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Reigning UEFA Champions League holders Real Madrid are aiming to win it a record third time in a row—while no other side has even won it in consecutive years in the modern era.
It will be difficult for Los Blancos, of course, with every side out to take them down after they’ve been the continent’s best over the past couple of seasons, and that uphill task was shown by Zinedine Zidane’s side only finishing second in their group.
Madrid won four from their six games, finishing three points behind Tottenham Hotspur but ahead of Borussia Dortmund in a competitive-looking Group H—though the Germans certainly disappointed as they finished level on points with fourth-place APOEL.
Juggling his squad in Europe has certainly been a priority for Zidane this term, with the Frenchman using 22 players in the group stage alone, including several youngsters.
Here, we look at which have made the biggest impression this term so far in the Champions League, ranked according to individual displays and what they’ve contributed to the team, as well as assessing opposition strength and time on the pitch.
Two of Los Blancos’ younger prospects have been on the bench but not yet made it on to the pitch in the Champions League this season.
Goalkeeper Moha Ramos and central defender Jesus Vallejo are still waiting for a taste of on-pitch action.
22. Marcos Llorente
Holding midfielder Llorente has been pressed for game time this season, and in Europe it has been no different.
He finally made his debut for the Champions League campaign on the final matchday, featuring for the final 20 minutes against Dortmund.
21. Mateo Kovacic
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Croatian midfielder Kovacic has also seen his on-pitch time restricted, but not because of inexperience or doubts from the manager.
The No. 23 was injured early on in the campaign and missed more than two months. His first start back was against Dortmund, and he showed plenty of signs of being close to full sharpness—including involvement in the second goal—but it’ll be tough for him to win back a starting berth.
That’s unfortunate for Kovacic, who was excellent last season when called upon and had begun this campaign in similar fashion.
20. Dani Ceballos
Ceballos replaced Kovacic against BVB after around an hour, but his four group-stage appearances haven’t even yielded a full match-worth of minutes: only 81 in total.
Patience remains the name of the game for Ceballos, as much as he won’t want to hear it, as this packed Madrid midfield has a real hierarchy in place.
19. Kiko Casilla
Back-up goalkeeper Casilla played twice in the group stage due to Keylor Navas’ injuries, and it was far from plain sailing for him.
The Spanish stopper was particularly poor against Tottenham, conceding three and far from covering himself in glory with each goal. He missed his dive on to a cross for the first, sent an aimless kick straight to Spurs’ midfield that ended in the second and was beaten far too easily on the third when one-on-one.
Casilla has had his chance, both domestically and in Europe, to stake his claim as a potential No. 1, but he hasn’t come close to nailing it.
18. Theo Hernandez
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New signing Theo has impressed in spells, but consistency has been hard for him to come by when he’s in and out of the team, playing both at left-back and further forward once or twice.
He played in all three of the last group games, on as a substitute twice and playing the full 90 minutes against Dortmund at home, and he helped set up the winner in that match, which should be a boost to his confidence.
He’s a great player for Madrid’s future, but we’ve not yet seen his best in Europe.
17. Achraf Hakimi
Castilla graduate Hakimi couldn’t have imagined he’d play twice in the Champions League group stage, but it was he who filled the right-back void in back-to-back games against Spurs.
Naturally, it was difficult for him to make the step up in quality at times, but the 19-year-old did show some flashes of ability, overlapped well in counter-attack situations and produced intelligent delivery in the final third.
It’s hard to assess his likelihood of further impact given he probably won’t feature much more unless Dani Carvajal is absent at the same time as the versatile Nacho, but Hakimi certainly didn’t damage his long-term prospects.
16. Borja Mayoral
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Striker Mayoral would have been frustrated at not seeing more game time domestically this season, but in Europe, he has featured in four of the six games, including a start and a goal against Dortmund.
That was really his only match to truly impact in; three sub appearances beforehand barely yielded one half of football in total between them, but he made the most of his 90 minutes last time out with an energetic display and a cool, composed finish.
The 20-year-old has four goals for the season, but his time on the pitch in Europe might be hampered after the new year if Madrid delve into the transfer market.
15. Karim Benzema
French striker Benzema has struggled badly at times this term; his movement ranges between brilliant and predictable, his link play has been atrocious or unstoppable, and his finishing can be similarly erratic.
Much more consistency from the main No. 9 is required if Madrid are to continue beating the biggest sides as they have done in recent seasons.
Benzema scored twice in three group-stage games, but both were in the 6-0 rout of APOEL, while he made no impact in either Spurs match.
14. Lucas Vazquez
It took a while for Lucas’ big moment to come, but a tremendous performance against APOEL saw him keep his place in the final match against Dortmund.
There, the winger ended up hitting the late winner for 3-2, so what had previously been a dismal group stage for him—just seven minutes played in the first four games—has ended up being a reasonable contribution overall.
It remains to be seen how long he stays in the frame for.
13. Marco Asensio
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Nobody doubts the unbelievable ability of Asensio, but this term at least, Zidane has preferred to utilise his talents in La Liga more than the Champions League.
Four of his five group-stage appearances were off the bench, three little more than cameos. He still finds time to have a moment to shine or produce some magic, but consistency is difficult to come by, and he can’t really be ranked higher after just 180 minutes on the pitch.
