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After a break of more than two months, the Champions League is gearing up for its grand return, with the arrival of the first knockout round meaning the business end of Europe's premier club competition is upon us.

And that means the usual suspects will be expected to light up the tournament once again in pursuit of the continent's biggest prize.

Still unbeaten in La Liga, Lionel Messi‘s Barcelona are among the strongest contenders, while, despite their domestic struggles, reigning champions Real Madrid and superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo can never be counted out.

But Premier League leaders Manchester City are the bookmakers' favourites, led by the in-form Kevin De Bruyne, and Paris Saint-Germain, bolstered by the star power of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, will be right in the mix too.

Have these big-name superstars been blowing away the competition do date, though? Or have others shone brightest in the Champions League so far? We've taken a deep dive into the statistics from the group stage to see who the highest-performing players really are.

In order to ensure a decent sample size is used, and therefore eliminating anomalies as much as possible, we willingly look at the figures for players who featured in a minimum of 200 minutes of group stage action.

Although consistency has eluded him in La Liga this season, Ronaldo has once again been at his imperious best in the Champions League, leading the scoring charts with a phenomenal nine goals from six group games.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner set a new competition record for goals scored in the group stage, netting at least one in every game against Group H opponents APOAL Nicosia, Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur.

Unsurprisingly, Ronaldo also leads the way when it comes to shots taken. The Real Madrid No.7 averaged a whopping 7.5 totals shots per 90, landing 3.5 of those on target – also the top return in the competition so far.

Messi, Ronaldo's great rival, ranks second for shots on target per 90 with an average of 3.2, although the Barcelona No.10 was more accurate in his shooting than the Portuguese, having taken only six total shots per 90.

Former Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho proved the most accurate shooter of all the players to figure in the top 20, with an impressive 2.9 of his 3.5 shots per 90 testing the goalkeeper. The Brazilian's £145million January switch to Barcelona means the Champions League will be without his dead-eye marksmanship for the knockout rounds due to the 25-year-old being cup-tied.

In terms of creativity, Chelsea‘s Eden Hazard was in peak form, leading the way with 4.1 key passes per 90, while team-mate Cesc Fàbregas was third with 3.8, the Blues pair were separated only by Atlético Madrid's Argentinian forward Ángel Correa (3.9), who featured in the same group as the English champions.

Although Hazard had the highest per 90 average, Fàbregas edged out his Belgian colleague in total key passes, making 22 across six appearances.

The top assist maker, however, came from another Premier League club, and perhaps a somewhat surprising source: Liverpool‘s James Milner laid on five goals for team-mates in the group stage, aided in no small part by a hat-trick of assists in the Reds' 7-0 demolition of Spartak Moscow at Anfield in December.

Neymar has completed the most dribbles in the tournament so far, breezing past his marker 38 times in total. But the world's most expensive player is neither the most accurate dribbler nor the most frequent when it comes to per 90 average. That accolade belongs to RB Leipzig's Portuguese winger Bruma, who completed 7.2 dribbles per 90, with Roma's Diego Perotti second (6.4).

Of all the players with ten or more completed take-ons, Shakhtar Donetsk's Manchester City transfer target Fred comes out on top, completing 20 of his 21 attempted dribbles for an accuracy of 95.24 percent. Ronaldo isn't far behind, missing on only one of his 14 dribbles for a 92.86 accuracy, with De Bruyne in third (ten of 11, for 90.9 per cent).

Defensively, Porto's Sergio Oliveira proved to be the group stage's finest tackler, making an average of 5.8 tackles per 90, while also only being dribbled past 0.4 times per 90, evidencing an acute knack for preventing an opponent's progress. Bayern Munich‘s Thiago Alcântara and Real Madrid‘s Casemiro were next with 5.2 tackles per 90 each.

Neither of the interception leaders will be present in the knockout rounds, both unable to prevent their sides being eliminated. Feyenoord's 21-year-old midfielder Bart Nieuwkoop was the top interceptor with 5.9 per 90, followed by Spartak Moscow's Italian defender Salvatore Bocchetti (4.7).

It stands to reason that the busiest goalkeepers were those playing in the Champions League's weaker teams, faced with a barrage of shots when up against vastly superior opposition. As such, Qarabag custodian Ibrahim Šehić made the most total saves during the group stage (34) and saves per 90 (5.7).

Of the Premier League teams involved, Tottenham‘s Hugo Lloris was the busiest stopper, forced into 4.2 saves per 90. And special mention should be given to Jasmin Handanović of Maribor who, at the ripe of age of 40, made the second-most total saves (31).


Champions League