Real Madrid became the first team to defend their title in the Champions League era on Saturday, as they overcame Juventus with a convincing 4-1 win. Cristiano Ronaldo’s brace lead Los Galacticos to their 3rd Champions League title in the last four seasons, and their 12th European Cup title.
The 2016-17 season brought a number of outstanding goals, unforgettable comebacks, and players writing their names in the history books with their performances. Here are the best players in this season’s UEFA Champions League.
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)
The 39-year old goalkeeper showed that age was nothing but a number time after time this season. Buffon conceded only three goals in 11 games before the final, in which he conceded four. By the end of the tournament, he had saved 75% of the shots he faced, including a penalty against Lyon in the group stage. Despite his best efforts in goal, his wait for European silverware continues, as his runners-up medals count goes up to three.
Honorable mention: Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)
Right back: Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid)
The best two right backs this season went at it in the final, and the winner was clear. Dani Carvajal played yet another incredible Champions League final, after being part of the winning team in 2014 and 2016. Carvajal played a key role in the win, assisting Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener early on. It was his 5th assist in the Champions League this season – only Neymar and Ousmane Dembélé managed more. Dani Alves, meanwhile, wasn’t able to live up to his semifinal heroics against Monaco.
Honorable mention: Dani Alves (Juventus)
Centre-back: Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)
With Buffon hogging up the headlines, it’s easy to forget about the wall he has in front of him. Leonardo Bonucci is the center of that wall, whether he’s partnered only with Giorgio Chiellini or with a third man as well. The 30-year old turned in world class performances against the world’s most fearful attack: Messi, Neymar, and Suarez, before limiting Monaco’s youthful side to only one goal over two legs in the semifinals. Like many others, he was unable to stop the goalscoring machine that is Cristiano Ronaldo, but few will argue that there was a central defender better than him in Europe this season.
Honorable mention: Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich)
Centre-back: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid)
Few defenders divide opinion like Sergio Ramos: some think he is simply the best centre-back in the world, while others think that he uses his goalscoring ability to cover up for his defensive shortcomings. The truth is that, when people are trying to use your goalscoring in an argument against you, you must be doing something right. Even though Real only managed one clean sheet in the Champions League, their defense was usually the right side of solid. Ramos’ worst moment was his own goal against Bayern, but he wouldn’t let that affect him in the future. Instead, he was the key man in the defensive unit, limiting Atletico Madrid in the semifinals, before almost entirely shutting down Juventus in the final. The man just knows how to win.
Honorable mention: Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
Left back: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
They say numbers don’t lie, but ever so often, they do. Marcelo only registered two assists (and no goals) in the Champions League and doesn’t show up at the top of any lists regarding defensive stats, but you’d have to try hard to find a person with a valid argument against Marcelo’s place in this team. The Brazilian engine has been vital for Real Madrid, in both their La Liga and Champions League campaigns, running up and down that left wing tirelessly. Two of his best performances came against Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals: he created 10 chances over two legs, all while limiting Arjen Robben’s effect on the right wing. Already one of the most successful full backs in modern history, the sky’s the limit for Marcelo.
Honorable mention: Alex Sandro (Juventus)
Defensive midfielder: Casemiro (Real Madrid)
Despite missing the majority of the first half of the season, including four Champions League group stage games, Casemiro has had arguably his best season ever. The 25-year old started every single knockout game, and with each one of them, made a case for the title of the best defensive midfielder in the business. Not only was his work rate incredible, with tackles and interceptions flying in left and right, but he was also an asset going forward. His goal against Napoli was one of the best of the tournament, and he assisted goals against Bayern Munich (in a game in which, let’s be fair, he should have been sent off several times) and Atletico Madrid. Then, he also scored the go-ahead goal for Real Madrid in the final, making this the most memorable season of his career.
