Manchester United, Inter and Ajax were the big Champions League casualties as the group stage wrapped up - but who have been the stars of the show so far?

Unsurprisingly, Erling Haaland featured prominently, scoring half of Borussia Dortmund's goals as they topped Group F.

But what should we make of Lionel Messi, whose three goals all came from the penalty spot for Barcelona? And were Inter incredibly unlucky to bow out?

Using Opta data, we took a closer look at how Europe's elite performed.

Haaland's hammer blows

The Norwegian's left foot is about the deadliest weapon in world football at the moment and it comes as no surprise to see him topping the scoring charts with six goals in four games.

That put him alongside Paris Saint-Germain's Neymar, United's Marcus Rashford and Juventus striker Alvaro Morata, all of whom played more games and minutes than the Dortmund marksman.

Five of Haaland's goals came from his trusty left boot, and it continued his rich vein of form in Europe after he hit eight goals in six group games for Salzburg last season and two for Dortmund in the knockouts. The 20-year-old's Champions League goals this season have come at one every 57.5 minutes, and among players to have scored more than twice that minutes-per-goal mark was second only to Chelsea's Olivier Giroud (five goals, one every 28.4 minutes).

Yet when it came to overall goal involvements in this term's group stage, it was another Bundesliga star who led the way in Europe, with Alassane Plea of Borussia Monchengladbach tallying eight - five goals and three assists.

Germany had a productive group stage as Dortmund, Gladbach, RB Leipzig and holders Bayern Munich all reached the last 16 - the first time four teams from the Bundesliga have advanced since the 2014-15 season (Bayer Leverkusen, Dortmund, Schalke, Bayern).

Haaland would have been disappointed to see Salzburg bow out, however, with the Austrian side becoming just the second team to score 16 or more goals in the first group stage yet be eliminated, after Chelsea in the 2012-13 campaign.

Messi's mixed bag

For the first time since registering his first Champions League goal in 2005-06, Messi failed to score from open play in the group stage.

From highs of eight open-play goals in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons, his number crashed to zero this time even though Barcelona qualified with ease for the knockout stage.

The 33-year-old Argentinian stuck away a group-stage high of three penalties - a total matched by Chelsea's Timo Werner and Lazio striker Ciro Immobile - to ensure it was not a complete goal famine.

Going goalless was not for the want of trying - Messi had seven shots on target in this week's 3-0 defeat to Juventus, which is more than any other player has had in a Champions League game without scoring since at least 2003-04.

He also created more chances across the six games than any other player, with Messi's total of 16 putting him one ahead of Ajax's Dusan Tadic and United's Bruno Fernandes, both of whom only have Europa League football to enjoy in the new year.

Of those chances, however, only two gave Messi assists. Leading the way on that score was Juventus' Juan Cuadrado, who set up five goals.

Barcelona created more chances than any other team (84), followed by Real Madrid (77), Sevilla and Bayern (both 73). Eventual champions Bayern had 106 chances in the group stage last year, as they set the high standard they maintained all the way through the competition.

Barcelona also had the most opportunities defined by Opta as 'big chances' over this season's six rounds of games, with 26. They converted 46.15 per cent of those openings, which ranked them eighth among teams to have at least 15 – United led the way by scoring from 68.75 per cent of their 16 such opportunities.

Were Inter framed?

Inter could not get the winner against Shakhtar Donetsk this week that would have carried them through to the last 16, with Lautaro Martinez hitting the bar early on, extending his run of bad luck.

The Argentine striker hit the goal frame four times in the group stage, more than any other player and the most by anyone across an entire Champions League season since Robert Lewandowski struck the woodwork five times for Bayern during 2016-17.

Martinez only scored once as Inter bowed out, unlike Lewandowski who put away eight goals in nine games during that campaign.

Inter hit the woodwork seven times in total over their six games, the joint-highest number along with Real Madrid.

Real Madrid reached the Champions League last 16 and eased the pressure on coach Zinedine Zidane with a 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach.

Karim Benzema netted two first-half headers to settle the contest in the Spanish capital, which Madrid had to win to make certain they did not crash out at the group stage of the competition for the first time.

Gladbach slipped into second spot in Group B with their defeat, but Inter's draw with Shakhtar Donetsk means the Bundesliga side join Los Blancos in the next round.

This was billed as a must-win contest not only for the 13-time European champions' hopes of competing for the trophy, but also for Zidane, whose future came under intense scrutiny after last week's loss to Shakhtar.

