The men’s Champions League returns this week after what feels like an extraordinarily long winter break, exacerbated by an entire World Cup taking place since the last time a ball was kicked in Europe’s top club competition.
With six rounds of matches completed in just nine weeks, all 96 group stage games were done and dusted by Nov. 2 last year as 32 teams were whittled down to 16 for the knockout phase.
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The Champions League then took a back seat while the world watched Lionel Messi lead Argentina to World Cup glory in Qatar, before club football once again returned to the fore last month.
As the round of 16 gets underway, here’s a quick refresher of some notable events that unfolded in the Champions League prior to its 3½-month hiatus.
1. Messi broke yet another UCL record (Oct. 5)
🥇 Messi finishes a sweeping move in style to win Goal of the Week 🙌#UCLGOTW | @Heineken pic.twitter.com/IuPXhG9K6Z
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 6, 2022
Speaking of Messi, the Paris Saint-Germain forward warmed up for the World Cup by breaking yet more new ground in the Champions League.
Benfica were on the receiving end as Messi wrote his name into the history books once again by scoring a goal against his 40th different opposing team, becoming the first-ever player to do so in the competition.
The 35-year-old scored a delightful first-time effort in a 1-1 draw against the Portuguese side in early October, less than a month after Israeli outfit Maccabi Haifa had the misfortune of becoming his 39th victims.
2. Rudiger put his head where it hurt (Oct. 11)
Things didn’t go quite so smoothly for poor old Antonio Rudiger, who finished the group stage trip to play Shakhtar Donetsk with his head in bandages despite scoring the vital goal that saw Real Madrid qualify for the knockouts.
In the act of scoring a 95th-minute equaliser against Shakhtar to send Madrid through, the German centre-back was involved in a heavy head-on-head collision with young goalkeeper Anatolii Trubin and subsequently departed the pitch in a daze with large blood stains all over his ice-white shirt.
Thankfully, the weeping cut on his forehead was mostly superficial, and Rudiger posted on Instagram soon after the game to assure fans that he was okay — despite flying home with a substantial swaddling on his forehead and eye.
3. Salah scored quickest Champions League treble (Oct. 12)
Six minutes. 12 seconds.
Salah with the fastest hat-trick in Champions League history. 🇪🇬👑
⚽️8⃣1⃣@LFC || @MoSalah || #UCL pic.twitter.com/lQ9WMMntUo
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) October 14, 2022
While his team are struggling domestically, Mohamed Salah has been in fine fettle for Liverpool in the Champions League so far and sits joint-top of the scoring charts with Kylian Mbappe on seven goals.
Three of the Salah’s came in his side’s 7-1 obliteration of Rangers at Ibrox in which the Egyptian emerged from the bench in the 68th minute and proceeded to score the fastest hat trick in Champions League history to finish the Scots off.
Six minutes and 12 seconds, in case you were wondering. Almost a full two minutes faster than the previous record.
4. Wild finish to Spurs’ group (Nov. 1)
Højbjerg clinches qualification & top spot in Group D! @SpursOfficial || #UCL pic.twitter.com/8icmCyknMP
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) November 4, 2022
Tottenham have been muddling through a topsy turvy season, and the climax of their Champions League group campaign is the perfect encapsulation of their wildly oscillating fortunes in 2022-23.
Indeed, Group D came to a frenetic climax on its final matchday as all four teams — Spurs, Marseille, Sporting CP and Eintracht Frankfurt — found themselves both through to the knockouts and out of the competition entirely at different stages of the night.
Spurs found themselves in first, second and third place in the “as it stands” table as the group remained in flux all evening, right up until a dramatic 95th-minute winner from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg sent the Premier League side through as group winners at Marseille’s expense.
5. Lewis beats Benzema’s goal record (Nov. 2)
⚽️ 52′ Rico Lewis
⚽️ 73′ Julian Alvarez
⚽️ 83′ Riyad Mahrez
Highlights of our #UCL win over Sevilla! 👇 pic.twitter.com/VHOthHNAH9
— Manchester City (@ManCity) November 3, 2022
Rico Lewis became the unlikely successor to Karim Benzema when the Manchester City full-back became the youngest player ever to score on his first Champions League start, thus breaking a record held by the French striker since 2005.
Lewis was just 17 years and 346 days old when he found the net for City in a 3-1 win over Sevilla at the Etihad in early November, beating Benzema’s previous mark by just six days.
6. Rangers record worst-ever finish
Thanks in large part to the 7-1 drubbing they received from Liverpool on their own turf, Rangers suffered the ignominy of finishing their Champions League campaign with the worst-ever group-stage record in the competition.
Rangers limped home with six defeats from six games, 22 goals conceded and a goal difference of -20, with their “best” result being the 2-0 loss they suffered at Anfield.
The Scottish side therefore became the new recipients of the wholly undesirable “worst team in the group stage” tag, seizing the moniker from Dinamo Zagreb, who registered zero points and a -19 goal difference in 2011-12 after coming unstuck in group that contained Real Madrid, Lyon and Ajax.
7. Celtic’s amazing tifo
Once again, the Champions League was blessed with an array of brilliant tifo and choreo displays as fans across Europe went to great lengths to transform their home stadiums into works of living, breathing art.
Of the many pre-match performances, the most visually impactful of them all was arguably the giant “fighting leprechaun” wielding a grenade behind the goal displayed by Celtic supporters in the terraces ahead of their match against Real Madrid.
However, we’ve also witnessed pyro madness at PSG, nostalgic banners at Anfield, loving tributes to the late Diego Maradona at Napoli and a simple yet stunningly effective club crest that took up an entire end of Tottenham’s stadium.