbul Basaskehir to wrap up group play this week.
He was WhoScored’s Man of the Match in all three of those games, easily securing his place on this list.
Alassane Plea is certainly not a guy I knew much about – OK, I had never heard of him – before this season, but it would be a crime to leave him off this list. We could mention that he scored five goals and also had three assists and leave it at that. With the second-most goals of anyone (behind several guys with six) and the second-most assists (behind only Cuadrado, with five), he’s absolutely deserving of a spot. Few expected his team to advance from Group B, and they wouldn’t have done it without Plea.
Karim Benzema still has more to do, and less help, than anyone carrying a top European team’s attack. His two goals in the decisive Matchday 6 clash with Monchengladbach are the reason RM didn’t suffer a catastrophic early elimination. Benzema turns 33 later this month, but remains an underrated force for a team that hasn’t comlemented him much the last two-plus seasons.