There was a clear response to the critics as Madrid led inside nine minutes, Lucas Vazquez picking out Benzema, who headed expertly beyond the reach of Yann Sommer.

Alassane Plea should have levelled but clipped a finish wide of the right-hand post after being sent through on goal by Florian Neuhaus.

That miss was punished just after the half-hour mark, Rodrygo's wicked cross setting up Benzema for a header that was too much for Sommer to keep out.

It would have been 3-0 before the break had Sommer not got fingertips to Luka Modric's volley to turn the ball onto the post, before the excellent Madrid midfielder had an emphatic strike ruled out for an earlier offside against Raphael Varane.

Sommer made a terrific save to keep out a Toni Kroos strike, although Gladbach were certainly improved after the interval and saw another chance go begging when Plea dragged a shot narrowly wide.

Sommer was again at full stretch to claw away Sergio Ramos' header before Benzema's follow-up somehow crashed off the underside of the crossbar and away, and the woodwork again denied Madrid in the closing stages when Vazquez's shot rebounded off the upright.

What does it mean? Stars stand up to spare Zidane

Given the context, this was Madrid's best performance and result of the season.

The ignominy of dropping out of the competition after 28 consecutive qualifications from the group stage would likely have left Zidane's position untenable. As it is, his key players all produced when it mattered to send Madrid through as group winners and keep their coach in a job.

Gladbach disappointed here but have done superbly overall to qualify for the next round.

Modric masterful

Modric was close to his Ballon d'Or-winning standards of two years ago, especially in the first half, when he was unlucky not to score at least one excellent goal.

He attempted more passes in the opposition half (54) than any other player as he knitted the midfield and forwards together with precision.

Plea wilts on the big stage

Plea really should have scored in the first half when Madrid only led by one goal, and his miss seemed to condition the rest of his performance.

He was wayward with his two good openings and completed the fewest passes (13) of any Gladbach starting player not hauled off at half-time.

What's next?

Atletico Madrid visit Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano for Saturday's LaLiga derby match. Gladbach are next in action at home to Hertha Berlin.

Inter kept their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League last 16 alive as Romelu Lukaku's brace sealed a 3-2 win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Tuesday.  

Antonio Conte's side went into the game having failed to win any of their opening four Group B games, yet they got off to a fine start when Matteo Darmian's first goal for the club put them ahead early on.  

Gladbach, who would have qualified as group winners with a victory, drew level in first-half stoppage time thanks to Alassane Plea's header, yet Lukaku restored Inter's lead with the first of two cool finishes after the break. 

Inter held on for all three points despite a second from Plea, meaning they go into next week's clash with Shakhtar Donetsk knowing a win - combined with a defeat for Real Madrid against Gladbach – will see them secure an unlikely spot in the knockout stages.

Alassane Plea hit a hat-trick but made Champions League history with an assist as Borussia Monchengladbach claimed their biggest European away win in 47 years against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Plea netted half of Gladbach's goals as they won 6-0 in Kiev against a Shakhtar team who had defeated Real Madrid and held Inter to lead Group B after two games.

The Ukrainian side were brought crashing back down to earth in a brutal first half as Plea scored twice, once either side of Valerii Bondar's own goal and before Ramy Bensebaini added the fourth.

Gladbach became the first away side to score at least four times in the first half of a Champions League match since Real Madrid routed Viktoria Plzen 5-0 in November 2018.

Plea's second goal was the pick of the bunch, but further personal achievements were still to come.

The former Nice forward created the fifth goal for Lars Stindl and became the first player to supply an assist in each of his first three Champions League appearances since Opta records began in 2003-04.

There was still time for his hat-trick strike, too, as Plea benefited from a VAR review after an errant offside call to net the 12th treble scored by a French player in the competition, with only Brazilians contributing more (18).

The final scoreline gave Gladbach their biggest win in any European away match since a 7-0 success against Iceland's IBV in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1973.

It was also Shakhtar's largest European home defeat, although the team now play in Kiev rather than their home Donbass region.

Bayern Munich will be without star duo Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller for Saturday's clash with Borussia Monchengladbach, but the latter's coach Marco Rose is adamant the champions have plenty of depth to compensate.

Lewandowski and Muller have been leading lights for a rampant Bayern this season, with the Poland striker adding his 45th goal across all competitions in the DFB-Pokal semi-final win over Eintracht Frankfurt, while the German forward took his assists tally to 23.