12. Gareth Bale
Like Asensio, Bale’s Champions League impact has been restricted—but his impact was explosive when available.
He played the first two group games, scored one and assisted two in back-to-back wins…then injuries struck, and the Welshman missed the last four matches.
He was near-unplayable against Dortmund, and it’s for that big display he gets such a boost up the rankings. It’s easy to dismiss Bale’s talents when he’s absent for so long, so often, but get him fit and Real still have one of the best around.
11. Dani Carvajal
Carvajal was somewhat missed when absent, and in three games the right-back showed what he can bring to the team.
He’s solid defensively, gives a great outlet on the attack and links perfectly with those in midfield.
There’s not too much to say on Carvajal: he does his job well, Madrid need him fit, and getting a suspension out of the way before the knockout rounds was handy.
10. Sergio Ramos
Oh Sergio Ramos, where to begin?
He’s stunning at times, uncompromising and rigid in his defensive work, a beast and a man to fear in attack when he surges up for set pieces…and then, without reason, the brain seems to disengage and a 10-minute spell can be his undoing.
In the group stage, he’s been culpable more than once for poor positioning, not sticking tight to his man and failing to deal with the ball in the box—he needs to be at his best every game if Madrid are to go deep in the competition once more.
9. Toni Kroos
It feels, ever so slightly, as though Kroos this season is the “guaranteed” central midfielder most at risk of losing his place.
The German is just a little below his best form, isn’t dictating games in the way he’s capable of and, given the rise to prominence of Isco and the impending return of Bale, it could be that he needs to lift his game a little more to remain one of Zidane’s go-to starters.
Kroos has been good, but not exceptional, in the Champions League so far.
8. Keylor Navas
Quite aside from his presence meaning Casilla doesn’t have to play, Keylor’s consistency and ability marks him out as one of the better goalkeepers in the Champions League once again.
He has had a standout game or two already—notably Tottenham at the Santiago Bernabeu—but it’s likely he’ll have to reproduce that form as Madrid go on in the competition, given the defence has a tendency to be chopped and changed.
Keeping Marcelo fit remains key for Real Madrid; he missed two group games—one through injury, one rested—but his performances in the other matches showcase his importance.
The Brazilian left-back is more of a leader and a disciplined defender than Ramos at times, but he remains a great outlet on the counter, and he’s a clever playmaker type in the final third.
He’s one of the best in his position in the world, and more minutes on the pitch would doubtless have ranked him higher.
Casemiro has been important and impressive in equal measures; while he’s not been perfect, with one or two mishaps in the group stage, he’s been a vital tactical cog for Zidane.
It’s worth noting that more than once, despite starting from a deeper position, the holding midfielder is encouraged to surge forward with one of the other central midfielders filling his position.
That comes from his physical prowess and his tendency to be a threat in the final third, especially off set pieces, and Zidane is perhaps right to make use of it. As ever, striking a balance between attack and defence is key for Madrid, and Casemiro remains central to that.
5. Luka Modric
Into the top five and Modric remains as critical as ever, inherently consistent and impressive, determined and creative in equal measures.
He played almost every minute in the group up until the final match, a dead rubber in terms of qualification with Madrid already having sealed passage to the last 16, which is testament to both how much Zidane relies on him and his standing in the team.
Even when Madrid perform poorly, Modric is often the one still trying to pull the strings, still trying to put the team back on track, and he as much as anyone will be pivotal to how far they go in the knock-outs.
4. Raphael Varane
It isn’t a coincidence that Madrid’s worst Champions League performance, certainly from a defensive standpoint, came when Varane was missing.
He has once more been the team’s best defender, a real monster in big games who deals so well with all types of attackers; pace and power, technique and movement, aerial threat—he copes with every striker because he has all of those attributes himself.
Varane only played three group games from the start, coming on as a late sub in the final fixture against Dortmund, and Madrid badly need him on the pitch when they come up against the best sides in the last 16 and beyond.
3. Nacho Fernandez
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Varane is fourth because he played less than was expected; Nacho is third because he played more than expected and was largely imperious throughout.
The fix-it man in Madrid, he has played right the way across the back four in the group stage alone, scoring from centre-back against APOEL and playing either full-back role in the two Dortmund fixtures.
He’s so much more confident, aggressive and consistent than 18 months or two years ago, it’s almost as though Real have signed a new defender; even though most still see him as Madrid’s back-up, Nacho has more than warranted his place in the team every game.
The most in-form and creative of all Madrid’s midfielders in the Champions League, Isco’s drastic change in fortunes over the last year have been highlighted most of all in Europe.
Stats will show his only assist in the group came in the final match, but the more telling detail is in his minutes on the pitch: 73, 76, 87, 74 in the first four fixtures, before he only missed the game against APOEL when changes were made.
It shows how much Zidane turns first and foremost to Isco, helping his team be on the front foot from the start, before only removing his playmaker once the job is done or the game out of reach.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
No surprises for top spot—Ronaldo might be struggling for goals in La Liga, but his European form continues to show that will be nothing more than a temporary state of affairs.
Indeed, Ronaldo is now resorting to creating rather than breaking records: his goal against Dortmund on the final matchday of the group means he has become the first to net in all six fixtures in the history of the Champions League.
Incidentally, he tallied nine goals in that time, and he was the only Real Madrid player to play every minute of every game.
Top, yet again, Cristiano Ronaldo.