But before moving on from this year’s thrilling UCL, let’s recognize the tournament’s Starting XI. The emphasis is on everything that happened in the round of 16 and after, so yes, the semifinalists are going to make up the bulk of this group (which to be fair, they should).
2019 Champions League Starting XI
To keep things simple, we’ll line them up in a 4-3-3.
Keeper: Alisson (Liverpool)
This was the easiest decision.
Alisson would likely have been the pick before Saturday’s final vs. Tottenham. His work with the trophy on the line, particularly after the 70th minute, cemented his place in the line-up. He recorded clean sheets in both the second leg of the semifinals vs. Barcelona (when one slip-up would have meant his team was eliminated) and in the finals for a strong finish to an excellent season both domestically and in Europe.
Center-backs: Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool) and Matthijs de Ligt (Ajax)
As we’ve said several times – most recently on this week’s High Press Pod – VVD was absolutely impenetrable. He was the most impressive player on the pitch in Leg 2 against Barcelona and somehow played even better against Spurs in the final. No one had more to do with Tottenham generating next to nothing for the first 70 minutes of the final than van Dijk.
De Ligt also has an unquestioned place in this group. Ajax turned heads with their attacking play in the midfield and up top. But they would not have made the semifinals without their defense quietly being rock-solid.
Real Madrid never got anything going in Leg 2 of the round of 16 until it was too late, and Juventus was lucky to score in Leg 2 of the quarters as de Ligt and the Ajax back line were stout.
He also added impressive goals on headers against Juve in Leg 2 of the quarters and in Leg 1 of the semis. If not for a still-incomprehensible meltdown against Spurs, the 19-year-old (!) and his teammates would have gone down as the biggest Champions League story in years, regardless of the outcome in the final.
Left-back: Andy Robertson (Liverpool) Right-back: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Andy Robertson is the choice at LB by a hair. It was tempting to ignore natural positions here and go with Gerard Piqué. But while his team’s meltdown at Anfield was hardly his fault, in a close call, I’m going with the player on the winning side of that unforgettable evening.
Speaking of left-back, if you’d have told me before Leg 2 of the semis that I wouldn’t have Jordi Alba in the UCL Starting XI, I’d have wondered what on earth was about to happen. Well, Alba made two uncharacteristic mistakes that led directly to Reds goals in Leg 2 of the semis, making it impossible to put him in this line-up.
TAA was an easier decision at right-back. He and Robertson combined to make bigger offensive contributions than any other defensive duo in this tournament. They did that without any drop-off on their own end. For that, they’ll go down as two of the biggest heroes of this run. The Liverpool native also came up with one of the most memorable plays of the year. Everyone will remember the carelessness by Barcelona that allowed it to happen, but TAA’s feed to Divock Origi for the semifinal-winner in the 79th was perfect and should not be forgotten.
Midfield: Frenkie de Jong (Ajax), Lucas Moura (Tottenham), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax)
De Jong was among the easiest decisions. No midfielder was more consistently impressive throughout the tournament. His versatility and ability to cover the entire field were evident against RM, Juve and Tottenham. Despite how young and unknown most of the Ajax roster was before the UCL, it was hard to consider the Dutch club a “scrappy underdog” after watching de Jong and de Ligt for a game or two, regardless of their age.
I’m going to allow one burst of brilliance to completely sway me on Lucas Moura. His one-half hat trick, including one of the most incredible game-winners you’ll ever see not just in a Leg 2 semifinal–but anywhere ever– gives him a spot here.
His team was dead in the water and had been dominated for three halves before he took over and stunned Ajax. Other than CR7 in Leg 2 of the round of 16 vs. Atleti, no player singlehandedly influenced a result more than Moura, who became an improbable Spurs legend.
We’ll round out the midfield with the player who was the most fun to watch. Hakim Ziyech’s swagger stood out, even on a team full of players with no shortage of confidence. His talent and speed justified his daring approach, as he made opposing fans hold their breath every time he got the ball.
In addition to his goals against RM (one in each leg) and vs. Spurs in Leg 2 of the semis, he also tallied assists vs. Juve and Tottenham. And it wasn’t just the eye test or the goals: Only two players in the WhoScored UCL XI (Lionel Messi and Raheem Sterling) finished the tournament with a higher rating than Ziyech’s 7.7. Here’s to hoping we haven’t seen the last of him in Amsterdam.
Forwards: Messi (Barcelona), Sterling (Manchester City), Son Heung-min (Spurs)
There were plenty of choices here, but Lionel Messi’s ridiculous production – 12 goals and three assists – made him an indisputable pick.
The fact his team failed to reach the semifinals with the most talented roster in Europe is the reason Raheem Sterling is the lone Manchester City representative. They couldn’t be left off altogether, though, and Sterling (five goals, two assists) struck me as the best pick. He was tremendous against Tottenham in a losing effort in Leg 2 of the quarters, scoring twice. In most years, that game would have been the most incredible one of the tournament, but Liverpool and Tottenham had other ideas in the semis.
Sticking with that game, the last spot goes to Son Heung-min, who carried his team time and again – domestically and in Europe – when Harry Kane was unavailable this season.
His goal in Leg 1 of the quarterfinals vs. Manchester City came on one of the best individual efforts of the UCL, and he came up huge again in Leg 2 of that match-up, scoring twice. Though he was quiet in the semis and final, more than one player from the runners-up had to get some recognition here, and Son was Spurs’ Champions League MVP.
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino (Tottenham)
Though the logical pick might be Jurgen Klopp, I’ll go against the grain and give the nod to Pochettino. It’s hard to imagine any other coach leading his players to the finals considering the obstacles they faced (did I mention they had to knock off Manchester City??) and how shorthanded they were. It’s also hard to blame him for the loss in the final after the way that game played out.
In the end, a tough break in the opening minutes and a significant talent shortage compared to Liverpool denied his team a trophy, but Pochettino nevertheless deserves a ton of credit.