But, after earning yellow cards in the 4-2 weekend win at Bayer Leverkusen – a match in which they were both influential – neither will be able to feature as another of the top-four hopefuls visits the Allianz Arena.

Gladbach travel to Munich in search of a response to a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Freiburg last Friday, but Rose is not expecting Bayern to be a significantly easier obstacle to overcome just because Lewandowski and Muller will be missing.

"Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski are major players in the Bayern team. They will be suspended against us, but the club has a group capable of compensating for these absences," Rose said in his pre-match news conference.

"Hansi Flick and Bayern have developed a game idea with which they are very successful. I think they will stick to it and will not change too much. We have also prepared for this.

"To bring back a result from Munich, you have to play courageously, with and without the ball. Although Bayern played yesterday [Wednesday] in the DFB-Pokal, and the players may be accumulating fatigue, they will be able to mobilise their forces on Saturday.

"You need absolute clarity without the ball and you also have to keep the Munich team busy."

Gladbach will be without a key player themselves in Alassane Plea, as the Frenchman was shown a red card in Freiburg following two bookable offences but Rose thinks he was unlucky.

"I interact with my players every day, telling them to accept referee decisions," he said. "But I think that Alassane was put in the wrong light after his red card in Freiburg. I think the card was over the top."

Club sporting director Max Eberl held a similar view during the match and his protestations earned him a red card, meaning he too will have to watch from the stands – rather than the bench – this weekend.

He accepts he probably got a little carried away with his reaction, however.

"I accept the penalty for the red card," Eberl said. "I was too emotional on Friday after the red card. I'm sorry for my choice of words, and I will now watch the game in the stands on Saturday."

While Bayern are sitting pretty at the summit with a seven-point gap heading into the final four matches, Gladbach – holders of the fourth and final Champions League spot – are only ahead of Leverkusen on goal difference.

Borussia Monchengladbach resumed their Bundesliga campaign in impressive fashion, Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram inspiring a 3-1 win at Eintracht Frankfurt that lifts them above RB Leipzig.

Earlier on the Bundesliga's first day back following the coronavirus-enforced hiatus, Julian Nagelsmann's Leipzig were held to a 1-1 draw by Freiburg - and Gladbach took full advantage, looking every bit Champions League hopefuls.

The hosts failed to even keep Gladbach at bay for a full minute as Plea put the visitors in front, while Thuram – a key player before the suspension in proceedings – knocked in his seventh in the league this season soon after.

Substitute Andre Silva pulled one back for the hosts late one, but Ramy Bensebaini had already effectively secured a comfortable win for Marco Rose's side with a penalty.

Frankfurt had suffered three successive Bundesliga defeats prior to the break, and within 34 seconds of kick-off that run looked destined to continue – Plea finding the bottom-left corner despite being unbalanced after a one-two with Jonas Hofmann.

It was 2-0 just six minutes later as Bensebaini turned cleverly in the box and squeezed the ball across the face of goal for Thuram to tap in.

Filip Kostic appeared the Frankfurt player most likely to instigate a revival, but his wicked 24th-minute free-kick was pushed away by Yann Sommer, whose only other first-half save kept out Almamy Toure's tame effort from a tight angle just before the interval.

Adi Hutter introduced Silva for the ineffective Djibril Sow at half-time and Frankfurt had a little more presence in attack as a result, though not to the extent that Gladbach's lead ever looked under threat.

The visitors added a third through the lively Bensebaini, who converted from the spot after Breel Embolo was barged over by Evan Ndicka.

Silva grabbed a well-taken consolation with nine minutes to go, though it failed to inspire a comeback.

 

What does it mean? Rose's men glad to be back

After getting their early lead, Gladbach never looked like dropping points here. Once they were two up, they were smart enough to become more compact while still offering a threat on the break.

Frankfurt, on the other hand, showed little creative ingenuity, their forays forward rarely causing undue worry to the Gladbach defence. Defeat means they remain just five points above the bottom three.

Double trouble for Gladbach

Thuram and Plea were both effective, getting a goal apiece. The latter arguably shaded his younger compatriot, who appeared to suffer a knock in the second half, as the ex-Nice forward also hit the post while seeing a late opportunity saved.

Sow nowhere to be seen

An anonymous first-half showing resulted in Sow's withdrawal at the break in favour of the more attack-minded Silva.

What's next?

Gladbach return home – where they will play in front of approximately 12,000 cardboard cut-outs instead of fans – next weekend, with Bayer Leverkusen the visitors. Life will not get any easier for Frankfurt in a week, however, as they go to Bayern Munich.

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