Honorable mention: Fabinho (Monaco)
Central midfielder: Toni Kroos (Real Madrid)
If there is one decision that Bayern Munich will regret for a very long time, it’s letting go of the midfield maestro Toni Kroos. The German international has become arguably the most complete midfielder in the world, as well as one of the first names in the team sheet for Real Madrid. He consistently completed over 90% of his passes, controlling the tempo of the game alongside Luka Modric. Both of his direct contributions to goals came against Napoli – a goal in the home leg and an assist in the away one – but he is much more than that. He also played a crucial role in Madrid’s away goal at Vicente Calderon, as well as their opener in the final in Cardiff. Only Lucas Moura and Neymar averaged more key passes than him in the Champions League, despite him rarely venturing forward. At this point, it is fair to say that he is the best central midfielder in the world. Unless it’s actually his teammate…
Honorable mention: Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich)
Central midfielder: Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
Having Toni Kroos and Luka Modric running the midfield, with Casemiro sitting behind them, is just not fair. Both of them would easily make most people’s “top 5 central midfielders” list, and even though it may be hard to differentiate which one is better, it’s not hard to see their differences. The Croatian goes forward even less than the German – his only assist in the Champions League was a rare deep run in the final third combined with a delightful cross to the feet of Cristiano Ronaldo. The way he dictates the game and is able to just breeze past opponents is second to none, and it is an asset that Zinedine Zidane values a lot. He never seems to run out of breath, despite always being on the move. Simply put, the Modric-Kroos partnership is now reaching Iniesta-Xavi levels of awesomeness (unfortunately they can’t lead their country to glory together since they represent different nations).
Honorable mention: Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid)
Right winger: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Okay, so Messi wasn’t able to lead his side past Juventus’ wall like Ronaldo was, but that doesn’t make his season a failure. On an individual level, Messi was still one of the very best in the Champions League, coming in second in the scoring charts with 11 goals, one less than Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi was also second in scoring frequency (one goal every 74 minutes; Morata had one every 56 minutes), big chances created (8, one less than Alexis Sanchez), and dribbles per game (3.1; Neymar led with 5.3 per game). Messi scored group stage hat tricks against Celtic and Pep’s Manchester City, finishing the group stage with 10 goals to his name.
Honorable mention: Bernardo Silva (Monaco)
Left winger: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
Where there’s Messi, there’s usually Ronaldo. The Portuguese superstar capped off what (I’m going to assume) is his most memorable year of football this Saturday. 372 days ago, he scored the winning penalty in the Champions League final against rivals Atletico Madrid. Then, in July, he led Portugal to the European Championship, the country’s ever major trophy. The individual awards came shortly after: the UEFA Best Player, the Ballon d’Or, and FIFA’s Player of the Year. All that did was serve as more motivation, as he also led Real Madrid to the Club World Cup, before leading them to their first league title since 2012, and their second consecutive Champions League trophy on Saturday. His campaign was nearly unrealistic: five goals over two legs against Bayern Munich, followed by a hat trick against Atletico Madrid, and an effortless brace in the final against Juventus. During that stretch, he overcame Messi’s 11 goals, winning the Champions League Golden Boot for the fifth consecutive season. He also became the first man in the Champions League era (post 1992) to score in three different Champions League finals. I could probably go on for days, but what’s the point? Cristiano Ronaldo is the MVP of the Champions League and his fifth Ballon d’Or is already on the way.
Honorable mention: Neymar (Barcelona)
Centre-forward: Kylian Mbappe (Monaco)
Picking an out-and-out striker was a little difficult. The regular names struggled in a way or another: Karim Benzema played well throughout the season but also disappeared time after time; Luis Suarez was a shadow of his former self; and despite scoring a decent amount of goals, Robert Lewandowski, Pierre Aubameyang, and Edinson Cavani all let their teams down at some really crucial times. Step forward: Kylian Mbappe. A year ago, approximately 99% of football watchers had no idea who he was, and now, it seems that literally every single top club is after him. The Monaco teenager was the most pleasant surprise of the season, scoring six goals from six starts – all in the knockout stages. He scored crucial goals in Monaco’s road to the semifinals, scoring home and away against Manchester City, before repeating the feat with a brace in Dortmund and another goal at home. The 18-year old even managed to score against Juventus’ almighty defense, even though his goal was merely a consolation one. Whether at Monaco or somewhere else, he’s the player to keep an eye on for the upcoming season.
Honorable mention: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)