Scouting report: all the world's a group stage

In eager anticipation of the next month's last-16 ties, Champions Matchday looks at players from five players who helped bring this season's group stage to life.

CSKA's Seydou Doumbia in training
CSKA's Seydou Doumbia in training ©AFP/Getty Images

The UEFA Champions League offers a unique stage for Europe's best players to showcase their skills; these five stars have all caught the eye in this campaign.

Seydou Doumbia, PFC CSKA Moskva
Manchester City FC supporters will be in no doubt about the ability of Doumbia. The Ivorian striker came off the bench only half-fit on matchday three and rescued a point for CSKA against Manuel Pellegrini's men, and then scored twice in the next game in Manchester as the Russian side made sure Group E went down to the wire. Doumbia seems to relish playing against City, having struck twice against them on matchday four of the 2013/14 competition, too.

The striker's team-mates and coach certainly rate the 27-year-old. CSKA boss Leonid Slutski said "he deserves to be labelled a hero" after this season's City of Manchester Stadium double. Midfielder Pontus Wernbloom added: "He is a fantastic football player. In Russia, he scores in almost every game."

The CSKA No88's prime assets are his pace and finishing. He's not tall at 1.79m, but loves nothing more than running in behind defences onto through balls.

He now has ten goals in 15 UEFA Champions League games. In his first season with BSC Young Boys, in 2008/09, he was the Swiss league's top scorer with 20 goals from only eight starts (and 24 substitute appearances). More have followed regularly since, including 28 in CSKA's 2011/12 domestic season.

Radja Nainggolan
Radja Nainggolan©AFP/Getty Images

Radja Nainggolan, AS Roma
Belgian-born Nainggolan, whose father is Indonesian, is in his first full season at Roma having signed from Cagliari Calcio in January 2014. He has flourished in the Giallorossi midfield, enjoying an extended run in the team since his Serie A debut a year ago.

At Cagliari he established a reputation as a holding midfielder, a ball winner. Over the past three full seasons, no one in Serie A has played more matches and won more tackles. Those strengths are still apparent, but this season Nainggolan has added an attacking threat to his game. By December, he had scored three Serie A goals and provided two assists in Group E.

The 26-year-old has delighted Roma coach Rudi Garcia with his improvement, giving the Frenchman a selection headache with returning playmaker Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanić and Daniele De Rossi all vying for a spot in central midfield. 

Taulant Xhaka (L)
Taulant Xhaka (L)©AFP/Getty Images

Taulant Xhaka, FC Basel 1893
Paulo Sousa, the Basel coach, praised his side's intensity after the 1-1 matchday six draw at Anfield against Liverpool FC that ensured the Swiss side's qualification for the knockout stage. And Xhaka personifies that intensity.

Comfortable as a centre-back, full-back or defensive midfielder, he has always been a whole-hearted, committed player, but this UEFA Champions League campaign has demonstrated that there is more than just bite to this polished footballer.

At Anfield in December, he pressed forward at every opportunity from his right-back berth. The fact that Basel's most common passing combination was from Mohamed Elneny in central midfield to a raiding Xhaka on the right, shows what an outlet he was.

Born in Basel to Albanian parents, Xhaka represented Switzerland as a teenager before opting to play for Albania, for whom he made his senior debut in September 2014. His brother Granit, once described as "a young Schweinsteiger" by Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, has hitherto overshadowed his older sibling – moving to the Bundesliga in 2012 when signed by VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach – but Taulant, 23, is catching up fast.

As his game develops, comparisons are increasingly being made with Xherdan Shaqiri, another graduate of the Rot-Blauen's prolific academy. The way Xhaka attacked Liverpool on matchday six, cutting in from the flank and offering a genuine goal threat, suggests such comparisons are not without merit.

Sebastian Rode
Sebastian Rode©AFP/Getty Images

Sebastian Rode, FC Bayern München
When Bayern announced the signing of Rode in July 2014, many fans of the Bavarian giants wondered where the young German would fit in among the club's glittering array of defensive midfield options, but with injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martínez and Thiago Alcántara, cover was soon needed.

Rode's all-action approach and aggressive box-to-box running complement the style of his new midfield team-mates. Thomas Müller summed up Rode's attributes: "When he comes on the pitch the blades of grass have to be wary. He burns it up."

The 24-year-old marked his first start in the UEFA Champions League, on matchday six against CSKA, with his first goal – a header from a Schweinsteiger cross. Coach Josep Guardiola has said that Rode has "given us more throttle". The former Eintracht Frankfurt player has certainly given Guardiola an industrious, hard-working midfielder who covers a lot of ground, and is prepared to run at the opposition with the ball rather than passing round them. Indeed, Rode has already won over most sceptical Bayern fans. When everyone is fit, can he convince Guardiola too?

Yacine Brahimi
Yacine Brahimi©AFP/Getty Images

Yacine Brahimi, FC Porto
The Dragons' record for nurturing young talent is well known and they look to have struck gold again with Brahimi. The 24-year-old Algerian international excelled for his country at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, performing expertly in a wide midfield role. Algeria reached the last 16 for the first time and Brahimi caught the eye enough to earn his move to Porto from Granada CF in Spain.

Born in Paris, Brahimi is a product of the famed Clairefontaine academy and was with Paris Saint-Germain as a youth player before joining Stade Rennais FC. Progress there was not helped by injuries, but a loan move to Granada in 2012 proved the making of him.

Operating on the left of an advanced midfield three, he is known for his pace and dribbling skills. FC BATE Borisov felt the full force of this ability on matchday one when Brahimi scored a sublime hat-trick – including an outstanding solo run and finish that started in his own half. It was Brahimi's first UEFA Champions League group stage game and his record now stands at four goals in five matches.

His coach, Julen Lopetegui, is delighted with his progress: "Brahimi gets better with each passing day and I am sure he will keep evolving, becoming an even more complete player."

Champions Matchday is the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League and is available in print or free to download in digital format. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.

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