Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Champions League superlatives: Jude Bellingham shines, Kylian Mbappe disappoints, Manchester United clownish

There may be one more match left to play in this season’s UEFA Champions League, but before Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid kick things off at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, there’s plenty to celebrate after an entertaining campaign.

The finalists will naturally have memorable tales from this season’s action, but they are far from the only ones to deliver unforgettable moments over the course of the last several months. The 2023-24 campaign was, in some ways, represented a changing of the guard as younger players filled in the star-studded holes left by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo after they left Europe for opportunities overseas, while some clubs wrote new chapters as they duked it out amongst Europe’s best.

It was not always good news, either — Manchester United and Barcelona will want to forget several moments from their Champions League journeys, while Kylian Mbappe might eye a bigger performance in next season’s competition.

The end of the season warrants reflection, and you know what that means — a batch of superlatives to commemorate the best and worst moments of the campaign.

Breakout star: Jude Bellingham, Real Madrid

Let’s get an easy one out of the way — Jude Bellingham went from a rising talent to one of the sport’s new stars this season, leaving everyone waxing lyrical about his prospects en route to the final. The 20-year-old has also been able to demonstrate impressive range throughout, kicking off his Real Madrid career with three goals and four assists but delivering equally impactful performances as he transitioned to a deeper role. He also scored in style, too, demonstrating the potential to entertain for years to come.

Honorable mention: Warren Zaire-Emery, Paris Saint-Germain

Most disappointing season: Kylian Mbappe, Paris Saint-Germain

With the lingering question of Mbappe’s future lingering over them, this was a weird season for Paris Saint-Germain by all accounts. The French champions were admirably able to project optimism by promoting several young players and finding a way to play without Mbappe, which was increasingly important considering he did not play a huge part in their success this season. He scored eight goals, three of which were penalties, but was absent on several occasions, including during their epic quarterfinal triumph over Barcelona. The good news for Mbappe is that he will have plenty of chances to redeem himself in the years to come, but he did not pounce on the chance to become the Messi or Ronaldo of his generation this season.

Dishonorable mention: Andre Onana, Manchester United

Cinderella story: Borussia Dortmund

This is another easy answer since Dortmund’s trip to Wembley was far from predictable. They silently emerged as giant slayers, though — they topped a group with PSG, AC Milan and Newcastle and then went on to beat PSG again in the semifinals without conceding a single goal in that tie. It reflects their strong defensive efforts since they collected the most clean sheets of any team in this season’s competition. Their attack is worth praising, too — Marcel Sabitzer leads the Champions League with five assists this season, while Julian Brandt is in the competition’s top five for chances created with 24. The lesson for their run, win or lose on Saturday: underestimate them at your own peril.

Honorable mention: Copenhagen

Class clown: Manchester United

Few teams were as entertaining as Manchester United were in the group stage, but for all the wrong reasons. Despite being placed in a favorable group that included Bayern Munich, Galatasaray and Copenhagen, they picked up just one win out of six and finished dead last. The chaos began early with a 4-3 loss at Bayern, when Andre Onana blamed himself for mistakes on two goals, and things never improved. They scored 12 goals but conceded 15 along the way, and even picked up a red card when Marcus Rashford was sent off in their 4-3 loss at Copenhagen. It was just the start of a remarkably poor season that will likely end with Erik ten Hag being fired.

Dishonorable mention: Sevilla

Best match: Real Madrid 3, Manchester City 3

The high-profile quarterfinal tie lived up to the billing with a first-leg draw between the two favorites to win the competition. Bernardo Silva scored just two minutes in but Real Madrid were up 2-1 by the 14th minute thanks to an own goal by Ruben Dias and a strike from Rodrygo. The teams did not take their foot off the gas in the second half with three more goals, including Josko Gvardiol’s stunner in the 71st, one of several goals that could go down as one of the best in this season’s competition.

Honorable mention: Borussia Dortmund 4, Atletico Madrid 2

Best goal: Ivan Provedel, Lazio vs. Atletico Madrid

This vote is, in part, an attempt to spread the wealth amongst this season’s participating teams but Ivan Provedel’s goal on Matchday 1 is worth the hype. He became just the second goalkeeper to score in open play in the history of the Champions League, scoring with the last touch of the game to rescue a point for Lazio in their 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid. It was from a picture-perfect set piece, too — Luis Alberto’s stellar cross allowed Provedel to lightly flick the ball with his head and straight into the back of the net.

Honorable mention: Jude Bellingham, Real Madrid vs. Napoli

Comeback story: Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund

After being chewed up and spit out by the Premier League, Jadon Sancho made his way back to Dortmund in a much-needed move that paid off in a big way. He started each of Dortmund’s six Champions League matches in the knockouts, scoring once and putting up big performances, including completing 12 take-ons in the 1-0 win over PSG in the first leg of the semifinals. Sancho provided reminders of why he was such a promising talent several years ago and may be able to put the chapter at United behind him.

Honorable mention: Joselu, Real Madrid

High hopes for next year: Arsenal

Between Arsenal’s Premier League recent title charges and their body of work in Europe, there are signs of promise at the Emirates Stadium. Their newfound reputation as a defensive juggernaut was on display in Europe, posting the third-best defensive record with 0.77 goals against per game and making it to the quarterfinals. There is still room for improvement, though — a group stage loss to Lens proved they were not infallible and an elimination by the weakest Bayern team in years demonstrated the progress they need to make. The optimism at the Emirates Stadium, though, likely means big things are expected of Mikel Arteta and company next season. Anything less than that might land them in the next category, and speaking of…

Honorable mention: Bayer Leverkusen

Low hopes for next season: Bayern Munich

The shine may have been fading at Bayern, but few expected it to go away completely after their first trophyless season in more than a decade. Their European campaign was at times a silver lining during a cloudy campaign, but they ran out of gas in the semifinals against Real Madrid and the team’s only redeeming quality was Harry Kane’s eight-goal Champions League season. There will be big asks of Bayern next season under the leadership of Vincent Kompany, who many still have questions about as a manager after leading Burnley to a 19th-place finish in the Premier League. It’s hard to guess where Bayern will land in next season’s competition so it might be time not to expect much out of them until further notice.

Dishonorable mention: Barcelona

Lifetime achievement award: Toni Kroos, Real Madrid

It is not unheard of for a 34-year-old to retire, but Toni Kroos has not missed a beat in his final season as a professional and looks far from a fading star. He played a crucial part in Real Madrid’s success this season, much as he has over the course of the last decade, ranking in the top three for players who played 500-plus minutes with a 95.1% passing accuracy and created 20 chances along the way. He also got the assist to Vinicius Junior’s opener in the 2-2 draw at Bayern Munich in the first leg of the semifinals, playing a near-perfect game in the process. Win or lose, he will be remembered as someone who was emblematic of Real Madrid’s recent success and many will hope he goes out on a high.

Honorable mention: Carlo Ancelotti, Real Madrid

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