By Samuel Charles
Thursday’s draw will determine the UEFA Champions League's matchups for the knockout round, which begins in February with the round of 16. Here's our Best XI from group play of the world's most prestigious club competition.
Fraser Forster (Celtic). Our keeper allowed eight goals with one shutout, and he was an easy choice. The huge 24-year-old was dubbed “La Gran Muralla” (the Great Wall) by the Spanish press for his heroics against Barcelona. Celtic advancing and its upset for the ages in Glasgow were two of the group stage’s biggest stories.
Lukasz Piszczek (Borussia Dortmund) The Pole is rapidly becoming one of the top right backs in the world, Watching this assist producer overlap and combine with Marco Reus, Jakub "Kuba" Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski, Mario Goetze and Co. was a joy to behold for everyone but Real Madrid.
Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus) Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon were the faces of Juve last year, but it is the prominent profile of this dogged defender who embodies this year's team. Athletic and fearless, Chiellini sets the tone for The Old Lady.
Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain) Silva rewarded the investment by PSG, who paid almost twice as much for him as it did for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, by scoring two goals and overseeing the stingiest defense in the tourney -- the French team has allowed three goals.
Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich) Longtime captain for Bayern and the national team is no nonsense fullback who offers absolutely everything, except height. Lahm had three helpers while making sure Bayern’s revamped roster topped its group, that’ll do.
Mario Goetze (Dortmund) This baby-faced assassin displays rare touch and vision, excels in tight spaces, pops up all over, and embraces the big moment. Goetze, at 20, is the most indispensable cog in Jurgen Klopp’s vaunted Dortmund offense.
Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk) Effortlessly transitioning from fierce tackler to gifted playmaker, this box-to-box Brazilian is my choice as the best all-around player thus far. Expensive talent thrown together isn’t a new concept, but Fernandinho is the glue, providing whatever his team needs at any given moment.
Isco (Malaga) Eliseu, Joaquin and Duda spearheaded Malaga’s group-winning debut, and augmented Isco’s midfield brilliance. The 20-year-old’s skillset resembles Goetze’s, and Isco may face his German counterpart while starring for Spain’s national team over the next decade.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) While Lionel Messi may be collecting the Ballon d’Or and La Liga titles Cristiano covets, the Portuguese star could still make history by winning “La Decima” at Wembley next spring, a 10th European Cup title for Madrid. Second team forward Burak Yilmaz is the tourney’s only other player with 6 goals.
Willian (Shakhtar Donetsk) One of nine Brazilians on this Ukrainian team, Willian is slick on the ball, versatile, he’s got four goals, two assists and terrific hair, but it is his exceptional understanding with those around him that is most unusual. He and Messi wouldn’t need language to converse.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona) New father, and longtime best player on the planet, Messi dragged a sluggish Barca team kicking and screaming to the top of Group G, with five goals and three assists. Did we mention he’s Lionel freaking Messi?
Jurgen Klopp (Borussia Dortmund) His played breathtaking soccer while dominating a genuine group of death. Klopp’s knack for encouraging risk-taking while keeping players accountable is perfect for BVB, and our first 11. A hot commodity, at 45, Klopp ditched his trademark parka and baseball cap for UCL games, looking as sharp as his team while prowling the sidelines.
Goalkeeper: Salvatore Sirigu (PSG).
Defenders: Marcel Schmelzer (Dortmund), Mats Hummels (Dortmund), Aly Cissokho (Valencia), Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus).
Midfielders: Oscar (Chelsea), Joao Moutinho (FC Porto), Arturo Vidal (Juventus).
Forwards: Klaas Huntelaar (Schalke 04), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG), Burak Yilmaz (Galatassaray).
Notes: Dortmund has two players on each team, while second-place Shakhtar was the other club with two first-team players. Ibrahimovic and Moutinho were the first-team’s final cuts. Oscar, with five goals, is the only player representing an EPL team, or an eliminated team. Manchester United scored nine goals, allowed six, lost two games in a weak group, and is not represented. Also considered: Frank Ribery, Joe Hart, Xavi, Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema, Andrea Pirlo, Alan, Roberto Soldado, Jonas, Jackson Martinez, Jordi Alba, Olivier Giroud, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Weligton, Mesut Ozil, Kwadwe Asamoah, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba and Nicolas Otamendi.
Shifting odds: Barca-5/2, Madrid-7/2, Bayern-7/1, Dortmund-15/2, Man U-9/1, and Juve-11/1 are the only teams below 20/1 prior to the draw … Bayern was 14/1 pre-tourney, Dortmund was 25/1, and Shakhtar’s jump from 125/1 to 25/1 was biggest. … Man City opened at 6/1 and Chelsea, 14/1, were both eliminated.
Neuer? Srna? YaYa Toure?
Where is MARCO REUS?
Not bad for the group stage. Now the real question is: can they deliver in the knockout stage?