So, that’s a wrap for the 2023/24 Champions League group stages, the last of its kind ahead of an expanded format next season.
As ever, it’s been an unforgettable few weeks of European action and after the conclusion of Matchday Six, we’ve decided to hand out our Group Stage Gongs.
Champions League Awards: Best of the Group Stage:
Is there anything more thrilling than a goalkeeper goal?
Lazio threw caution to the wind way back on Matchday One, with Ivan Provedal given the go-ahead to venture forward in search of an equaliser against Atletico Madrid. The 29-year-old etched his name into Champions League folklore after becoming just the fourth goalkeeper to score in the competition, heading home in stoppage-time to rescue a result.
Cue absolute chaos in the Stadio Olimpico.
LAZIO KEEPER IVAN PROVEDEL SCORES IN THE 95TH MINUTE!!! 🤯
THE LAST TOUCH OF THE GAME!
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) September 19, 2023
Right now, Jude Bellingham might just be the most influential footballer on the planet.
Bellingham’s brilliant start in Spain has caught even his biggest fans by surprise, with the England international having been sensational in the colours of Real Madrid. The 20-year-old is La Liga’s leading scorer and has transferred that form into the Champions League, with four goals and three assists in five European appearances.
An all-action goal threat, his freedom to maraud from the Madrid midfield has brought the best from Bellingham, taking him to a new level.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) December 4, 2023
On this form, Bellingham will be the key to Real Madrid’s Champions League challenge and England’s ambitions at Euro 2024.
Newcastle’s first campaign at this level for two decades came to an end in the group stage, but the Magpies’ win over Paris Saint-Germain at St James’ Park will live long in the memory.
Eddie Howe’s side battered the French champions under the floodlights, with hometown heroes Dan Burn and Sean Longstaff among the goalscorers on an unforgettable evening in the North East.
In an electric atmosphere on Tyneside, PSG’s star-studded line-up wilted under the pressure as Newcastle ran riot.
Best Breakthrough Player
When watching Warren Zaire-Emery, it’s hard to believe that he is just 17-years-old.
The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder became the club’s youngest-ever debutant in August 2022, and featured for 82 minutes in the Champions League last season. This time around, he’s been arguably the breakthrough star of the tournament.
Zaire-Emery plays the game with the maturity of a player a decade his senior and was excellent in what proved to be a challenging campaign for PSG. Placed in the ‘Group of Death’ alongside Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan and Newcastle, PSG required an equaliser from the teenage starlet against Dortmund to seal progress on Matchday Six.
It was a fourth goal involvement in five Champions League games for the midfielder, with his maiden goal in the competition coming after three assists earlier in the campaign.
Zaire-Emery became youngest debutant and goalscorer for France in over a century last month and on current form could break into the nation’s stacked squad for Euro 2024.
He’s that good.
There’s been no shortage of special strikes during the group stage, but our favourite might just be this effort from Xavi Simons.
The on-loan RB Leipzig midfielder is having an excellent season with the Bundesliga side and scored this rocket during his side’s 3-1 win over Red Star Belgrade in Germany.
Xavi Simmons, that is a beauty! 🎯
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) October 25, 2023
It was one of two goals the Dutchman scored during the group stage, with each contenders for this award. This, scored in the return against Red Star, wasn’t bad either.
Xavi Simons with yet another stunner! 🤤
— Football on TNT Sports (@footballontnt) November 7, 2023
If you know, you know.
— Jonny Sharples (@JonnyGabriel) November 8, 2023
Where else to begin but Manchester United?
Erik ten Hag looked to have moved the Red Devils in a positive direction after securing Champions League qualification last season, but the club’s return to Europe’s elite proved short-lived. In a modest group, with the exception of Bayern Munich, Ten Hag’s team struggled badly.
Their 15 goals conceded is the most an English team has ever allowed in during a UCL group stage, a record that includes capitulations against Galatasaray (twice) and FC Copenhagen. United were big favourites to progress alongside Bayern Munich, but ended the campaign bottom of the group to exit Europe entirely.
3 – Manchester United have been eliminated from the group stages of the Champions League in 3 of their 7 seasons in the competition since Alex Ferguson retired, as many times as they had in 18 campaigns under the Scotsman. Difficulty. #MUNFCB pic.twitter.com/Y3tjTscMCJ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 12, 2023
It’s just the second time the Red Devils have ever finished bottom of a Champions League group, a dismal campaign that means questions are rightly being asked. The heat is on Ten Hag and his team.