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Skysports.com selects the cream of the crop from the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
The group stage of the 2011/12 UEFA Champions League is over and 16 teams remain in the hunt for European club football's top prize.
There have been notable casualties - Manchester City, Manchester United, Ajax, Porto - but the cream of the continent march on into the knockout stage.
Heavyweights such as Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Chelsea and reigning champions Barcelona are all still in the mix, and all have their sights set on the ultimate prize.
Any side harbouring ambitions of lifting the trophy at the Allianz Arena on 19th May will need to establish consistency and momentum and hope their key men can produce on the big stage.
It has been so far so good for the 16 hopefuls that remain in the competition, with a number of standout performances already put in and a collection of unsung heroes having emerged.
Here skysports.com selects the best of the bunch from the group stage, with these men having helped to ensure that their respective sides remain on the road to Munich.
Lionel Messi - Barcelona
Records continue to tumble around Barcelona's mercurial Argentine, with Messi's exploits in Europe this season having helped him to further etch his name into the history books at Camp Nou. Few imagined that the South American could top his achievements from last term, but Messi continues to set unfathomably high standards for himself and those around him. He joined Laszlo Kubala in second place on Barca's all-time scoring list with a brace against BATE Borisov on 28th September, and has since gone on to make that standing his own. He also passed the 200-goal mark for the club on 1st November when his hat-trick inspired Barca to a comfortable 4-0 victory over Viktoria Plzen. Messi notched six times in five outings during the group stage, putting him joint-top of the competition's scoring charts.
Mario Gomez - Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich striker Gomez sits alongside Messi as the most prolific marksman in this season's Champions League. The Germany international has been in blistering form throughout the 2011/12 campaign, with 21 goals plundered in just 22 appearances. Six of those efforts have come in Europe, and have helped Bayern to ease into the last 16. His first goals in continental competition came against Manchester City on 27th September, with a 2-0 win over the Blues going a long way towards helping Bayern top a competitive Group A. Gomez went one better on Matchday Four as he netted a hat-trick in a narrow 3-2 win over Napoli. His latest strike came on 22nd November as Bayern proved to be far too strong for group whipping boys Villarreal.
Edinson Cavani - Napoli
Having been placed in a group containing former champions Bayern Munich and big-spending Manchester City, few gave Napoli much hope of making the knockout stage. They will, however, deservedly take their place in the second round draw after edging out City. Taking four points from their two meetings with the Blues put the Serie A outfit on their way, and Cavani came up trumps in each of those outings. He got Napoli's European campaign up and running at the Etihad Stadium on 14th September and bagged a match-winning brace as the Italians saw off City 2-1 on home soil on 22nd November.
Jose Maria Callejon - Real Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo remains the undoubted star of the show at Santiago Bernabeu, but Jose Mourinho has pieced together a Real Madrid squad that boasts strength in depth and leading lights all over the field. Callejon has some way to go before he can be considered a 'Galactico', but Real have shown considerable faith in the 24-year-old. A product of their academy system, they allowed him to join Espanyol in 2008. They were, however, impressed enough during his three years in Catalunya to make a move to bring him back to the Spanish capital over the summer. The talented winger has become a useful cog in the Real machine and has already grabbed four goals in Europe this season - one more than Ronaldo has managed. A double against Dinamo Zagreb helped Real to a crushing 6-2 demolition of the Croatian outfit on 22nd November, while his second brace of the campaign came during the final round of fixtures in a 3-0 victory over Ajax.
Oscar Cardozo - Benfica
Benfica once again proved to be a thorn in Manchester United's side this term. Having helped to send the Red Devils crashing out at the group stage in 2005, the Portuguese giants repeated the trick six years on. Benfica took two points off United, with a 1-1 draw at Estadio da Luz on Matchday One setting the tone for what was to follow. Cardozo was on target in that encounter, and he would also wrap up their group campaign. The Paraguayan helped Benfica past Otelul Galati on Matchday Six, ensuring that Jorge Jesus' side progressed as winners of Group C.
Bafetimbi Gomis - Lyon
Netting a hat-trick in the Champions League is no mean feat. Netting the fastest in the competition's history is particularly impressive. That honour has been bestowed upon Lyon striker Gomis following his heroics on a memorable Wednesday evening in Zagreb. Lyon travelled to Croatia knowing that they had to pull off a convincing win and hope that Real Madrid did them a favour against Ajax. The stars aligned for the French outfit, with a 7-1 mauling of Dinamo and a 3-0 victory for Real taking them into the last 16 against all the odds. Gomis was the star of the show for Lyon as he netted four goals, and his seven-minute treble in the second half will go down in Champions League history. The France international was also among the goals during the reverse fixture between the two sides earlier in the campaign, meaning he now has five for the tournament as a whole.
Alex Frei - FC Basel
FC Basel entered the final round of fixtures knowing precisely what they had to do to make the knockout stage - beat Manchester United. Easy. Most of those in attendance at St Jakob Park on Wednesday probably turned up expecting to toast qualification for the Europa League, but they enjoyed the kind of evening dreams are made of. Basel broke the deadlock inside the opening 10 minutes and experienced frontman Frei put the seal on a 2-1 victory that saw them through at United's expense. Frei is already considered to be a legend in his native Switzerland, but his exploits this term have further endeared him to Basel followers. The 32-year-old netted four goals in six continental outings, with Otelul Galati breached home and away. He was also on target at Old Trafford as Basel came within seconds of securing a memorable victory at the Theatre of Dreams.
Ailton - APOEL Nicosia
APOEL Nicosia have made history as the first Cypriot team to make it through to the last 16 of Europe's premier club competition. They were considered to be rank outsiders to make the grade when the group stage started, but they ripped up to the form book to progress as winners of Group G. They opened their campaign with a 2-1 victory over Zenit St Petersburg and never looked back. Brazilian forward Ailton helped them to pick up a surprise 1-1 draw away at Porto, before going on to snatch a dramatic winner in the return date with the Portuguese giants on 1st November.
Seydou Doumbia - CSKA Moscow
CSKA Moscow left it late to secure their safe passage out of Group B, with a dramatic 2-1 victory over Inter Milan on Matchday Six allowing them to sneak in through the back door. Ivory Coast international Doumbia broke Inter's resistance at Giuseppe Meazza on Wednesday and paved the way for CSKA to pick up the three points they needed to progress. That goal on Italian soil took the African ace onto five for the competition, with Lille and Trabzonspor having also failed to keep him quiet. He bagged a brace during the opening round of games in France, before netting another double as CSKA trounced Trabzonspor 3-0 in Russia on 18th October.
Vyacheslav Malafeev - Zenit St Petersburg
It is possible for one man to carry a team, with one inspirational performance making up for the failings of those around him. Malafeev enjoyed one of those nights on Tuesday as Zenit squeezed their way into the second round. They only needed a point to progress, but they had to visit 2004 winners Porto. The Portuguese outfit spent much of the evening knocking on Zenit's door, but Malafeev ensured it remained securely bolted and played a starring role in an entertaining 0-0 draw. It is also worth pointing out that Zenit conceded just five times in their six games, so Malafeev's heroics against Porto were not a one off. Only five sides progressed to the last 16 with a better defensive record than Zenit.
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